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                When I was in college, I was taking a multi-culturalism class (this is just a fancy way of saying that we were learning about other cultures.) One of the assignments in the class was that each student was to go someplace where we would be a minority, and then report about the situation. I decided to go to an African-American church. I was very much the minority in the sanctuary. Everything was going great until the “welcome of guests” time. Everyone knew I was a guest. I stuck out pretty obviously. I figured I might have to raise my hand or something like that. It did not go down that way. The pastor asked all the guests to please stand and introduce themselves. I was the only guest. I was the only person standing. I happened to also be the only person that did not look like everybody else.

                I stood as nobly as I could, and tried my best to not let my voice squeak as I introduced myself. Every eye was on me. I am sure many of the people in the church were wondering why I had entered their church. There were a few suspicious eyes cast my way. After what seemed like a thousand minutes, I was finally able to sit down. Then the church stood up, and many of the church members came by to greet me. They were super nice and very welcoming. I enjoyed myself at that church so much, that the next week I brought two of my friends with me. Part of it was I could not wait to see them have to stand up in the church like I did. I “forgot” to tell them about that part of the service. The pastor congratulated me on bringing guests. I got an A on the assignment.

                Being a first-time guest at a church is a little scary, especially if you do not know people there. A church can be loaded with landmines. A guest will wonder a thousand different things like: is there a place for children, where are the bathrooms, am I sitting in someone else’s seat, do I have to give for the offering, will anyone talk to me, what is the quickest way out of the church if they start handling snakes? All of these thoughts (except for snakes-unless you are visiting a mountain church) can lead to a visitor not being able to enjoy their time at a church.

                I know that we do not have a ton of visitors, so you may not think it is important to think about these things right now. I disagree. There is an old business saying that goes, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” The idea is to always be proactive and thinking two or three steps ahead. If we wait to try to figure out how to make guests comfortable after God has started sending a lot of guests (and I believe that He will), we will have already let to many guests leave with the wrong impression.

                Thom Rainer, a man I have mentioned before, has spent most of his adult life studying churches with the goal of making them better. He regularly writes articles to churches about how to make guests feel more welcome. He has many suggestions, but I want to share a few with you. I think that these can and should be done by everyone. We should not think that it is somebody else’s job to make guests feel welcome. We should go out of our way to do this (without being creepy.) Here are a few things we should get in a habit to say to our guests:

“Thank you for being here.”

“Can I help you with anything?”

“Here is my email address. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.”

“Let me introduce you to ___________________________”

“Do you have plans for lunch after the service? If not, we would love for you to come with my family.”

                I recognize that for many of you, this will take you out of your comfort zones. That is not a bad. A huge problem in any church is when we get too comfortable. We should be pushed to be different. Our goal should be to make guests feel much more comfortable than we feel. We never know what our acts of Christ-likeness will do for others. It may be the kindness that saves their lives, or introduces you to your new best friend. It may also have no immediate effect. Either way we will never go wrong with showing kindness and hospitality to our guests. I am pretty sure this is Biblical (It is! - 1 Peter 4:9.)

                As always, I love you, and let us strive to be even more like Jesus in everything that we do.

                Maybe you have noticed the tone of this country. Maybe you have noticed the constant fighting that people who disagree with each other keep doing. Maybe you have noticed how we seem to no longer be okay with disagreeing with each other. It now feels like it is not just about being right, but about destroying anyone who disagrees with us. I am tired of this. I’m tired of the ugliness. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the backbiting, the whining, the complaining, and the hostility. I’m tired of feeling like we are all enemies. I’m tired of seeing us all arguing the same arguments while getting louder each time.

                Do not get me wrong. I do believe that it is okay to have opinions, and to be able to share your opinions. I am just tired of the way that we are doing it. It also bothers me when I see Christians become the antithesis of Christians when people disagree with them. I believe it is time for us to bring back civility into our world. I believe that this should fall at the feet of Christians. If we claim to follow Jesus, then we should act like it. So, how do we do this? I believe that in Romans, Paul gives us the answers:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

                We must first start by blessing those who are our enemies. We are to bless them instead of cursing them. This is the opposite of how we tend to act. Someone does something bad to me, I want to see them pay. Paul tells us to bless them. This means that we are to ask God to bless their lives. I know this is hard, but this is what the Bible commands.

                 We need to start celebrating people’s successes and mourning with them during their tough times. If we became more supportive and compassionate, we would have less time, or desire, to fight with others. It is hard to get mean and nasty with people you do not know when you are spending your time with the people that need you.

                We are to live in harmony with one another. This does not mean that we must agree with each other, it just means that we do not pick fights with those who are different or believe differently than us. I have some absolute truths in my life that I will not compromise on. This does not mean I cannot be friends with people who feel differently than me (As a point of clarification this about the people we come into contact with, work with, or live near. A church, on the other hand, cannot allow unbiblical truths to become accepted in the church. We must stand for Biblical truths.). People need to know what I believe, but that does not mean that I get to be mean and nasty about my beliefs.

                Ultimately, we are to strive for peace when it is up to us. We have all seen in recent times that there are certain people or groups that will not chose to live in peace with others. There is nothing that we can do to insure peace. Fortunately, most of the people on this planet, do want to live in peace. We let the authorities over us, decide how to handle those who do not seek peace. Those who do seek it, we bring it to them. If this means that we should keep our mouths closed (especially when not involving Jesus), then we keep our mouths closed. Everyone does not need to know what we think about climate change or taxes. If my view on the designated hitter (that is a sports term for those of you who are not sports fans) gets people angry, then I need to keep it to myself.

                Finally, we need to trust in the Lord. Our enemies, if they are our enemies based on us living a Christian life, are God’s enemies. God clearly tells us that he will be the one who brings about vengeance. This should scare us. We should want no one to experience God’s vengeance, but if our lives and words cannot change them, then we let God avenge us. This frees us from having to be God, which we are all incapable of being.

                Let us remember Paul’s commands to us the next time a politician, comedian, athlete, etc., says something we disagree with. Our job is not to get angry and demand that they change their beliefs to be just like ours. Our job is to show and speak Jesus to them. The same goes for the next time a family member, neighbor, coworker, or friend says something that we do not like. Instead of continuing the ugliness of others, let us bring in Jesus. Our goal is to bring people to Jesus, not to simply win arguments or make sure our opinions are heard. If we strove to live more peaceably with others, maybe others would strive to live more peaceably also. Would it not be great if others started noticing that we, as Christians, are making things better for everyone else?

Marty

                In 1982, the movie Rambo: First Blood came out. If you are not familiar with the movie (and it is ok if you are not), John Rambo was a former green beret who basically took on a whole town police department with just his survival knife. His survival knife was awesome. It had everything one would need to survive, hence its name. Like most boys who enjoyed being outside, I wanted one, badly. My level of excitement only went up when a local store started selling them.

                I immediately went into Operation-Got to Have One. Every possible chance I got, I asked. It became my mission to get one and I hounded my mom as much as I could. I played the, “My life is not complete without one” card. My loving mom simply told me that I would have to wait. My parents did not have the money at that particular time to get it for me. I would have to wait for the next payday. My little, kid mind could not comprehend this, so I kept on pestering her for it. My mother is a resolute woman and she stood her ground. She was not going to spend money, they did not have, for a knife that she knew I did not really need to survive. Eventually, she did buy the knife for me, but only when it was the right time for it. I spent the next two months with that knife strapped around my leg, as I pretended to be Rambo. Sadly, that knife would not have allowed me to take on a whole police force. It was only good for making my pants sag (and this was way before anyone wanted to walk around with sagging pants.)

                I know that for a lot of us, our prayer life feels like this. There is something we really want (sometimes it really is important or necessary, and sometimes it will only make us feel better), so we start asking God. We may start off very ‘churchy” in our prayer requests. We use church words and ask very solemnly. We do not get the answer we want, as soon as we want it, so we move into begging. We may or may not get our requests, but we still feel like there is something missing in the way God answers our prayers. A good question to ask then is, “How does God answer prayers?”

                Several months ago, I was listening to James Merritt, the pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Georgia. He was preaching on God answering prayers. Dr. Merritt is famous for his alliterations, and this sermon was no different. He said that we get: 1. A Direct Answer, 2. A Delayed Answer, 3. A Different Answer, and 4. A Denied Answer.

                 Jennifer and I were listening to that particular sermon after meeting with the search committee of Shallow Well. We knew that we loved Sanford, and that we really liked the people that we were meeting with, but we wanted to make sure that we were doing what God wanted us to do. We started praying about whether or not we should come here. We wanted to hear God’s voice and be obedient.

                We prayed and then waited for His response. I am glad to say that we got a direct answer. He made it clear that this is the church He wanted us to come and serve at. It was not an audible voice, but it was clear enough for both of us.

                We had spent the many months before this, talking to other churches. I really wanted to get back into full-time ministry, and I knew God wanted that from us as well. When we started praying about this, we got a delayed answer. God did not tell us where He was sending us, or when He was sending us. It would be more than a year after we started the process of looking for a position that He put us in one. All we knew was, he was sending us out. We had to wait for his answer for the remaining details.

 I was looking for a senior pastor position. In fact, 99% of the churches I sent my resume to were senior pastor positions. That position was not what God wanted for me. When the time was right (when Shallow Well came calling) I got a different answer than the one I thought I would get. He wanted me to be an associate pastor. During this time, we met with some unique churches. It was clear that for some of those churches the answer was no. This was a denied answer. I cannot tell you how happy we are that God said “no” to us about those churches.

                God does not always answer our prayer requests the way that we want Him to. Sometimes it really is just a “yes’ or “no” answer. I may not like the “no”, but I appreciate knowing. The harder answers, are the delayed answers. God’s time is not our time. His time is better than our time, so we need to learn to be patient. I am also thankful for the different answers He gives us. I am glad that He knows the big picture and He wants the very best for us. Many times, we do not see the very best, we just see what we want.

                As Christians, we know that we should pray. Hopefully we even know how to pray. The hardest part is the answer to our requests. Ultimately, we just must trust God and trust His timing. He loves us more than we could ever imagine. He only wants the best for us. 

Marty

                The hardest part of the Johnston’s moving to Sanford was dealing with all the stuff we had collected (sorry mom, I love you and miss you). Even before we packed one box of the things that we used regularly, we had at least 20 boxes of unpacked things to make a decision about. We decided to have a yard sale. I dreaded the day we chose to do it. I knew the work that would be involved. We had to advertise, get tables, sort through everything (seriously, Who knew Charissa’s clothes would fill so many giant bags? She is such a girl!), price and label everything, and then set it up outside, so that complete strangers could rummage through our things, while judging our tastes.

                The day of the yard sale turned out to not be the ideal day for yard saleing. It was cold with, what felt like, a 100-mph wind. A clothes rack kept falling over. Clothes were constantly flying off the tables, and not in a good, moneymaking way. The good thing was that it was not raining. My mom was kind enough to take the kids for the day, so it was just my loving wife and me. We kept making excuses to be able to go inside where it was warm and no wind. The weather was keeping all the potential customers away. I kept a steady eye on the time, wishing it to speed up so we could finish.

                At the end of the allotted time we closed shop. It was not the best yard sale that we had ever been involved in, but we still made money. We also accomplished our goal of getting rid of a lot of our unneeded stuff. There would be quite a few less boxes to move (and the men and women who helped us unload our truck and climb three flights of stairs with it said amen.) It was work, but at the end of it, it was worth it.

                Now, why would I tell you about a yard sale experience? It is because, as a church, we are going to have a yard sale. On May 20, from 8-1, we will be doing one. It is going to be a little different than other ones. We are not asking you to donate your unneeded treasures for us to sell and then dispose of. We are going to ask you to “rent” a space from us, for you to sell your stuff. You will pay us $30 to get one of the parking spaces that will be set apart (or if you have a lot of stuff, you can rent two for $60.) You will sale your stuff and keep the profits. You can sell whatever you want that is church appropriate. If you have tools to sell, bring them. If you have children’s clothes, bring it. If you sell women’s clothes that look like a rainbow exploded on them you can sell them. If you make crafts and need a place to sell, bring them. Every church member and family of church members are invited to be a part of this (also if you have real close friends that you do not mind vouching for, they can be a part of our yard sale.)

                Here is the cool part (besides getting rid of things and making money). The money that you pay the church for the spot will be going for our mission trip to Kentucky. We have 26 people going. Although we found a very cost-efficient trip, we still have a lot to pay for. We have quite a few parents with their kids going. I want each person to have to pay as little as possible, and this is a fantastic way to do it. Many of you have said that you want to help with this trip, and this gives you a way to help. You get to give to us, while making something for yourself.

                I really hope that many of you will take part in this event. We need as many people as we can get to be involved. The more people we have selling, the more people that will show up. I will be giving more details as we get closer to the event. If you are interested, please let me know. If you know people that might be interested, but will not read this, let them know.

                As always, I love you guys and I am thankful to be a part of this wonderful church.

                Marty

             I do not always communicate with my wife correctly. I know that the previous statement might seem preposterous to some of you (to others who have gotten to know me, it sounds about right), yet it’s true. My wife will ask a question, and depending upon my mood, I will answer accordingly. When I am feeling loving, this works out great for me. The problem is that I don’t always feel this way. Sometimes I am in a bad mood (yes, pastors have them, too) and my response is not always the best. It would have been nice, if someone years ago, would have told me how to communicate with my wife. I would have been even more appreciative if they could have also given me a chart to explain the looks I get. Some are easy to comprehend and some leave me completely baffled and weary.

                Communicating with God (prayer) can seem just as complex, with a much bigger problem. He is God. If I mess up with my wife she might get mad and make my life difficult for a little while, but she does not have the power to sentence me to eternal fire and suffering. God does have that ability. It can be scary and daunting. What if I mess up? What if I say the wrong words? What if I don’t use the correct church term? What if He does not want church terms at all? What if I am too casual? What if I am not casual enough? What if I don’t spend enough time doing it? It is really easy to see why our prayer life can suffer.

                How do we handle this, then? How do we make sure our prayers are heard? How do we pray in a way that pleases God and achieves what we want (yes, it is ok to pray for things and want them to come true.) When I was younger someone taught me an acrostic to help with prayers. It was ACTS. Each letter helped with my prayer. “A” stood for ADORATION. “C” was CONFESSION. “T” was THANKSGIVING. “S” was SUPPLICATION. If I could remember all of them, then I could truly pray the prayers of a righteous man, but was it true? I do not believe that we can simply pray the same exact way every time (nor should we), but as I have grown older and hopefully wiser, I do see the value of trying to remember each part.

                As we go through these parts, please remember that not every prayer is the same. Some prayers are very quick. A simple request then we move on. Some prayers are longer and we have more time to put into it. One thing that we should always remember is that we are to pray, constantly. That does not mean that we pray 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It means that throughout our day we continue to pray. This gives us the freedom to have long prayers and short prayers.

                We should start our prayers with ADORATION. We should show God the proper respect he deserves while also showing our love to Him. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus starts with “Our Father.” The term “Father” was a million miles away from the usual Jewish prayer. They did not say God’s holy name. They simply would say “The Name.” Jesus told us that the favorite title God the Father wanted us to call Him was Abba. Father. Dad. A true close relationship. A relationship built on love and trust. A relationship built on what God has done for us. Once we get this, the adoration becomes easy. He is worthy of our love and desires it.

                We then move to some type of CONFESSION. We must realize that sin separates us from God. I am not implying that each sin you commit will keep you from heaven. If you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then that matter is settled. You are forever his child. No sin after salvation will keep you from Him, but unconfessed sin in a believer’s life will separate you from the closeness of Him. We must be honest with God. We must acknowledge that there are places in our lives that need confession, repentance and forgiveness. One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 24. David asks “who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” The answer was only “One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not set his mind on what is false, or who has sworn deceitfully.” Only after confession can we truly take our place in the throne room of God.

                The next part of prayer is THANKSGIVING. We get to say “thank you” to the One who has given us so much. We get to express, with joy, the goodness that has been given to us. As a father, I love when I give gifts to my kids and they say thank you. I love the words and the hugs that accompany that. My kids have been given something good, and they show their appreciation. I know that it is easy to look at our lives and at times think that we have nothing good in them.  I’ve been there and done that. The truth is that even when it looks the darkest, God has still given us more good things than we could ever imagine. Our darkest days still have shining light in them, even if it takes the morning time for us to see them.

                The final part of prayer is SUPPLICATION. Supplication is the big church word that simply means to ask for something. For some of you, asking God to provide things, is not a problem. I am not one of them. I, wrongfully, grew up believing that God loved me, but He was much too busy and had much more important things to worry about than me. Running a universe and providing miracles were at the top of His to-do list. Answering my little requests was something that He might get to if He had time. I have since learned how wrong I was. My “little requests” were important to Him. I was important to Him. He takes great pleasure in the joy of his children. I matter to Him. You matter to Him. Jesus taught us to pray for forgiveness AND daily bread. The spiritual and the physical matter to God. I can go boldly into the presence of God because I am His child through the shed blood of Jesus. This gives me the right to ask Him for the things I want.

                The next article will be about how God answers our prayers. The great thing is that you do not have to wait for it to pray. As you go throughout your day praise God (Adoration), admit your weaknesses and shortcomings (Confession), acknowledge the good that you have been given (Thanksgiving), and please ask Him for the things you need (Supplication). He is your ABBA (not the silly little Swedish band.) He is your Father. He longs to hear from you today.

Marty

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