Eternal Life…for Living People

“If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would I get into heaven?” a man asked the children in his Sunday School class.  “No!” the children all answered.

“If I cleaned the church building every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would I get into heaven?” Again, the answer was “No!”

“If I never told another lie and never said another bad word, would that get me into heaven?”  Once more, a resounding “No!”

“Well,” he continued, “then how can I get into heaven?” A five-year old boy shouted out, “You gotta be dead!”

Maybe not the deepest of theology, but there’s certainly some truth there. No, you won’t get into heaven because you do a bunch of nice things and stop doing all the bad stuff.  The Bible is clear that “there are none righteous, no not one” and that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That is, in and of ourselves, we would never have the ability to reach into heaven because of our good works.

But because of His mercy and grace, God allows us the opportunity to spend eternity in heaven through the sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who  went to the cross on our behalf. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23) Our only means of getting to heaven is accepting the gift He has offered, not earning our way to paradise. We come to Him by faith, believing in His promise that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

The question for us–and for the little boy who answered the question above–is, when does eternal life begin? I would suggest that you don’t have to wait until you die to experience the eternal blessings of a life with God, but that it is available now, even while you’re alive. Jesus described it this way, in His own prayer to His heavenly Father in John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know You.” He was saying that the promise of eternal life is not just about a quantity of life–that we live forever–but a quality of life, that of knowing God and enjoying His presence in our lives. This–knowing God–defines what eternal life is.

That’s why we were created, to live in right relationship with our Creator and to enjoy the blessings of His favor every day. So you don’t have to sit around till you die so you can enjoy the “abundant life” that God offers, but you can start now. Eternal life for living people…what a concept!

I hope and pray that you know God and have experienced the joy of forgiveness and hope that comes only through a personal relationship with Him. If you haven’t, we’d love to talk to you further about that and help lead you to trust Jesus Christ as your personal Savior so that you can begin enjoying the blessings of life everlasting in the here and now.

I’m praying for you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday, both morning and evening! 

–Pastor Ken

A Blessed Dash

This past Monday would have been my father’s 90th birthday, had he lived that long. He passed away in 2007. A few days before that was my youngest grandson’s first birthday.  Many of you have prayed for him, and his heart issues, I am happy to report that he continues to do very well. As time passes, and generations come and go, the birthdays continue.

I was invited to play golf a few weeks ago at a golf course in Bessemer that I hadn’t played at in almost thirty years. It is located right next to the cemetery where my parents (and sister) are buried. In fact, you could hit a 6-iron from the first tee of the golf course to their graves, if you could navigate around a few trees. I hadn’t been to the cemetery since my mother’s funeral, so after the round of golf, I drove around the corner, and made my way to their grave sites to make sure they were still kept up and to take a few moment to remember my dearly departed family members.

All was in order. I took a photo with my phone of their tombstones, inscribed with their names and two sets of dates, one for the year they were born, and the other for the year they died. 

I was reminded of a sermon I heard once, and a poem quoted within in, entitled “The Dash.” It pointed to the “dash” in the middle of those two dates on a tombstone. When you think about it, the dates on both ends are significant and what we usually give most attention to, but it’s that simple horizontal line in the middle that represents the whole life that was lived.

And really, though it’s usually ignored, it’s that punctuation mark–the dash–that counts most. It’s not so much when you started, or when you’ll stop, as what you do with the time between the dates. Or, more specifically, what you do with your “dash.”

So, I have to ask: What are you doing with your dash? What kind of legacy are you leaving, by the kind of life that you are living? We can all choose, intentionally, what we do with the time God allots us here on earth, to invest it in those things that really matter, and to live in such a way that leaves a legacy that honors Him.

I pray that your dash is blessed this week, and that your life honors the One who gives you the life you live. 

–Pastor Ken

Why I Believe in Small Groups

On Wednesday night, we gathered as a church body for our annual ReGroup. I hope you caught a vision for what our small groups can be at Shelby Crossings, and that you were challenged and encouraged to be about our Father’s business in the co-mission the Lord has given us. It’s always a helpful time for us, as we take a step back from our regular routine and regroup–to “sharpen the saw” so that we can be better at doing small group ministry in the year ahead. 

I wrote in this space after ReGroup a year ago that I believe that small groups are the most important ministry in the church. We often say that groups are where church happens at Shelby Crossings, and I believe that is true. And at the risk of being a little redundant, I’d like to give you a few reasons why I believe so much in small groups.

First, they are biblical. The New Testament blueprint of church structure was much more in line with small groups than the large group congregational gathering that defines much of the modern church. Over and over in the Book of Acts (which describes the early church in its embryonic period) the operative term for where the church gathered was “house to house.” That is, the church thrived in homes more than in sanctuaries; if you know church history, you know that it was the 4th century before there was any such thing as a church building. As someone has said, the church was from its beginning a “living room religion,” and I think it still functions best in that setting.

Additionally, I think small groups are the most effective and efficient means to do what every church is supposed to do: make disciples. Christian discipleship happens best in the context of interpersonal relationships, not auditoriums filled with audiences. Sitting in a circle with friends, learning God’s word together, is much more interactive than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head, listening to someone on a stage. When fellow followers of Christ are there to pray for you, encourage you, support you, and hold you accountable, you are much more likely to grow in your walk with the Lord. Plus, a small groups of caring friends who share a common bond in Christ–where you can get real with one another–is the environment where genuine community is best experienced. 

And speaking of community, another reason I like small groups is their location and purpose: they are in the community, and for the community. That is, they are not building centered, but community centered. Our Lord’s Great Commission called us to go into all the world and make disciples. But many have reversed that commission from a “go and tell” to an invitation to “come and hear” at the church building. When we meet in homes in our neighborhoods, we are better positioned to reach out to our neighbors where they are. As the old saying goes, if you want to catch fish, you need to go where the fish are. And we who have been called to be “fishers of men” need to begin our mission in our communities where the fish are hungry, and the fields are white unto harvest.

Now none of that is to say that I don’t believe in our church gatherings on Sunday to worship together and hear from God’s word. I do, and I can’t wait to see you all each Sunday as we come together as His people to honor Him. But one without the other is an incomplete church, and leads to an incomplete and immature church body.

Some have pointed out that in Acts 20:20 the church met “publicly and from house to house.” That “20/20 Vision” of church life reveals a both/and of public congregational worship and small groups in the home. I remember hearing someone refer to it as the two wings of church. Both wings are necessary, and if you try to fly with just wing, you will have a hard time getting off the ground, and you will be destined to crash.

I am excited about what the Lord has in store for us in the year ahead as our groups continue to make disciples, care for our members, and reach out to our community. I hope you will join me in praying for His Spirit to be at work in us and through us as we seek to honor Him through this important ministry.

What an honor it is to be your pastor, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

The Power of God’s Word

Do you believe that God’s word is powerful?

I do. I gave a Bible to a new friend not too long ago, after he told me he didn’t own one. I was trying to share the gospel with him and he expressed some interest in following up and reading the Scripture for himself, so I gave him a copy. I am still waiting and praying for God to do a work in his life through His word. And I believe He will.

Gaylord Kambarami, head of the Bible Society in the African nation of Zimbabwe, tried to give a New Testament to a belligerent man who at first said he wanted no part of a Bible. When Kambarami insisted, the man said he would tear out the pages and roll them to make cigarettes. “Okay,” said Kambarami, “I understand that, but at least promise to read the page of the New Testament before you smoke it.” The man agreed and the two went their separate ways.

Fifteen years later, the two men met at a Methodist convention in Zimbabwe. The Scripture-smoking pagan had found Christ and was now a full-time evangelist. He told the audience, “I smoked Matthew, I smoked Mark, and I smoked Luke, but when I got to John 3:16, I couldn’t smoke anymore. My life changed from that moment on.”

God’s word is like that. It is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword and able to penetrate even to dividing soul and spirit. It is God-breathed, and so it is helpful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. And, it is life-altering and transformative, when you make the decision to be more than hearers of the word, but doers.

According to a Barna survey from a few years back, almost every household in America (92 percent) owns at least one copy of the Bible–with the typical count being three Bibles per household. I would imagine the typical Shelby Crossings family has more than double that.

Yet, according to Barna, less than four out of ten adults (38 percent) read the Bible during a typical week. The saddest part is the study revealed that there’s little difference between how much those who call themselves Christians are reading the Bible and those who don’t. You might as well be smoking it if you’re not reading it.

Romans tells us that faith comes by hearing the word of Christ, and Jesus mentioned in John’s gospel that we are sanctified by the truth of God’s word. I want to challenge you to make a concerted effort to spend time daily in God’s word, allowing His truth to renew your mind and transform your life. Be assured, your growth as a disciple of Christ will only go as far as your commitment to His word.  Please don’t neglect hearing it, reading it, meditating on it, or obeying it.

I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

So Send I You

“As the Father has sent Me, even so send I you.”  (John 20:21)

In last Sunday’s worship services, we shared briefly about our recent Puerto Rico mission trip. At the conclusion, I expressed appreciation that we have “a church that sends.” That is, that sends people out on mission trips. I saw questioning looks on people’s faces, and realized you all heard it as “sins.” As in, I am glad we have “a church that sins.” I had to clarify and emphasize the “d’.

Jesus was not confused by such homonyms. He was all for sending, but not for sinning. In fact, He spoke the words above to His disciples, and I think He still speaks those words to us as His disciples today. In fact, when He walked the dusty roads of Galilee two thousand years ago, He talked often about being sent–about the Father sending Him, and Him sending us. 

I would even say that the word “sent” is the key to understanding John’s Gospel; it is found more frequently than the three L’s that are usually associated with John’s writing:  light, life, and love. 

So what does it mean to be sent? We understand the meaning well when we mail letters or send packages via UPS or FedEx. And most of us have a “Sent” box in our email or social networking accounts. But what does it mean for a person to be sent? The word implies going somewhere, or being somewhere, by someone else’s command, for a specific purpose. I believe Jesus lived His life out of a deep sense of being “sent.”  He had been sent to earth by the Father, for a purpose, and He lived that purpose out every day. 

What was that purpose? And likewise, what is our purpose? Jesus said Himself that He had come to “seek and to save those who were lost.” (Luke 19:11) And so, He tells us, our purpose is also to seek and find those who are lost without Christ and share with them the life-changing message Jesus came to share with us.

Some people spend their whole lives trying to determine why they are here, and what their “purpose in life” is. Fortunately, Jesus has already solved that riddle for us, telling us why we we have been “sent” here. That sure takes a lot of pressure off. Now, it’s a matter of our living out the purpose He gave us. “As the Father has sent Me, even so send I you.”

God, the Father, sent the Son to you and to me. The question is, to whom has the Son sent you? I pray that you’ll be an instrument of His love and grace and truth this week in the lives of those He’s placed around you.

I am so grateful to be a pastor of a church that sends, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

‘Who’ to Listen To

One evening, a bird-lover stood in his backyard and hooted like an owl — and an owl called back to him! They had a whole “conversation.”

He tried it again the next night, and the next — and the owl always answered. He was fascinated.

Sometime later his wife had a chat with her next door neighbor. “My husband spends his nights … calling out to owls,” she said. “That’s odd,” the neighbor replied. “So does my husband.”

Just then it dawned on them.

Sometimes things are not what they seem to be. The messages you hear, the voices you trust, are not always the truth, especially in this day and age. Some are a little disingenuous, others somewhat deceptive, others downright “fake news.”

It’s a dark world out there, and it appears to be getting darker by the day. That’s why it is so important that you know whose voice you are listening to, even in the dark, and that you trust what you hear to be true.

Jesus called Himself “the Good Shepherd” and reminded us that there is a thief that seeks to come in and deceive the sheep, “to steal and kill and destroy.” But Jesus said that He has come to give us life, and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)

“I know My sheep and My sheep know Me,” He said. “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (10:14-15) And He continued, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand.” (10:27-28)

I remember an old Amy Grant song from the mid-1980’s called “Who to Listen To.”  The lyrics are still familiar to me, all these years later:  “They’re gonna hit you from all sides, better make up your mind, who to, and who not to, listen to.” 

In a post-modern world that seeks to cast doubt on truth, it is so important that we know the voice of our Shepherd, that we trust Him, and that we follow Him obediently. He loves us, laid down His life for us, and promises us abundant life and eternal security. So His is a voice we need to get to know and listen to often.

There is nothing better you can do in your walk with Christ than spend time daily in His word. I hope you hear His voice so regularly that you can recognize it instantly, and that you know “Who” to listen to.

What a privilege it is to be your pastor. I’m praying for you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

 –Pastor Ken

On Second Chances

This past Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of my surgery last year for my prostate cancer. I am happy to say that a year later I am still cancer free!

I am very grateful for the blessing of healing the Lord has graciously given me. Prostate cancer is the number two killer of men in America, though it is very treatable if caught early as we did with mine. Still, when you get the diagnosis of “cancer” and come out the other side relatively healthy, there is certainly a feeling that you have been given a second chance.

And on the subject of second chances, I am reminded of a story I have shared in this space once before of something that happened on this date 74 years ago. It all began a few days earlier than that, on Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. A man who was living there miraculously survived the blast, and decided that there was no future in Hiroshima, so the next day he moved. To Nagasaki. And a day later–on this very date, Aug. 9, 1945–he experienced his second atomic bomb!

The article I read reported that after surviving his second nuclear blast, he did not talk much about the experience. I can well understand his reticence. The old line, “out of the frying pan into the fire” surely was his experience.

I have tried to imagine what it would have been like to have made the decision he made. You have just gone through a horror unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Somehow, you lived through it. So, you move away, hoping never to experience another, and relocate yourself right onto the target of a similar horror. My guess is he probably never felt confident about another decision he made the rest of his life.

Though some would say this guy had the ultimate in “bad luck,” I’d say this was one man who was truly blessed! How many people could say they lived in two cities that had atomic bombs dropped on them–and survived! It’s a story of a second–and third–chance at life. I don’t know how his life played out, but I sure hope he made the most of the extra opportunities that were providentially given to him by his survival.

God is still in the business of giving second chances, even if we don’t see something as obvious as a nuclear explosion (or cancer) to recognize it. That’s what the gospel is all about–that Jesus Christ paid the price so that we could have a new beginning.  By His grace, God delights in giving us fresh starts. Be sure you make the most of yours!

I’m praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

The Right Thing to Do

I came across a story about a guy who was trying to do his part to help out with the environment, so he set up an extra trash can in his church foyer and posted above it, “Empty water bottles here.”  Perhaps he should have been a little more specific, because when he went back later to check it, he didn’t find any bottles in it, but it was full of water.

We often have a hard time deciding the right thing to do in certain situations because it’s unclear what’s expected of us. We read the directions as we see them, and sincerely and earnestly try to do what we think is the right thing. There may be a need for clarity–“put empty bottles in the can”–lest we find a can full of water that has been emptied from the bottles.

Sometimes, it’s a little more complicated however, when we are getting our messages from a myriad of sources and we don’t know who to believe. It may be that there are so many choices, and we find ourselves frustrated and confused trying to make black-and-white decisions in an increasingly gray world. I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult in that light than it is today. Yet, on so many different levels, it is more simple than we would like to admit. We just have to choose, right. 

I heard another story about a man who was traveling across country on an airplane.  About halfway through the flight, the flight attendant came by and asked the man, “Would you like dinner?”

The man responded, “What are my choices?” The flight attendant answered back, “Yes, or no.”

Pretty simple, really, But in a world where we have hundreds of choices of what breakfast cereals we’ll eat in the morning, we tend to expect multiple options for all that we do. Often, it’s just not that complicated. It’s a matter of “Yes” and “No.” The broad road, or the narrow gate. The left path, or the right path. The word, or the world.

You probably remember the simple challenge Joshua gave the people of Israel as they entered the promised  land: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” I hope you are ready to say as Joshua himself said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” It’s a pretty simple choice, and it’s the right thing to do.

I’m praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

–Pastor Ken

The Mission Never Stops

I came home from our mission trip to Puerto Rico last Friday night, exhausted but also overwhelmed with gratitude for a great trip. The Lord used our team, in partnership with some new friends we met and served with from a church in Indiana, to accomplish much work and share the hope of Christ with many who have seemingly lost their hope after Hurricane Maria. We were used by the Lord to bless others, and we ourselves were blessed in so many ways.

Then during Sunday’s worship service at Shelby Crossings, we heard from several of the students and adults who went to Oklahoma in June to serve the children of the Choctaw nation at the Bertram Bobb Bible Camp. That was the fourth straight year our church has taken a trip there, but this year’s ministry seemed to have been more fruitful than ever. In fact, in the four weeks of their camp–including the week in which our group served–more than 80 children came to faith in Christ. I am so thankful for what God did and is still doing in the lives of those kids and their families, as well as in the lives of those who went to serve them.

On Sunday night, one of our TCASC small groups made their way to downtown Birmingham for our church’s monthly ministry to the homeless at the Firehouse shelter. They served faithfully and joyfully–I saw the photos on Facebook of the good time they had–and no doubt were used to impact the lives of the men there. It wasn’t across the ocean, or across the country, but it was living out kingdom ministry to “the least of these,” just as our Master commanded us to do. And lives were touched in the process.

Those few days last weekend serve as a “slice of life” look at a church that is dedicated to missions. Those who went to Puerto Rico or Oklahoma or the Firehouse are just a small number of those who have lived their life “on mission” in the past year, sharing the gospel to the lost, discipling new believers, providing support and care for needy orphans, reaching out to those in prison, and doing medical missions in destitute areas.

And that’s not even mentioning the dozens of ministries and missionaries around the world with which our church partners, both with our prayers and our financial resources, to share the gospel, plant churches, and meet the needs of the orphan and widow. As you may know, our church budget takes a very generous percentage off the top of our general offerings that goes straight to missions causes, administered by our Missions Team. And that doesn’t even include the special offering collected by our VBS kids in June, which went to help provide tents for gospel churches planted along the Rio Grande valley near the Texas/Mexico border. 

Theologian Emil Brunner famously said, “The church exists by missions, just as fire exists by burning.” He was saying that a church that is not “on mission” is like a fire that is not burning. In other words, there’s no such thing; whatever it is, it’s not really being a church. When we cease to be missional in our theology and our methodology, in how we think and in what we do, then we stop functioning as the New Testament church. We’re merely a social club, interested only in our own comfort and well-being. And that doesn’t look anything like the Biblical picture of the Body of Christ. 

One of our themes as we left Puerto Rico last week was that even as we got on a plane and headed home our “mission trip” continued. And that is true for each and every one of us. The mission never stops. We all have a role in our being a mission-focused body, whether it’s going, praying, giving or just living the gospel on your block every day. Thanks be to God that we’re doing that a little more each day. And thanks to each of you for your obedience in following Jesus.

I appreciate the opportunity you provided our team to go to Puerto Rico, and we truly counted it a privilege to serve the Lord and the people there on your behalf. Likewise, it is such a joy to serve you–and serve with you–as the pastor of such a great church. I’m praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday. 

–Pastor Ken

Tree Planting

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says:  “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

It’s not hard to see the point. To have a tree now, it would have been good if you had planted it a long time ago, giving it time to get rooted and grow into maturity.  But there is no time for regret, if you still want a tree. There’s no better time than the present than to start the process of the future you want.

Looking back on the past twenty years, it’s easy to see all the trees that could have and should have been planted: we should have spent less and invested more; we should have studied more, watched less TV, perhaps exercised a little more. We should have spent more quality time with our kids, or parents, as the case may be. Surely we should have laughed more, worried less,  appreciated the simple things of life more, and on and on.

It’s tempting to dwell on what might have been, imagining the trees we failed to plant twenty years ago, or for that matter, two years ago. We may be well on our way to having a nice tree had we just planted it, and it is certainly easy to think of the good things left undone. God, however, has forgotten them; those sins of omission have been cast into the same sea of forgetfulness as our other sins.It’s time to move forward.

We must be about the business of tree planting if we’re ever going to get a tree.

So, what are those things God has been prompting you to do, that you haven’t done yet, but you’ve been planning to get around to “one of these days.” What a great time to plant that tree today. Is He leading you to get in the Word more, pray more, share your faith more, or give more? Maybe you’ve thought about one day getting involved in a particular ministry, joining a small group, going on a mission trip, or serving someone behind the scenes whom the Lord has placed in your path. Dig a hole and stick a seed or sapling in it. Plant the tree.

Yesterday will never be any different than it was, but today’s page is still blank. You can’t change what you did, or didn’t do, twenty years ago, but you have a choice what you will do today, for yourself and for the Lord. I can’t wait to see the trees that come forth from the decisions you make to walk in obedience today.

Thanks for your prayers for our team from Shelby Crossings this week while we were serving in Puerto Rico, We will be heading home today, and we can’t wait to see you on Sunday .

–Pastor Ken