Tuesday, March 31- Holy Week

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It’s Holy Week. Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. (OK- so it’s TECHNICALLY 8 days, but who’s going to nitpick that much?!) Actually, it ends on Saturday, with Easter signifying the beginning of a new time. Holy Week is the final build-up to Easter Sunday.

As I said, the week starts with Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, churches around the country gathered their children and had them parade through the sanctuary, waving recently-purchased palm branches, while the congregation sang “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” or some other Palm Sunday hymn. The sermo usually centers around Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Good stuff.

I love Palm Sunday. But I’m not willing to let it simply be a palm-waving celebration…and nothing else. I think it’s important to consider the events of Thursday and Friday BEFORE you experience Easter Sunday. Without the context of the cross, Easter Sunday loses a bit of its luster. And not everybody attends mid-Holy Week services. Therefore, I tend to open Palm Sunday services big, loud and joyful…yet close them small, quiet and painful. It’s a dark day…but Sunday’s comin’.

The next “day” on the Holy Week docket is Maundy Thursday. No, NOT Monday Thursday. Maundy Thursday. The word “maundy” comes from the Latin word “maundatum”, which means “command”. During the Last Supper, Jesus offered up a new command to His disciples- “love one another as I have loved you”. On Maundy Thursday, churches traditionally focus on one or more of the events that took place in the Upper Room- the Last Supper itself, footwashing, the new command or a mix of them. I have historically found that offering both a Maundy Thursday service AND a Good Friday service simply divides those who will come into two smaller groups. So I traditionally combine the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in one Thursday service.

Good Friday is, of course, the day we remember specifically the Crucifixion. It’s “Good” Friday NOT because of the horrific events that happened. Instead, it is “Good” because the events of Good Friday led to the events of Easter Sunday and beyond. It is the catalyst that provided us with a way out of our sin…a way to eternal life.

The Saturday before Easter is traditionally called Low Saturday. It is the ONE full day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. The disciples and other followers felt the lowness of the day, to be sure. We remember the somberness of the day…but we do so with anticipation of the day to come!

Holy Week, along with Christmas, are the busiest times in a Christian church. They are, for the pastor, the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NBA Finals- all rolled up into one. Or at least they SHOULD be. A good friend of mine who is one of THE best pulpit preachers I have ever had the pleasure of listening to once said, “We only have ONE message and we have to figure out 52 different ways to say it every year. Only ONE message…but it’s a GOOD message!” Amen to that! Without Christmas, there is no Jesus. But without Easter, there is no Christ.

I am fully and completely JAZZED that it’s Holy Week and I can’t WAIT for Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday! For me, it just doesn’t get much better than this!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow and stick with Jesus!

Tomorrow- The Journey to the Cross: The Triumphal Entry

Monday, March 30- Let’s Check That Tote Board!

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If you know me at all, you know that I am a “numbers” guy when it comes to church. I had the extreme pleasure of cutting my ministry teeth in a church that grew from 200/Sunday to 800/Sunday while I was there. (Lest you think that I am implying that I had anything to do with that, let me also tell you this- in the 11 years since I left there, they have grown from 800/Sunday to somewhere in the neighborhood of…2,000/Sunday! No foolin’!)

In business, I was taught to pay attention to the numbers- foot traffic and sales told the story of how what you were doing as working. And in the early years of my ministry, that approach was reinforced. If you’re counting heads (or seats in the pews, if you will) simply for the sake of the numbers, then you’re missing the boat, to be sure. Frankly, if your ONLY goal in church is to get people in the door, that’s not really that hard. Getting them in the door for the RIGHT reasons and getting the to come back- now THOSE are the hard parts!

I am well aware that a decent amount of clergy frown on paying ANY attention to numbers in church. And I can’t speak for them. But for me, paying attention to how many folks come on a Sunday and the amount of our weekly offering are important. Tracking how many people come to Sunday School, to weekly Bible Studies, to youth groups and children’s ministries- those are important things to know. Why? Because if you keep doing the same thing over and over and it keeps not working, then something needs to change. Einstein said the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Paying attention to “the numbers” helps you know what’s working…and what’s not.

With that in mind- what a DAY yesterday was! Our wonderful choir presented their powerful Easter cantata not once, not twice but THREE times! An original Palm Sunday video- set to the tune of Celebration by Kool and the Gang (Yes- THAT Kool and the Gang!) was the call to worship at our 8AM service. A baptism, Confirmation and 9 new members were also featured at the 10:15AM service. And the 6PM service also featured Communion.

And after all was said and done, after the dust of Palm Sunday settled, 407 people worshipped at the church I currently serve today. 407! Less than three years ago when the moving van pulled up and unloaded my family, we were working hard to consistently break the 200 barrier. 200/week in worship is THE hardest attendance barrier to break. And today, we had 407! And for my money, if reaching 200 people/Sunday for Jesus Christ is good And it is), then reaching 407 people/week for Jesus Christ must be 2.035 times as good!

I am so grateful to be serving God in this capacity. I have arguably the oddest skill set of any…ANY…pastor on the planet. (Notice I didn’t say “best”…I said “oddest”!) And the fact that God can use me to help further His kingdom is amazing and humbling. If there is a better job on the planet…I don’t know what it is! God is good, all the time!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow and stick with Jesus!

Tomorrow- Holy Week

Sunday, March 29- Jesus of Nazareth: The Gate

Jesus of Nazareth MainToday, we near the end of our current Sunday morning sermon series- Jesus of Nazareth. We’re looking at 7 names for Jesus- 7 descriptive titles that, when combined, help us get a more complete, clear picture of Who He is…and what He can mean in our lives. The first week, we started at the very beginning- Jesus as The Creator. The second week was Jesus as The Advocate. Week three, we considered Jesus as The Light. Week four, it was Jesus as The Deliverer. Last week, we considered Jesus as The Capstone. And today, we near the end of our journey as we talk about Jesus as The Gate.
John 10:7b-10 I tell you the truth:I am the gate of the sheep. All who approached the sheep before Me came as thieves and robbers, and the sheep did not listen to their voices. I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be liberated, will go in and go out, and will find pastures. The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy; I came to give life with joy and abundance.
A new missionary to Africa was assigned a car that, he quickly figured out, wouldn’t start. So he got some locals to help him push the car, and once they got it moving, he hopped in, popped the clutch and started the engine. From then on, as he made his rounds, he had to either park on a hill or leave the engine running. He used this challenging approach for two years. Then, he developed some rather substantial health issues and was forced to pack up and prepare to leave. When the new missionary came to replace him, he showed the new missionary the car and, somewhat proudly, explained his rather ingenious arrangement for getting the car started every day. The new missionary politely listened to the story…and then popped the hood. After a quick glance, he turned to the outgoing missionary and said, “I think the trouble is this loose cable.” He gave the cable a quick twist, jumped in the car, turned the key…and the engine immediately roared to life! For two full years, needless trouble had become the norm for the outgoing missionary. The power to change his situation was there all the time. And nothing more than a loose connection kept the old missionary from putting that power to work. There’s nothing that so completely robs us of God’s power and joy like standing at the gate and failing…or refusing…to go through.
What IS a gate, and what does it do? A gate is a door, offering us access to somewhere, something…or someone. We go through a gate to get to what’s on the other side. A gate provides a way through a barrier. Without the gate, we can’t get in, because there’s no other way to get over, around or through the barrier. A gate also controls who can come through…and who can’t.
In the Ancient Near Eastern world, sheep were kept two ways. The first way was when the sheep were being bedded down in the city or villages. There would be a large holding corral where shepherds would bring their flocks to keep them secure them at night. It was a public pen that was big enough to hold several flocks under the care of a person whose sole duty was to guard the gate during the night and then let the shepherds back in when morning came. The shepherds would walk into the pen…and call their sheep. The sheep knew the sound of their shepherd’s voice and would come to him. The shepherd would then lead them out to pasture for the day.
The second way was used when the sheep were being bedded down out in the countryside. A shepherd would herd his sheep into a walled enclosure made of rocks with a small opening at one end. At night, since there was no gate, just an opening, the shepherd would lie across the opening to keep the sheep in and the wild animals out. He would literally become the gate. So access to the sheep was only achieved one of two ways. You either entered through the gate or you had to sneak in over the wall.
The other significance to Jesus being the Gate is very important on this Palm Sunday. Within the ancient walls of Jerusalem, there was a gate on the north of the city called the Sheep Gate. It was the gate by which animals were brought into the city for sacrifice. Once the animals were led through the Sheep Gate and inside the city, they were taken to the temple courts. There, they were taken through a specific door- a door none of them came back out of. They traveled in only one direction and once there, they were sacrificed for the sins of humanity.
Jesus says here that, to get to the true shepherd, you have to come through the gate. Any other way in only leads you astray. Jesus is the Gate. He is the protector and provider of His sheep. When you come through The Gate, you are saved, safe and secure.
John 14:6-7 I am the path, the truth, and the energy of life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you know the Father. Rest assured now; you know Him and have seen Him.
Just around the corner waits a new Gate. Jesus is The Gate. And we can GO through The Gate. But there’s a requirement- we are to be “without blemish”…free from sin. Well, that’s a problem, because NONE of us, by ourselves, are free of sin. But the event of this week remind us that God fixed that problem! He sent his one and only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, Who died on the cross to be the sacrificial atonement for our sins. Therefore, if we believe in Him, accept Him as our Lord and Savior, then we are free from the grip of sin and able to enter the gate and have life abundantly…life eternal.

Saturday, March 28- 10 Gallons of Paint…5-Gallon Bucket!

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Over the years of this blog (5½ and counting!), there have been a healthy handful of times when I have talked about a busy day or days and described them as trying to cram 10 gallons of theological paint into a 5-gallon bucket! Well, tomorrow is JUST such a day!

First off- tomorrow is Palm Sunday. As the Sunday before Easter, it is the day when Christian churches remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He rides into town on a donkey- an image of peace- as the gathered spread their cloaks along the path, wave palm branches and cheer Him like a rock star. The story is painfully juxtaposed by how quickly they all turn on Him later in the week. Like MANY churches around the country, we will sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” at both morning services while the kids process through the sanctuary, waving palm branches. At the 6PM service, we’ll sing the contemporary Christian song “Hosanna” and wave palm branches!

At all three of our Sunday services, we will also feature our choir’s Easter cantata. Each year, our choir does both an Easter an a Christmas cantata. And they are SPECTACULAR every year! AND…they do it not once, not twice but THREE times in one day!

At our 10:15AM service, we will ALSO celebrate Confirmation. 9 young people have spent the past several Sunday afternoon with me and our Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries, working through what it means to be a Christian. Tomorrow, one of those nine will be baptized. Then all nine of them will confirm the promise that was made at their baptism. And then they will become full members of the congregation! Good stuff!

And then, of course, the 6PM service will also feature Communion! The two morning services will feature a Children’s Moment. All three services will feature special music during the offering. I might…MIGHT…also be able to actually squeeze a SHORT sermon in the midst of all that!

I have said for years that Easter and Christmas are t the pastor what the Super Bowl is to the football player- the “big game”! Or at least it they SHOULD be! That doesn’t in ANY way diminish the “regular” Sunday services. They are very important. And a great deal of thought, prayer and effort goes into each of them. But Easter and Christmas are extra important. Without the Christmas season, there is no Jesus. And without the Easter season..there is no Christ. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to try and pour just a BIT more paint into the bucket!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow and stick with Jesus!

    Tomorrow- Jesus of Nazareth: The Gate

Friday, March 27- Alright Mr. DeMille- I’m Ready For My Close-Up!

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In 1950, a classic film noir (a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas) was released. The director was the famous Billy Wilder and the movie was the classic Sunset Boulevard. The movie stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star who draws him into her fantasy world where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen. In the movies, Joe says, “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Norma cynically replies, “I AM big. It’s the PICTURES that got small!”  If you haven’t seen the movie itself, you may well have seen the “send up” done on the one and only Carol Burnett Show!

Another quote from the movie is perhaps THE quote from the movie. Norma is talking into a Newsreel camera when she says, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” That quote has been used in more ways in more circumstances that nearly any other movie quote in history. And it came to mind yesterday.

The women of the church I currently serve host a MAJOR event each year called The Journey. (The first year I was here, they QUICKLY grew tired of my “Steve Perry/Journey- themed jokes!) Each year, a group of women offer their testimonies to the large group of women gathered. And this year, one of those offering their testimony is a church member who has ALS.

It was decided that she would offer her testimony via video rather than live. The thinking was that, since she is in a motorized wheelchair, it would be hard for folks to see her. But if she is on the video screen, then EVERYONE can see her. So, yesterday, I videotaped her offering her testimony…her story.

She spent hours and hours working on the testimony. She practiced it in front of several people at different times. And then. yesterday, she came to the church…ready to roll! We got her set up in the sanctuary. I checked the lighting and the sound. and then…alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!

She then spent the next 13 minutes (ish) absolutely knocking the lights out of the joint. Seriously. Blew the doors right off the church. (The Trustees are there right now…re-installing the doors!) Tears were shed. Laughter as had. And that was just the few of us who were there with her!!

I am often moved by how others deal with difficulties in their lives. I am amazed at how strong people can be in the face of adversity. And this woman is perhaps the poster girl for that behavior. She faces a debilitating disease…every day…that would completely crush most people. And yet..she just keeps on going. She is truly a shining example of what it means to have the joy of the Lord, regardless of your circumstances!

Over the next few days, I will edit the video and get it ready to show. And on the day of the event, those in attendance will get to experience what a very few of us got to experience yesterday- an example of strength, love and joy! Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow and stick with Jesus!

Tomorrow- 10 Gallons of Paint…5-Gallon Bucket!

Thursday, March 26- I Choose Joy

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Do you remember the kid’s Sunday School song “I’ve Got the Joy in My Heart”? The lyrics include:

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay!”

It is one of the first “church” songs I learned. And since I wasn’t raised in the church, I didn’t learn it until I was an adult. working with kids at church! (Based on the fact that my mental age borders on juvenile some days…that seems rather appropriate!)

The song obviously focuses on joy. And in a class I am currently teaching on the fruits of the Holy Spirit, we talked about this very topic last night- joy. Joy is a fascinating thing. And it is an often misunderstood thing, as well. And by misunderstood, what I mean is that it is often confused with…happiness.

Happiness is a common, everyday kind of emotion. And it’s a great emotion. Hearing Free Ride by the Edgar Winter Group or Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan come up in my iTunes when I hit “shuffle” makes me happy. But, after about 3 minutes and 30 seconds…give or take…the song is over and the happy feeling abates. A good ham and pineapple pizza with thick crust makes me happy. But all too soon, the pizza’s gone! Hitting all of the traffic lights at “green” makes me happy…until I hit a “red” one!

Happiness is dependent upon our circumstances. It’s dependent upon other people or things. And those people…or things…can take that happiness away just as easily as they provide it. It is fleeting, transitory…like trying to grasp mist.

Joy, on quite the other hand, is NOT based on circumstances. It’s NOT provided by other people or things and they also can’t take it away. The sole source of joy is God. And since God is the one Who provides the joy, no one else has any sway over it. No one can take it away from you. BUT…you can give it up!

The times in my life when I am the most centered, the most balanced, are the times when I have a good grasp of the joy of God…regardless of my circumstances. I was very sad when I lost my parents. But I can’t imagine what it would have been like without the inherent joy of God as the foundation upon which I build my life. It carried me through those times.

How’s your joy quotient? Is your glass half full…or half empty? Do your circumstances dictate how you feel, how you think, how you react? Or does the joy of God, secured firmly in your heart, guide you and help you maintain a strength that isn’t possible without it?

By the way, that song we talked about early on? It ALSO includes THESE lyrics:

And if the Devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack! Ouch! Sit on a tack! Ouch! Sit on a tack! And if the Devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack! Ouch! Sit on a tack to stay!”

It just makes me shake my head and smile!

Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow and stick with Jesus!

Tomorrow- “I’m Ready For My Close-Up, Mr. DeMille!”

Wednesday, March 25- The Journey to the Cross: The Greatest

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A trio of old veterans were bragging about the heroic exploits of their ancestors one afternoon down at the VFW hall. One declared proudly, “My great grandfather, at the age of 13, was a drummer boy at the Battle of Little Big Horn.” Another one boasted, “Mine went down with Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn.” “I’m the only soldier in my family,” confessed the third vet, “but if my great grandfather was living today, he’d be the most famous man in the world.” His friends were more than curious, “Really? What’d he do?” “Well, he really didn’t do anything.” “Then why would he be so famous?” “Well…DUH…he’d be 165 years old!”
Tonight, we continue our current Sunday evening sermon series- The Journey to the Cross. We’re walking through Jesus’ adult ministry, stopping at some key places along the way to see how they lead, ultimately, to the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter morning.
Week 1, we stopped along the Jordan River,watched Jesus get baptized and then talked about why. Week 2 saw us walking with Him along the Sea of Galilee as assembled His team. Week 3, we stopped in to find Jesus being challenged by the Canaanite woman. Last week, we climbed to the top of Mount Tabor for the Transfiguration. Tonight, we are a fly on the wall as the disciples argue over their place in Jesus’ ministry.
Matthew 18:1-9 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said:”I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan was talking about bragging rights. He said, “I think it’d be great if you had a kid that ended up being pope. That would be the ultimate bragging rights. ‘Oh, your son’s a doctor? Yeah, ours is pope. Oh, he has a house? Ours has his own city!’”
The disciples come to Jesus, They had heard Him talking about His kingdom and they wanted to be a part of it. In fact, they wanted to be an IMPORTANT part of His kingdom. I mean- they gave up a LOT to follow Him! They deserve it! The want to be first. Us humans are strange: we want the front of the bus, the back of the church and the center of attention! But great isn’t measured by attention, power or pride. Jesus, in true Jesus fashion, reimagines what it means to be “first”.
A young woman went to her pastor and said, “Pastor, there’s a sin I need your help with. I come to church on Sunday and can’t help thinking I’m the prettiest girl in the congregation. I know I shouldn’t think that, but I can’t help it. Can you help me with it?” The pastor replied, “Mary, don’t worry about it. In your case it’s not a sin. It’s just a horrible mistake!”
Peter- the Rock LONG before Dwayne Johnson came along- is the spokesman for the group. Surely he’s the greatest. But then there’s John who says that, even though Peter has a big mouth, John is Jesus’ favorite, because he’s the disciple Jesus loves. And Matthew takes the opportunity to point out the fact that he left a very lucrative position as tax-collector to follow Jesus. Andrew reminds them that he was the FIRST to follow Jesus. And Judas, the money handler, no doubt mentions his trustworthiness.
They can’t come to any agreement, so they turn to Jesus and wait for Him to settle the dispute. And Jesus sighs, shakes His head and starts to teach them that the direction you have to climb on the ladder to get to the kingdom isn’t up…but down. He says they have to be more…childlike.
A four-year-old granddaughter asked her grandma why she was wearing the brightly colored scarf she had on. “I thought it would make my blue suit look much prettier!” After a moment’s consideration, the little girl replied sympathetically, “It didn’t work, did it?”
A 7-year-old girl won $2 for her memory work in Sunday school. After the morning service, the pastor’s wife congratulated her. The little girl proudly announced, “And I put it all in the morning’s offering!””My, how wonderful!” the pastor’s wife exclaimed. “I’m sure God will be pleased.””Yes,” the girl replied. “Now maybe God will let me do some of the things I want to do!”
Kids can have great entertainment value, but here Jesus says that there’s much more to children than mere entertainment value. He says children are actually models of what it means to grow in the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it clear: the key to spiritual life and growth is a childlike faith.
Author Robert Fulghum said, “Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom wasn’t at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school. These are the things I learned: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
The disciples wanted greatest to mean “most important”, but Jesus told them it meant “being more grown up by being more childlike”. What does that mean? To the Jewish people, a child wasn’t despised- they were loved. But although they were loved, they were also the most powerless members of society. It was only as they grew, in both age and stature, that they were able to be heard and given rights as members of the community. As kids, they had no power or privileges.
The truth is that children model trust and dependence WAY better than us “evolved” adults do. Jesus says that greatness is measured by humbleness.
We struggle with who is the greatest. Muhammad Ali once said, “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” He also said. “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.” Then there’s, “My only fault is that I don’t realize how great I really am.” And of course there’s the ubiquitous and eponymous, “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” Muhammad Ali also said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
4-year old Hannah began to ask her parents to leave her alone with their new baby. But they were worried that she might be too rough with him, so they said no. Over time, though, she showed no signs of jealousy, so they changed their minds and let Hannah have her private time with the baby. She happily ran into the baby’s room and shut the door. Unable to stand it, her parents crept up and opened the door just a crack so that they could listen in. They watched as little Hannah walked quietly up to her baby brother, put her face close to his, and said, “Jacob, tell me what God feels like. I’m starting to forget.”
Do you ever feel that you’ve “outgrown” God? If there are days when the answer is, “Yes”, let me assure you that’s it’s not too late to turn back to the One Who created you with a renewed, child-like faith. Jesus says that to enter the kingdom of God, we need to receive it with faith like a little child. Jesus reminds us what God is like and what WE need to be like if we want to know Him. God wants to be your Heavenly Father, but the only key that unlocks that door is found in being like a child- turning away from sin…and turning away from self…and turning toward Jesus. Trust Him, and Him alone, to save you. And He promises that if you do that, He’ll adopt you into His family, and make you a brand new person with a new destination- Heaven!