Recently I read an article from Theology Matters written by Tee Gatewood entitled “The Call to Love the Small.” It was a wonderful article from a pastor of a small church reflecting on the challenges and advantages of small church ministry. It also focused on the importance of the small church in God’s love and work. The article was too large to reproduce here but I would like to pull out a few of the major observations and apply them to Brookings Presbyterian Church and our ministry together. Are we a “small church”? According to the article, the median church size in America is 75 participants. While the average congregation is larger because large churches and mega churches raise the average membership number significantly, the median represents that there are as many churches with less than 75 participants as there are those with 76 - 5,000+ participants. This article seems to be written for us since our membership is currently 79, although admittedly we have many participants who are not members, balanced by some members who are no longer able to participate on a regular basis. “Is the small church important to God and God’s kingdom?” While it is true that our world seems to envy the large and pastors often seek to serve in “high steeple” congregations, the story of God’s work throughout scripture declares that God loves to work through the small. The choice to begin the work of blessing the people of the earth through one person, Abraham, and the selection of unlikely candidates to be God’s instruments such as Gideon, Moses, Ruth, David, many of the prophets, Mary, and the apostles, reveal again and again that God loves to use the underdog, perhaps because the presence and power of God’s Spirit is apparent when success cannot be attributed to our greatness. The incarnation itself is the supreme revelation of the way God works, the coming of the Christ as an infant, to grow as a suffering servant, and to teach in parables like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son that the small and insignificant are important to God. Jesus also taught the parables of the mustard seed and leaven to proclaim that God’s kingdom comes through small beginnings, even as Jesus started with a handful of disciples and even when large crowds gathered to him, he chose 12 apostles. “What are the greatest challenges facing the small church?” How do I keep this short? 1) Leadership – it is often hard to find pastors that are willing or can afford to serve a small church. Small churches also find that the burden of service on elders, deacons, teachers and others can become heavy if the rest of the membership does not join them in the task of service. 2) Stewardship – beside the need for stewardship of time and talent mentioned under leadership, one of the greatest challenges is financial support. The cost of maintaining and operating a small church can be almost as great as the cost to maintain a much larger church, but with fewer financial stewards to help meet those demands. 3) Program – some people seek a church that offers options tailored to their interests, something small churches often cannot provide. Church basketball team? A Group for the newly married? Small support or fellowship groups for specific ages, interests, or challenges can be a draw to attract new members but are difficult within the context of a small church and a small community with limited diversity. “What are the advantages/strengths of a small church?” 1) As mentioned above, one of the advantages is that God loves the small. Our call to be a blessing to the community of Brookings is not negated by our lack of size. God will bless us and use us as we respond to God’s call. 2) Service – while one of the challenges of the small church is that of a smaller leadership pool, the flip side is that every member is important. It is easy to get involved, to be a committee member, deacon, elder, choir 3 The Messenger Newsletter Articles and input are welcome for the July issue. Please submit them to Pat Van Ooyen by Monday, June 24th, 2019. Or send your email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to put “Messenger” in the subject line…. SOME WISE WORDS If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right! Congratulations to Abby Frazier on her graduation from Century High School on June 8, 2019 in Beaverton, Oregon. The announcement with her photo is on the bulletin board in the hall. (continued from page 2) member, coffee host, dishwasher, gardener, bulletin folder, ambassador to your neighbors, etc. 3) One of the greatest advantages of the small church is Community. In large churches it is impossible to know everyone in the church family and often the congregation is divided into numerous smaller congregations according to the service one attends, the age group or special fellowship group one belongs to, or participation in a small group ministry. In a small church it is possible for us to know the names and faces of everyone who gathers regularly to worship each Sunday. While we wish we had more children and teens, our fellowship time is not segregated by ages and service; opportunities like the Community Kitchen, Choir, and our Adult Education Programs are open to everyone. I hope you see our congregation as a family. That is what we are called to be, and in a small church we have the opportunity and call to take advantage of that strength, to know and be there for one another during times of joy and times of challenge or grief. “How can we maximize the advantage of our smallness?” We must minimize the challenges and enjoy the strengths of our size: 1) Remembering God’s love for each and every person, we must continue to be an inviting and welcoming church. We do not want to be a closed family and so we must recognize that there are many in our community who thirst for family, who would like to experience God’s love, and invite them to join us. 2) Stewardship is critical – giving of time and treasure is one of the keys that determine whether a small church will thrive or cease to survive. 3) Help us maximize our greatest strength. If you do not know everyone in our congregation, join us for the fellowship time and sit with those you don’t know. Join one of the education, service, or fellowship opportunities so that you can meet and get to know others on a deeper level. Jesus said that all people will know that we are his disciples by our love for one another; that is a challenge to share our love with our community, but it is also a reminder for us to be certain that we know and love those who are in our faith family. Yours in Christ, David
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” I frequently use these words of Jesus at the end of a memorial service, but these words should be comforting and appropriate at any time. Although we would probably prefer not to admit it, most of us are filled with fears, worries and anxieties. Molly Ivins’ “The Fun’s in the Fight,” offers a child’s eye view of our tendency to let our fears get the best of us. Ivins writes of two little children, Johnny and Boots. “When Johnny and Boots were 6 and 7 respectively and growing up in Texas, they played Texas Rangers in the back yard. Johnny’s mother, wanting to take advantage of having law enforcement officers on the place, asked them to go to the henhouse and round up and rout out the chicken snake that had been making an appearance there. They boldly went where they had never gone before, only to find themselves, when they stood tippy-toes to look on the top shelf, nose-to-nose with a chicken snake. Both of them screamed and ran so fast that they did considerable damage to themselves and to the henhouse. Johnny’s mama, who stood on the porch when the boys came running and screaming to the house, said, ‘Boys, boys, what is wrong with you? You know a chicken snake cannot hurt you.’ Whereupon Johnny’s friend, Boots, replied: ‘Yes, Ma’am. But there’s some things’ll scare you so bad, you hurt yourself.” As we think about our Lord’s journey to the cross, Jesus offers an example of how faith in God’s purpose can help us to face the very worst the world has to offer. In contrast when Peter followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house, his growing fear of what might happen if he was discovered caused Peter to deny Jesus three times - and just as Boots suggested, Peter hurt himself more deeply with each of his denials. As we continue to reflect on the meaning of Easter for our lives, one of the very important messages Easter offers is that we do not need to fear death. We also do not need to fear that anything can separate us from God’s love. Only we, by our own choice, can separate ourselves from God’s love. When we are afraid or anxious we need to offer these things to God in prayer. It is only human to be anxious, and God will not make all the things that threaten us disappear, but God can give us an amazing peace to sustain us through such times. Speaking of prayer, I saw a humorous and suggestive story. “Three men were discussing the proper posture for prayer. The first said that one should be on one’s knees with head bowed in reverence to the Almighty. The second argued that one should stand with head raised looking into the heavens and speak to the face of God as a little child. The third spoke up and said he knew nothing of those positions, but the finest praying he ever did was upside down in a well!” I usually do my best praying upside down too. I don’t know why we often wait until we are upside down to turn our fears over to God. We need to keep reminding ourselves of Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7 NRSV) Yours in Christ, David
Several years ago I found a humorous story that touched me deeply. Although I have used it several times at Memorial Services, I believe this story is especially appropriate as we prepare for and celebrate Easter. A man had a friend who enlarged his business. His sales had increased to the point that a larger warehouse and sales office were needed. Even though the move was a rather complicated and burdensome process, it was really a thing to be celebrated. For this reason, the man sent his friend some flowers on the day of his grand opening. The flowers, however, were poorly handled and the businessman received a bouquet that was intended for a funeral. It was accompanied with a card which said: "My deepest sympathy during this time of sorrow." When the man called his friend on the phone to wish him well, he was confronted with the error, "Why in the world," said the businessman, "did you send me these sympathy flowers?" The man went immediately to the florist to demand an explanation. The florist met him outside the shop and was obviously upset. "I am terribly sorry about the mix-up with the flowers," he said, "but I hope you will be understanding. Your situation is not half as bad as the one down at the funeral home. The folks there received your flowers accompanied by the card which said: ‘BEST WISHES IN YOUR NEW LOCATION.’” Because of Easter, “BEST WISHES IN YOUR NEW LOCATION” may really be the ideal message to send to a Christian funeral. In John 14:2-3 Jesus assures us there is life beyond the grave when he says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (NIV) In 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Paul expresses his faith in our Lord’s words that we will be with him when we die. Paul writes, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.... We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (NIV) Losing a loved one is always a time of grief and pain, but one of the reasons Easter is so important is that the resurrection is our guarantee that Jesus is alive and that the words of Jesus (and Paul) are not mere wishful thinking. Because of Easter we know that God has the power to give us new life. Because of Easter we are assured that if we are true disciples of Jesus, dying means being transferred from this earthly existence to the glory Jesus has prepared and promised. When I die I do hope someone will miss me. But I also hope the mood will be one of celebration instead of sorrow. Sing Easter songs, tell happy stories about me, and celebrate my entrance into a brighter place. Oh, and if you must send flowers, I hope someone sends a note saying, “Good luck in your new location!” Yours in Christ, David
“Lent,” which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "lencten" meaning spring, is a season the Church has designated for soul-refreshment and re-dedication in preparation for our observance and celebration of our Lord’s death and resurrection. Since the fourth century, this season has been devoted to Christian nurture through spiritual discipline. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for forty days (excluding Sundays) until Easter. The forty days are variously identified with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness in prayer and fasting, the forty days spent by Moses on Mt. Sinai, the forty hours of our Lord’s entombment, or the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension. Because Lent has traditionally been a season stressing prayer, study, fasting, and spiritual reflection many Christians may associate negative images of suffering and sacrifice with this season. Personally, although I think Lent’s call for spiritual renewal is extremely valuable, I do not believe we need to equate Lent with suffering, sourness, or discomfort. Even the practice of “sacrificing” something during Lent is not meant to promote suffering, but to free the time saved for spiritual pursuits, or free the money saved to help those less fortunate. Although our sacrifices and “sufferings” may help us focus on the sufferings of our Lord, the purpose of Lenten disciplines is not to suffer but to focus and improve our relationship with God. The paragraphs above should seem familiar, I have used them other years in The Messenger to introduce our entrance into this season of preparation. The “new” part of this message comes when we try to reimagine what type of “fasting” would be particularly helpful for us this year. Giving up some food, some television program, or a cherished activity may help us focus on Christ’s suffering, free up some time for spiritual pursuits, or offer a helpful bonus to those wanting to diet - but this type of fasting may also be somewhat superficial. What type of “fasting” would be most helpful to prepare our spirits? Linda found the following posted on Facebook from the pietrafitness.com website. Do You Want To Fast This Lent? In the words of Pope Francis Fast from hurting words and say kind words. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from anger and be filled with patience. Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope. Fast from worries and have trust in God. Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity. Fast from pressures and be prayerful. Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others. Fast from grudges and be reconciled. Fast from words and be silent so you can listen. Following up on last Sunday’s sermon I would suggest adding: Fast from judgement and offer forgiveness. Fast from prejudice and seek understanding. Perhaps you would like to offer some additions of your own. I will post the list above on the bulletin board in Fellowship Hall and would invite you to add your suggestions using the marker provided. As we journey through Lent together let us seek meaningful ways to seek God’s presence and blessing this season. In Christ’s Service, David
How often have we approached the new year with the intent and hope that we might change some area of our lives. I know I have certainly approached many a fresh year with the intent of more regular study and exercise, an improved diet, and better use of my time. So why is it that once the year begins we find it so difficult to keep our goals and commitments? I read a story recently that may offer some insight into our situation. A man bought a new hunting dog. Eager to see how he would perform, he took him out to track a bear. No sooner had they gotten into the woods than the dog picked up the trail. Suddenly he stopped, sniffed the ground, and headed in a new direction. He had caught the scent of a deer that had crossed the bear's path. A few moments later he halted again, this time smelling a rabbit that had crossed the path of the deer. And so, on and on it went, until finally the breathless hunter caught up with his dog, only to find him barking triumphantly down the hole of a field mouse. Sometimes our lives are like that. We start out with high resolve, but soon our attention is diverted to things of lesser importance. One pursuit leads to another until we've strayed far from our original purpose. I’m not sure that Paul knew much about hunting dogs, but he did understand the necessity of our keeping focused on our goal. In his letters to the Philippians and Corinthians, Paul compared our need to stay focused on Christ with the needed discipline of an athlete in training (Phil. 3:12-14; 1 Cor. 9:24-27). I’m not sure I know much about hunting dogs either; but from my experience of years working with congregations, I know how much help we can be to each other when we work together and encourage one another to be focused on the pursuit of faithfully serving Christ. As we set our goals for 2019 let us keep in mind the words of Paul, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Have a happy new year!
“A reflection on Christmas gifts to remember” Christmas is past and we are already rushing into a new year. But before we put away the decorations and perhaps give a sigh of relief, I would like you to pause and reflect once more on the Christmas story – especially since the version recorded in Matthew is part of our tradition for Epiphany, January 6, and not December 25. Have you seen the bumper stickers or Christmas cards that say, "Wise men still seek him"? I really like that message, although the more inclusive version, "Wise people still seek him" loses the reference to the original Magi of Matthew's gospel that traveled from afar to worship the Christ child. Over the centuries a lot of tradition has been added to Matthew's simple story. If you read Matthew carefully, you will note that there is no mention of three kings, camels, or an arrival the night of Jesus' birth. Although the Magi may have been royalty, it is much more likely that they were pagan priests that studied the stars and acted as advisors to the royal court in the area of Iraq or Iran. The shift of tradition from astrologers to kings was probably made because some early church fathers were uncomfortable with a secondary translation of Magi as magicians (a practice condemned in scripture) and the desire to tie this visit to Psalm 72:10, 15 and Isaiah 49:7. Although later tradition named the "three kings," Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, even the traditional number of magi is not based on the Biblical text but rather the number of gifts that Matthew lists. Now the point I wanted to raise is that the wise men are remembered not for their place of origin, their names, or occupation, but rather because they made the journey and represented a Gentile recognition of Jesus as the Christ. The one detail remembered about these mysterious visitors is their gifts. How many Christmas gifts from the past do you really remember? To be honest, I can remember a few specific gifts, but the warm memories I have of Christmases past are due not so much from the physical gifts I received, but rather the gifts of love that I experienced from my family and friends. Each year we spend a lot of time and money shopping so that we may give gifts to loved ones. I wonder which of our gifts this year will be remembered ten years from now. As we begin the process of taking down decorations, I would encourage you to reflect on why we give gifts. Let us also remember that the greatest gifts are time, patience, and love and these may be given throughout the year. May we take a cue from the wise men and, as we enter 2018, let us give more "presence" than presents. And may we remember that wise people still seek the one about whom Isaiah wrote, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’"
Although it has been a couple of weeks now, and our focus may have been replaced by our concern over the Chetco Bar Fire, I am sure that most of us were very troubled by the eruptions of violence in Minnesota and Charlottesville, Virginia. Hate is an ugly thing! There is really no debating it. Racism, sexism, hating another child of God simply because they are different, or don’t see the world the way we do, is wrong; it is sin, it is ugly. I cannot fathom how white supremacists and neo-Nazis can declare themselves Bible believing Christians and hold to such poisonous and hate-filled views.
Jesus was really very, very clear about how we are called to live and deal with those with whom we disagree:
“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45 (NRSV)
“He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 (NRSV)
The apostles were equally clear about our call to love one another:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10 (NRSV)
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 (NRSV)
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:7-8 (NRSV)
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” 1 John 4:20-21 (NRSV)
During the news coverage of the tragedy in Charlottesville I saw a shirt or poster (I can’t remember which) that I thought summed things up pretty well at the time, it declared in bold print “Tolerance is not tolerating intolerance.” Read that again and think about it. We have been taught to champion tolerance, and I agree, but as the saying declares that does not mean accepting intolerance in others. It made me think of a Christian teaching that we are to love the sinner but hate the sin, and I realized that this saying is even better. The Apostle Paul also wrote, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good….” (Romans 12:9)
One of the problems in Charlottesville is that some of the counter-protestors who came to declare their opposition to racism (a good thing – hating the sin) also planned and came prepared for violence themselves (a bad thing – not loving the sinner).
As we reflect on our Lord’s call to love others without compromise, but also our need to speak out against intolerance, injustice, bigotry, and hatred, I think it is good to remember that intolerance can be practiced by those on the extreme right, those on the extreme left, but also by those of us who consider ourselves the very righteous and respectable middle. Whatever our position, whenever we start to look down on those with whom we disagree and despise them, perhaps even begin to hate them, we are in danger of becoming the very thing we hate.
“Tolerance is not tolerating intolerance” that is true, but when we remember our Lord’s very clear commandment we need to remember that it is intolerance that we must oppose while still loving those who are intolerant. We are called to hate the sin, but love the sinner. Isn’t that what our Lord has already done for us?
The following was written last month while I was on study leave but missed the deadline for the May Messenger – I decided it was still appropriate for June – despite the earlier context.
I am writing from the Mount Herman Christian Conference Center, where I am enjoying a week of study leave at the West Coast Presbyterian Pastor’s Conference. Although today was only the first full day of the conference, it was a very rewarding one. The morning leader is speaking on Paul, the pastor, and leading a study on 1 Thessalonians. In the evening our speaker is Anne Zaki, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.
It has been very interesting and moving to hear Anne’s discussion of what it means to be Christian in the context of Egypt and the Middle East, especially in light of the Egyptian Revolutions and the recent bombings of two churches on Palm Sunday. It was her address this evening (Tuesday) that really inspired this column.
In the morning Dr. J. Ross Wagner led a study on the opening of 1 Thessalonians, where Paul offers the following thanksgiving, “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 1:2-3 NIV) Did you notice the classic trilogy of Christian virtues: faith, hope and love? Look also at how Paul says these virtues are manifest in their lives. Faith, hope, and love if present in our lives should be visible in similar ways. Dr. Wagner also made the point that early Christians were not coming from a position of power. Whether Jews or Gentiles, they were often treated as outcasts by their families and social groups, having adopted a misunderstood faith that turned their allegiance and values upside down from the viewpoint of that culture.
In the evening, Anne built on this, sharing that while Christians are numerous in Egypt, they still live in the shadow of Islam. While Christians and Muslims live next door to each other, evangelism is an illegal activity that has severe penalties, and Egyptians who embrace Christianity face the same loss of family and social circles as was true in the 1st Century.
All the above is the context that Anne brought to a challenging look at 1 Peter 3:15-18a, a follow-up on our morning discussion of hope. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (NIV)
Those verses have a lot in them, so read them again! The first challenge is to set Christ apart as Lord, the one who is in control of our lives – not just a teacher, not just a friend, not just a savior… but our Lord. Yes, we all know that, but do we do that, all the time.
The second challenge as we return to that wonderful theme of hope is Peter’s admonition for us to always be ready to answer questions about our hope. Anne reminded us that as a disciple, Peter was the one who blurted out answers that were not always right… at least before Pentecost. Peter understood the importance of thinking our answers through, and getting them right.
I have frequently preached on the theme that our lives should have such a love and joy that people wonder why we are different. Here Peter says that our hope should also lead friends and neighbors to ask us about our faith. Anne said that in a land where evangelism is illegal, faith must be shared by living their faith, love, and hope in such a way that their neighbors ask about their lives. She said evangelism is illegal, but answering questions is considered polite. Of course one must be careful how the question is answered… and so in youth groups and Bible Studies, they practice, so if asked they can give a good account that will share and invite faith without crossing the line and being accused of evangelizing.
Can you imagine if we did that here? How would you answer if someone asked you about your positive outlook on life or the future? How would you answer if someone asked about your caring and forgiving nature?
Since this is already longer than the usual column, and it is getting late, I would like to close by repeating three more questions that were posed to us:
How can our personal lives reflect this radical hope, so that others will ask us questions?
How can our congregation reflect such radical living that our neighbors wonder what’s going on with those Presbyterians?
Do you hope in things, someone, or Someone?
Too often we put our hope in the right job, a better income or return on investments, a human relationship to give us meaning, a new car or something else that will give us that elusive sense of satisfaction. While some of those are great, none of them can be a lasting source of hope that will never disappoint. The true lasting source of hope is Jesus Christ, who alone can bring us salvation and give our lives meaning that will last beyond this life.
As you can tell from all the above, I’m having a great, but very thoughtful week. I hope God is blessing you this week as well.
As we complete our journey through Lent and follow Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross, I know a question many of us have is, “Why did Jesus have to die?” I used the following story in a sermon a few years ago. I believe it is a very good response to those who claim God couldn’t possibly care for us.
Billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Some of the groups near the front talked heatedly. “How can God judge us?” said one. “What does He know about suffering?” snapped a brunette as she jerked back a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture, death!” In another group a black man lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched for no crime but being black! We have suffocated in slave ships, been wrenched from loved ones, and toiled till death gave release.”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering God permitted in the world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where there was no weeping, no fear, no hunger, no hatred! Indeed, what did God know about what humanity had been forced to endure in this world? “After all, God leads a pretty sheltered and distant life,” they proclaimed.
So each group sent a leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. There was a Jew, a black, an untouchable from India, an illegitimate, a person from Hiroshima, and one from a Siberian slave camp. In the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather simple: before God would be qualified to be their judge, God must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth -- as a man!
But because He was God, they set certain safeguards to be sure God could not use His divine powers to help Himself: Let Him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of His birth be doubted, so that none would know who his real father was. Let Him champion a cause so just, but so radical, that it would bring upon Him the hate, condemnation, and efforts of every major established religious authority to eliminate Him. Let Him try to describe what no man has ever seen, tasted, heard, or smelled -- let Him try to communicate God to humanity. Let Him be betrayed and deserted by His dearest friends. Let Him be indicted on false charges, tried before a prejudiced jury, and sentenced by a cowardly judge. Let Him experience what it is to be terribly alone and completely abandoned by every living thing. Let Him be tortured and let Him die! Let Him die a most humiliating death -- with common thieves.
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the great throngs of people. But when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew... God had already served this sentence.
When we are facing trials or suffering let us remember that God knows our sorrows and Jesus bore the cross so that we would never have to experience distance from our Loving Creator, unless we insist on creating it. Also as we seek to follow Jesus through this season let us remember that our Lord calls us to reach out in love and remove those barriers of distance that prevent others from knowing God’s grace. Christ died for us and Christ rose, so that we may know how tremendous God’s love and grace are. As we journey through Holy Week, consider what each of the special days we celebrate adds to our understanding of God’s love.
One of the “buzz words” used to sell computers in the early ‘90’s was “user friendly.” As a relatively new hand with computers at the time, the term made sense to me. Computers are certainly complicated enough that anyone sitting down at the keyboard for the first time will be intimidated unless the computer can offer choices in easy and clear language (or they have an 8-year-old sitting nearby).
Several years ago at a Presbytery meeting, a guest speaker from one of the most rapidly growing churches in the United States spoke on evangelism and church growth. Although he did not use those exact words, in essence he challenged us to ask ourselves if our church is “User Friendly.” If a stranger walks into our worship service do they feel immediately comfortable and at home, or is their experience more like that of sitting down at a strange computer and not knowing what to do next as everyone else whips through a familiar routine?
One of our goals is to be a warm, welcoming, “user friendly” fellowship. This must be true if we want to grow, but it also must be true if we want to experience being Christ’s Church. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
What should a user-friendly church look like? The following are a few of the ideas I picked up at that meeting and a few I have added since then. I hope that you will think of additional insights and offer them to the Worship Committee or other appropriate committees as suggestions of how we may improve our service and welcoming.
- Ushers and Greeters welcome all worshipers with a smile and greeting.
- The church has signs so that worshippers can easily locate the Sanctuary, Nursery, Bathrooms, etc.
- Greet visitors seated next to you as they arrive. During the welcome time introduce visitors to someone else. After the service invite visitors to attend the coffee hour. Lead the way and introduce the visitor to others. Each and every one of us should do this, but even if others don’t we will be more friendly if you do.
- Often the worship service may seem to be in “code” to people who have not attended many services, or were raised in a different tradition. Although we have simplified the language in our bulletin, names like “Gloria Patri and Doxology” sound like another language (and they are.) If you notice a neighbor who seems apprehensive or uncomfortable, offer to answer any questions. If the person next to you can’t find a hymn, offer your hymnal and use another for yourself. If your neighbor has children, you might tell him/her about the children’s time and that all children are welcome to go up.
- We are a friendly church, but often this means that during the fellowship hour we “hang out” with our circle of friends. To be “user friendly” we need to be more aware of those who are left out and invite them into our circles.
- Invite visitors to other church activities like our Choir, one of our study and fellowship groups, or the Community Kitchen. During the week call the person to remind him/her you are looking forward to seeing him. If you didn’t get the visitor’s phone number during the service, call the church office and if they put it on the attendance pad we will give it to you.
Being “user friendly” is not the task of the pastor or even the session. It is the responsibility of each and every one of “God’s frozen people.”
Back in November, following the very contentious national election, I received a letter from Timothy Merrill, the editor of Homiletics, one of the sermon resource publications to which I subscribe. I found the letter very encouraging and held onto it, believing it speaks a word of hope and challenge to all of us. As we enter a new year with many political changes ahead, I believe Mr. Merrill’s words offer an important perspective and reminder of the task before us as Christ’s disciples, a call that transcends our identity as Republicans and Democrats, or even as Americans. What follows in bold italics is that letter, exactly as I received it, minus only a closing remark appropriate specifically to a pastor’s responsibility to a congregation - one I hope I am fulfilling in part by passing on these timely thoughts.
The recent national election produced a result that everyone agrees was nothing short of an amazing political upset. Half the country is elated; the other half discouraged. I don’t know if your congregation is generally pleased with the outcome, mortified by the result or ambivalent about the whole thing.
This doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we’re citizens of another country, with a different agenda and different mission. We are ambassadors for a Regent, and this transcends whatever is happening politically in the United States of America.
Our duty now is the same as it has been during the Obama Administration; it is the vision articulated by the prophet Micah: To do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)
In that sense, this election changes nothing.
Finally – however we voted – we must remember and put into practice our theology which transcends human and artificial labels. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; [there is no longer Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative] for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).
With the apostle Paul, I likewise beg “you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
I am certain that 2017 will bring changes and challenges (not only politically). As disciples of Jesus Christ and citizens of his kingdom, I would encourage you to face the future with hope. Remember that our mission and call remain the same. Also remember that to fulfill our calling we must work together, whatever our political outlook, and seek the Spirit’s guidance and strength that we may respond faithfully to those changes and challenges as Christ’s ambassadors, good and faithful servants of the Lord of love.
Advent and Christmas are a wonderful time of year. This should also be a very important season for the Church. We do not really know the exact day that Jesus was born, but the birth of our Lord and celebration of the incarnation (God becoming flesh John 1:14) should be important to all Christians. Although many people outside the Church may enjoy the decorations, music, giving, and spirit of the holidays - what makes Advent and Christmas really special to us is our understanding that it commemorates God acting to save us, and it also reminds us that Christ will come again.
Although Christmas should mean much more to Christians than just a season of giving and good cheer, a survey of Presbyterians revealed that a “significant minority of Presbyterians do not believe that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation.”
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of our savior. If, however, we do not believe that Jesus was God incarnate or that through his death Jesus sealed a new covenant with God so that we are saved by faith, then it is good for us to stop and consider what Christmas and Good Friday/Easter do mean to us. Both Christmas and Good Friday/Easter declare that God loves us and has acted in history in a unique way to reveal that love and provide a means for our salvation. The importance of these holy days to Christians should not be separated from the essential belief of the church as expressed in Scripture and the Apostles Creed.
Now does this mean that only Christians will be saved? I do not believe that any of us are fit to answer that question. The Bible declares that Christ will be our judge. It also reveals God’s love for all God’s children. As a Christian I am confident that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. I also doubt the claims of those who declare that any faith is equally effective at bringing us to God as long as we are sincere. To believe that would seem to make Christmas and Good Friday/Easter entirely irrelevant. Why would God need to go to such trouble, pain, and suffering if giving us a good course in meditation or positive thinking would have been just as effective?
The ultimate fate of non-believers has long been a sticky question for Christians of every denomination. A 2001 statement by the Office of Theology and Worship of our denomination may help us with this dilemma. In seeking to respond to the question of the place of Jesus in God’s plan for salvation the OTW wrote a 4+ page paper. The heart of the paper is found in the following summary. “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living.... No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of ‘God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.”
I like this statement both for its strength in declaring the importance of our faith in Jesus and its openness in confessing that God’s grace through Christ may extend to others who have not yet declared faith in him.
Linda and I hope that you have both a meaningful and blessed Advent and Christmas.
MS-Dos, Windows 3.1, 95, 98,98SE, NT, ME, 2000, XP, Linux, Mac, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8… it seems like almost every time we turn around we need to learn some new tricks just to get our computers to do what we want them to. Most recently many of us may have been encouraged (forced) to update to Windows 10. In many ways it doesn’t appear that different from how the last version worked… except of course that many of the commands, program shortcuts, and important icons are stored in new and seemingly harder to find locations. While searching for the now hidden commands to turn the computer off and open the control panel, I began to reflect on all the change I’ve seen in hardware and software. As long as we want to work with the latest hardware we are forced to keep changing our software. While most of the changes are improvements, it seems like some of the changes in style and appearance have been made just to make sure we can still learn something new.
Tired of searching for where they hid the commands, it occurred to me that there may be a spiritual lesson here – at least one of contrast. Like the endless chase for newer and more powerful programs –the Christian life requires constant spiritual growth and change. But unlike the evolution of operating systems that requires a constant learning of new commands or “rules,” the Christian life requires ongoing education and spiritual discipline so that we can master and live an operating system that needs no updating and replacement. As a Christian, I am still learning and growing spiritually – but I do not need a new and improved Bible or Lord. Sure, a new translation can help us understand something new and open our eyes to fresh insights, but God’s Word, like our Lord, remains unchanged and unchanging. Christian devotional writings can be very useful and encouraging, but if they change the basic message of God’s Word, keep away from them.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the challenge to grow in the Christian faith doesn’t depend on the latest gimmick, but rather on our commitment to very tried and true tools to improve our discipleship. Worship, study, fellowship, prayer, stewardship, and service are the building blocks that lead to a balanced and healthy faith; it has been that way for centuries and will be for centuries to come.
While our faith may seem complex and confusing at times, I am very thankful that Microsoft (or the various other purveyors of computer operating systems) isn’t in charge of it. When it comes to faith, the bottom line is that if you want your life to work – listen to God. God’s support line has no equals.
Now if I can only figure out how to save this column…. David Hunter