When I Call God “Father” (Part 1)

In the churches I’ve served for the past forty-five years we’ve consistently said and sung the same three things in worship on Sunday mornings –

Glory be to the Father…”  [The “Gloria Patri”]

 “Our Father who are in heaven…”  [The “Lord’s Prayer]

“Praise , Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” [The “Doxology”]

Each one of these familiar liturgical forms we constantly use speak to and about God as “Father.”  Why?  Why does the church consistently talk to God and about God in this way? And the answer, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward – we do it because of Jesus. We do this because when Jesus talked about God, Jesus called God “Father.”  And when Jesus talked to God in prayer, Jesus called God “Father.”  And when Jesus taught His disciples how to talk to God, how to pray, Jesus told them to call God “Father.” And when Jesus’ first disciples began writing the books and letters that would one day became the New Testament, they uniformly talked about God as a “Father.”  You see, it’s because we are “disciples” of Christ — “students” of Christ — “followers” of Christ, that we call God “Father.”  We’re just following His lead when we talk to and about God as a Father.  So, the right question for us to ask is why did Jesus do this?  Why did Jesus talk about God as a “Father”?

Now, some argue that Jesus talked and thought this way because He was just a product of His time and place.  First century Israel was a very male-dominated culture.  Fathers were in charge.  And so, many argue, Jesus was simply reflecting the world that He lived in when He talked to and about God as a Father.  But Jesus wasn’t just a dead fish tumbling passively down the stream of culture.  No, the Gospels show Jesus actively swimming against the stream, again and again challenging the moral and spiritual norms of His day.  And so it’s real hard for me to think that Jesus wasn’t being deliberate, even strategic in the ways that He talked to and about God.  So, what I want to know is what was Jesus telling us about God when He talked to and about God as a Father?

Well, it certainly doesn’t mean that He thought that God was male or masculine as opposed to God being female or feminine.  God is not the “man upstairs.”  It was Jesus, after all, who told us that God is Spirit (John 4:34), and that gender just isn’t a factor in the realm of spirit (Matthew 22:30).  And more than once in His teachings, Jesus used feminine analogies to talk about who God is and what God does – God is like a woman who turns her house upside down to find a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and God is like a mother hen trying to gather her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37).  The fact of the matter is that the Bible gives us lots and lots of different ways to think and talk about God, and each one of them is deliberately chosen for its meaning, because it tells us something important about who God is and what God does.  In my denomination’s hymnal we have a hymn that in three short stanzas provides us with 39 different Biblical ways of thinking and talking about God in quick succession –

Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,                                                                                    

Fortress, Fountain, Shelter, Light,                                                                                               

Judge, Defender, Mercy, Might,                                                                                                     

Life whose life all life all endowed…

Word and Wisdom, Root and Vine,                                                                                               

Shepherd, Savior, Servant, Lamb,                                                                                                

Well and Water, Bread and Wine,                                                                                                  

Way who leads us to I AM…

Storm and Stillness, Breath and Dove,                                                                                        

Thunder, Tempest, Whirlwind, Fire,                                                                                            

Comfort, Counselor, Presence, Love,                                                                                            

Energies that never Tire…

And the whole point of this exercise is explained by the refrain –

May the church at prayer recall that no single holy name                                                  

but the truth behind them all is the God whom we proclaim.

“Father” is one of the “holy names” for God that we are given by Jesus Christ in Scripture.  But if our use of “Father” as a way of talking about and to God is to be meaningful, more than just an act of unthinking repetition, then we need to understand the truth that’s behind it, and this is where I find Ephesians 3:14-17 to be so useful. This is just one of the many places in the Bible where God gets called “Father,” but what makes this text so unique us is the way that it explains what thinking and talking about God as a “Father” actually means.

When Ephesians 3:14 calls God “Father” it is to make the point that God is the One “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:15).  In other words, we are God’s “offspring,” God’s children (Acts 17:29). God made us and we are his (Psalm 100:3). Every person you will meet this week is your brother or sister because God is their “Father” and yours.  The problem that prompted Paul to write his letter to the Ephesians was that the Jewish Christians in the church were acting superior to the Gentile Christians in the church.  They thought that they were better, or at least more entitled, than these newcomers. Paul shattered that illusion on the rock of the Fatherhood of God. This means that when we think and talk about God as a “Father” we’re making a powerful statement about the identity and worth of every single other human being on earth. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” is what we sang in Sunday School as kids, and the Biblical truth that this idea is rooted in is that God is the “Father from whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name” (3:15).  We are a family, the human family.  We’re connected to each other because the same God made us all.  That’s the first thing that we’re saying when we call God “Father.”  He made us and we are His.  The second thing that we’re saying when we call God “Father” according to Ephesians chapter 3 is that this God who made us is also the God who wants to take care of us, and I’ll explore idea more fully when I write on Wednesday. DBS+

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“I’m Fixed Upon It, Mount of Thy Redeeming Love”

If I was forced to pick my favorite hymn – just one – then it would have to be Robert Robinson’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Robert Robinson, the author of this hymn, was not raised a Christian.  Growing up pretty much on his own after his father died, and getting into all kinds of trouble as he did, Robert Robinson was converted under the preaching of the great 18th century Anglican evangelist George Whitefield. Robert Robinson said that he went to heckle George Whitefield, but wound up being convicted by the Holy Spirit as he preached instead.  Robert Robinson eventually surrendered to God’s effectual call, became a Christian, and before he knew it, was preaching and writing hymns, the most famous of which was “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

In many ways “Come Thou Fount” is autobiographical.  It tells us the story of Robert Robinson’s very own journey to faith, and a little bit about his struggle to remain faithful. But it’s our story, and it’s about our struggles too.  It was Carl Rogers, the American Psychologist (1902 -1987), who said that what’s most personal is most general. You see, he believed that while the specific details of our lives vary, that we all nevertheless ask the same questions, we all struggle with the same problems, and we all have the same hopes and fears as human beings.  And so, spiritually, the things that Robert Robinson wrote about in his hymn “Come Thou Fount,” while drawn from his own intensely personal experience, nevertheless connect with our experiences as well.

The first stanza of this hymn is a celebration of the grace of God that he received when he first became a Christian.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of Thy redeeming love.

I hear Robert Robinson’s joy in being a Christian in these words, and his desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ who has saved him.  It’s in the last stanza that we hear about the struggle that he had in actually doing this, in actually remaining faithful –

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

Robert Robinson was “prone to wander.” He started out as a Methodist, later became a Baptist, and some say that he finally wound up as a Unitarian. Robert Robinson had a restless soul, and he knew it, and so in his hymn he begged God to tether his heart to God’s grace through all the shifts and changes that he knew would come with time.  The poignancy of this is that at the end of his life, Robert Robinson felt like he had wandered so far from the Lord that there was no way back to Him. There’s a well-known story that’s told about Robert Robinson that says that as an old man he was riding in a stagecoach  when a young woman began to softly sing his hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Seeing how intently he was listening to her, when she was finished singing, she asked Robert Robinson what he thought of the hymn. And he told her, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”  And to her great credit, that young woman reportedly told Robert Robinson –  Sir, the ‘streams of mercy’ are still flowing.”

The “heart” of this hymn is the middle stanza.  If the first stanza describes the original joy that Robert Robinson felt when he first became a Christian, and the last stanza describes Robert Robinson’s perennial struggle to remain faithful, the proneness of his heart to wander, then the middle stanza is where Robert Robinson named a Biblical practice that’s designed to keep us connected to God and His grace –

Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by thy help I come;
And I hope by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.

 The version of “Come Thou Fount” that appears in my denomination’s hymnal has no “Ebenezer” in it.  In our hymnal the “Ebenezer” has become “an altar,” and that’s because most of us simply don’t know what an “Ebenezer”  is. “Ebenezer” is a Biblical word.  It comes from I Samuel 7:12.   The Ark of the Covenant – the symbol of God’s special presence in the midst of His people –  had been captured by the Philistines. After causing untold trouble for them, the Philistines finally decided to give the Ark of the Covenant back to the Hebrews.  When it was finally back in their possession, Samuel used the occasion for the Jews to rededicate themselves to God.  Then, right after the covenant renewal ceremony was finished, Israel was attacked by the Philistines who were turned back by a mighty act of God and then routed by the Israelites.  So Samuel “took a stone, set it up… and called its name ‘Ebenezer,’ for he said, ‘Hitherto the Lord has helped us.’”

An “Ebenezer” is a historical marker. All across the State of Texas there are historical markers, more than 3500 of them,  that commemorate spots where something important happened that we need to know because it changed the course of history and continues to shape the way that we think and act as a people today.  They are “Ebenezers” – stones of remembrance, and we have one in church!

In the Upper Room on the night before He went to Calvary’s cross Jesus took bread, broke it and shared it with His disciples saying – “This broken bread is a sign of my body broken for you, eat it in remembrance of what it is that I will be doing for you, and for all, on the cross.”   And then pouring wine into a cup, Jesus shared it with His disciples saying – “This cup is a sign of my blood poured out for you, drink it in remembrance of what it is that I will be doing for you, and for all, on the cross.”  The bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper are our “Ebenezer.”  Just like the stone monument that Samuel erected so that God’s people could see it and remember who their God was and what their God had done for them, causing them to thank and trust Him ever more, so the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper provides us with a way of binding our wandering hearts to God like a fetter, and a way of fixing ourselves upon the mount of God’s redeeming love.

Helen Mallon is a poet who wrote a stunningly honest essay about a flirtation that she had with another poet – what she called a “lunatic romance” – that threatened the stability of her marriage and family.  When it was over, and Helen was trying to restore some emotional and spiritual order to her life, she says that she came across a plastic bag full of seagull feathers that her daughter had collected on a beach where her family had gone on vacation, and seeing those feathers triggered in her a flash of insight.  Helen wrote about it –

“Two days ago, we watched [those] seagulls scavenging at the water’s edge. They cut arcs in the wind. One hovered lower than the others, its head cocked toward a piece of bread that floated on the shallow waves. It pivoted as if its unmoving wingtip had punctured the sky, then dropped down, ungainly and raucous, to snatch the crust. My earthbound repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape. I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center.”

I’m fickle. I’m forgetful. I’m a frequent wanderer from the fold of God.  There are strong pressures at work in my world that are doing their best to convince me not to be loving.  And there are circumstances at work in my life that could very easily persuade me that I am not loved.  It’s just so easy in the push and pull of my daily life to forget that the love of God that I have received in Jesus Christ is the true center around which everything rotates.  And so I need an “Ebenezer.” I need something to remind me that God is faithful.  I need something to assure me that God is steadfast.  I need something to connect me again and again with the Gospel fact that God seeks us when we’re strangers, rescues us from danger, and interposes His precious blood.  And this is what the Lord’s Table does every Sunday morning.  Every week in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup we are “fixed [once again] upon the mount of God’s redeeming love.”  The Lord’s Table where we gather every week to break bread, share a cup, and remember what God did for us in Jesus Christ on the cross is the true center around which we circle as both Christians and a church.

“Here I raise my Ebenezer; Hither by thy help I come.”

 DBS +

 

 

 

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“Freely, Freely Receive… Freely, Freely Share”

There’s a certain rhythm to the Christian life.   We see it in the ministry of Jesus.  His times of active engagement with people and their needs was balanced with times when He deliberately withdrew from people to quiet places where He could think and pray by Himself.  Jesus would minister to the crowds, and then Jesus would retreat from the crowds.  Jesus would do His saving work of healing and preaching in the world, and then Jesus would pull back from the world to seek the face of His Father in silence and solitude.

Thomas Kelley, a Quaker author from the last generation, described this pattern well when he said that God pulls us out of the world and into His heart to personally and powerfully assure us of His great love for us, and then God hurls us out of His heart and back into the world where we are expected to help Him carry its hurts and hopes with “infinitely tender love.”  This double movement — in and out of the heart of God — finds expression in the way that Matthew 10:1-8 talks about the very first followers of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 10:1 they were called “His twelve disciples,” and then in Matthew 10:2 they were called “the twelve apostles.”  These verses are a turning point in the story of Jesus that Matthew tells us.  Before this moment in the story, Jesus’ first followers – the twelve – were consistently called His “disciples.”  But after this point in the story, more often than not, Jesus’ first followers – the twelve – are called the “apostles.”  The significance of this shift resides in the difference of meaning between “disciples” and “apostles.”

 A “disciple” is a student, a learner.  I’ve been told that a few years ago an Eastern European theologian was invited to give a series of guest lectures at one of our Disciples seminaries.  To the amusement of his listeners, he kept referring to his hosts as the “pupils” of Christ.  It sounds kind of funny to talk about  “Disciples” like this, doesn’t it?  But in some ways it gets us to the true heart of the meaning of the word “disciple.”  We are the “pupils” of Christ. When we say that Jesus is Lord what we are saying is that we intend to learn from Him because we believe that He has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  We start the journey of the Christian life as “disciples,” as people who are committed to being students of Jesus Christ.  Our spiritual formation begins with the simple agreement to be willing to sit quietly at Christ’s feet and to listen carefully to His teachings (Luke 10:39).  And then, at some point, Jesus turns His “disciples” into “apostles.”  This is the pattern, the rhythm of the spiritual life.  Just as it happened in Matthew 10:1-8, there comes a moment when Jesus tells those who are His disciples that it’s time to get up and to get going because He’s got something important that He needs them to do.

An “apostle” is someone who is sent.  “These twelve Jesus sent out” is what Matthew 10:5 tells us.  After learning from Him something about who God was and what Godwas doing, Jesus sent His “disciples,” His “pupils” out in mission.  He put part of God’s eternal purpose into their hands.  He told them – “Now that you know what I want, here — I’m going to trust you with this.”  And the proof that they had learned what He was teaching was the way that they began to do what He had told them.  The righteousness of God that He talked with them about began to show in the righteousness of their own lives, and in the righteousness that they sought for the whole wide world.   The compassion of God that He talked with them about began to show in the compassion of their own lives, and in the compassion that they sought for the whole wide world.  What they themselves had received as “disciples,” they then turned right around and began to share with others as “apostles.” 

We can’t give away what we don’t have.   A church can’t be a source of God’s life-giving grace if it is not at the very same time being constantly renewed by God’s life-giving grace.  “Disciples” need to become “apostles,” but it’s impossible to an “apostle” for very long, or to be very effective as an “apostle,”  without drawing on the deep spiritual resources that come from being “disciples.” I think this is why Matthew 10:1-8 ends with Jesus telling His disciples who were being sent out as apostles – “Freely, freely you have received ~ freely, freely give” (10:8).

One of the sources of my personal spiritual awakening was the “Jesus People” Movement in Southern California in the early 1970’s.  Pastor Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel, and Maranatha music all played a role in my early development as a Christian.   One of the songs from those days that we sang all the time was “Two Hands” by Chuck Girard of the music group “Love Song.  Its refrain says –

Accept Him with your whole heart, and use you own two hands.
With one reach out to Jesus, and with the other, bring a friend.

 We’ve got two hands, and according to Matthew 10, we’ve got two tasks – to be “disciples” and to be “apostles.”  The open hand that reaches out to Jesus to receive God’s grace is the hand of a disciple, and the hand that reaches out to others to share the grace of God in Christ that we have received is the hand of an apostle.  “Freely, freely” we have received; “Freely, freely” share. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking Back with Gratitude; Looking Ahead with Expectation…

Memorial Day is the day each year when we are asked to think about and give thanks for all of those who have died in service to this nation.  Many of the funerals I’ve performed in recent years have been at the National Cemetery in Dallas, and I never stood on that hallowed ground without thinking about the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address –

“It is for us the living… to be dedicated… to the unfinished work which they… so nobly advanced. It is… for us to be… dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we… highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Memorial Day is our annual “gut check” for this assignment.  Their sacrifice was a trust.  So, are we keeping faith with what they gave their all to preserve, protect, and defend?

Near the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” the character played by Tom Hanks, mortally wounded, pulls Matt Damon, the actor playing Private Ryan, in close and with his dying breath whispers – “Earn this; Earn it”?  The camera then shifts to an elderly Ryan standing at a grave in a National Cemetery with the name of the character that Tom Hanks played on  it,  and he says –

“Every day I think about what you said to me on the bridge.  I’ve tried to live my life the best I could.  I hope that was enough.  I hope that at least in your eyes I earned what you have done for me.”

I don’t know that we are ever truly “worthy” of the sacrifice of another, or that we can somehow “earn” what they have done for us. But I do know that we can choose to remember them, and that the Memorial Day weekend is one of our best opportunities as a nation to show that we will always value their sacrifice.

A nation is not the only social grouping that benefits from the service and sacrifice of those who came before.  The church depends on the long line of faithful men and women who –

“Gave of their own to bear the message glorious;
and who gave of their wealth to speed them on their way;
and who poured out their souls for them in prayer victorious…”

The church depends on the fact that there were people whose tears fell for her, and whose prayers ascended for her, and whose cares and toils for her were given.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 is part of the New Testament’s call for one generation of Christians to gratefully remember those who came before, and then to take responsibility for those who come next. Paul told Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (3:14), and then to take the things that he had been taught and to “entrust” them to “faithful people who will be able to teach others as well” (2:1-12; 4:2). Think of it as a chain.  We’re a link in that chain to be sure, but there’s a link that comes before us, and there’s a link that comes after us, and what this means is that we are always going to exist “in-between,” with a connection to the past and with a connection to the future.  We need to look back with gratitude, and ahead with expectation.

We need to look back with gratitude. We’re not the first or the only people to ever be Christians. The Gospel didn’t originate with us (2 Corinthians 14:36).  Paul told the Ephesians that their lives of faith were built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2:20). Personally, I’ve never seen Jesus Christ.  He’s never spoken directly to me.  But when I open up my New Testament I believe that the words of the apostles and prophets that I find there were written by people who did see Him, and who did hear Him.  I believe in Jesus Christ on the basis of what they tell me about Him.  My faith stands squarely on their shoulders, but not just on theirs alone. The church is like a skyscraper that rises throughout history, with each new generation of Christians adding their own floor.  There are 2,000 years between the time of the apostles and prophets when the New Testament was first written and where we find ourselves today.  Our way back to the foundation that they laid, back to the foundation of the New Testament on which this building of faith we call the church rests, is going to take us down through 200 floors of believers and believing.

The Presbyterian pastor Robert Thornton Henderson says that every denomination is a “thrilling and dynamic window” through which people are given a point of view, a particular way of looking at who God in Christ is, and at what God in Christ has done, and at what God in Christ expects of us.  The “thrilling and dynamic window” on the person and work of God in Christ that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has is reconciliation.

“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”

To stand on Disciple shoulders is to stand on the Gospel’s welcome.  It is to be part of a people who abhor division as sinful, and who understand that God in Christ is calling us to push past the barriers that are intended to keep people out by building bridges that allow people to come into the embrace of God’s compassion and care that we have found in Jesus Christ.  We claim this heritage with thanksgiving, and then we offer this perspective to others with expectation that they will want to join us.

 Brennan Manning told a story about a friend of his, a Roman Catholic priest, who would come to visit his family in Texas every year.  And during these annual visits, the priest’s brother, the owner of a car dealership, would always give his brother the keys to a brand new car to use for the coming year. Driving one of these new cars home after the annual family visit, the priest got lost on some back country roads, and so he finally decided to stop and ask for some directions at a little country store.  Sitting on the porch of the store where he stopped were a group of little boys who all sat up and took notice when this big, new, fancy car pulled up.  Seeing their interest, the priest told them that they could take a closer look at it while he went inside to get directions, and when he came back out they were all piled in the front seat of the car pretending to drive it. “This is some car,” they told him. “Where did you get it?”  And so he told them all about his brother and how he gave him a car just like this one every year to drive.  Well, their eyes got real big, and Brennan says that his priest friend thought that he knew what those little boys were thinking.  He fully expected them to say – “Man, I wish I had a brother like that!”  But instead, quite unexpectedly, he heard one of those little boys say – “Man, I wish I could be a brother like that!”

 Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 wants us to know that we have a brother like that.  The life and faith of every church rests on the shoulders and the sacrifices of innumerable men and women who came before. Gratitude is what we owe them for the gifts that they have given us.  And Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 wants us to know that we are also called to be brothers like that.  The future life and faith of every church rests on our shoulders and our sacrifices.  What we owe them who will be here next is faithfulness to who we know God in Jesus Christ to be, and to the work that we believe that God in Jesus Christ is doing, and is asking us to share with Him at this moment in time.  DBS +

 

 

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“Significant” Congregations

McAllen FCC

25 years ago when the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was looking for a new General Minister and President, one of the prerequisites for the job that they published said that candidates needed to have been the minister of a “significant congregation.”  The question, both then and now, is what makes a congregation “significant”? Most people who read the requirements of candidacy for that position understood “significant congregation” to be “code” for a reference to its size, you know, the number of its nickels and noses, things you can count.  How many people belong?  How many people attend?  And how much do they give?  We tend to equate significance with the size of things like this.  Bigger is better. I’ve been working in churches since 1972.  I’ve worked with big churches, and I’ve worked with small churches, and here’s what I know about churches – bigger isn’t necessarily better, bigger is just, well, bigger.

It’s not just filling its pews that makes a church “better,” it’s filling the people who are in those pews with a Christ-infused sense of meaning and purpose that makes a church great.  Just because a church is growing and getting numerically bigger doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily faithful. Its growth could just as easily be a “multiplication of unfaithfulness.”  The strength and significance of a church is directly proportionate to its commitment to being what Christ intended His church to be, and doing what Christ intended His church to do.

When taking stock of the significance of a church, the correct measure is not the fast growing church down the street, or the biggest church across town, or even our genuine aspirations for the institutional well-being of our church.  No, the standard of significance for a church is Christ’s purpose for the church, and to find this will send us to our Bibles.

Go to the concordance in the back of your Bible and look up all of the references to the word “church” on the lips of Jesus in the four Gospels, and you might be surprised to discover that there are only thee of them.  In the teachings of Jesus that we have in our Bibles, the word “church” appears once in Matthew 16 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (v. 16); and twice in Matthew chapter 18 – “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17). Jesus’ two references to “church” in Matthew chapter 19 give us some insight into His understanding of how big a church has got to be in order for it to be significant.  It’s at the end of this discussion about church discipline that Jesus told us what a church looked like in His head and heart – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20).

40 years ago I attended a conference on small group ministry at a seminary out in Southern California.  On the first night of the conference, the keynoter began by showing us pictures of the ruins of houses in ancient Greece and Rome.  And with every picture he showed us, he provided us with the exact dimensions of their front rooms.  This went on for more than 30 minutes – one ruin after another; one front room after another; one set of square footage after another.  And just when we were all wondering if he had a point, that keynoter stopped and said, “Every time you read the word ‘church’ in your Bibles, I want you to stop and think about this evening and all of these boring pictures that I’ve just shown you. For the first couple of hundred years, the church met in houses just like these!  A New Testament church was only as big as the number of people who could fit into its front room.”  I had an “aha” moment sitting there, and I’ve never read my Bible the same way since.

When Jesus talked about church, He talked about the “two or three” who gathered in His name.  Every New Testament church was a small church, and that’s important for us to know because most churches today are small too.  60% of all the churches in the United States have 100 members or less.  And if only half of a church’s membership shows up for worship on any given Sunday morning as the research indicates, then better than half of the churches in the United States this morning will have 50 people or less in attendance. So don’t tell me that a small church lacks significance.  To quote the theme song from the TV show “Cheers”

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name

Even big churches will tell you that they have to get small in order to foster the kinds of interpersonal relationships that nurture spiritual growth and transformation.  But there was more to Jesus’ understanding of church than just the “two or three.” The “two or three” gathered in Jesus’ name, and because they did, Jesus promised to be there in their midst.  We began every worship service and business meeting at the church I served for the past 20 years by lighting a Christ candle.  As the candle was lit, the one lighting it would say, “Christ is with us,” and those gathered would respond, “Christ is in our midst.”  And this, it seems to me, is the real source of a church’s significance.

A devotional I read early in my Christian life said that every church, no matter how small it may be, is a place of cosmic significance because it’s where people find Christ, experience forgiveness and renewal, discover meaning and purpose, know themselves to be loved and expand their own capacity to love.  Talk about significance! As Francis Schaeffer put it – there are no little people, and there are no little places. There’s only Christ and His presence in the midst of those who gather in His name.   DBS+

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Your Labor is not in Vain”

“Your Labor is not in Vain”
Corinthians 15:51-58

grenn

Closing Reflections on a Ministry
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dreamJohn Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical account of the Christian life. It’s regarded by many to be the single most important piece of religious writing in the history of the English language. It tells the story of a dream that a man named Christian had about a long journey from his home in the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City” of heaven that he undertook to find relief from a heavy burden that he was carrying.  And as he crossed over the final river, John Bunyan said that the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

pilgrimI cross a river this week – not the final river, mind you – but a river nonetheless. I received my call to ministry in 1965 when I was 12 years old. I had my first paying ministry job in the summer of 1972.  I was ordained to ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1979, and I have been in vocational ministry every day ever since. But this week, things change. I’ll still be a minister, but I will not be the minister of a church for the first time in four decades, five if you count the ministry jobs I had before I was ordained.  And while I suspect that there will be other kinds of ministries in my future, come this Tuesday morning I will not be a minister in the way that I have always been a minister before.  I will cross over a river, but unlike Christian in A Pilgrim’s Progress, I don’t hear any trumpets.

In the last days of every ministry that I’ve ever had, my heart has returned to a prayer that I found a long time ago in a prayer book for ministers. “Lord God, merciful and mighty: Help those whom I have neglected to help,” it begins…

Set aright those whom I have caused to stumble;
Visit those whom I have neglected to visit;
Bring back those whom I have led astray;
Cheer the hearts of those whom I have made sad;
Draw with the cords of thy love those for whom my love has grown cold.
Save them all, O Lord, and have mercy upon me, the chief of sinners…

 I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality’s “wintry” soul, but it has always been so much easier for me to see how, and when, and where I’ve come up short, or missed the mark altogether, in my ministry than it is for me to fall prey to easy self-congratulation and feelings of self-satisfaction.  This is not a bad thing.  In fact, just like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” I’ve found that my wintry soul has actually served to keep me consciously tethered to God’s grace, and entirely dependent upon the promise of God’s power being made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The preacher at the church I attended in high school used to say that he would rather go into the pulpit in his underwear than to try to minister without the assurance of God’s promise to use our weakness to His glory (2 Corinthians 4:7-12). And one of the ways that this promise has been kept at the forefront of my consciousness as a minister across the years of my ministry has been the experience of ministry itself.   This week I am acutely aware of four great truths about my work for the Lord as a vocational minister, and about your work for the Lord as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and about our work for the Lord together as a church – (1) it’s always imperfect; (2) it’s always unfinished; (3) it’s quite often hidden; but (4) it’s never in vain.

  • Our work for the Lord is always imperfect.

angelWhen I was a kid they used to show a cartoon version of Charles Tazewell’s classic Christmas story The Littlest Angel every December in school. Theologically, it’s a mess of a story. But spiritually, I have found encouragement in this story of a little boy who dies and goes to heaven as the “littlest angel” and who doesn’t quite fit in. The littlest angel was such a disruption to the peace of heaven that he was finally sent to the angel of peace to straighten him out. And when the angel of peace asked the littlest angel what he could do to make his adjustment to heaven smoother, the littlest angel told him about a crude wooden box under his bed back home that was filled with treasures – a butterfly’s wing, a blue egg, a couple of ordinary white stones, and a well-worn dog collar. If he could just have that rough wooden box with its strange assortment of treasure in it, the littlest angel told the angel of peace, then surely he would be happy in his new heavenly home. And so the angel of peace made arrangements to get it for him, and things quickly improved for the littlest angel. And then the day came for Jesus, the Son of God, to be born to Mary, in Bethlehem, and every angel in heaven prepared a special gift to celebrate the miracle. But what did the littlest angel have that would please the holy infant? And then he remembered his box filled with all of those wonderful things that even the Son of God would surely treasure. And so on the day of days the littlest angel added his small, rough, unsightly wooden box to all of the glorious gifts from the other angels of paradise, but seeing the rare and radiant splendor of the other angels’ gifts, the littlest angel felt deeply ashamed. Compared to the glory of their gifts, his crude wooden box filled with such ordinary things looked shabby, worthless, even insulting. And so the littlest angel tried to take it back, but it was too late, the hand of God was already moving slowly over that bright array of shining gifts until it finally rested over the littlest angel’s lowly gift. The littlest angel cowered in a dark corner as the Heavenly Father opened the rough wooden box and looked at the odd assortment of worthless objects inside. And then to the surprise of the heavenly host, God said, “Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that it’s this small ordinary box that pleases me most… its contents are of earth and men, and my Son, who is born to be King of both… These are the things that my Son will know and love too,” and with that the rough, unsightly wooden box filled with the ordinary treasures of the littlest angel began to glow and rise from its place before the throne of God to become the star over the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.   Now, for all that’s wrong with this story theologically, here’s what it got exactly right spiritually – God takes what we have to offer Him, ordinary and imperfect though they are, and God transforms them into something powerful and glorious. Even our best work for the Lord is flawed, but it’s through the cracks of those flaws that the grace of God shines forth.

  • Our work for the Lord is always unfinished.

I keep a prayer that was written in memory of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, in a place where I will come across it regularly.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

Glasses
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

When it was time after 40 years of ministry for Dr. Henry to step away, Northway wasn’t finished. When it was time after 20 years of ministry for Dr. McKenzie to step away, Northway wasn’t finished.  And now that it’s time after 20 years of my ministry for me to step away, Northway still isn’t finished, and that’s okay because “we’re all prophets of a future not our own.”

  • Our work for the Lord is quite often hidden.

Al Mohler told a gathering of preachers that “product envy” is something of a vocational hazard for ministers.

creamWe envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It’s because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. But they get to see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? …We would love to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We wish that we could statistically mark the kind of impact that our sermons have. But, we do not have that sight. The work we do is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident. 

And so Paul told Timothy to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), when you can see the results, and when you can’t.  As a church historian, Carl Trueman is often asked about how the church should respond to the difficulties and decline that it faces in the west these days.  And he says –

As long as I live I will still be baptizing people, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. …The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  …In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ… and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The tomb is still empty…

  • And so, while our work for the Lord both as Christians and as a church is always going to be imperfect and unfinished, and quite often hidden, it is never going to be done in vain.

boxThe word “vain” means worthless, wasted, of little or no consequence. In I Corinthians 15 Paul talked about how some thought that the Gospel’s offer of salvation was vain (2), and that his preaching of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was in vain (14), and that their faith in it was vain (14). And then in verse 58, at the climax of Paul’s whole argument in I Corinthians, he said that their work for the Lord, seemingly so compromised and insignificant, was nevertheless not in vain because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and the future is in His hands. He who has begun this good work in you – and through you – will bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

 

Recently I heard a preacher reference a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf by Niggle.” “Niggle was a painter.  Not a very successful one,” it begins.

grenn“He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of the dewdrops on its edges. [And] Yet Niggle wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.”  He tried to paint this tree, but it always seemed to him to be “wholly unsatisfactory.” And then one day, before his painting of his tree was finished, Niggle was called away.  He was gone for years.  And when the decision was being made about his return someone in authority said, “He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own.  He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake.”  When Niggle was finally allowed to go home again, he found his bicycle right where he’d left it when he’d been called away, and he rode it down the old path to where his home had always been. Rounding a familiar corner, an unfamiliar shadow came between Niggle and the sun.  “Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished… all the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had the time… [all of them] exquisite leaves… [And] Niggle gazed at the tree, and then he slowly lifted his arms and opened them wide.  ‘It’s a gift! He said.”

green

And so it is…

 

 

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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Continued)

snow

 Reflections at the end of a 20 Year Ministry
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As I have been up packing books and sorting out papers in preparation for the move of my church office home, I have had plenty of time to remember and reflect on the ground that we’ve been covered together in these last 20 years, and I am sharing some of the highlights this week in my blog. This certainly isn’t everything that these last 20 years have been about, but here are some of the things that are closest to my heart, in no particular order.

  • The Leaders

In my first full-time church ministry back in Idaho in the summer of 1974 I heard a guest speaker at a church conference say that the difference between churches are their leaders, and that a church will never rise above the vision and passion of those leaders. Well, here 44 years later I fully understand the truth of these statements. Northway has long been gifted with skilled and visionary leaders. The Elders, Diaconate, Ministry Chairs, Trustees, and Executive Committees that I have had the privilege of working with over these past 20 years have been among the finest Christians I have ever known. You have consistently blessed me and this church with your commitments, and you have kept faith with the part of God’s purpose that has been placed in our hands as a community of faith. “Well done Thou good and faithful servants.”  

  • The Communion of the Saints

The closing scene of the movie “Places in the Heart” shows a communion service taking place in a small country church and all of the characters from the story – the living and the dead – are gathered there in the pews as the trays of bread and cup are being passed.  The doctrine of the Communion of the Saints refers to the way that the church exists in two dimensions at once across time – those Christians who are alive on earth right here and now in this present moment, and those Christians who have died and are now alive in God’s nearer presence.  Hymn #654 in the Chalice Hymnal is based on a poem that was written by Frederick Hosmer in 1882 –

I cannot think of them as dead, who walk with me no more;
along the path of life I tread they are but gone before…

And still their silent ministry within my heart hath place,
as when on earth they walked with me, and met me face to face…

Their lives are made forever mine; what they to me have been
has left henceforth its seal and sign engraven deep within…

Mine are they by an ownership nor time nor death can free;
for God hath given to love to keep its own eternally…

In my mind and heart I see the faces of all those dear Northway members who are no longer present with us physically, but who remain alive and dynamically present with us still. As St. Augustine put it, “we never lose those we love when we trust them to the God whose love we never lose.”

  • The Ordinations

By my count there have been 12 Northway people ordained to Christian ministry in the past 20 years, there is 1 person who is currently scheduled to be ordained in May, and there are 2 people who are currently in the ordination process. 15 men and women have gone out, or soon will go out into lives of Christian ministry from the membership of this congregation in the last 20 years! That’s a remarkable record, and I am grateful for each one of these servants we have had a hand in shaping for ministry.

  • The Ministerial Team

From Richard English, Marilyn Dickson, and Rod Fisher when I first got here in 1997 to Mark Bender, Barry Preston, and Megan Turner today, I have been blessed with the best ministerial partners anybody could ever ask for.  And in-between then and now – Jack Arrington, Rochelle Richards, Lea McCracken, Micah James, Shari Sims, Jennie Churchman, J.T. Tucker, Casey Tanguay, Jamie Plunkett, Cheryl Scramuzza, Mike Johnston, George Patterson, Leslie Irwin, Zena McAdams, Kristal Seid, Regina Franklin-Basye, Ruby Henry, Dana Lobaugh, Casey McCullough, Bill Morgan, John O’Neal, and Justin West have all shared part of this journey with me.  I respect each one of these people deeply and honor their gifts and graces greatly.  What joy is mine to have labored in the Vineyard beside each one of them.  Of special note is Margaret Mulvey-Claiborne who was at the organ when I arrived in 1997 and who will be at the organ after this Sunday when I am finished.  Thank-you my dear and talented friend.

                           

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