Thursday, September 27, 2007

Do We Measure Up?

A most amazing descriptionof the early church is given in Acts 4.32: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet and it was distributed to each as any had need."

The spirit of benevolence exhibited by the first Christians is truly extraordinary. Their focus was not directed toward themselves, but toward others--the poor, the hungry, the ill, the homeless, and the lost. Throughout the book of Acts, the church is seen in action, helping those in need, caring for those in difficult circumstances, and using their resources--all of their resources--to ease the suffering of those they encountered.

The spirit of benevolence exhibited in the early church is refelcted in their sense of mission. The first Christians were fully aware of the lost condition of the world about them. The compassion that motivated them to care for the poor led them to reach out to those stricken with spiritual poverty--those estranged from God and distant from his grace. Indeed within a generation the Gospel of Peace had been carried from the hill country of Judea to the hills of Rome and beyond.

If Luke were writing the story of our modern times, would he portray the church as a people of compassion, motivated to addess the needs, not of themselves, but of the poor and lost? Is our concern for the world about us, or are we focused on bringing comfort to our own lives? Consider: we have built nice, comfortable buildings used as places of assembly--indeed many such buildings grace our communities--yet many around the world are left to worship with much less comfort; and worse, many will go to sleep tonight without the benefit of warmth or security. Consider: we employ preachers and pay them handsomely--indeed in our communities several "professional" ministers are at work--yet much of the world is left without the presence of missionaries and proclaimers of the Gospel. Conder: we collect thousands upon thousands of dollars each year, money earmarked for the service of God's Kingdom, yet a large percentage of the collection is used for ourselves; and when we have been taken care of, we help the needy and lost with the leftovers.

I ask again: If Luke were writing the story of the modern church, would he portray us as a people of compassion, motivated to address the needs, not of ourselves, but of the poor and lost? Is our concern for the world about us, or are we focused on bringing comfort to our own lives.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

God Can Do A Lot

A mother, wishing to encourage her young son's progress at the piano, bought tickets for a performance by a world-renowned pianist. When the night arrived, they found their seats near the front of the concert hall and eyed the majestic Steinway waiting on the stage.

Soon the mother found a friend to talk to, and the boy slipped away. When eight o'clock arrived, the spotlights came on, the audience quieted, and only then did they notice the boy on the stage sitting at the piano, innocently picking out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

His mother gasped, but before she could retrieve her son, the master appeared on the stage and quickly moved to the keyboard. "Don't quit--keep playing," he whispered to the boy.

Leaning over, the great pianist reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part. Soon his right are reached around the other side, encircling the child, to add a running obbligato. Together, the old master and the young novice held the crowd mesmerized.

In our lives, unpolished though we may be, it is the Master who surrounds us and whispers in our ear, time and time again, "Don't quit--keep playing." And as we do, he augments and supplements until a work of amazing beauty is created.

So, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the needs of those in our community and world, let us have faith that God will take what we can offer and make it significant. No gift and no effort we make, no matter how small it may seem, is worthless. With the little we offer, God can do a lot.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dear Child

Dear Child,

I gave you life, but I cannot live it for you. I can teach you things, but I cannot make you learn. I can give you directions, but I cannot always be there to lead you. I can allow you freedom, but cannot account for it. I can take you to church, but I cannot make you believe.

I can teach you right from wrong, but I cannot always decide for you. I can buy you beautiful clothes, but I cannot make you lovely inside. I can offer you advice, but I cannot accept it for you. I can give you love, but I cannot force it upon you. I can teach you to be a friend, but I cannot make you one.

I can teach you to share, but I cannot make you unselfish. I can teach you respect, but I cannot force you to show honor. I can grieve about your report card, but I cannot take your tests for you. I can advise you about friends, but I cannot choose them for you.

I can teach you about sex, but I cannot keep you pure. I can tell you about the facts of life, but I cannot build your reputation. I can tell you about alcohol, but I cannot say "No" for you. I can warn you about drugs, but I cannot stop you from using them.

I can tell you about lofty goals, but I cannot achieve them for you. I can teach you kindness, but I cannot force you to be gracious. I can warn you about sin, but I cannot determine your morals.

I can love you as my child, but I cannot place you in God's family. I can pray for you, but I cannot make you walk with God. I can teach you about Jesus, but I cannot make him your Savior. I can teach you to obey, but I cannot make Jesus your Lord. I can tell you how to live, but I cannot give you eternal life.

These lessons and choices I place with you for you to accept and decide. Love, Dad.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Church In a World of Change

Another great picture. I'm not sure where I found it.

We are in the midst of a rapidly changing culture. Virtually every aspect of life has seen dramatic change. In a relatively short period of time, a century, we have gone from traveling on horseback or in buggies to riding aboard supersonic jetliners and contemplating interplanetary travel. In the past hundred years we have gone from communicating via telegraph and the Pony Express to conversing via high-speed DSL and instant messaging. We have gone from crude kaleidoscopes and phonographs to HDTV and virtual reality.

How does this change affect the practice of faith in this postmodern era? This question is being contemplated throughout this country (and world) and is the source of much contention and confusion. It should never be argued that the bedrock principles of faith should ever change with the passing of time and the transformation of culture--a faith in God and an obedience to his Word should remain a constant in a sea of change, but the expression of our faith and obedience may change over the course of time.

For instance, Jesus demonstrated selfless service to his disciples by washing their feet on the night he was betrayed, denied, and condemned to die. He commanded his disciples to go and do likewise, but does foot washing remain the proper expression of selfless service in 21st Century America? And the early church greeted one another with holy kisses and not handshakes and hugs, sang to one another in antiphonal chants and not four-part harmony, often assembled for worship on what we would identify as Saturday evening (for the, the beginning of the first day of the week), and baptized converts only in cool, running water (and the converts usually entirely disrobed for their baptism, by the way), often with three successive immersions and not one. Do the differences mean that we have strayed from the proper path? No, not at all, we simply live in a new age and culture, a time when the espressions of faith and obedience have evolved into actions germane to our own culture.

I am not suggesting that every new thing is a proper exercise and expression of faith, for certianly there are corrupt forms of worship, service, and ecclesiastical practice that must be challenged. I am asking for an open and fair mind as we consider the changes in our culture and in the church. Let us seek the greater good of honoring and praising God instead of condemning what is personally uncomfortable and bolstering our personal agendas.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I Guess She Got Her Wish

Is this picture for real?
Here's on old preacher's story I ran across years ago. I'm not sure of the source. It is sad, but it makes a profound point.

In October 1993, in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts, police found the corpse of an old woman on her kitchen floor. This was no ordinary discovery--the woman had died approximately four years earlier. Police speculated that she died at age 73 of natural causes. That's when her bank transactions ended.

How can someone be so cut off from relationships that no one even notices when she dies?

To some extent, it was a mistake. According to the Associated Press, four years earlier, neighbors had called authorities when they sensed something might be wrong. When the police contacted the neighbor's brother, he said she had gone into a nursing home. Police told the postal service to stop delivering mail. One neighbor paid her grandson to cut the grass because the place was looking run down. Another neighbor had the utility company come and shut off the water when a pipe froze, broke, and sent water spilling out the door.

To a great extent, however, it was not a mistake.

One friend from the past said, "She didn't want anyone bothering her at all. I guess she got her wish, but it's awfully sad."

Her brother said the family hadn't been close since their mother died in 1979. He added, "Someone should have noticed something before now."

The woman had lived in her house in this middle-class neighborhood for 40 years, but none of her neighbors knew her. "My heart bleeds for her," said the woman who lives across the street, "but you can't blame a soul. If she saw you out there, she never said hello to you."

As this neighborhood shows, a spirit of community only results when all of us reach out to one another. Relationships take effort.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Great Quote

Great photo.

I love this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Most Overlooked Passage

"John answered, 'Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.' But Jesus said to him, 'Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you'" (Luke 9.49-50).

Is this the most overlooked passage in the Bible? I belive that a case can be made that it is one of the most forgotten passages in Scripture. The episode is brief, and this may contribute to the disregard shown it. The episode is challenging, and perhaps this is a more likely reason it is overlooked.

What are the implications of this short encounter between John and Jesus? Do we dismiss the story as incidental and not worthy of much attention? Or do we see this brief exchange between Jesus and a disciple as a teachable moment filled with some far-reaching principle?

"We tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us," John complains. "Do not stop him," Jesus responds, "for whoever is not against you is for you."

Certainly too much can be read into this dialogue and our interpretation of it can be too extreme if not tempered with reason, but surely it offers us some advice on how to relate to others who act and speak in Jesus' name. Let's consider the implications.

Is Jesus condemning all criticism and ostracism of anyone who operates under the guise of Christianity? After all the agent of John's ire was "casting out demons in his name." What is meant by John's objection, "he does not follow with us"?

We are certainly expected and, I belive, obligated to counter false teaching, teaching that perverts the gospel and places the souls of people in peril, but we are to do so reluctantly and cautiously while making absolutely certain that the grounds of our objection to what we deem as false is secure and not based solely on our "own" sense of right and wrong. We can be too quick to judge, and we often judge others on the basis of what we feel is right or according to that which with we are personally comfortable. Our judgmetns are most often made according to our personal experiences and traditions, and so we are quick to condemn anything that is new, innovative, or different from our own practices.

Are not many of our criticisms of other religious people and groups focused on trivial matters, matters of opinion, and matters where we cannot quote chapter and verse with gravel-pounding authority? Yet are not the criticisms of false teachers in the New Testament always centered on bedrock theological principles--matters such as a proper understandaing of God the Father, Christ, and grace? Where are the controversies that are so prevalent today, controversies that are given so much of our focus today? Certainly the controversies of yesterday will differ from the controversies of today--the passing of time necessarily redefines the sources of conflict. Yet should we not take some guidance from the approach of Paul, Peter, james . . . and yes from Jesus? "Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Churches Are Getting Older

Churches are getting older. I am not commenting on the age of the physical structures we have built as our meeting places, but I am speaking of the growing percentage of gray-heads that make up the membership rolls of congregations throughout this country. I am not criticizing the great number of elder citizens among us, indeed I applaud them for their faithfulness. My criticism, in part, is directed at those of younger generations, those who are leaving the church in ever-growing numbers. If the trends continue, where will the church be in thirty years? Fifty years? One hundred years?

The trends toward an aging church membership can be explained in a number of ways. For one, it can be reasoned that the attrition of younger members is natural, people are more apt to stray in their youth, but many will return as they mature. For another, it can be reasoned that modern culture presents too many enticing alternatives to church participation. For yet another, it can be reasoned that the perceived hypocrisy and legalism of many Christians and churches is responsible for driving away large numbers of young people. I am certain that each of these factors has had an affect. However, when I consider the experiences of my life I know that there are resources to combat these and other factors of attrition.

Many of my closest childhood friends and I have remained faithful members of Christ's church. Yes, for the most part we grew up in Christian homes and had parents who insisted on placing a priority on things spiritual. (Unquestionably, the role of parents in the spiritual development of children, and the retention of those values into adulthood, is very important.) Yet, I belive we were exposed to a resource that was equally as effective at instilling in us a love for God that has carried on itno adulthood. We had the opportunity to belong to a large, active, and (above all) cpiritually-centered youth group.

In essence a youth group is a type of support group, a peer base that encourages proper behavior and spiritual development. Peer pressure, I belive, can be the single greatest hindrance to the spiritual development of a child, but it also can be the single greatest asset. Children, adolescents and young adults (those from the "Buster generation" and younger), particularly in our modern culture, possesses a pack mentality--they desire, indeed demand and need, social interaction and acceptance. Today's youth must have interaction with others who are of the same generation and possess similar values, interests, and abilities. A peer base that values and participates int he corrupt mores of modern culture will greatly hinder, if not destroy, the spiritual development of a young person, but a peer base that is Christ-focused will be invaluable in the maturation of an adult Christian.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Small Church

Preaching for a small congregation has enabled me to witness the aging of the church in a very direct way. Yes, many churches, regardless of size, even some large metropolitan congregations, are aging, but at a much slower, less-discernable, and less-threatening rate. This problem is particularly hard-hitting in small, rural churches, and we must address it.

The small church has many favorable strengths. Small churches tend to be more communal and more familial in nature. A member of a small congregation is more apt to feel "at home" with his fellow congregants. An air of intimacy is present in the small church that is not easily enjoyed or replicated in the large church, and this atmosphere of togetherness and closeness can greatly encourage the faithfulness of individuals. And small churches generally address conflict with in the congregation with greater swiftness and effectiveness than do larger churches.

Despite theie strengths, however, small churches have some very unfavorable weaknesses. These limitations have become even more glaring in an age when youth have so many distracting influences surrounding them. Small churches are usually not in a position to offer many opportunities and resources to enhance the spiritual development of their young people. For instance, the educational program of the small church is usually weighted to the adult population of the congregation--necessity may demand this. Classes are offered toi children and youth, but usually several ages and grades of kids are grouped into a single class, or classes have just a handful of students present at any meeting. Many factors are at play: a lack of facilities, a shortage of teachers, and, certainly, a lack of students.

Don't get me wrong, small churches can be effective at educating children and youth and helping to develope them into stong, mature Christians. I am only outlining some of the obstacles we face. These obstacles are real, but they can be managed and overcome. The situation in which small churches find themselves may often demand creative solutions. Because the ducational system of a small church cannot be tailored to specific age groups and grade levels, perhaps a comprehensive system of intergenerational ministry should be devised, where children and adults learn together. Perhaps a number of congregations in a city or area should join together to increase the pool of available opportunities and resources. Perhaps area-wide youth activities should be organized and promoted.

These thoughts are offered for your consideration, but they are meant to encourage action. Iask, if the trend of an aging church continues, where will the church be in thirty years? Fifty? One hundred?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


A child's love is like a whisper,
Given in little ways we do not hear;
But if you listen closely
It will be very clear.
They often do not say it loud
But in how they come to you--
Daddy, will you play with me?
Mommy, tie my shoe.
The many ways they tell you
Change as they grow--
Dad, I've made the team today!
Mom, I've got to go!
Pop, I need some money;
You see, there's . . .
This girl at school.
Mama, I met a boy today,
And, wow, I thinks he's so cool!
Dad, I've got something to tell you,
I think that she's the one.
Mom, he asked me to marry him,
Would you love him as your son?
Dad, I've got some news for you,
It's gonna be a boy!
Mom, I'm kind of scared of this,
Yet I'm filled with joy!
A child's love is like a whisper,
Given in little ways we do not hear.
But if you listen closely
It will be very clear.
They often do not say it loud
But in how they come to you--
Grandpa, will you play with me?
Grandma, tie my shoe?
It is never-ending,
A blessing from above.
Listen to the whispers
Of your child's love.

(Author Unknown)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Living Life with a Sense of Urgency

Do you live your life with a sense of urgency?

"Certainly," you might say, "I am constantly confronted with deadlines at work." Or, "My kids are always on the run. I'm always bringing them to school, to baseball practices, to piano recitals . . . it never seems to end." Or, "The bills are piling up . . . they have to be paid."

So yes, in a very pragmatic way we do live our lives with a sense of urgency. However, this is not the urgency that I inquire about with my question. I am speaking of spiritual urgency, the concept that the days of one's life are not limitless, and the recognition that millions and billions of men and women are engaged in a game of spiritual roulette, for they do not know God.

Are we concerned about the lost? This is the interrogative that lies at the heart of my question. Are we concerned that countless individuals--relatives, friends, neighbors, strangers--are living lives apart from the grace of Christ? Are we concerned that many die every day, these men and women who have not discovered the hope that comes from faithful living?

The quick response is, "Yes, I am concerned," but don't we live our life with this concern neatly tucked away, placed under a hundred other more pressing concerns and only to be remembered when the time is convenient? "The grass has to be mowed." "The bills have to be paid." "I'm going on vacation." And our excuses continue.

Don't we spend much of our time following the examples of the prient and the Levite, characters in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan? These men walked past a man in dire need of help, but for whatever reasons they did not stop. perhaps one reasoned that he had an appointment that could not wait. Perhaps one reasoned that another would soon pass by and render aid. Perhaps one reasoned that the man in need had brought his trouble upon himself and did not deserve the help of another.

Before we quickly condemen the priest and the Levite for their lack of concern and compassion, let us take a look inward. Have we not been guilty of similar sins? Every day we encounter men and women who are in dire need of help, perhaps with some physical need and certainly with a spiritual need. How often do we pass them by, offering an excuse to justify our inaction?

Again, I ask, do you live your life with a sense of urgency?

Monday, September 3, 2007

An Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11.19

I was asked recently about 1 Corinthians 11.19 and what the verse meant.

This verse has been the subject of some debate through the centuries. It has been translated in these ways: "Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you who are genuine" (NRSV); ""no doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval" (NIV); and, "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you."

Some argue that this verse validates the existence of divisions within the Christian community, and even promotes sectarianism, the move to isolate oneself from those deemed heretical or wrong-headed. Divorced from the context of 1 Cortinthians 11 and Paul's message both before and after, this verse can perhaps be manipulated to promote such teaching, but if it is to be considered within its proper context, then it seems that this interpretation if far from right.

In this section of his letter, and indeed for most of 1 Corinthians, Paul has been appealing for unity, humility, and mutual love and cooperation among the believers at Corinth. In the immediate conext of 1 Corinthians 11.17ff., Paul is addressing conflicts in the worship assembly, most notably abuses in the observance of the Lord's Supper. He exhorts the Corinthians church to partake of communion in a worthy manner; that is, they are to be humble and not arrogant, seeking the benefit of the other and not of self, and to promote unity and goodwill and not disunity and discord. Paul is not calling on them to divide from one another and to isolate themselves with those who are likeminded and theologically correct.

In his statement in verse 19, Paul is simply acknowledging the fact that there will be divisions (v. 18) and dissensions/disagreements (v. 19) among them, to some degree and measure, for divisiveness is a human condition. Paul is saying the improper behavior of some (note, Paul's focus is on abuses of behavior rather than understanding) will naturally highlight the genuine and pure actions of others. Consider the words of Richard Oster: "In light of Paul's instense dissatisfaction with some of the Christians in this section, it is best to understand this verse as reflecting mild irony (and perhaps sarcasm). The very carnal disposition that characterizes some of these Christians serves as the catalyst for making evident those who are pleasing to God."

In the climate of potential divisiveness, even greater than that witnessed in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is calling on the church to make every effort to remain unified. It is important to note that in a profound way this whole letter looks toward chapter 13, the chapter we often call the "Love Chapter." Love is the greater gift and is to be the aim of every Christian. When we love one another, our dissensions and divisions can be worked through and healed in humility and spiritual maturity.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Understanding Sacrifice

A little boy had a sister who needed a blood transfusion. The doctor explained that the sister had the same disease the boy had recovered from two years earlier. Her only chance for survival was a transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease. Since the two children had the same rare blood type, the boy was the ideal donor.

"Would you give your blood to Mary?" the doctor asked.

Johnny hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled, and said, "Sure, for my sister."

Soon the two children were wheeled into the hospital room--Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and healthy. Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned.

As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny's smile faded. He watched the blood flow through the tube. With ordeal almost over, his voice, slightly shaky, broke the silence, "Doctor, when do I die?"

Only then did the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he'd agreed to donate his blood. He'd thought giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his life. In that brief moment, Johnny had made his great decision.