What Determines a Church’s Direction? Memory or Imagination?

…he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).

Huntingtown United Methodist Church needs both. I have served churches that were planted in the late 1800s, so I understand the power and value of memory. Memory shows a church how they thrived and grew in the past. Many ministries continue because of the powerful memories associated with them.

But if memory is the default position of HUMC, we will lean heavily upon the familiar and predictable, rather than take bold new steps.  This is sad and ironic, as church memories tell stories of how past leaders once pushed past the limitations of their memories, and imagined new ways to be faithful to Christ in a changing world.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_Question_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_questionnent_Jésus)_-_James_Tissot

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot

Jesus confronted a religious system steeped in powerful memories. He honored tradition, but he demonstrated the power of imagination by rethinking traditional beliefs and practices.

  • Worship was not just about observing Sabbath rules, but offering one’s self completely to God all week.
  • Freedom from sin was not just a matter of following rules, but making sure one’s heart was right with God and neighbors.
  • Traditions can honor God, but not if they keep us from demonstrating love, mercy and compassion.
  • Loving neighbors is not just about those near to us and similar to us. Our neighbors are also those who are different, and can make us comfortable.

While writing my annual pastor’s report to Church Conference I examined my work as a pastor, and wondered what could happen if we pushed past the limitations of our memories and used our imaginations. What is a person or group at HUMC…

  • sees the needs of one of our missional partners, develops a passion for that ministry and forms a team that creates a bolder vision for that missional partnership?
  • sees a homeless person, is overwhelmed with compassion and senses a call to start an outreach ministry to the poor at HUMC?
  • looks at our church building and envisions improvements that create a welcoming environment, enhances our ministries and communicates our mission?
  • looks at the empty house next door and envisions a food pantry or a youth center to increase our outreach?
  • drives by a neighborhood with homes in disrepair, and forms mission teams that make a local impact?

These are a few examples of ways I can imagine HUMC fulfilling Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and answer our call to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” (Matthew 28:19-20; Micah 6:8).

What keeps us from doing these things?  In my Church Conference report I delved into many reasons why we struggle to walk by faith and not by sight.

Our first step towards new ministry and vitality begins with inviting the Holy Spirit  to inhabit our hearts and minds, and give us God-sized imaginations.

(to be continued)

Posted in christianity, Old Testament, religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Illness, Pain and Reviving the Church

“My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

job_and_his_friends__repin__1869_b

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin

God does powerful work through small things. But there is an important difference between small and shrinking; between passion for people and ties to tradition. I see 2 barriers (though not the only ones) to reviving one’s soul and reviving a church: one is spiritual and one is physical/emotional:

  1. Churches panic and look for quick fixes, rather than enter a season of repentance, spiritual discernment, and greater faithfulness. (More on this in a couple of weeks)
  2. People are overwhelmed by sickness, injury and pain. Doctor visits, medical treatments, hospital stays, new medications, grief, loss, distress. They all bring suffering, test one’s faith, and limit one’s ability to serve.

I’m preaching on The Bible and Chronic Illness (#2), and sharing from pastoral and personal experience.  I was diagnosed with Epilepsy when I was in 5th grade, and have been on medication ever since. Like all disorders and diseases, the body resists medication, so other treatment options are considered.

When I was in 18 years old, I went from being passionate about Christ and His church, to being disappointed with God. Doesn’t God heal? I wrestled with this biblically, which is the basis for my 2 part sermon series. Here’s an important passage from Paul that helped me, can help you and our congregation:

“I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited. I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

We don’t know what Paul’s illness was, but he suffered from a chronic condition. It was severe enough for him to plead with God to take it away. People with a chronic illness will have days like that.

Paul’s illness hampered his ministry but not his passion and vision. He traveled and planted churches when he could, and wrote pastoral letters when he couldn’t.
Churches supported him and his ministry when his health failed (Galatians 4:14). Churches thrived, the Gospel spread like wildfire and the world was transformed.

Illness is a reality that affects us all. It can keep us from functioning the way we want, but it doesn’t have to keep us from having a passion for Christ and a vision for his church.

Posted in christianity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What do people know about us?

My current sermon series on Daniel ends with the most popular story about Daniel: The Lion’s Den. The retelling of the story tends to focus on what stands out the most: spending the night with flesh eating felines, and waking up to talk about it. The takeaway: God delivered Daniel, and God delivers us.

Daniel's Prayer 1865 by Sir Edward Poynter 1836-1919

Daniel’s Prayer, Sir Edward Poynter

That’s certainly true, but it’s not the main point. The most important part of the story is Daniel’s witness, his testimony. What did people (especially his enemies) know about Daniel?

  1. He was prosperous. (enemies hate that).
  2. He was a man of integrity.
  3. He would not compromise his faith.

His enemies observed these, and tried to use #3 against him. They manipulated King Darius to outlaw all prayers except those directed to him (vv.6-9).

How did his enemies know that Daniel would not compromise his faith, but continue to outwardly express his faith? See 6:10:

Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 

Daniel’s prayer was not just a single act of righteous disobedience, he was just doing what he always did. What did people know about Daniel’s faith? They knew he was dedicated to daily prayer, because he did it publicly. They knew that he would not compromise his faith, despite the cost.

What do people know about us?

Do people ask us to pray for them, because they know we are dedicated to prayer? Do people ask us questions about Jesus, because they know we are dedicated to reading Scripture? Do people see our church as having programs that benefit its members, or as a people that exists for the sake of our community and the world?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tree Surgeons, Jesus and the Church

Our last parsonage had a huge grove of trees in the backyard, several of which had grown to about 25 feet.  We loved their shade and the privacy they provided during the summer. In the fall, however, the trustees noticed they needed attention. The branches were getting thick and rubbing against each other and there were quite a few dead limbs.

I know virtually nothing about trimming trees, so I was glad when the trustees had a tree surgeon inspect the trees. He told us that some posed a safety risk and needed to be removed. Other trees were basically healthy, but they needed pruning. Many trees were no longer beautiful, no longer producing fruit, and served no useful purpose.

Jesus uses a similar analogy for our churches:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2)

Christ_the_True_Vine_icon_(Athens,_16th_century)

Christ the True Vine, 16th Century Greek Icon

There are negative and positive aspects of this passage, although both involve painful processes.

As hard as it might be to admit, disciples and their churches are not immune to even the worst kinds of sin and evil. Paul writes these words to churches, not to ‘sinners’:  “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”  (Colossians 3:5). Like dead branches on a dying tree, these must be removed completely. Prayer, fasting, seeking forgiveness and repentance are not purely negative: they help a church thrive.

Like a tree with dying branches, churches must go through a process of “pruning their programs” in order to thrive. Programs and events that effectively served the community for years eventually become internal traditions. While they have powerful memories attached to them, they no longer serve the mission of the church in a changing world.

The concept of pruning is clear in John 15. God calls us to prune that which does not bear fruit. We need to understand the effectiveness of our ministries both in hard numbers and spiritual impact, and then be willing to prune thoughtfully so we can focus our time, talents and treasure on what matters most to God.

We might agonize over how this might hurt the church and its people. Whether it be our personal habits or church programs, pruning is a painful process. So, we must remember 2 things: 1) God is the gardener (or the tree surgeon); 2) Removing old branches makes it possible for beautiful, useful and fruitful branches to grow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are Christians Persecuted?

I’ve been preaching a series titled “Leaving Good Things Behind.” Acts shows us that for a church to thrive, Christians must even leave good ministries

094

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Gustave Dore

behind. The apostles delegated their ministry for widows to 7 men so they could focus on preaching. One of them, Stephen, was killed on the job. He spoke out against the authorities and became the 1st Christian martyr.

On May 11, Vice President Mike Pence warned a crowd of Liberty University (my alma mater) students to prepare to be shunned for their faith: “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian, but things are different now.”

Globally, Christians face incredible discrimination. In North Korea and many Muslim-governed countries, Christians risk imprisonment and death for their faith. The Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, was exiled, and many Christians are still persecuted by ISIS. American Christians with a global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as a part of a persecuted people even today.

American society grows more secular, while public symbols of Christianity disappear from the public square. Christian influence has disappeared from public education.  We hear stories of college faculty shaming Christian students, zoning laws that restrict building expansion, tensions between Christian values and public policy, and of course the war on Christmas.

Films like God’s Not Dead and Persecution, and books like Todd Starnes’ God Less America and the Left Behind series reinforce this American persecution complex.

But American Christians should not confuse their gradual loss of political influence and privilege with persecution. They still receive deference that is taken for granted: holidays in the academic calendar, prayers at presidential inaugurations, and the right to a hearing when unfairly treated.

The New Testament tells stories of actual martyrs who did not play the victim: As Paul died in prison he writes to a young preacher, “share with me in the sufferings for the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:7-8). When Peter and John were beaten for their faith, they “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Stephen showed boldness and compassion as he became the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).

Jesus did not promise a life of fairness and privilege, so let’s not complain when we don’t get it.

Posted in christianity, Christmas, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are There Zombies in the Church?

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Several years ago a parishioner recommended that I watch The Walking Dead. I found season 1 mildly entertaining, but could never understand why there was a 2nd season. How many stories can you tell about people who think they are alive, but are actually dead?

Jesus didn’t use the word “zombie,” but he seemed to have a category for religious people who do not realize they are spiritually dead.

henry-ossawa-tanner-xx-study-for-nicodemus-visiting-jesus-xx-private-collection

Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Jesus has a late night conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who recognizes that Jesus was sent by God (John 3:2). Rather than affirm Nicodemus for his insight, Jesus bluntly tells him that he is spiritually dead and needs to be brought to life (John 3:3). Pharisees were the most religious group at that time. They took prayer and purity very seriously. Nicodemus was not just a member of this group – he was a leader. And Jesus says he is a walking, religious dead person.

This isn’t the only time Jesus used this category.  He used it when he spoke with a would be disciple in Luke 9:59-60, and to describe the prodigal son in Luke 15:24. They were spiritually dead, and needed to be brought to life.

Nicodemus devoutly practiced his faith and taught other people how to, but he was among the walking, religious dead. He didn’t need to improve his religion, he needed new life. He needed to be born again.

We can be a faithful Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran or Catholic and still be among the walking, religious dead. To those, Jesus would say, “You don’t need a new or improved religion, you need a new life. You need to be born again.”

The prophet Ezekiel provides a wonderful image of becoming spiritually alive (36:26-27):

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws  (36:26-27).

The heart of stone is unresponsive to spiritual truth, the need for repentance, the power of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. In the new birth, God replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  Our dead, spiritual boredom with Christ is replaced by a heart that responds to spiritual truth, experiences the healing power of Jesus, and lives a life that glorifies God.

Since the way we experience all of this is through faith, the walking religious dead are invited, in the name of Jesus and by the power of his Spirit, to receive Christ as the sin-forgiving, life transforming Lord of their lives.

Posted in christianity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is the Resurrection Ridiculous?

Many people think so.

Artwork in the 18th century reflected the growing skepticism towards miracles. Halos and angels began to gradually disappear. Only what can proved by reason or scientific experience can be trusted. While there is openness to spirituality, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is still a hard thing to swallow, even for many Christians.

It always has been, and understandably so.

rafael_paulus_athene_grt

Paul in Athens, Raphael

The 1st Christians weren’t illiterate peasants who in 33 AD were so gullible that they didn’t know that corpses don’t rise from the dead. Mary Magdalene assumes that Jesus’ body was moved (John 20:15). Most people continued to believe that (Matthew 28:13-15). The disciples dismissed her story as nonsense (Luke 24:11).

Even when the disciples believed, skepticism persisted. Religious authorities were horrified by the idea (Acts 4:2). Greek intellectuals mocked Christians for believing it (Acts 17:32). Festus, the regional governor, thought people were insane for believing it (Acts 26:24).

One reason I believe the disciples’ claim about a bodily resurrection is their disbelief – and that of their critics. There was nothing to gain from preaching such a ridiculous message: they paid a terrible price when they proclaimed the resurrection. Most of the disciples suffered and died for their beliefs.

In the end, Peter challenges each one of us to “judge for yourselves” (Acts 4:19). Not just if the resurrection is believable, but if Jesus is a resurrected Lord and Savior. If we truly accept this, it should change everything about our lives, just like the original skeptics.

Posted in christianity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment