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What About the War on Christmas?

What About the War on Christmas?

A war on Christmas
Image components from Openclipart.org

Each year I’m saddened and yes, annoyed, by the supposed war on Christmas and responses to it. Every time someone can’t set up a manger scene on public land, or is even forced to share the public space with other groups, there’s an outcry. It’s a war on Christmas! Never mind that there are, in almost every case, plenty of churches nearby, where such a scene could be placed with at least as much visibility.

Or someone is wished “Happy Holidays!” at the store, and is offended that it’s not “Merry Christmas!” Oh the agony! And yes, it’s quite possible that the checkout person at your grocery store was instructed by management to say “Happy Holidays!” Having worked in retail, I know that I was constantly instructed in what I was to say when answering the phone, greeting customers, and most especially when taking their money following the sale. Some of the stuff I had to say was really annoying, too.

But businessmen make these rules for their employees based on their perception of customer service. They are not religious decisions, and they are not actually doing you harm. You can say Merry Christmas all you want, but “he who has the gold makes the rules,” so if you work for the company, you follow the rules.

If I owned a retail outlet, I would instruct my employees that unless they know who they’re talking to, Happy Holidays would be the appropriate greeting, and I would ask—and expect—them to be sensitive to each customer. This is not because I don’t believe in public witnessing or prayer. Just yesterday I encountered a lady in Walmart who needed my help getting a large back of cat food off the shelf. We chatted for a few minutes, and then we prayed together right there in the aisle. Nobody stopped us, because we were the customers. I knew before I suggested it that she would be open to prayer simply because I listened to her first. So we prayed in the aisle beside the cat food.

Shoving a Merry Christmas in someone’s face is not likely to do much for witnessing. Here in the United States people already know this is a majority Christian nation. The form of your holiday greeting doesn’t make you special. If, on the other hand, you make a scene about what sort of greeting you receive at the store, you provide a very bad witness.

When you take on the title “Christian,” you bear the name of Jesus, the anointed one. You are to be Christ, the presence of God, in the world. When you make a scene over not getting your way, you do not provide a good witness to the anointed One. Rather, you make Him seem small, selfish, petty, and rude. You may, in fact, be taking God’s name in vain. Rather than making someone more interested in the Jesus you serve, you may well be driving them away. The clerk in that store may herself be a Christian who is merely following the rules of her job as she should. And you’re going to make her life more difficult because of that? Really? Do you think the one who was led as a lamb to the slaughter yet didn’t open his mouth is pleased with that?

The problem is that there is a difference between witnessing to Christ and witnessing to our own importance. What is the one thing that having a creche on the grounds of city hall does that having one in front of our church does not? It demonstrates our power. They would both witness to the story, always assuming that the right message is conveyed. But the one on the grounds of city hall tells people that we’re in charge and can do things the way we want to.

There is a way in which Christians should be involved in the culture war. That is by living in a Christlike manner and bearing the name of Jesus as we do it. That is a gospel proclamation, by word, deed, and sign. Our importance, our position, and our pleasures would take a back seat to loving each person and making sure that’s evident.

The original story of Christmas was one of giving, giving up rank and privileges, giving up power, becoming subject to the worst of the worst, and then loving, loving, and loving some more. I’m afraid there has been a real war on Christmas, but it’s all over.

Here in the United States, we lost.

Toward a Strategy of Worship

Toward a Strategy of Worship

Credit: Openclipart.com
Credit: Openclipart.com

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about strategy in connection with Christian living. It started when I was invited to preach the Sunday after Veterans Day, which was also the Sunday after the election. I used the first chapter of Colossians to talk about our identity and the means that we, as Christians, have to impact our culture. We have an identity in Christ, an authority in Christ, and a mission in Christ. The key is “in Christ.”

There are some keys to thinking strategically about anything. First, you have to know what it is you are trying to accomplish. Second, you need to know what resources are available. Third, you have to know what limitations there are in how those resources are applied. Use of resources without reference to purpose is largely waste. Anything accomplished is random.

I’ve noted over the years that one can tell whether a church is alive and active by asking a couple of members what the mission of the church is. This can apply both generally (the Christian mission of the Gospel Commission), and specifically (what is the mission of this church). Tactics is more specific and local. Individual tactics can be successful in a strategic failure. This usually results from improperly planned overall strategy. To see some excellent application of tactics in a mission that was a strategic failure, watch the movie A Bridge Too Far. In my sermon I quoted Gen. Robert H. Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps from 1979-1983 who said, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

Here’s some tactical thinking about worship:

  • We had good attendance today for our special service. We should do that more often.
  • Lots of people complimented me on my sermon after the service. I must have done something right.
  • Some people walked out. We need to fix it.
  • If you didn’t like the service, it’s probably your attitude.
  • Worship’s about God, not about you. Forget about your desires.
  • I realize that nobody remembers what I say in my sermons even until next week, but I’m still preparing for the same sort of sermon next week.

I know the second to the last statement, “worship is about God” is repeatedly stated with great piety. I disagree however. Worship is certainly all about God, but it’s all about the worshipers as well, in that 100%-100% sense that orthodox theology brings. Usually “it’s all about God” is used as an excuse by people who are putting on a worship service (and I use putting on, in the sense of a performance intentionally), and doing so badly. It’s there excuse for leaving the worshipers behind. I don’t like “I have to be fed” or “I need music that I like” any better. All of these are narrowly focused and frequently selfish in orientation. In all cases they’re very much tactical. Did we get what we wanted out of this week’s service?

Our starting point for worship must be to ask what worship is. Let me quote Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World:

… But this [cultic] is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It means an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It means also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. (p. 21, Nook edition)

There is a function of the gathering of the saints in worship, but worship does not occur exclusively in this “worship service.” There is a purpose in our gathering, which is to constitute and reconstitute ourselves as a community ready to be Christ in the world (our identity in Christ), to understand the reality of what Christ has done through his death and resurrection and how we are incorporated in that (our authority in Christ), and the empowering and impetus to carry that result back out into the world. (I highly commend Alexander Schmemann’s work, whether or not you are a fan of Orthodox theology. For the Life of the World is a powerful little book. I may develop some of these ideas further on this blog, but for now I’m just assuming them due to space limitations.)

So at the starting point of our search for a strategy of worship is to realize that it is not a teaching event, or a singing event, nor is it necessarily a ritual event. It may be partly all of those things, but as long as we don’t consider what our real goals are, why we gather for this event, we may carry out every worship service over “a bridge too far.”

Here are some things to consider, I think:

  1. How do we gather the people together? Questions of music, format, buildings, PowerPoint presentations, pews, advertising, and so far can occur at this point, but all must be subordinated to the overall purpose. And we might want to ask a more important question: Have the people who gather in the church experienced becoming the church? Have the experienced the presence of God? Have they sensed the reality of that community? If they experience none of these things, I believe that in time no matter how entertaining you may make the time, it will still be a failure.
  2. What do we do to make people a community? Schmemann works through the meaning of the liturgy, and I find his interpretation powerful. Yet I don’t think what he outlines is the only approach that can be authentic and successful.
  3. What do we do to engage people as a community with God? This would require many words. I’ll just leave the question open.
  4. What do we do that helps us leave empowered to be Christ in the world?

If we aren’t accomplishing these things I question whether we are truly engaged in full Christian worship. We may be taking stabs at it. We may be doing a great job getting across the bridge that’s in front of us, but are we becoming the body of Christ?

I think our general failure is made evident by the way in which we depend on Caesar’s methods to accomplish cultural goals. We sense that our witness to Jesus Christ is not accomplishing what we believe we need to see. Perhaps we need to reconsider whether our witness to Jesus as the Anointed One is genuine and whether our activities on a Sunday morning are more about keeping the church calendar moving than about being Christ in the world.

What do you think?

Remembering Dad – 10 Years Later

Remembering Dad – 10 Years Later

Dad on graduation from medical school
Dad on graduation from medical school

Ten years ago my father passed away. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was asked to provide the eulogy. I rarely use a prepared text when preaching but in this case I thought that my emotions might interfere so I did.

I wanted to post it today in honor of dad 10 years after his homegoing, but I couldn’t find the file. I’m a pack rat about files, so that surprised me. Thanks to the help of my sister Betty, my mother, my sister-in-law Aydah, and my brother Robert (especially!), the file was found.

I thought of posting it at the time, but there was too much emotion involved. Now I think it’s right.

I am a privileged man, privileged to have parents who loved me, provided for me, encouraged me, and provided a good example for me. The word “privilege” is used a lot now, but privilege shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Nor should it be denied. My privilege gives me a duty to share, to help make the lives of others more privileged. Often we take the things that we have received through no action of our own and we take them as a way to feel better than others, more special. Instead, I believe our privileges give us greater responsibilities.

Dad was a person who shared and helped make the lives of others better. It is that example that I remember daily. There are many people whose lives are better because they encountered my father. That’s what we should each hope.

Here are my words at his memorial. Note that I use the KJV which dad read all his life. He didn’t object to modern versions, but the KJV was an old friend.


Memorial Talk for Dr. Ray Neufeld, 10/10/06, by Henry Neufeld

We’re here to celebrate the life of Dr. Ray Neufeld, doctor, father, brother, grand and great-grandfather, uncle, missionary, and humble disciple of Jesus. Most of you have your own stories and your own memories. Much of the time I spent with dad was related to electronics and particularly to amateur radio. He had an ease with understanding electricity and radio that led him to eventually test for and receive an Amateur Extra class license.

He was involved in this hobby most of his life and used it in the mission field. Robert recalls receiving a call from an amateur operator in Tennessee when he and our sister Betty were attending Highland Academy, and the rest of the family was in Mexico. A number of people on our mission station had been poisoned, and he was seeking help from a poison center at Vanderbilt University. Somehow the message didn’t tell just who was poisoned, so Robert and Betty had to wait days for the mail to bring more detailed news.

Our cousin Lolita remembers waking up to the static as her father, Don Neufeld, tried to contact dad in Guyana.  With the price of long distance phone calls, it was one of the key ways we kept in touch with family at home.

Patty’s memories of the mission field include following the map and directing dad through villages in Mexico as he drove our station wagon and trailer over roads they were never intended to survive. All of us had times of getting as close to medical procedures as we could wish—for some of us much closer than we wanted. I recall standing on a chair and holding a flashlight on a surgical site after the power generator had failed in the midst of surgery.

Grandson Bob Neufeld (Robert’s son) tells of dad teaching him carpentry using the coping saw, and Robert remembers Dad making a model boat for him, though he wasn’t taught to use the tools.

But the key fact of dad’s life is one of faith. I searched for balance in this presentation between the stories of his life and his faith, but faith was central for him, and so I feel that it should be central here. I recall asking him when I was a teenager what would happen if he found out that there was no God, no heaven, and no hell. He told me that he hoped he would have lived his life in the same way he did.

And so I turn to the scriptures from which dad received strength, encouragement, and challenge daily as he went through life.  I’m going to read from Hebrews 11:32 through 12:3.

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: (33) Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, (34) Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. (35) Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: (36) And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:  (37)  They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (38) (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

(39) And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: (40) God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (12:1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, (2) Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (3)  For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.  — Heb 11:32-12:3

There are many scripture passages that we tend to read half-way, and this is one of them. I don’t mean that we stop our reading in the middle of a verse or of the chapter. Rather, I mean that the verse stays locked in the past, a time when wonderful men and women of faith did wonderful things for God, a time in which we believe, but do not participate. The Bible becomes a book filled with stories about people not very much like we are, doing things we can’t or won’t do.  It’s edifying reading, but when all is said and done, as the saying goes, a good deal more is said than is ever done!

But Hebrews 11 is intended as a continued story. How many of you remember the old Junior Guide stories that were continued from week to week? There was that annoying phrase at the end, “continued next week” that told you the current conflict would not be resolved today. You’d have to wait. It was supposed to make me anxious to come to Sabbath School again in order to get the next episode, but it really just annoyed me.

But Hebrews 11 has an even more annoying “continued next week” in it. Did you miss it?  Let’s listen to the beginning of chapter 12 again:

(12:1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. . . .

This is not a finished story, it continues. This is not a “them” story; it’s an “us” story. It is a story that each of us is to continue each and every hour of every day until that blessed moment when “this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

So today, as I talk about dad, I’m reporting to you a new passage in the ever growing story of faith. Time would truly fail me to tell of Dr. Ray Neufeld, who through faith:

  • Went to medical school, even though he did not know how he would pay for it
  • Faced death in Mexico in order to help the helpless and witness to his faith in his Lord
  • Answered God’s call in four countries on two continents
  • Brought four children into the world and provided for their education
  • Rejected the security of an assured pension and trusted in God for his retirement
  • Survived medical problems when he arrived in Guyana that would have sent others home in defeat, then spent seven years in service there
  • Saw the building of a new hospital and health conditioning center from the ground up, with some of the bricks and mortar placed there with his own hands
  • Saw the world change dramatically over his lifetime, but never lost his faith in the creator

Indeed, time truly would fail me, and you, should I tell you all of these stories. I just want to relate two in particular that tell me who my parents are—and this includes my mother, Myrtle Blabey Neufeld as one part of the “two-become- one.”

When my father had emergency surgery just after our arrival in Guyana, one of the church leaders, I forget who, came to them and began to discuss arrangements for a return to the United States.  He felt that surely with emergency surgery and some question at that time of dad’s very survival, they would be preparing to go home if nothing else for better medical care. Their response? “God sent us here to Guyana to do a mission, and we haven’t done it yet.” The subtitle could be from our scripture–”we’re going to run with patience the race that is set before us.”

Shortly after this my uncle Don Neufeld received a letter from my mother outlining the situation.  The letter was written at a time when dad’s condition had not yet been resolved. It was possible that he would not make it. Uncle Don spread that letter before the Lord and prayed over it, and while he was praying, the phone rang, and the surgeon who had operated on my father, who had just arrived back in the United States, was calling to tell him that my father had turned the corner, that he was not only getting better but was planning to stay and work.

And indeed our family did stay, for seven years. I was there with them as they called for the elders of the church, anointed my father with oil. I was a witness as he returned to work, and became the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital.

One doctor had said he would never work again, and would not live more than 10 more years. Now you can be witnesses that God doesn’t look at things the way people do—this funeral is happening 25 years late, by human reckoning.

Aren’t you thankful for God’s way of looking at things?

But there’s another part to all this. We don’t get to sit here in this beautiful chapel and think about the wonderful things that Dr. Ray Neufeld did, and look at them as things that are far away, impossible, unattainable. We might like to do that, but that’s not how it should work. We are also called to add to the story of faith.

I had to think about whether to call this a eulogy. I have a little habit of putting a Greek word into my sermons, not because it’s useful (it usually isn’t) but because people expect it of someone whose degrees are in Biblical languages.

Once I’ve done it, I can get on with the real stuff. So here’s your Greek word— eulogy comes from the Greek “eu” for good and “logos” for word or message. It’s a good message or a good report. But I don’t think that Dad would really be happy with a eulogy, a good report about him. He would not want to receive the glory.  He would lay it all at the feet of the “author and finisher” of his faith.

I picture dad on that day when he meets Jesus and receives a crown—and it will be a serious, heavy, beautiful crown—and he’ll lay it back at the feet of Jesus, not just because he knows he owes it all to his Savior, but because he won’t believe it’s his crown. He’ll figure it belongs to someone else, and heaven made its first mistake!

The comfortable thing for us would be to think of dad as simply an extraordinary person. In that case, we, as ordinary people, could get on with ordinary lives and be satisfied with ordinary results.

But dad will be in that “great cloud of witnesses” and he will know how he got there.  It was not by being an extraordinary person but by putting himself into the hands of an extraordinary God and going along for the ride. I don’t mean the ride was easy.  It was a race, and it required patience and endurance.  But Jesus is the author of the faith that was required, and Jesus is the finisher.

There’s nothing that God gave dad that he hasn’t given to the rest of us. He’s authored faith for us, and he’s ready to bring it to completion. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).  Often the challenge we feel we can live up to is that provided by another disciple. And so we come to this point in our lives not just to remember and celebrate dad’s life, disciple of Jesus Christ, but to be challenged by it.

We cannot, we must not respond to that challenge with ordinary lives, lives that are less than the high calling that we have in Christ Jesus. It’s a demanding calling and a tough race.

As we remember Dr. Ray Neufeld, there is grief, but not hopelessness, sorrow but not despair, wonder but not fear. Dad has fought a good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith. Now he has the “crown of righteousness” prepared for him in the kingdom. Because his was not a faith without an object, a race without a finish line, or a fight without victory.

I was discussing this with mother Sunday evening, and I told her that from the time that my son James passed away to the present I have had moments when I feel heaven so near and so real that it almost overwhelms the experience of the real world as I know it. She said that with daddy’s passing, she also felt that new homesickness. “Why is it,” she asked me, “that we didn’t feel that same homesickness when it was for Jesus himself? Why does it take the passing of a loved one?”

God knows how he made us. Mother, he has given us the love that you have felt for your husband and companion in ministry, as just a tiny window on the passionate love that he has for each one of us. Through separation, he allows us to get another tiny glimpse of how he feels, separated from an unreconciled world.  “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) and “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3).

Our feeling of loss and separation is just a shadow of the separation God feels from a rebellious world, just as our love and passion for a spouse is just a shadow of God’s love and passion for each of us, the love and passion that led to the cross.

Through this separation each one of us now has a new understanding of God’s love to which we can give witness. We know the separation, and we know the victory.  We can overcome with that testimony!

In that conversation with mother, I recalled a vision Ellen White had of heaven. “Early Writings” was a special book in my mother’s spiritual life, and I’m glad to find there these key passages:

She says:

While I was praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell upon me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world.

She goes on to describe a number of scenes, but in sum, all she can say is, “The wonderful things I saw I cannot describe. Oh, that I could talk in the language of Canaan, then could I tell a little of the glory of the better world.”

She continues:

[Jesus] said, “You must go back to earth again and relate to others what I have revealed to you.” Then an angel bore me gently down to this dark world. Sometimes I think I can stay here no longer; all things of earth look so dreary. I feel very lonely here, for I have seen a better land. Oh, that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest!

After I came out of vision, everything looked changed; a gloom was spread over all that I beheld. Oh, how dark this world looked to me.  I wept when I found myself here, and felt homesick. I had seen a better world, and it had spoiled this for me.

I have come to realize that before the experience of the death of a son and now of my father, I only thought I was homesick for heaven. Homesickness was a doctrine, the “Sabbath School” answer.  You know how Sabbath School works.

There are certain questions you raise your hand for. “Do you love Jesus?” “Do you believe the Bible?” “Do you want Jesus to come?” We all know it’s right to raise our hands for those questions. I once stirred up a class by asking “Do you trust God?” Now what Christian can possibly keep their hand down for that one? And dutifully every hand went up. Then I asked, “What is it that you trust God to do?”  There was an uncomfortable and long silence.

I had broken the rules.  They had given the right answer, but I wanted more. Unfair!

Well, I’m being unfair again. Experiencing a loss made me suddenly truly homesick for heaven. The song goes, “I’m homesick for heaven, seems I cannot wait! Longing to enter, Zion’s pearly gate.” Before it was just a song. Before I didn’t understand Ellen White’s sorrow after her vision of heaven. Now it’s real. I get tears in my eyes when I sing songs of the kingdom. The “Sabbath School answer” when you’re asked whether you want Jesus to come soon is, “Yes!”

But the next questions are these: How badly do you want it?  What are you going to do about it? When God called, dad answered. Whether there was money or not, comforts or not, even what many would regard as needs, mom and dad were ready to answer the call. There’s a fun song called “Please don’t send me to Africa.” It’s the plea of a Christian for God to use him, but just don’t make it Africa.

We all have our “Africas.” Your “Africa” may be a calling for which you feel unworthy. But Jesus has made you worthy. Where you are weak, he is strong. Your “Africa” may be your next door neighbor’s driveway, someone you’re supposed to befriend, but you just can’t make it over the kerb and up the sidewalk to the door. It might be the children’s class at church. God can’t possibly call you to work with annoying children!

But that’s not the way dad lived. We now have the example of his discipleship. He would never think to say, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ,” but he could! The challenge of his life is the challenge of the people of Hebrews 11, the great cloud of witnesses, the folks who didn’t receive the promises, but nonetheless were faithful.

Dad, you did fight the good fight, you did finish the race, you did keep the faith. That golden, jeweled crown really is yours, even if you can’t believe it. I thank you for your love, your faithfulness, and your example. I miss you. We all miss you. But we’re going to meet before the throne of God and lay our crowns at Jesus’ feet, together, by God’s grace.

Called to Wealth, Safety, and Comfort

Called to Wealth, Safety, and Comfort

Credit: OpenClipart.org
Credit: OpenClipart.org

I first heard the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-22) when I was a child, and it wasn’t long before I heard the excuses. The excuses did not come from my parents, I should note, as they lived pretty close to the final command: Go, sell, give.

I have a few sayings about Bible study, such as –

  • Less evidence, more writing
  • More obscurity, more claims of clear and absolute solutions.
  • Less evidence, more theories

But most important,

  • Harder to follow, more excuses

What I was told way back then, as the glaciers receded, was that this was an extreme case, and that God didn’t call everyone to do that. Fair enough, I suppose, though I did find sermons that diminished it to a mild admonition to put a bit more in the offering plate rather bland. Still, Jesus seemed to accept sale of only half of Zacchaeus’s possessions (Luke 19:1-10).

I concede that not everyone is called to sell everything (and confess that I haven’t), but doesn’t it seem strange that such a large percentage of the members of the American church believe their call is to wealth, safety, and comfort?

What Have They Seen in Your House?

What Have They Seen in Your House?

pile-of-treasure-300px
Credit: OpenClipart.org

Yesterday the Scripture for my Sunday School class was Isaiah 40:21-31. The daily readings in the student guide included the first 20 verses of the chapter as well. Those acquainted with critical scholarship on the book of Isaiah recognize this as the opening of 2nd Isaiah, chapters 40-55.

At first I was going to avoid the topic of authorship and date, but two things intervened: 1) The teacher’s guide brought the subject up, thus reminding me that people in the UMC will be hearing about and discussing this, and 2) I believe chapters 36-39 intentionally transition from the collection of oracles in the first 35 chapters. I don’t mean by this that I argue unified authorship for Isaiah. In fact, I favor the idea of an Isaianic school that was active from the time of the prophet through the exile, producing the three major horizons of the text.

But treating the book as two tends to make us treat it as though the first and second parts are not related. Just because one believes in collection and editing doesn’t mean that the original writers, the collectors, and the editors were stupid or uncreative.

The critical question of Isaiah 39, I believe, comes in verse 4: What have they seen in your house?

Chapter 38 tells us of Hezekiah’s miraculous healing. In fact, chapters 36-39 are about God’s power active in and for Israel. Then comes the time to show people what’s important, and what does Hezekiah show? His treasury and his equipment.

The power and sovereignty of God were there, but Hezekiah was more interested in the wealth and the military equipment. Despite God’s healing and rescue from the Assyrians, his value was in the stuff.

And so we get Isaiah’s prediction of exile and the loss of all that treasury.

Now comes chapter 40, and the horizon has changed. The people are in exile. What is it that they should be talking about? What should they rely on?

It’s the one who sits above the circle of the earth (40:22). It’s the One who saved Jerusalem from the Assyrians and who healed Hezekiah. But Hezekiah didn’t give credit where it was due for what had happened.

I think this might be the question God has for us in our churches today. When someone visits and we show them around, what have they seen in our house? When someone hears me talk, what have they seen? Is it the building or the parking lot? Is it the multitude of our programs? Is it the erudite pastor? When someone hears me teach about the Bible do they see Greek and Hebrew tools in action so as to praise my education?

If so, then I have failed if following God’s call. In Isaiah 36-39 we see Hezekiah receiving God’s blessings. Salvation came not from the treasury or the weapons in the armory but from God’s action. He is healed by God’s intervention. Yet when he has visitors, his witness is to the treasury and the armory. Similarly, when I speak about God, I can either bear witness to God, or I can bear witness to myself and my stuff, whether that “stuff” is knowledge, a library, a church setting, or a catalog of church programs.

Stuff is quite useful, yes, but only when it reflects its creator.

So what have they seen in your house?

Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

Nobody Ever Thinks They Are Creating a New Denomination

kineso ten luchnian
Revelation 2:5

Christopher Ritter is complaining, though only in the nicest, most creative way, about critics of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association. It’s interesting how efforts to reform often end up creating new denominations, even when the leaders don’t intend to do so. Just look at the example provided by Ritter in his post.

I commend Ritter for his excellent way of presenting his complaint, but at the same time I have to ask whether a movement to reform the United Methodist Church at this point is not also likely to contribute to the division of the denomination. It seems that we require such organizations to deny that they contemplate schism in any way. It’s part of the game. I suspect that the WCA people are entirely sincere in that desire.

Reality may not be on their side.

I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. I would note that when my wife and I discussed the idea of moving to a new church prior to this move, we thought that our next church congregation would not be part of the UMC, but here we still are, and here we will stay as long as we believe God is leading us to do so.

What I’m not going to do is get stirred up over the survival of denominational structures. My friends sincerely wish to prevent schism, but as a church, we’re the product of a group that broke off from a group that broke off, and that earlier break-off was not very holy, I might note. Not to mention that I don’t see very much Jesus in the structures of any of the above.

Unless the Holy Spirit changes a bunch of people, the UMC is at an impasse over same-sex marriage and inclusion of LGBT people. We are a divided church. We can claim to be united, but it’s a fake. The question is whether the structures will follow the actual practice or whether we will continue to find ways (and spend large amounts of money) to pretend.

What is needed is to change our focus to become Christ’s body in the world, Christ’s witnesses, the bearers and proclaimers of Christ’s gospel. We are a church that is apathetic, self-centered, and wasteful. We are more concerned with our buildings and our power than with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But that is something that can change. I don’t know about the denomination, but the only person who needs to change in this is me. And you. And you. Each of us.

Is the church building taking up more money than caring for your neighbors? Get rid of it.

Do you pay more for Sunday School curriculum than for evangelism or textbooks for needy children? Cut it out of your budget!

Is your primary concern for your worship service done your way at your time? Drop it. Be concerned about your neighbors.

If you let the gospel become central, many things that seem critical right now will fade into the background. You may not change church headquarters, but you can change you.

A UMC House Church

A UMC House Church

nt church booksOne of the points I have tried to make in my series regarding the books Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, and Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel is that one can follow these “Jesus principles” of church leadership under many different formal structures. Some structures may make it harder than others, but I suspect it is more that each structure has different strengths and weaknesses, mostly the result of the fact that all of them involve humans.

Here’s a video about a house church under the UMC banner. You won’t see anything “non-Wesleyan” here, or violations of the Book of Discipline, but you will see a creative and dynamic living out of the Christian faith. This is certainly a thriving congregation, carrying out transforming acts, and showing marks of a New Testament church!

Seven Marks: Fervent Prayer

Seven Marks: Fervent Prayer

nt church booksThe sixth mark Dave discusses in Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is fervent prayer (pp. 39-42).

There are a variety of views of what it means to be “the church” or what it means to be Christian. For some, it’s a matter of holding the correct set of beliefs. One knows that certain things are true and one gathers with other people who know the same things are true, and this is church. Evangelism, in that case, is convincing other people that the things one believes are true and thus they should join this group.

I exaggerate a little bit here to make a point. I think prayer brings out a problem with this view, and it’s one that has been building through Dave’s book. Notice that all these marks of the church are activities. Dave quotes Acts 2:37-47 on pp. v-vi of his introduction. You might want to read that now. Notice that the description of the church is active. God is acting in the church and so are the people.

Now I don’t want to suggest replacing believing or knowing with doing. Doing must result from knowing in some sense or from instinct and habit. Even the idea that doing is important involves thought and belief. Often, however, we can tell more about what we actually believe by what we do than by what we claim.

I recall going to teach about prayer at one church. The prayer coordinator was dismayed at the low attendance of the conference. She told us that the church had determined that prayer was their second priority. In that case how could so few people attend a conference on prayer scheduled by their prayer ministry?

The answer, I suggested, was to observe what people did, and particularly how money was spent. In particular, look at your property. How is it arranged? What have you spent money on? How much of your money has gone to sports facilities? How much to education? How much to outreach?

Now I absolutely don’t want you to read that as a negative view of sports facilities. Used well, sports facilities can be a critical element of outreach, and in turn a focus of prayer. The question is what you are actually doing.

In fact, the measurement of the commitment to prayer should not have been attendance at a prayer conference, but rather time spent in prayer, a prayerful attitude, and ultimately establishing lives of prayer. A conference might help that. Since I have offered a few, I’d like to think so! But one can spend amazing amounts of time in a conference on prayer without actually praying. One can have a nice looking prayer ministry, while neglecting prayer.

Do we really believe in prayer? I’m not asking what miraculous things prayer can bring, but rather whether we believe prayer can provide communion with God. That, in turn, leads to asking whether we believe God is active in our lives, our churches, and our communities.

The evidence of prayer in the American church suggests that we don’t. We may believe in prayer as an occasional spiritual discipline on the one hand, or as a means of pushing God into doing things that we want on the other, but as a means of communing with God, either we’re not sure it will work, or not sure we want it.

Dave talks about an “attitude of prayerfulness” (p. 40). Such attitude is a reflection of belief and practice.

I want to illustrate this by quoting from one of the other books I’m following through this series:

Some congregations make a decision by voting; but many churches learn to choose through the process of discernment. Discernment, as it is used in everyday language, has to do with sifting through the information we’ve been given in order to decide a course of action. In the church, discernment describes the prayerful process of making a choice in light of the inspiration, leading, and guidance of the Spirit.

Discernment can be practiced by individuals or by groups. When transforming congregations make use of discernment as a decision-making tool, they place their choices in the context of God’s transforming activity, assuming that they are called to something larger than self-interest and partisanship. Through discernment, they imagine not just what they want to do, but how they might share in God’s New Creation through the choices they make. (Thrive, pp. 126-127)

This is a test for belief and practice. Can and will the Spirit guide our discernment? Will prayer help us in discerning what the Spirit is doing and where we can become part of that activity?

There is a huge difference between having a short prayer at the beginning of a meeting in which you then carry out the normal business of debating (or arguing) and then voting and one in which one seeks to hear the Spirit and come to a consensus. The latter requires a certain amount of trust!

In discussing the early church’s beginnings and prayer, Bruce Epperly (Transforming Acts, p. 26), under the heading “Don’t Do Something, Wait Prayerfully” says,

In the wake of the ascension, the apostles return to their meeting place and, for the next several days, constantly devote themselves to prayer. We don’t know the nature of their individual prayer practices. They may have been a blend of quiet contemplation, praise, intercession, celebration of Jesus’ last supper, and thanksgiving. But prayer was their priority as  a community before they undertook any action. They knew that God’s power was coming, and also knew that power without prayer is destructive to us and others.

“Power without prayer is destructive.” I fervently agree. Fervent prayer is a critical mark because it sets us up for everything else, just as it did the early church.

Caring about Credibility

Caring about Credibility

9781631992230mI’m sometimes disappointed with posts that don’t attract comments compared to those that do. I’m not talking about my site, where comments are few and far between. Right now I’m looking at a post on the Energion Discussion Network, titled Credible Christians for a Credible Gospel. It was written by Allan Bevere, and makes an important point.

The gospel is credible in and of itself, but it only gains credibility as it is demonstrated by individual saints and the church collectively in the good works that bear witness to God’s kingdom.

We talk about grace, and that’s good, but grace accomplishes something in us. Do our beliefs make a difference? Can people see that?

I invite your comments over on EDN.

Seven Marks: Christ Centered Gatherings

Seven Marks: Christ Centered Gatherings

nt church booksIt has been some time since I posted my last installment of my discussion of the book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black, along with some commentary from the books Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, by Bruce Epperly and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher. My most recent installment was actually an excursus, Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?. (You can find most entries in the series by searching for the words “seven marks.”)

9781631990465mI find this topic as a whole, and this chapter in particular, are examples of a topic where we should read material from people outside our own tradition. We need to strip away some of the “stuff” that has gathered in our denominations and churches that keeps us from being Christ-centered. It’s easier to be building-centered, tradition-centered, or us-centered. All three of my authors suggest things that would take us away from those three centers and ask us to seek what is Christ-centered.

Dave Black cites “They devoted themselves to … the breaking of bread.” in the heading to this chapter and indicates he sees this as a reference to celebration of the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist). I was interested in how many references I had to choose from in all three books. One of the key points Dave makes is this:

And how often was the Supper observed? If we compare Acts 20:7 (“On the first day of the week, when we came together to break bread….”) with Rev. 1:10 (“On the Lord’s Day….”), it seems that it was observed every Lord’s Day, that is, every Sunday. (p. 33)

Of course, the frequency is not the most important point. I would suggest that the most important point is that this is something instituted by Jesus which calls us to remember his incarnation and sacrifice for us. It centers the act of worship around the person of Jesus who is, or should be, the center of our faith and worship. Thus, “Christ-centered gatherings.” Now there is more than performing a certain ritual to a Christ-centered gathering. In fact, if your communion service is just an act of ritual, you may well have a problem in your church. Let me bring in Ruth Fletcher on this point:

ThriveBecause individuals who participate in the worship life of transforming congregations will have an active daily prayer life, images and words they encounter in the corporate worship will connect them with experiences of the Spirit they have had during the week. A phrase in a song, in a reading, or in the proclamation may well remind them of a time in which they experienced a call upon their lives, a clarity of purpose, or an impetus to take compassionate action on behalf of someone else. Those moments of resonance will be what infuse the worship service with a sense of integrity and power.

Worship in transforming congregations will offer reminders of what the congregation is trying to become. (p. 134, emphasis mine)

I would note that Dr. Fletcher is part of a denomination that practices communion on a weekly basis at every worship service. The question here is the next step. Why is it that we want to have Christ-centered gatherings? I think it is because of the last line, which I have highlighted above. We come together to center ourselves on Christ, and thus to prepare to be the body of Christ in the world when we leave in whatever way the opportunity presents itself.

This is critical: If your worship service is not leading you to service, to acting as the hands and feet of Jesus, to being a witness, and to proclaiming the good news, it can hardly be Christ-centered. Certainly we focus on Jesus, but if we do so simply to get a dose of “specialness” for ourselves, to satisfy our own emotional, spiritual, and social needs we will fall short. By this I don’t mean that our spiritual needs are unimportant. They are, in fact, critically important. But they will never be satisfied unless we carry what we experience in worship out to wherever it is we go during the week.

Now think of your last worship service. How much of the “worship service” led to actual service out in the world? I suspect that it cannot be real worship in the sanctuary of a church unless it leads to the presence of Christ, through you, outside. We tread the room in which we meet as a sanctuary. It even has some architectural similarities to a temple. But it is each one of us as a group, no, better, as a community, who is filled with the Holy Spirit and called the temple of the Holy Spirit.

I would say that communion then is:

  • Christ-commanded
  • Christ-centered
  • Christ-commissioned

And we are the body of Christ, commissioned to be his body in the world. What better way can we have to remind us of this than to participate in communion?

I would like to suggest further that communion, and likely church fellowship in New Testament times was not a large amount of liturgy with a moment when a small piece of bread is provided and dipped into wine or juice, for that one moment of “communion.” Rather, when the saints gathered, they shared a meal. Many of our churches are too large to share a meal on this basis, and that in itself may be a problem. Large churches, of course, can have small groups that gather and have this type of communion. If we are to spur one another on to good works (see Hebrews 10:24), we need to see one another, hear one another, and know one another. In such a circle we can draw our community together and prepare to extend our circle.

9781938434648sBruce Epperly notes:

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds me of the origins of the American denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). From the very beginning, Disciples of Christ have practiced open communion and have been a model for the ecumenical movement’s communion hospitality. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Campbell, a newcomer to the United States from Ireland, was appalled by sectarianism among religious groups in the new nation. Even Presbyterians from different sects would not take communion with one another. Inspired by his vision of the New Testament church, Campbell welcomed everyone to the Communion Table. “Don’t fence the table,” he proclaimed. “Anyone who seeks to follow Jesus as the Christ is welcome, regardless of denominational background.” As early Disciples of Christ proclaimed: “We have no creed but Christ.” Our unity in Christ and our allegiance to Christ compels us to expand the circle of his love to include everyone. (p. 78)

I think that there should be nothing that does not lead us forward into a new sense of mission. But what happens in our churches? Do we feel a welcome such that we are nearly compelled to share this with others? Some may object that the call is not to the church, but if the church (building) is where the church (the body of Christ) meets, then should it not be inviting people to it as Jesus did? When Jesus Christ was here in the body, people flocked to him. He didn’t have to hunt for them because there was something there that they wanted.

We need that attractiveness and welcome in the church. Not the excitement of new glitzy programs, entertainment, and excitement, but the welcome that says that here is a place where the longing of my soul can be satisfied. Here there is not just a building but a community of people whose unity and love for one another is so special that I want to be a part of it, and that they welcome me to be a part of them.

I’ve met people who want to be prophets. Some have asked me to pray that God would call them as such. I always ask them if they are aware of the kind of life led by prophets in scripture. Is this what you really want? Similarly we need to ask ourselves about being the body of Christ. If our gatherings are Christ-centered, they will not be “me-centered.” If we are to be the body of Christ we must remember what happened to the body of Jesus, the Christ. Then, as we look to close our doors to those in need, even to our enemies, to those who hate and would kill us, we need to remember who it was that He gave his life for.

Christ-centered? We need it. We claim to want it. Do we want it enough?