“A Future Not Our Own”

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(The Long View –Archbishop Oscar Romero)

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

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

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Confessions of a Church Shopper

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It’s exciting and challenging to move to a new community but leaving the familiar and established behind means loss whether its friends or knowing who to trust with your car repair or more important relationships in the local church. Since I have been a pastor for many years, in the past moving to a new location and congregation meant having somewhat of an “automatic community.” This time has been different since I am not pastoring. I never thought finding a church would be so hard! Over the last 7 months we have been visiting area churches. So here’s some feedback and ideas from an “official outsider” about what it may be like to visit your church & what you might consider doing when a visitor stops by – at least if you want them to come back.

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We have visited at least 15 different congregations from Baptist to Presbyterian to Independent of various stripes. Of the 15 only 5 had web pages that told the basics of who, what, when & why of their existence. For some, even finding a working phone number has been hard as well as a real human to talk to. One church had a prominent sign but no phone number and another had times for worship posted but were not up to date. I had to visit on a Sunday morning to find out when they worshiped. I have to conclude that these churches are really not interested in having visitors or reaching out to the public – they make it extremely difficult to know what’s going on!

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Visiting a church as a stranger is not easy – it can be even scary and intimidating. It helps to know ahead of time what my family and I might walk into – do I have to dress up or dress down? Speak in tongues or handle snakes? Carry a KJV Bible? Do I need to limber up for the Pentecostal 2 step or bring ear plugs & sunglasses for the worship time? A web site is an easy, inexpensive way to inform people about who you are – I am still amazed that most churches don’t have one. A web site or internet presence is neither hard to create or expensive. There’s no excuse in this day for a congregation not to have one when most people still breathing are connected on-line – unless, you subscribe to an extreme theology of the “invisible church” and really don’t want people to find you!

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The next challenge for the visitor is walking in the door. Honestly, I don’t want to be ignored (which has happened) but I also don’t want to be interrogated such as being asked “what are you doing here” or play 20 questions about my job. The answer should be obvious – checking out whether you are an authentic community of believers in Christ and whether I want to stay or come back! It’s a fine balance between being smothered with inquiries and being given the cold shoulder. How we have been greeted (or not) may be due to living in an area whose population is less mobile & more established than say in a metro area but if a person looks like they are new, chances they are & it’s an opportunity to welcome a stranger who (although perhaps not an angel, i.e. Hebrews 13: 2) may bring gifts that could bless your congregation. Do I really need to mention that I don’t want to be asked “to stand up and introduce myself” – I guess I better – it still happens & I cringe when it does. And please respect my teen age daughters’ boundaries – they don’t like to be hugged, grilled about school or told to smile. Try the Golden Rule – it works!

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I also find it helpful to know what you believe – something written that introduces me to your theology, worship, leadership and activities is very helpful. Who are you? What do you believe? What makes you different? Where are you going? If you cannot summarize that then I may conclude you don’t know. It may not matter to you but it does matter to me and the spiritual health of my family.

While I value worship & preaching and what’s happening “up front,” I am also looking at who I am worshiping with – are the other congregants present and active or bored and checking their cell phones? Is there opportunity for me to know people better and develop relationships or am I expected to show up, stare at the back of someone’s neck and just pay & watch the Sunday morning show?

Maybe this is all too much for a busy pastor on a Sunday morning to consider. Most churches are not busting at the seams with people. There can be many reasons why that is so – it might be it’s because you’re invisible to the community or what does or does not happen when the rare visitor shows up.

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We are still looking for a place to belong. Maybe, our family expectations are too high and we are being too picky as “church shoppers.” I try to extend mercy, grace and benefit of the doubt to where we have visited & the people we have met. I want my family to be part of a living, worshiping community of faith. You never know – we may be that strange family at your place next week. That is if we can find you!

Institutional Ailments

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Near the end of last year, Pope Francis listed “15 Ailments of the Curia,” the sins and short-comings of the administrative bureaucracy of the Vatican State. While the Bishop of Rome was aiming his critique at the institution he leads, they are applicable to any church, ministry or religious organization – simply replace “curia” with “Board-Elders-Deacons-Trustees-Council” or the appropriate ecclesiastical term:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

3) Becoming spiritually and mentally hardened. “It’s dangerous to lose that human sensibility that lets you cry with those who are crying, and celebrate those who are joyful.”

4) Planning too much. “Preparing things well is necessary, but don’t fall into the temptation of trying to close or direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is bigger and more generous than any human plan.”

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.’”

6) Having “spiritual Alzheimer’s”. “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

8) Suffering from “existential schizophrenia”. “It’s the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of hypocrisy that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill. It’s a sickness that often affects those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people.”

9) Committing the “terrorism of gossip – It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

10) Glorifying one’s bosses. “It’s the sickness of those who court their superiors, hoping for their benevolence. They are victims of careerism and opportunism, they honor people who aren’t God.”

11) Being indifferent to others. “When, out of jealousy or cunning, one finds joy in seeing another fall rather than helping him up and encouraging him.”

12) Having a “funereal face”. “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

13) Wanting more. “When the apostle tries to fill an existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material goods, not because he needs them but because he’ll feel more secure.”

14) Forming closed circles that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad scandals especially to our younger brothers.”

15) Seeking worldly profit and showing off. “It’s the sickness of those who insatiably try to multiply their powers and to do so are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally to show themselves as being more capable than others.”

 What to do? Repentance & reform is hard for individuals, it’s even tougher for organizations. Institutional structure and power over time become entrenched, inflexible and reactive. Mission drift, decline and death are typically the end result. Change requires the seeking of forgiveness and the power of the Spirit to switch course and the determination to follow after Jesus, no matter what the cost. That is a rare but necessary trait for leadership.

Who Has to Die for Your Belief?

Who Has to Die for Your Belief?

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Some 65 million died for Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward;”

At least 50 million perished in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet system;

6 million Jews died because of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution as well at least 5 million “undesirables” in the name of racial and social purity;

At least 5,500 have died because of ISIS, 7,000 by Boko Haram and unknown thousands by Islamic terrorists such as the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden in the name of Allah.

The body count could go on.

Even Dick Cheney & the CIA have their share in the name of “national security.”

Add to that the civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria and countless other casualties of war, revolutions and regimes.

     I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the one who said he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). I don’t have to kill or wage jihad. I don’t have to avenge the defamation of his name or life by murder or acts of terror even though he is regularly ridiculed and vilified.

Jesus calls his followers to be witnesses (based on the Greek word “martyr”) of his life, death and resurrection, to “take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Mt. 16:24-25). No one need die for my belief – except (somewhat paradoxically), as Bonhoeffer wrote (The Cost of Discipleship), “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” – die to self, die to sin, die to destructive desires of the fallen nature, die to hatred, revenge and retaliation – die, in order to live.

How much better is a faith not worth killing for but worth living for.

Closer to Heaven…down stairs?

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So after much thought & deliberation, I have decided that what the world really needs is a book I’m planning to produce. It will be like one of those glossy coffee table volumes of European wonders or natural beauty. Mine will be entitled “Church Basements I Have Known – A Guided Tour”

The space down below, usually damp, cold, and crowded with folding chairs and tables and old carpet or tile has always had an important function – Funeral dinners, pot-lucks, business meetings, game night, Sunday School, AA meetings, choir practice, the list goes on.

Which is your most memorable church basement moment?

Popular Preaching Pitfalls

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Despite its detractors & despisers, preaching has always been essential to God’s work and for God’s people. I don’t see that changing any time soon! I have been preaching for around 23 plus years. For the last 6 months I have been a listener. Looking for a local church I have heard a variety of messages and sermons. I do not think of myself as an expert but I wanted to pass on a few tips that I think will help preachers help listeners listen better. Here’s a few points to help your listeners listen:

Have a point and stick to it –

Wandering around may be OK at the mall or on vacation but in a sermon its hard not to get lost. If you don’t know “what’s the point” of the bible passage you are preaching on than it unlikely anyone else will either.

Structure the message so its easy to follow – Jumping around to other Bible passages seems to make it “biblical” but the other references end up being footnotes. I know that after a lot of studying, you can have a lot of material to present but tackling one portion at a time thoroughly serves the listener and the text better. Spend some time on developing the flow of the message with clearly marked transitions. Keep what you don’t cover for another time.

Have an introduction but move on!

The more I listen to preachers the more I can tell when material is warm up & “intro” – after 10 to 15 minutes of it I know I’m in for a long haul afterwards & that you have neither edited or balanced your material nor used your time wisely.

Point us to Jesus Christ and the gospel – I am not talking about superficial references or imposing something heavy handed on a text. As a recent sermon on pride I heard demonstrates, if you don’t bring out the Gospel connections all we end up is moralisms “this is bad – don’t do it.” Show me how Jesus and who he is and what he has done makes a difference.

Come to a conclusion and end it.

Bring things to a crescendo and not as its been said, endlessly circling for a landing spot or as if you’re puttering out of gas. When your done, your done. Finish it.

30 minutes is all my butt and bladder can handle.

I know, I know. As a media saturated, overstimulated middle-aged, American my brain is not used to long attention demands. The Puritans may have been able to handle 2 hours in a pew but I can’t. And none of you I have heard (nor myself) is Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield!

Preaching is tough work.

It demands not only brains but heart. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the never ending demand on your time, energy and heart and soul. And yes, we will be compared to the “big names” either down the street or on the tube. However, there is no excuse for not being prepared. Of all duties and activities in the church this one is your responsibility. Carve out the time. You will be blessed and so will your listeners.