But for How Long?

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“At times our Lord, as judge among the nations, arises to visit the sins of a people upon them. Patience makes room for justice, and Providence determines that guilty nations shall be scourged: at such times they are blessed indeed who can cause the King to stand still. This wicked country of ours has often escaped through the prayers of the saints. No man can read our history without perceiving that among guilty nations we hold a sorrowful place; for we have had more light than any other people, and have sinned against it full often. This erring nation had been scourged to destruction if it had not been that the intercessions of Gods people have caused the Judge of all the earth to stand still. Jesus now rules all nations as Lord of Providence, and metes out justice and judgment among them, but a plea for mercy brings a decree of forbearance, and sinful nations are permitted still to stand within the bounds of grace.”

Charles Spurgeon

“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.

Top Eleven Predictions for the New Year

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OK, so they’re not exactly predictions – but they are promises from God’s Word and worth pondering for 2015 & a whole lot better than the usual prognostications for the future. These are also not original but a combination of lists from hither and yon.

1 – God’s love is everlasting
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” Jer. 31:3
2 – Christ’s blood cleanses from sin
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”   1 Jn. 1:9

3 – We are Blessed in Christ
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Eph. 1:3

4 –God will provide
“I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” – Psalm 37:25

5 – God is at work

“…in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”  Eph. 1:11

6- God is faithful
“God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”
1 Cor. 1:9

7 – His promises are true
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ.”    2 Cor. 1:21-22

8 – His Love does not fail

“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lam. 3:22-23

9- God’s grace is immeasurably rich! Eph 2:7

10 – Our God reigns
For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. Ps. 4:7-8

11 – God surprises those who wait for him (Lk. 2:25)

God’s Gospel

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“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”                                                      Luke 2: 8-14

Most people long for a better world. I know I do. A world without terrorists, without torture, without brutality, without tragedy, without heartbreak, without catastrophe, a world without disease, a world without suffering, a world without death.  Such a world will come one day. This is not another a utopian view of the future, another project by the human race to save itself. Such a world only comes through the one born in Bethlehem to reign in heaven and on earth. To those who believe in him and recive him is promised a new earth and a new heaven. This is why the incarnation and birth is the gospel – God’s good news.  The joy for us is to believe & to worship in wonder