Prayer is…

If 2020 showed me nothing else, it showed me of my desperate need to pray more. I like to think I know all there is to know about prayer, but try as I might, I can’t seem to nail prayer down to a singular definition? I am supposed to be a person of prayer, and I know when I see someone praying, and I know what I do when (or if) I pray. I know the preacher does it, if for no other reason than that is says so right in the bulletin—the Pastoral Prayer. So, prayer is something done at a particular time and usually in a particular way, or a particular place for a particular reason. Prayer is all that, but that seems like such an inadequate understanding as I desire to go deeper in prayer in 2021. 

I take some comfort in knowing the Bible doesn’t define prayer anywhere. I know the Bible commands it. People like Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and Hannah exemplified it. I am invited through the pages of scripture to pray, and God commends it to us as a way to communion and wholeness. The Bible even describes prayer, but never once do I find a verse that says, “Prayer is…” If the Bible doesn’t define prayer, I wonder if I can?

The Lord’s Prayer

Though the Bible doesn’t specifically define prayer, its examples of prayer give me a clue in (at least) understanding what prayer is. For more than defining prayer, I want to learn how to do it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing one day with his disciples. I’m not sure if we can definitively answer the question by looking at that encounter between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe we can get far down the road. Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

11 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy.
    May your Kingdom come soon.
Give us each day the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”

Jesus would, in the verses following these, continue to teach his disciples more about prayer, but first, it was Jesus’ own example that made his disciples want to know more about prayer. I remind us they were Jewish men who were steeped in the traditions of their elders. They likely spent every morning and evening repeating the prayers of their fathers, yet when they saw Jesus pray, there was something that moved heaven and earth and made them want to pray that way. I’m not sure what that was, but I see three things that begin to help me understand a meaningful definition of prayer.

Upward Focus

Let’s start where Jesus started: First, prayer is upward focused. In verse 2, Jesus begins with the “Father.” As we learned the prayer from the King James Version, it begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Richard Foster says, “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.” The upward focus of prayer is our acknowledgment that God is our Father, that God is the source of truth outside ourselves. After all, we don’t pray to ourselves–“Oh, help me, Me!” We look to God for understanding in this confusing world. This upward focus is our confession of dependence on the One who is abundantly more than we can even think or imagine.

This understanding is insufficient in and of itself, for how can we have an upward focus unless we have first been called to turn our eyes toward heaven? When we turn our thoughts upward, we acknowledge it is God who acts first in prayer. Our prayers are a reaction to God’s first seeking us. In Psalm 27:7 – 8, David sings these words:

Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
    Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”

The key is that God said, “Come and talk with me.” Without God first calling to us we cannot seek Him, and we can never experience the kind of prayer that ends in answers. We Wesleyans call that God’s prevenient grace—the grace of God reaching out to us before we even realize it. Prayer that is upward focused will move the hand of God because we have first been moved by the hand of God, and it will draw us deeper into a growing, on-going love relationship with the Lord.

Inward Focus

Yes, prayer is upward focused, but prayer is also inward focused. Verses 3 and 4 say, “Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins…” In prayer, we do focus on our needs, but not in some selfish, prideful way. Actually, if we look up the words “pray” and “prayer” in Webster’s dictionary—although no one looks up words in a dictionary anymore—we find these definitions: “to implore, an entreaty, supplication.”

The words the Bible uses which are translated for us as pray and prayer in both the Old and New Testaments mean “to request,” and “to make a petition,” so prayer is asking God for something, and it is never selfish or sinful to concern God with the circumstances of our lives, and the needs we face. As a matter of fact, God desires that we should ask. Our asking is yet another way we confess our dependence on and our need for God.

The inward focus is not totally selfish when we understand that this prayer is consistent with the way Jesus lived. He was always occupied with the trivial things in people’s lives. He turned water into wine (and good wine, I might add) at a wedding. He fed hungry crowds, and he offered rest to weary souls. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors. He stopped to talk to a woman drawing water from a well, and he healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. It is appropriate that he invites us to pray for our daily bread because all of our little daily concerns are important to him.

We must be careful, though, that this not become a shopping list we bring to God. It is a petition for survival. It is not, “Lord, let me win the lottery, then all my needs will be met.” Such a prayer would never strengthen our faith or draw us deeper into a relationship with him. Prayer is designed to strengthen the bond between us and the Father. Only as we call to God for daily provision, and only as God meets us at our point of need, will our trust grow. When trust grows, love grows. When love grows, the relationship grows, and that is what God desires.

There is more to this inward focus than daily provision to meet our needs. There is a spiritual aspect that must not escape our understanding. As we focus upward and God begins to reflect His love and holiness back into our lives, we begin to recognize our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. We pray for this deepest need of our lives. Deeper than the daily provision for our physical needs lies the need for God’s forgiveness.

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1 – 12) tells the story of a paralytic man who was lowered by his friends into a house where Jesus was teaching. The man obviously had a physical need, but Jesus saw a deeper spiritual need, the need for forgiveness. Jesus met both needs. As the crowd watched, Jesus looked at the man on the cot and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowd, and especially the Pharisees, were stunned and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus, hearing their question, responded, “Well, just so you know I have power to do both, I say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” We, too, have both spiritual and physical needs, and prayer that is inward focused brings us an awareness of both. The greatest news in the world is that I am a sinner who can be saved from my sin.

Outward Focus

The Good News that we can be forgiven carries us deeper into the heart of prayer. Prayer that is first, upward focused that produces an inward change inevitably moves us to become outward focused. Jesus prays in verse 4, “just as we forgive those who sin against us.” Any prayer that is real prayer will touch our relationship with others. Jesus says we ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others. It sounds almost conditional, doesn’t it? Well, it is! We cannot be in a right relationship with God and not have it affect our outward relations with others. How can we not forgive others if we have experienced God’s great forgiveness? God’s forgiveness renews and transforms us, and we then seek to be renewed in our relationship with others.

Richard Foster indicates that to forgive is the very nature of the created order. We must give in order to receive. We cannot receive love unless we give love. People may try to give us love, but if we are filled with resentment and vindictiveness, their offers will have no impact on us. We cannot receive anything as long as our fists are clenched. St. Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”

God, The Pizza Man

Let me tell you about our love for pizza at our house. When the children were growing up it was our default food of choice (it’s become Mexican now). One of the greatest days of our lives as a family was moving to Junction City, Kentucky. It was great because Junction City had the luxury of pizza delivery. I know that doesn’t seem like much to most of you, but being raised in rural Jackson Parish, and serving my first pastorate in the same community, pizza delivery was something reserved for places like New York City and Chicago. It didn’t take us long to avail ourselves of pizza delivery in Junction City. Piping hot pizza a phone call away.

How many of you have ever ordered pizza delivery? Call the pizza place, the guy or girl answers and place your order, “Give me two large pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with double cheese. Malone is the name, and the address is 104 School St.” (that’s where we lived in Junction City). Hang up the phone and wait for pizza at your front door. Oh, we were in heaven!

Too often, that’s how we think of prayer. We treat God like the pizza guy. We call on God, place our order as though it was some shopping list, and we wait for an answer. When God doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time we get mad because he didn’t answer on our schedule. God didn’t meet our expectations. Forget the tip, buddy, I want a free pizza because it wasn’t here in thirty minutes or less.

God is not the pizza guy, and prayer is not akin to throwing out orders for someone to meet our expectations. What is prayer? Prayer is any intentional upward focus designed to bring an inward change that becomes reflected in outward relationships which produces an on-going, growing love relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Not sure that any of that qualifies as an appropriate definition, but it’s the one I’m going to work with for 2021. I’ll check back in with you in 2022 and see how it went.

May I also invite you to pray more in 2021? Here is the “Daily Prayer” app that I’ve put on my phone and will be incorporating into my prayer time this year. It might be helpful to you, too. If you don’t like that one, try “The Daily Office” app. You can download it on your phone, or use it right from your desktop or laptop. If you don’t like either of those tools, simply do a Google search to find one that fits your need. As has been said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

First Things First…

One great thing about celebrating the new year (other than the fact that it’s no longer 2020) is that every new year provides the opportunity to reassess and reprioritize those things in life that matter most. A new year provides a new opportunity to get right that which may not have been so right in the past. Every new year I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5: 17– “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Hoping not to squander the opportunity the new year affords to begin again, it is helpful for me to reflect on the priorities of my life. When I think about priorities I can help but consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 25 – 34, NIV)

I am reminded that life is not so much about priorities, but about a priority, and that priority is to know God in all His fulness. Every other element of life will reorder itself around that priority and enable us to determine what is important.

Person

Because THE priority in life is to know God in all His fulness, it reminds me that I am first a person. I am a person made in the image of God, and if I am to experience the best that life has to offer, I must first and foremost nurture my relationship with Christ. My relationship to Christ is the most important relationship in my life. My personhood, my sanity, my success at any other endeavor depends upon how faithfully that relationship is maintained and allowed to grow.

It was Blaise Pascal, who in his seminal work Pensees, wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

One of the ways I seek to fill this “infinite abyss” with God Himself is through the practice of writing a blog. It used to be called journaling back in the pre-internet days. Oh, I still journal. There are some things that are much too intimate to share on the internet, and there are moments that it’s as if I hear the Lord say, “Let’s keep this between you and me.” Journaling/blogging is one of the ways I pray, and prayer is the essential discipline by which we may know Christ and are known by Him.

Journaling as an exercise in prayer doesn’t work for everyone, but everyone must pray. I encourage you to find the way that best fits your personality so that you might nurture your relationship with Jesus. In this tech world in which we live, rather than allowing our smartphone to be a distraction, why not use it to help us learn to pray? Try loading a prayer app (here are twelve suggestions) on your phone as the new year begins.

You and I will never be our best without first deepening our relationship with the Lord. Seeking the Kingdom begins there, or it begins not at all.

Partner

Following closely behind my own personhood is the priority I define in being a partner in life with Vanessa. 2021 will mark 40 years of marriage for she and I, and behind my relationship with Jesus, this is the most important relationship of my life. This is as it should be since it is the relationship of a husband and wife that the Lord has chosen to demonstrate the relationship He has with His Church (Ephesians 5: 21 – 33). If the world will know how much Christ loves the Church, it will be because husbands and wives exhibit sacrificial, serving love toward one another. Might I suggest the world hasn’t seen quite enough of that in a long, long time.

That’s certainly not meant as a pat on the back to Vanessa and me. The Lord knows she’s endured a lot being married to me, for you see, I’ve not been the perfect husband, but we have been intentional in having date nights and sharing afternoon coffee together and praying together daily. Each of those activities nurture intimacy that allows the relationship to grow.

For the married folks among us, I challenge you to define ways in which you might give yourself more fully to deepening your relationship with your spouse. Plan a monthly date night. Plan a romantic weekend getaway once a year. Here’s a suggestion that will test the mettle of your relationship–do a family budget together (if you don’t already). More divorces occur because of fights about money than any other issue, but by planning a family budget together, you’ll open lines of communication that may not have been opened in years.

For the single folks who may be reading, may I encourage you to offer yourself and your time in service to the Lord and His church? That might be the very gift you have to give that brings you the most joy in life, and until such time as you feel led to marry (if ever), you can consider that Christ is your spouse.

Parent

Behind the relationship I have with Vanessa as a partner is my relationship with my children as a parent (and now a grandparent). May I encourage you to take a lesson from an old man who didn’t do things quite correctly the first time? I was a second-career pastor, and as such, always felt like I was behind my peers in the pursuit of ministry (and education and position), so that feeling only stoked my competitive nature to “catch up” on all that I was behind on. I needed to “get ahead” and be “successful” in ministry. That mentality led me to a season of pastoral burnout, and it also led me to neglect my children in the process. Those are years I can’t get back. I can only be intentional now in deepening those all too important relationships.

Oh, and grandchildren! If I had known grandchildren were going to be so much fun, I would have skipped the children and went straight to grandchildren. Okay, not really! But, if I had known grandchildren were this much fun, I’d have been nicer to their parents!

Seriously, though, these relationships are so vitally important because they are the means whereby we pass on the faith once entrusted to us. Seeking first the Kingdom of God is to nurture our children (and grandchildren) in the fear and the admonition of the Lord. When we, as Wesleyans, bring our children forward for baptism, we vow that by our teaching and example we will guide our children to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life. We cannot expect the Church to do for our children (and grandchildren) what we are not doing for them at home.

Pastor

Finally, I order my life around my relationship as pastor to many. I am blessed to pastor a wonderful small group of people in The House Church Movement. We are a small group of folks who are intentionally seeking to live as deeper disciples of Jesus Christ, exploring a model that is rooted deeply in the New Testament and the early church.

The truth I have discovered over 30 years of vocational ministry is that I cannot be an effective pastor if I have neglected the other primary relationships in my life. I can’t be with them until I’ve been with Him. I can’t effectively share with a congregation what I have not personally experienced myself, and if those in a congregation are to know the love and power of God, it will be because I have experienced it in my own life, and am sharing out of an overflowing cup.

Congregations, give your pastors time away to be with the Lord. You’ll be the better for it. Give your pastors time away to be with their families. You’ll be the better for it. Insist your pastor takes his/her day off. Insist your pastor takes his/her vacation. Budget spiritual growth opportunities in the pastoral compensation package of the pastor. You’ll be the better for it. Give the pastor a love offering to take his/her family on vacation. You’ll be the better for it, AND you’ll be seeking the Kingdom of God first.

Author Stephen Covey wrote a fantastic book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #3 is “Put first things first.” In essence, this habit is about taking all the abstract beliefs and ideas we say we have and making them practical by ordering our lives around them. Saying that we seek the Kingdom of God first is an abstract. How we order our lives makes seeking the Kingdom concrete.

Covey would flesh out habit #3 in a follow up book entitled First Things First. In that book, Covey introduced the analogy of the rocks and jars (click here to watch the video) in which a person has a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. The person filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks and discovered that they took up so much space that they ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. They discovered instead to first fill the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing everything to fit in from both piles.

To seek the Kingdom of God first means we put that big, big rock in the jar first, and then everything else will fit in around it. As a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a pastor, my life must be ordered around the priority of the Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other important parts of life. In the first century agrarian economy in which Jesus spoke the words above in the Sermon on the Mount, his listeners were deeply concerned with having their daily needs met. It (literally) was a matter of life and death. They didn’t have the Wal-Mart to run down to everyday to get dinner. Yet, Jesus could tell them, just as he tells us that our first priority in a Kingdom economy is to seek Him, and He will insure all of life’s needs are met.

So, that leaves only one question: How will you order your lives? Let me encourage you to put first things first.

Until next time, keep looking up…

“Joy” to the World…

You can’t have Christmas without lights AND you can’t have Christmas without music. The two go together, as Forrest Gump would say, “Like peas and carrots.” Some homeowners these days are even investing in the electronics necessary to make the lights on their homes dance to the music of the season (Clark Griswold would be so jealous).

Songs of the Season

The songs of the season (at least the religious ones) share a common theme. We sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” The words of Psalm 96 and its companion Psalm 98 are reflected in Isaac Watts masterful creation that remains the most published Christian hymn in North America. Joy to the World is not the only song that carries the same theme. Listen to Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

  • Hark the herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!
    Peace on earth and mercy mild
    God and sinners reconciled”
    Joyful, all ye nations rise
    Join the triumph of the skies
    With the angelic host proclaim:
    “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”
  • And, the refrain from O Come, O Come Emmanuel proclaims: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • Can we forget O Come All Ye Faithful? Doesn’t it say how we’re supposed to come? “Joyful and triumphant.”
  • And, of course, there is the magnificent Angels from the Realms of Glory:

Angels we have on heard high, Sweetly singing ore the plains, And the mountains in reply, Echoing their joyous strains

Each of the songs of the season echo exactly what the Psalmist sang in Psalm 96:11 – 13…

11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!

This is the “joyous” season, but there is a bit of a hollow ring each year at Christmas when we speak of joy. Christmas is, for many, the saddest time of the year. Many people find the stress of the holiday season overwhelming. Others battle depression, social isolation and loneliness. Still others are grieving the loss of a loved one. And, in this year of Covid-19, songs of joy, and smiling faces, and parties and gifts and such don’t really mean that much when no one really knows what Christmas gatherings will look like, or you’re living on the street in a cardboard box, or in a shelter with just the clothes on your back.

Chippie

There are, in fact, many people having a “Chippie” moment right now. You know who “Chippie” is, right? Max Lucado, in his book In the Eye of the Storm tells Chippie’s story. It all began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean out his cage with a vacuum. She stuck the nozzle into the cage to clean up the bottom of the cage. Suddenly the phone rang. She reached for the phone with her free hand and not realizing it, her hand holding the nozzle rose slowly upward and sucked Chippie into the vacuum cleaner. Realizing what she had done, she dropped the phone and turned off the vacuum. 

With her heart in her mouth, she opened the vacuum bag to rescue poor Chippie. Chippie was stunned and covered head to foot with gray dust, but thankfully he was still alive. She grabbed him and rushed him to the bathtub, turned on the cold water full blast and held him under the water giving him a power washing. Then it dawned on her that Chippie was soaking wet and shivering, so she did what any compassionate pet-owner would do. She snatched up the blow dryer and blasted him with hot air.

You may be wondering if Chippie survived all this. Yes, he did, but Lucado says, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore. He mostly just sits there in his cage eyeing the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept. Being sucked up, washed out, and blown over has stolen the joy from his heart.

There are a lot of people in the world living their “Chippie” moment this Christmas—maybe even a few reading this today. My prayer for you is that you will find joy this season.

Joy vs. Happiness

Don’t confuse joy with happiness, though. The two are not the same. Yes, joy can bring happiness, but happiness is too dependent upon what happens to us, and what happens to us is not always bright and wonderful. Sometimes, life happens to us, and life can be unkind. Joy abides in spite of what happens because joy is a gift, and the gift is Jesus Christ. He is our joy!

See, it works like this. While the happenings of life may not be “good news,” word of a Savior is “good news.” As a matter of fact, it’s the Gospel. There is One who came to deliver us from the brokenness of this world. There is One who came to give us strength. There is One who came to offer hope, to bring peace, and to show us love. That One is Jesus Christ, and to a person living the chippie moments of life, the realization that life will not always be like this brings its own joy. 

When we encounter Jesus, either in a manger, or on the cross, or risen in victory over death, joy captures us, and it causes us to worship. We get a glimpse of the glory and greatness of God, and joy captures us. Joy captures us when we see God’s promises fulfilled. Joy captures us when we experience God’s presence in new and life-changing ways. Oh, no, my friends! We can’t find joy! Joy finds us in the gift that is Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew that joy finds us because it found him. Paul was a “chippie.” He had been stripped of everything, locked in a cold, dark, and wet prison cell, and had even been sentenced to die. And he sits down to write his friends in Philippi. “Yep, I’m in prison, again. This time sentenced to die, and oh, by the way, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice!” From a cold, dark prison cell Paul writes a brief letter and mentions joy ten times! TEN TIMES!

How can Paul do that? He doesn’t have anything to be joyful about. His life is on the line, he is cold, wet, and tired, he has no freedom, has no shiny car with a bright red ribbon waiting for him in the driveway, no limited time diamond earring and necklace sale to take advantage of, no latest computer game or smartphone to occupy his time. He is parted from family and friends, and can’t take a single bit of joy from a job well done because well, being in prison has put his flourishing church-planting career on hold.

Yet over and over again, Paul brings up joy. Somehow he got it into his head, that you don’t need all that stuff to have joy. Even his earthly life being in jeopardy could not part him from joy. For Paul, joy doesn’t come from the world. It comes from God. God is the giver of true joy. God is the giver of a peace that passes all understanding. And, it doesn’t come from something we buy. It comes from something freely given—a person, Jesus Christ. Paul’s great joy was his assurance from God. He knew that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is through Christ Jesus our Lord. We, too, have this great joy.

This truth is, of course, summed up in a song. My favorite, and I believe the song that captures the heart of Christmas as well as any other is O Holy Night. Take a listen:

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!


Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

The light of joy is Jesus Christ. Lights and music. They are peas and carrots, indeed!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Sometimes, I Just Need Reminding…

The holidays are upon us yet again, and for that I am grateful. Not only is it the best time of the year, but this year, it indicates that 2020 is almost over! If there’s ever been a time when I couldn’t wait for a year to be over it’s this year. Of course, there is no way I’m going to say 2021 has to be a better year. That will jinx it for sure, so I’ll just stick with “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over!”

The holidays usually have their own unique stressors, but 2020 (as with everything else) will be unique in that the usual stress will be compounded by the added stress of Covid-19. Rather than the stress of parties and plans, it will be the stress (depression?) of canceled plans. If we follow the “guidelines,” we’ll all have a Zoom Christmas this year. I must confess that I’m grateful to not have the stress of making decisions about Christmas Eve services. I pray for my colleagues who are!

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com

So, I’m taking a little time this morning to remind myself of advice I’ve offered believers almost every year for the past twenty years. I find the advice in Paul’s love letter to the Church at Philippi. The encouragement he offers the Church there is encouragement to me as we head into the holiday season, and it actually works pretty well the rest of the year, too.

THINK TO THANK

Paul begins his letter to Philippi with gratitude: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Phil. 1:3). Gratitude seems like an appropriate place to begin the holiday season. If you’ve been in the local stores, you would think that Thanksgiving has been skipped this year. Hey? We’re doing it at home, too. People put up their Christmas trees and lights in October in an effort to hasten the year’s end. Trust me! It didn’t get here any quicker.

Let’s not forget to be thankful…even for the year 2020. Gratitude can set the tone (change the tone?) for all that is happening in our lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic there is much for which to be grateful. What can we be grateful fo? I’m glad you asked. We can look to Paul for an answer.

First, we can be grateful that we are not alone (even though “officials” are encouraging limited gatherings). Paul called the Philippians “partners in spreading the Good News” (v. 5). We need to acknowledge and express our gratitude for those who share the life of Christian faith with us. We, indeed, are not alone.

One of the buzz phrases of the pandemic (although we don’t hear it as much lately) has been “We’re all in this together” (though an argument could be made that we’re not “together” [see here]). We all do share the same stress of the pandemic, that much is true, so in that regard we are not alone. But, as believers in Jesus Christ, our faith journey is shared with other believers, and there is hope in that for us, and we should be grateful.

Ironically, the holidays are the loneliest time of the year for many people. Whether the death of a loved one, a divorce or the empty nest syndrome, a first holiday season with changed circumstances can create its own type of loneliness (and it will be made worse by the pandemic). We are the body of Christ, and we have the body of Christ (even in a pandemic) to share life with. We are not alone!

Of course, that means we shouldn’t let others be alone either. We should look for ways to reach out to those who may be experiencing loneliness this holiday season. Perhaps it’s the neighbor who lost a spouse this year. Perhaps it’s a friend who has gone through a divorce, or a parent who lost a child. Whoever it may be, discover ways (yes, even in a pandemic) to reach out to share hope and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Another thing for which I can be grateful is that God is still working on me. Paul writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (v. 6). That’s Good News! I can’t read this verse and not consider a Wesleyan understanding of “sanctifying” grace. It simply means “God is still working on me!” (Some would say He’s got a lot of work to do, but that’s another blog!)

Here’s something I consider, too. If God is not done with me yet, then there’s a better than even chance that He’s not done with whomever I encounter this holiday season. When I’m impatient with a cashier, I need remember that they are in need of grace, too. Why shouldn’t it be me who will extend them that grace, and in the process the Lord may teach us both something?

Yes, I need to think to thank…

LIVE TO LOVE

Paul’s love for the Philippian Church was evident in his letter. He writes:  God knows how much I love you and long for you with the tender compassion of Christ Jesus. I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding (v. 8-9).

I am reminded of the Christmas hymn Love Came Down at Christmas. It was love that came down so that Jesus could give his disciples a new commandment–love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12). The point is made vividly in a prayer I came across some time ago:

Heavenly  Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut  us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the  laundry and spend a few precious moments with  her children.

Help  us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change  correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging  for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addiction that we can only imagine in our worst  nightmares.

Help  us to remember that the old couple walking  annoyingly slow through the store aisles and  blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last  year that they go shopping together.

Heavenly  Father, remind us each day that, of all the  gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.

May I live to love this holiday season.

COMMIT TO CHRIST-LIKENESS

For the believer in Jesus Christ, character matters. Paul reminds the Philippians (and us) “what really matters, so that we may live pure and blameless lives” (v. 10). Lord knows, we are not perfect, but that should not preclude our continuing pursuit of perfection as we grow in Christ-likeness. I remind us that Paul was writing to a young church that had few examples. We have over 2,000 years of church history and faithful saints. We are without excuse in pursuing holiness–not always attaining, yet always pursuing.

Paul says we should “filled with the fruit” (v. 10) of our salvation. We know that fruit, right? Love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We should bear the characteristics of a Christ-like life. Otherwise, the world will never know the grace of salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.

Our commitment to live the Christ-like life comes before we enter the fray. Commitment comes before engagement. We begin every day with the end of the day in sight. Jesus came, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Long before that first Christmas, the commitment to the cross had been made. Long before the cross, God the Father made the commitment to forgive the sins of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If we are not committed to Christ-likeness before the holidays begin, it is not likely we will live in Christ-likeness through the holidays. If we were not committed to the Christ-like life before the pandemic, it is not likely that we’ve exhibited much Christ-like behavior during the pandemic. I must commit to live like Christ this morning if I expect to model Christ this afternoon.

One way I can do that is to focus on the person who is behind any behavior I encounter throughout each and every day. Focus on people over behavior–not that behavior doesn’t matter, but it is the person Christ died to save, and by grace behaviors can change. I must know what’s important and I must value love, mercy and grace over impatience and inconvenience.

We are called to gratitude, love and grace. I need that reminder heading into the holiday season. Perhaps you do, too.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Lessons in the Walmart…

Y’all! I’ve got to tell you a story. Prayer works. It really does!

Anyone who knows me knows how little I care for going to the Walmart and it’s only gotten worse since Covid (actually, I’ve not cared for going into any retail establishment since Covid, but that’s another blog). But, I had to go to the Walmart the other day, so…

Hurricanes have a way of changing a person’s plans. Mind you, I’m not comparing the damage done by Hurricane Delta to our home to the destruction she caused many in southwest Louisiana, but they can sure be challenging to all of us.

In the days following the storm, my honey decides that she wants to change up the room we recently renovated (let’s call it a re-renovation–forced, but still…). She decides to take out a wall and make a large den in that part of the house, which basically means we no longer need the new television, so having never even opened the box, we decide to return it.

So, I take off a couple of days last week just to catch my breath after a big project at work. It seems to be an opportune time to return the television that, yes, we should have returned much sooner, but you know how those things go, right? I load the television (in its original, unopened box), get the receipt from my honey and head to Walmart.

I pull into the parking lot and my anxiety level increases just from that simple exercise. I utter this prayer: “Lord, by Your Spirit, give me peace and patience so that I don’t say or do something that both you and I will regret.” Now, I’ve discovered that when I pray for patience, He never grants me patience, but gives me opportunity to practice patience. Well, the Lord answers prayer!

I walk into Walmart holding this bulky 52″ television and the lady at the door looks at my receipt and directs me toward the customer service counter. “No problem,” I say to myself, “that’s what I expected.” Of course, making my way to the customer service counter I discover six people in line ahead of me and one customer service rep (ever try social distancing with a 52″ TV in your arms across the front aisle in Walmart?). So, here comes the frustration.

One by one, the customers make their way up to the counter. Every time one completes a transaction, I pick up the TV and move six feet forward. Twenty minutes later and a change in customer service reps (must have been break time) I make it to the counter. I tell the lady that I’d like to return the TV, to which she looks at me and says, “You’ll have to return this in electronics. We can’t take it here.”

What? Before I know it, these words slip out of my mouth–“Why couldn’t someone have told me that twenty minutes ago? And, why didn’t the lady a the front door tell me to head to electronics?” And, no, the expression on my face was not my usual angelic self.

The patient lady simply said, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go to electronics.” Not her fault, I know, but now I’m frustrated. All the way back to the electronics counter I feel the frustration rising and my mind is constructing ten different scenarios that have me waiting another twenty minutes to return the TV. Finally, I stop and remember the prayer I prayed before I walked into the store. My heart is at peace once again.

I make my way to the electronics counter and I see two customers. “Not too bad,” I think. One customer finishes her transaction as I arrive, and the other customer (with a basketful of groceries) pulls up to the counter, and I think, “Oh, no! Here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of.” But, the lady only wanted to ask a question, so she was soon on her way.

I approach the counter, tell the cashier I’d like to return the TV, and she asks for the receipt. I give her the receipt. She looks at it and says, “We can’t take this back. We have a 30 day return policy on electronics.” (I suppose I should check the fine print on those long receipts, but really…I missed it by 10 days!)

Yes, my jaw dropped and the redness in my face grew. I remembered the prayer I just prayed a few minutes ago, and with all the sincerity I could muster, said, “But, ma’am, I haven’t even opened the box!”

“Why do you need to return it?” she asked.

“Because the wall we were going to hang it on was crushed by a tree, and we don’t need it anymore,” came my response.

She inspected the box all over to confirm that we hadn’t opened it. She looks at me and says, “A manager will have to make this decision.” Ah! So, here’s the twenty minutes I was afraid of. She calls the manager. A mere five minutes later a manager shows up, looks at the TV and says, “Take it back.”

Whew! I breath a sigh of relief. During those five minutes I envisioned having to sell a brand new, still-in-the-box 52″ TV on Facebook Marketplace for half-price just to get rid of it. And, I’m thinking of all the snide comments I’m going to make when the manager says he/she can’t take it back. As usual, I was worried for nothing.

The lady begins the transaction and asks if I have the debit card that was used to purchase the TV (otherwise, you get store credit). I did. I handed her my card, she looked at my name and said, “You’re Lynn Malone?”

“Uh, yes,” I replied.

“Are you from Chatham?” she asked?

“Uh, yes,” I replied.

“You know my mother and grandmother,” she said.

She proceeded to tell me their names, and yes, I had known her grandmother all my life, and I attended school with her mother. It’s a small world, really, and for five minutes we had old home week. I left the electronics department at Walmart feeling much less frustration, but more than that, I was grateful the Lord had answered my prayer that I would not say or do anything that would both he and I would regret. Trust me! Had I let frustration get the best of me, that story would have made it back to Chatham quicker than I could, and it would have diminished my witness, but more importantly, it would have stained the name of Jesus Christ.

Like most preachers, I have a knack for making short stories long, but that notwithstanding, I’ve pondered a few lessons since that trip to the Walmart.

One lesson is not to play “What if…” in my mind. What if there are ten customers in line and I have to wait thirty minutes? What if they don’t take the TV back? We created scenarios in our mind to cause worry over things that may never happen. Certainly, the scenarios that could have played out at Walmart are nothing compared to what many people face every day, but the human proclivity is to “What if” in the most dire circumstances. We cannot “What if” our way through life and expect to find the peace of God that passes all understanding in Jesus Christ.

Another lesson I learned in the Walmart is that this really is a small world, and that anywhere we go, there is someone who is likely to know us, or know someone who knows us. It’s that whole “six degrees of separation” thing, I suppose, but it is a reason to be kind and gentle in every situation. Of course, those are both fruit of the spirit, too, so there’s that…

A lesson I had confirmed is that the Lord does answer our prayers, and I’m grateful He answered mine that day. The problem is that we don’t often take the time to offer prayers. We get too busy to pray. One thing is for certain: the Lord can’t answer the prayer that isn’t prayed.

I also reminded myself of a lesson I’ve tried to teach the congregations I’ve pastored through the years: Pray before we enter the fray. Someone once said that the problem with life is that it happens so daily. We prepare ourselves for the challenges of life through prayer as we begin the day, or as we head into stressful situations. Yup! We pray in the middle of challenging times, but if we haven’t prepared for the challenging times through prayer, it may often feel like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Pray…at all times…pray, but let each morning begin with that heavenly conversation. It will set the tone for the rest of the day.

Sorry I took such a long time to make a few weak points, but I never expected a trip to the Walmart to yield positive fruit in my life. Perhaps the catharsis of my sharing will help make us all more attentive to the grace all around us. We can experience God’s grace in every place…if we’ll just pay attention…even, in the Walmart.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Draining…

Draining. That’s the only word I can think of to describe the year 2020. Between the election, the Coronavirus, the racial discord and hurricanes (oh, and let’s not forget forest fires, floods and rioting and looting), I find myself drained and wanting desperately for this year to be over.

We might say that today (November 3, 2020) is the day many have been waiting for (not me, I’m waiting for January 1, 2021). Many feel that as soon as the election is over things will be different. I’m not one of those persons. Oh, I think there will be different reactions to the outcome today brings. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here, but I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind.

No matter what the outcome of today’s election, half the people in the nation will be overjoyed and the other half will believe the world is coming to an end (it is, by the way, probably just not tomorrow). Preparations are being made for any eventuality (see here).

My prediction? If Donald Trump loses the election, I suspect everyone will get up Wednesday morning and go to work and carry on with their lives anticipating a new administration (for better or worse). If Joe Biden loses the election, I suspect there will be many cities in our nation that will burn and many businesses will be looted and destroyed.

I’m not saying Biden supporters will be the ones doing the rioting. I am saying “antifa” or other nefarious anarchist groups may seize the opportunity to sow further division in the nation. I also know that half reading this will disagree, and half will agree. That fact is another evidence of the divided nature of our nation.

I’ve also been drained as I’ve watched the same divisions play themselves out in the church of Jesus Christ. As I wrote in a previous blog, we seem to forget that Jesus has torn down the “dividing wall” that separates us. We are no longer divided, but united through the blood of Jesus Christ. We sure haven’t been treating one another that way. No doubt, 2020 has been a stain on the witness of the Church in the world, and it’s just been draining.

I was challenged by John Piper’s assessment of the situation in our nation as he anticipates the election. The question on the lips of many believers is “How could a Christian vote for Trump?” The question on the lips of equally as many Christians is “How could a Christian vote for Biden?” To vote for the one is to vote for arrogance and boastfulness and pride and hatred. To vote for the other is to vote against life and truth.

Don’t ask an evangelical Christian from Louisiana how he/she could vote for Donald Trump. There was a time when Louisianians had to vote for a man who famously (or infamously) said, “The only way I could lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.” Of course, that was back in the day when you could actually say such a thing and not get canceled. 

That man was Edwin Edwards, a popular womanizer, gambler and extortionist who served a sentence in federal prison for his often unhidden corruption. But, evangelical Christians were basically left with no choice because his competitor in the race for governor was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, who cleaned up nicely and said things many folks wanted to hear. He garnered just enough support to slip into a runoff with the former governor, leaving Christians with a terrible dilemma. 

Most in Louisiana did with Edwin Edwards what they will do with Donald Trump—hold their nose and cast their ballot, not because Donald Trump is a man of pristine character, but because the Democrat Party has chosen a candidate and established a platform that opposes so much of what evangelical Christians value most. 

They will hold their nose and cast their ballots in Louisiana because they’ve been down this road before. They will vote, not on personality, but on what they believe to be the best policy to lead this nation forward. I would caution against questioning their virtue as evangelical Christians (though many will). When the choice is between two evils, one needs be picked. It is the nature of the two-party beast.

I suppose one could choose not to vote, or vote for a third-party candidate. I think we’re all struggling to do our best, and the reality is we don’t always do our best when we’re drained. I also know that God has enough grace to go around for all of us.

I also know that whatever happens today (and in the days ahead as results unfold), Jesus is still on the throne and He calls me to a higher obedience than does this or any nation. If freedom continues to ring throughout the land, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ. If tyranny for the believer comes, I will celebrate and worship Jesus Christ, and I will pray that my faith will sustain me (and that the Church’s faith will sustain her) through any fiery trials that come, and that she (and I) will be a better witness of the grace of God than perhaps we have been in the past. Either way, we (the Church) are safe in the shadow of the Cross.

So, as drained as I am, I will seek desperately to be filled–to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only as we are filled that we will find strength to live through every time and age and circumstance that life brings. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s prayer to the Ephesian church:

15 Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, 16 I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. 18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.

19 I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. 21 Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. 22 God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.23 And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself. (Ephesians 1: 15 – 23 NLT)

I’ll desire to be filled by Him. May you be, as well.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus IS the Answer…

I was just a kid in the early 1970’s, but I remember vividly the music of Andre Crouch and The Disciples. I remember his music because I was part of a youth choir that often sang songs he wrote. One song in particular that I’ve been singing over and over lately is one entitled Jesus is the Answer. I’ve been singing it because I believe the Jesus IS the answer for the world today.

I also vividly remember many people who mocked Andre Crouch and the title to that song. Mockers asked, “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” I don’t know if there was a specific question Crouch was asking back in the 1970’s, but I know there is a specific question folks are asking today (and I’m asking it myself, too). With the racial and political brokenness facing us in this monster year 2020, the question is “How do we heal the division among us?”

Is it necessary for me to point out those areas of division? Probably not, but just in case you haven’t noticed, here are a few:

  • Ideologically–Capitalist vs. Socialists/Communists
  • Racially–White vs. Black, et. al.
  • Politically–Democrat vs. Republican, Trump vs. Never-Trump
  • Religiously–Traditionalist vs. Progressive

The list could go on. The divisions are tearing at the very fabric of our humanity. I am concerned about where the divisions will lead us unless we do the hard work of reconciling our differences, and learning again how to live with our diversity as a people and as a nation.

Of course, we aren’t the first generation to deal with divisions. The Apostle Paul’s generation had one, too. He writes about it to the church in Ephesus as an illustration—and a vivid one it is! In Ephesians 2, he calls it “dividing wall.” The wall to which Paul referred was a 3 1/2 foot high stone wall in the Temple that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews, and on that stone wall were signs that basically read, “Any foreigner who enters beyond this point is responsible for their ensuing death.” Paul uses the image to tell the church that in Christ that wall has been torn down. The division that existed between Jew and Gentile prior to Christ no longer existed. Through Jesus Christ, the two people are made one. They are united in Christ. That was their new identity.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for the first disciples, steeped as they were in 2000 years of history as God’s chosen people, to be told that they were to treat Gentiles the same as they would other Jews. It’s hard for us to imagine because we don’t have any real equivalent today. Here they were, a tiny, insignificant nation, and yet God had chosen them and revealed himself to them. They had Moses and the Prophets. God said they were a holy  nation, set apart for his service.

They actually had a somewhat arrogant view of their calling. William Barclay wrote that, “The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell.” He would also write, “It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother [at childbirth], for that would simply bring another Gentile into the world.” It was such that if a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the family had the funeral for the boy or the girl right then. No, Jews and Gentiles were not friends, and the Temple had a vivid image to remind them of that fact.

The chosen people had erected a wall, and Paul tells the Ephesians that the wall was the law, but Jesus abolished the wall through his death on the cross, and reconciled everything by the power of his blood to God, the Father. Now, everyone—Jew and Gentile—comes to God on the basis of faith in His Son. There is a key word there–reconciled.

So, what does Paul say is the result of this reconciliation in Christ? First, the Gentiles are no longer aliens and strangers, visitors without any legal rights, but rather citizens of God’s kingdom. They now enjoy all the privileges of being part of God’s people.

We are embroiled in a debate over the immigration laws in our nation, and I’m not going to give commentary one way or the other about that, but think for a moment the risks so many of those immigrants are willing to take to come to America. The benefits of being an American citizen are worth going to any lengths to obtain.

If being a citizen of America is so good, what about being a citizen of the Kingdom of God? But, it’s even better than that. Paul extends the analogy. He says, “You’ve now become members of God’s household.” You’re part of the family. Being part of a Kingdom is one thing, but being part of family of the King, is another. It means, in the context of this passage, that we’re now brothers and sisters of one another. No matter what our background, we’ve been brought into a new relationship of care, affection and support that may not characterize our earthly family, but does characterize the ideal family, the family of God.

Paul doesn’t leave the analogy there, though. He says Christ destroyed one thing to build another. He tore down a wall so he could build a house. He’s building a house on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with himself as the cornerstone. 

I’m reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel, where people tried to build a great tower to reach heaven, and God came down and confused their speech so they couldn’t communicate with each other. They all went off to their own parts of the earth. That was the beginning of the alienation of the races. But in Jesus, we see the process reversed. In Jesus, we see a new humanity, a new community being formed in unity with Christ as its foundation. As this new community is formed, it becomes the place where God dwells and where his people come together to worship him.

Don’t miss how important the corporate nature of the church is here. If we are ever tempted to have an individualistic view of Christianity, to think that God simply comes to dwell in each one of us as individuals and the church is just an add-on, think about what Paul says here. As we’re built together we become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit. As we’re united in Christ we become the new Temple of God, God’s dwelling place.

It’s important to note that Paul says we’re becoming a holy temple. That’s means we haven’t made it yet. God is still working to on us…individually and corporately. That’s part of Wesleyan theology…this whole idea that we are moving on toward perfection. It is part of the struggle we disciples have as we grapple with one another in this shifting culture. Where does God speak into the situations that divide us, and how does God speak into them?

Honestly, we start with what the Bible says. That’s what it means to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  They’re the human authors of most of the Bible. In other words, the church is built on God’s Word. That’s why we take it so seriously, and it’s why we don’t tamper with it. We know how dangerous it is to tamper with a building’s foundation. That’s why we should prick up our ears whenever we hear someone undermining the authority of God’s word, or questioning its authenticity. I’m certain the conversation won’t end there, but it at least must start there.

So, how are we to be united? I think there are implications for us personally and corporately. There is one word that I believe is key for our unity is Christ, and that word is forgiveness. Personally, we must begin to tear down the divisions we’ve built between ourselves and others by seeking and extending forgiveness as freely as God has extended it to us through Jesus Christ.

One of the ways we can do that is to acknowledge the person I’m listening to may know something I don’t know. Jordan Peterson has written a fantastic book entitled Twelve Rules for Life. Rule number nine says, “Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.” When we listen to others, we can begin to find places where reconciliation may come, and then we’ll discover our unity in Christ.

Corporately, there’s nothing that happens in the Church that should cause a breakdown in relationships…nothing! The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How can we invite others into a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ if we’re not reconciled to one another?

Internal harmony is one of the things architects look for when they’re sizing up the aesthetics of a building. But the harmony we’re talking about here is more than just aesthetic. We’re talking about a harmony where all the parts work together to bring the building to completion. We overcome this division, too, by seeking and extending forgiveness.

We are united in Christ. That which divides us fades into insignificance when we acknowledge ourselves as God’s sons and daughters. The worth of people different from ourselves can only be judged from God’s point of view. The color of our skin, the sound of our accent, the language we speak with most comfort have nothing to do with it. What matters is that Jesus Christ died to reconcile us to the father and to each other.

So, yes, I believe Jesus is the answer to the divisions in our culture. Unfortunately, the culture is turning further and further away from Jesus, but that’s an entirely different blog.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Disciples Discipling Disciples (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 5)…

By now, you’re saying, “Enough already! Is why you’re starting The House Church Movement all you have to write about?” This will be the last blog I write that deals with the “why” of house church (or, at least MY why). 

Photo courtesy of the PCAJesus gave a very simple mission to His church immediately before His ascension–go make disciples (Matthew 28: 18-20). I wonder how such a simple mission has gained so much complexity over the centuries. Jesus’ first disciples were told to disciple others, and the only example they had was Jesus. In Luke 9 and Matthew 10, we find Jesus going house-to-house throughout Galilee and Judea, and then Jesus telling his disciples to do the same. The Book of Acts certainly confirms this model of ministry.

The Apostle Paul, in writing his letters to the early church, wrote to churches that were meeting in homes, and the instructions he gave them were given with this model in mind. The concept of spiritual gifting was given to the Church with the understanding that the gifts of believers would be lived out in the community of faith–the house church.

A word of clarity, though. The Apostle Paul would use the word for church when referring to both the individual house churches and the gathered body, so using the one does not detract from the other. Again, I’m not anti-institutional (the fact that I keep mentioning that does make me wonder a little though). Wherever the body of Christ gathers, there is the Church.

Unfortunately, the “gifts” for ministry became formalized as the Church grew and transitioned from a house-based movement to the more “traditional” model we know today throughout most of the west. Pastors, teachers, evangelist, et. al., became church professionals. In the early church, there was a team of leaders–bishops, pastors, elders–who led the church in making disciples. Now, we depend on professional staff teams to lead us, and the individual giftedness of disciples is underutilized in the Kingdom economy.

The Apostle Paul was very specific in writing to the early church at Ephesus about the role of leaders in the church. He wrote:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4: 11 – 12, NIV).

Each of these giftings were given by Christ Himself for the building up of His church, and the most fruitful discipleship model utilizes these gifts in their fullness to increase the Kingdom. This is the model wherein disciples disciple disciples, thus fulfilling the Great Commission Christ gave to His Church.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  He lists many different gifts that the Spirit gives to believers for the sake of the body. Then he explains how every part of the body is needed, and that we must be careful to not start to develop a mindset that some gifts are more necessary than others.  Does every single believer in a church realize that they are just as needed and important as anyone else in the church? Or do they tend to think that the preacher and worship leader are more important?

The House Church Movement is designed to create space for everyone in the body to contribute in the meetings and in everyday life.  The “pastor’s” is not the only voice that needs to be heard.  Long monologue sermons are not meant to be the norm in house church meetings because no one person should dominate things.

Everyone is called to make disciples.  We are all called to share the gospel with non-believers in hopes that they would follow Jesus. We are all called to take responsibility for the spiritual care of other believers.  But discipleship is hard and messy.  It involves intentionally getting to know someone, having hard conversations when sin is evident, working through conflict, and spending extra time with them when life gets hard.

The temptation in the church has been to replace discipleship with programs.  If there is a married couple struggling, we suggest they read a book, enroll in a marriage class, or go on a retreat.  Discipleship means having an older couple who loves Jesus to come alongside of them and do life with them through life’s challenges.  Though marriage retreats, classes and seminars can be helpful, we hide behind them and ignore our responsibility to make disciples. It’s not that these programs are bad, but they run the risk of undermining what is best and most important. We end up trading the best for the good.

In The House Church Movement, the pastors are not responsible for discipling everyone, but rather they will each disciple a few and then ensure that those disciples are also discipling a few.  And for those who are new to the faith, though they might not be fully responsible for the spiritual care of another person, they will be actively engaged in evangelistic efforts and be trained to take responsibility for others.

The House Church Movement, with its small, intimate, intentional group of believers provides no room to hide.  Each person’s life is consistently before someone else.  It means that each person is expected to be transparent with a few other believers about the things they would hide, while those believers walk with them through healing, repentance, and believing the promises of God.  There shouldn’t be any room for people just “attend church” when everyone is being discipled for life and ministry.

Discipleship is taking responsibility for the spiritual care of somebody else. It doesn’t mean you’re the only one invested in that person, but it does mean you should be aware of what’s going on in that person’s life. Discipleship is life on life. Discipleship doesn’t happen with coffee dates once a week. You need to be around each other and observe each other’s lives almost daily.

Disciples discipling disciples. It can be messy work, indeed! But, it can also be the most fulfilling and transformative work a disciple can ever do. It’s another reason I feel called to lead The House Church Movement.

So, there you have it. The five reasons I feel called to do this new thing. Now, maybe we can move on to something else.

Until next time, keep looking up…

It’s Harvest Time (or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 4)…

Let’s be frank. House church (organic church, simple church) is countercultural for us folks in the United States (most of the west, really). I’m okay with that, though, because if there was ever a time the Church needed to be countercultural, it is now.

Since I’m being frank, let me also say that if you should attend a house church, you’re not likely to find the music to be excellent (although if you come to the House Church Movement, you’ll find my daughter leading us with excellence), the preaching and/or teaching may not be as polished as one is accustomed to, and the youth/children’s program will be unspectacular.

These reasons (and probably a few more) are why there isn’t more house church focused church planting movements in the west. We like our high-energy music, our polished preaching and those youth/children’s ministries that are going to do for children what parents are so unwilling (or unable) to do for themselves. House church for too many people will lack the glitz and glamour that will reach a consumer culture.

That fact notwithstanding, I believe the house church model of church planting is perfectly poised to reach new fields that are ripe for harvest. The house church planting model is designed to be “close to the ground,” as in, rooted in relationships with neighbors and co-workers, high on interpersonal relationships, ingrained in the rhythm of the community, not restricted by money or funding and is simple in its administration.

Additionally, Covid-19 has changed the landscape of traditional church. By all accounts, most traditional churches are averaging 30 – 50% of pre-Covid attendance. Those churches that see a higher percentage are outliers. Based on what I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with pastors, those percentages are not likely to change drastically for the foreseeable future. That’s because half the people believe the church shouldn’t be meeting yet, and the other half of the people believe the church should have never stopped.

The opportunity that exists for the house church in this environment is that the church can be where the people are. The new context is simply more conducive to the house church. The house church can meet in closed communities. The house church can meet in large apartment complexes. The house church can meet in dense urban areas where the cost of living (and the cost of property) is expensive. The house church can meet in college dorms. The house church can meet in places where the government has restricted public worship gatherings (it sure feels strange to write that sentence as I sit in the United States!). The house church can meet wherever there is a home and a facilitator.

For all these reasons, the house church model can revive an evangelistic zeal in the Kingdom of God for the west. Consider for a moment the rapid growth of the early church. Between Pentecost and 70 AD the church experienced the most phenomenal growth in its history, spreading from a mere handful of believers in Judea throughout the Mediterranean world. Most scholars agree that this growth was accomplished using private homes as the primary meeting place.

Consider, also, the following mathematical potential for a ministry such as The House Church Movement. Beginning with a single home congregation with an average membership of twelve people, allow for that one group to reproduce itself in the form of a second group after two years. Then, allow for each of those groups to reproduce during the next two years—and so on. Allowing for growth and loss within each group, yet maintaining the group average of only twelve members (a conservative estimate of group size), after 6 years, The House Church Movement would have 96 members. After 12 years, The Movement would have 768 members. After 15 years, it would consist of 2,304 members. After 18 years, 6,912 members. After 20 years, the overall membership of The House Church Movement would be 13,824!

Please understand, I hold no illusion that The House Church Movement will ever boast a membership of nearly 14,000 people. I simply offer these projections as a way of showing that this philosophy of ministry and evangelism has potential equal to, if not greater than more traditional models.

Please don’t think I’m trying to sell everyone on the house church model or The House Church Movement. I’ll admit that it’s even hard for me to move away from the traditional church model of ministry, but I feel called to this model and to this Movement because I believe that house churches take place where harvest happens–in the neighborhoods, in the work places and in the homes of both those who believe and those who do not.

Until next time, keep looking up…

No Needy Among Them (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 3)…

I love what Luke writes in Acts 4: 32-35–

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Can you imagine what that must have looked like?

As I began praying about a new church plant, I sensed the Holy Spirit calling me toward planting a “house” church. Initially, I interpreted the vision to be open to growing into a more traditional expression of the church—building, pews, administration, etc. As I’ve lived with and prayed over the vision the past two months, I’ve gained greater clarity as to where the Lord may be leading us as a new church plant. I am grateful to a group of 21 people who have consistently prayed for clarity in this unfolding work of the Holy Spirit.

It is not unusual for a new church to begin by meeting in a home. A small group of only ten or twenty people does not need a larger meeting place, and the costs involved in procuring any sort of space is often prohibitive. In this regard, a “house church” is understandable to many. But if they learn that it was the intention to continue meeting in homes no matter how large it grows, eyebrows will begin to rise.

The idea of the house church does not easily fit into the tradition of American discipleship. For generations, the idea of the church has been almost universally associated with a central meeting place—a church building. Even though the biblically informed disciple knows that the church is people, it remains almost impossible for some to escape the association between a particular local church and the building in which that church gathers.

When a society has grown up with an idea—a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation—a departure from that tradition can seem strange or even wrong. I will not fault anyone who questions the practice shared in this vision, or any who are not convinced of its benefits, nor is this unfolding vision a condemnation of the longstanding tradition of churches meeting in large central buildings. Too many examples of excellence within that tradition, both historically and currently, can be mentioned in its defense. My intent is simply to offer another reason why The House Church Movement will continue meeting in homes, and to demonstrate that not only is the practice biblically sound, but it is a great model for meeting peoples needs.

A NATURAL SETTING FOR FELLOWSHIP

During a House Church Movement meeting, we will enjoy facing one another in a warm, familiar environment, rather than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head while most of the activity takes place on a stage. We may also enjoy eating a meal together every week, sampling friends’ cooking, or sometimes bringing in pizza. We might enjoy drinking coffee or tea after a Movement Meeting while sitting comfortably around the living room, sharing in each other’s lives. We could stay late, discussing personal or church matters and doctrinal issues. Sometimes, advice or counsel may sought by one, and given in return by another, or even several. Sometimes, two or three may find a quiet place to pray together. It could be like a family reunion every week.

While this type of fellowship can take place in a sanctuary setting, in the home it is natural. And, even as The House Church Movement grows large in numbers, it never has to lose the familiarity and intimacy that can be experienced in a home’s setting. Instead, new congregations can be formed—teaching others how to experience this same rich Christian fellowship. There is little doubt in a hurting world that people are longing for fellowship and intimacy that a house church setting could provide.

A DESIGN FOR BIBLICAL INSTRUCTION

When the New Testament authors gave written instructions to the church, they were writing in light of what they knew the church to be—small assemblies meeting in homes. Consider: If the church were later transformed into something that had never been seen or anticipated by the authors of the New Testament, the instructions they gave to the early church might not be as readily applicable to the new form. As an example, consider this principle in light of all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament—the commands to know, love, guard, and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ (i. e. John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Galatians 6:1,10; Colossians 3:12-16; 1 John 3:16-17).

Certainly these are kept faithfully in many larger congregations, but one can hardly overlook the fact that increased size means increased difficulty in keeping them consistently. There exists the increased potential that some will fall through the cracks. It is evident that in order to keep the commands to love and care for one another, larger bodies need added structures and programs which, in turn, necessitate additional burdens of administration. I could multiply examples, but suffice it to say that in at least this one case, the instructions are much easier to follow consistently in a smaller gathering. I might even suggest that these instructions were designed for small gatherings.

Because no one falls through the cracks, needs are more readily known and easily met. I’m not sure there is a greater “why” for the house church, but there are still two more we’ll explore in coming weeks:

  • House churches take place where harvest happens, and
  • House churches raise up disciples to embrace the ministry to which they’ve been called.

Until next time, keep looking up…