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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Standing on the Precipice

     Standing on the precipice of the New Year is a good place to ask what we should expect from a working religion. One may answer that such a religion provides labels – markers of things that are “good” and things that are “bad”. Life is always a journey and a working religion provides clear guidance for that journey. Some choices will benefit and others will cause harm. A working religion not only labels the difference but nudges us – or nags us – into making the right choice. Such a simple view is by no means all wrong: and in these days of moral confusion it is refreshing sometimes to hear plainly that there are “good” choices and “bad” choices.

     Yet, reducing the grand purpose of religion to making choices seems to place our faith on the “self-help” shelf of the bookstore. That shelf is already crowded. And placed alongside other intriguing titles may suggest that one is as good as the other. Is there anything about a solid working religion that separates it from pop psychology? A working religion that holds promise for the New Year must offer more substance than a guide to the simple choices we will face.

     I propose that the Christian faith does offer more. First, the Christian faith provides a system of priorities and equips the follower with the capacity to make wise choices within particular circumstances and contexts. This is of particular value when presented with a number of otherwise “good” choices. An example might be where you will spend more time in the New Year: home and family; career development and advancement; social obligations and commitments; church and any number of other worthy activities. Once identified, it becomes difficult to number them one, two, three. They are all good, and time, energy and thought must be divided among them. What is one to do? For the Christian struggling with this difficulty Jesus speaks, “Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33 Common English Bible) Here is our priority. God’s kingdom is wider and deeper than any list we may construct. If our deepest desire in the New Year is to pursue God’s kingdom there is the promise that God will order all our other decisions.

     The second gift of a working religion is a relationship – a relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ the church is promised the capacity to make wise and useful decisions in the complexity of life. But more is needed. Life is hard. Life is exhausting. Life will leave each one of us feeling defeated at times. Wisdom gleaned from ordered priorities has limited capacity to move forward the one who is beaten down by difficulty. Fortunately Jesus promises more; Jesus promises Himself: “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20 Common English Bible) That is what we can expect from a working religion. It is what we receive.

Joy,

Thursday, December 19, 2013

People of Faith

     People of faith often turn to the scriptures for comfort and encouragement. Occasionally, however, the same people stub their toe on a difficult passage such as one from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Here we have a teaching that speaks of those who have - they will receive more. And those who have nothing – what they do have will be taken away. On the surface it appears that a thief of the night broke into our Bibles and placed there some teaching from the world. Not only is the teaching difficult. It is a potential embarrassment to Jesus.

     Recently I have been given a set of fresh lenses in which to view this disturbing teaching. My wife, Grace is an instructor with Weight Watchers International. She is passionate about coming alongside people and helping them make healthy lifestyle choices, particularly in the area of diet and exercise. What I have learned from her is that people who have health generally grow healthier through healthy choices in what they eat and regular, vigorous exercise. Proper diet and exercise invigorates them. The result? Those who have health receive more health.

     On the other hand, those who are unhealthy generally continue to make poor choices in diet and engage in little exercise. Consequently, what little health they do have diminishes. Simply, what they have is taken from them.

     In the fourth chapter of Mark Jesus teaches us that the same principal holds true for our spiritual health. To the one who has faith more faith is given. That is because times of doubt opens windows to larger understandings of God, dark nights of the soul sharpen the eyes of the heart to see God where God is most invisible. People of faith increase in faith in times of struggle and ordeals simply because they are familiar with the traditional resources of the faith such as scripture and prayer and know how to use them.

     To those who have little faith, doubts tend to destroy what small faith they may have had. Difficulties that follow only harden the unbelief. Jesus is right; those who have nothing will soon find that what little they may have had is soon taken from them. If later they experience success and prosperity they credit their own self-sufficiency.

     Sometime ago I learned of a professor who arrived on the faculty of Yale University. He was a man of faith but, caught up in a demanding schedule of teaching and faculty meetings neglected the nourishment of his faith. As the years passed he seemed to lose all religious interest and was soon rated by the students as uncaring. Near the end of his teaching career he made this self-observation: “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs into a drawer, and when I opened it, there was nothing there at all.”

Joy,

Friday, December 13, 2013

Trust in Jesus Christ

     Henry Sloane Coffin, formerly pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, once shared the true story of an elderly couple who had moved from North Carolina to Oklahoma. Purchasing a small farm they eked out a modest living year after year working the land. All their effort did provide for their basic needs but little else. One day some men arrived on their property and asked the woman for a drink from a well that she and her husband had dug. She was surprised to see them take some of the water away in a bottle. Later the same men return and offered the couple a sum that seemed generous and it was accepted. A pipe was driven down between the house and the barn, and the quantity of the flow of oil was the talk of the town. The woman was overheard saying to her husband: “To think that we slaved here for years, and all this was at our doorstep, and we never knew it.”

     Coffin asks that we discover in this story a glimpse of what it is for Christians to say with their lips that they trust in Jesus Christ but continue to live as if there is no God. There isn’t any concerted effort to know God, no intentional strategy to become more like Christ. The result is that we plod through life by our own strength expecting nothing more than what our efforts can produce. So preoccupied with managing our daily affairs we never dig deep into the resources of our faith to discover that very present with us is the uncommon power of Jesus waiting to be released in our lives.

     It is tragically possible to be a member of the church all of one’s life and never discover the riches of the faith. Yet, God’s power for conquering all the struggles and difficulties that life seem to lavish upon each of us remains at our doorstep. And every day we make an excuse for not engaging in a process for growing in Jesus we struggle in poverty-stricken godlessness.

Joy,

Friday, December 6, 2013

What the Cross of Christ Demands of Us

            The Apostle Paul spoke of the cross of Christ as the wisdom and power of God. In that cross Paul found steady guidance and a compulsion to a new life. Perhaps with Paul as our witness and example followers of Jesus today can find a similar directive and compulsion for living with greater depth and significance. What did Paul see in the cross that can help us today?

      Foremost, for Paul, is the absence of an external law that governed the journey to the cross. Certainly the religious establishment of Jesus’ day had rules of right and wrong. But a careful observer of Jesus will notice just how often He seemed to delight in breaking the rules. Rules of right and wrong did not direct Jesus. The self-offering of Jesus upon the cross was one that was pressed forward by an inward Spirit – God’s Spirit as Jesus listened closely to His Father’s will. Remember that in the garden, before Jesus was arrested, Jesus asked in prayer for the cross to be taken away from Him. Yet, in the same prayer Jesus sought and submitted to God’s will. Paul’s discovery in this, and our discovery to be made, is that life for Jesus was a series of adventures, prompted by love and obedience, to know God’s will.

     Second, Jesus lived loyally and daringly.  Jesus’ life was not without perplexities and mental struggles and neither will ours be. Yet, led by the Spirit responsibilities and problems were thought through and addressed. Anything at variance with what Jesus perceived to be the will of God was dismissed and this often came with the knowledge that life would be lived dangerously. If we seek to follow Jesus our lives will not be any less dangerous – not if our quest to follow is an authentic one.  

     Finally, Paul listened carefully to Jesus recasting the commandments of the Old Testament in a manner that penetrated the heart of women and men. Application of the commandments meant more than outward behavior and actions; Jesus’ concern was with matters of the heart. A most marvelous example is the commandment against adultery. Jesus creates fresh understanding of the commandment by saying that even a lustful glance in the wrong direction convicts us. Such disruptions of the religious order of the day hasten the cross. Similarly Jesus has not given us ready-made solutions of our personal or social problems but calls us to seek God’s unfolding guidance in this great adventure of faith. It is an adventure where we soon discover that God is creating a new earth through our obedience.

Joy,

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wholeness

     Wholeness, emotional and spiritual, seems to be a scarce commodity in these times. Life is lived in the midst of forces that pull one off center; forces that seem to delight in knocking us off balance simply to watch us tumble. How to remain whole in the midst of these forces is a question that churns more and more frequently – ironic since such questions tend to multiply the difficulty. What are we to do, particularly for the heart that is on a quest for a life lived more deeply, a life that is more satisfying?

     There is no easy answer, not a complete one anyway. Perhaps a good place to begin, a first step is to pay attention to the Jesus of the Gospels – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In each Gospel the careful reader notices the frequency of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds, from the disciples for the nourishing properties of solitude. This is not a time for rest though rest is enjoyed in the practice of solitude. Neither is solitude a time to unwind or decompress though both of these are certainly received in abundant measure and deeply appreciated. No, solitude, properly understood, is the withdrawal from others for replenishment; replenishment of physical, emotional and spiritual energy. Solitude is receiving rather than giving. It is not loneliness. Loneliness is inner emptiness, writes Richard Foster. Solitude is inner fulfillment.

     Solitude is a difficult practice to learn in a culture that places such a high premium upon productivity. People tend to be valued for what they can give, not for what they receive. Solitude is receiving. Yet, solitude may be pursued so that a life that is replenished, a life that is filled once again may give. There is an alternating rhythm, is there not, between two apparent extremes, between engagement with the world and withdrawal from the same world. Jesus found a balance of the two. A careful eye and a spirit that is attentive to Jesus’ life – both in the study of scripture and prayer – finds that the Spirit of God infuses the heart and mind with the same balance.

     Certainly a goal of solitude may be to receive something or learn something to carry back into the world, a world that constantly demands something from us. There is nothing wrong with this goal. It is, however, insufficient for a follower of Jesus. There is more to solitude than being supplied for continued contribution. Jesus was always clear and never wavered on this one point - He came into the world that those who trust in Him may have life, even life abundantly. What Jesus means by this is that He desires that we are whole, body, mind and spirit. Not whole so that we can then be useful and give. That is to reduce God’s economy to a cost and benefit analysis. No, God’s desire for us is greater than that. God desires wholeness for us simply for wholeness sake. Solitude supplies wholeness. It is there we find joy – and our joy is God’s joy.

Joy,       

Friday, November 22, 2013

Holy Living in a Distracted Life

     Nearly twenty-seven years of professional ministry, marriage and being a father has given me a fresh awareness, at once painful and humorous, of why the saints of the church rarely married. I am wrong to have ever thought the issue was chastity. It isn’t, at least as far as I can now imagine, denied as I am by time (and their death) of speaking with them. No, the issue isn’t chastity, its distraction. Professional ministry is all about a thousand details. To be fair, so is life. Marriage, raising children and earning a living, whether as a pastor or advertising executive or any other thousands of ways we struggle to pay the bills is an exhausting enterprise. Intentional activity for growing in the holy life is easily pushed to the outside of the plate of daily activities. Should it fall over the edge of the plate, who among us even notices? It now seems that the saints realized that distractions – the thousand things that plea for our attention - are at least minimized without a marriage and a family.

     Michael L. Lindvall, the hard-working pastor of The Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York once wrote that some days his practice of holy living is reduced to the few seconds between his head touching the pillow at the end of a long day and sleep; he prays simply, “Bless my sleep before I start again tomorrow.” Greg Ogden writes that nothing consumes pastors more, both time and emotional energy, than pastoral care. Ogden further asserts that pastoral care is far too important to make it the sole or even primary function of the senior pastor. Either the care receiver will be short-changed by an exhausted pastor or the primary call of pastors to preach, teach or lead will be diminished. Ask that pastor to also lead the way toward faithful spiritual disciplines and every pastor will leave the vocation of ministry. It is simply too exhausting.

     What are the saint, pastor and everyday follower of Jesus to do? Total retirement sounds very attractive. But that isn’t an option for most. I cannot shed my responsibilities to my spouse and children. Working for a paycheck is an important part of meeting those responsibilities. Though inhabiting a deserted, tropical island sounds wonderfully attractive another way must be pursued. It seems to me that a closer look at the lives of the saints offer a clue. I speak not of chastity – outstanding student loans with my children’s names attached announce that it’s too late for that. Rather, I speak of the saints’ contentment with what they had, their fundamental life practice of simplicity of possessions. Distractions multiply with possessions. Perhaps I can find ways to live with less.

     It now seems that God's urgent claim upon our financial lives is one of grace. Giving away a portion of our wealth prevents the spending of that gift.  If the gift isn't spent then all the distractions that follow simply don't show up in our life.  More, after a period of responsible giving what inevitably becomes clear is that the financial contribution never was something we gave away.  What presses against our hearts is the certain truth that we have actually made a purchase - what the scripture calls a purchase that is imperishable.  What we have purchased is a life that, as the current pope puts it, has the fragrance of the Gospel.  We have purchased a holy life - a life that pays attention to God.

Joy,

Friday, November 15, 2013

My Central Goal

     My central goal as your pastor is simply to help you, the people I serve, deepen your Christian faith and provide direction for your faith journey. What I long for is that each member of this congregation will be continually formed in Christ; be shaped into someone who speaks, acts and behaves as Jesus. An important part of this is the daily reading of the Bible.

     Occasionally the honest and sincere question is asked, “Of what value can I expect from the daily reading of the Bible?” Nearly always the question is asked by left-brain, practical people. The question is not asked to be argumentative or simply to be incorrigible. It is asked by persons who always watch the bottom line in life, people who take a hard and careful look at the returned value of every decision to act. After all, time and energy these days is a scarce commodity. Both must be used wisely. Reading the Bible carefully and thoughtfully takes both time and energy.

     I propose that there are at least three benefits to the daily reading of the Bible. First, the regular reading of God’s word delivers us from anxiety. Our own little world may be coming unglued by family strife, illness or financial strain. The regular, disciplined reading of the Bible reminds us that we are not alone; reminds us that we live each day in the observant care of a great God. What we are reminded of every time we return to the Bible is that ultimately we belong to God. This knowledge has a tremendous capacity for settling anxiety.

     Second, we are delivered from self-consciousness. Ours is a culture that in subtle and less than subtle ways calls us to stare at ourselves. Magazine covers and cosmetic ads seem to impress upon us that value comes from beauty – and the dollars spent striving for that beauty is staggering. For most of us we will never look like Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt. What is unfortunate is that in our striving we eventually feel defeated. Reading God’s word each day counter-balances the message of the culture that we must look beautiful. The Bible reminds us that we are at this very moment precious to God regardless of what reflection we see in the store window when we walk past.

     Third, the regular reading of the Bible delivers us from conceit. Certainly there are people who don’t struggle with a positive self-image. Theirs is another struggle. They look marvelous in that suit or evening gown, point to educational credentials on the office wall and seem to have the resources to purchase anything at all. With every step they take the air surrounding them is filled with self-importance. Ultimately it all adds-up to emptiness. That is because we were wired – created – for relationship; relationship with one another and with God. The Bible read well and closely reminds us of that. It is living into community with others, loving and being loved that life finally makes sense.

 Joy,

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Training in the Christian Life

     If you think of it, in our own homes there are three ways in which our lives are trained. The earliest is discipline. By this, I do not mean punishment. Rather, I speak of structured activities where the youngest member of the family is provided a schedule that gives order to the day. Rising in the morning, bathing, eating meals, napping and playtime are all structured for the baby or young child. A rhythm for each day develops – the child learns fundamental activities for living a full, rich and stimulating life.

      The second is imitation. The child continually observes those who are older – siblings as well as parents. From observation, behavior and speech patterns emerge that imitate those who are older. Though physical characteristics are determined genetically, unique behavioral traits, responses and voice inflections are largely shaped by imitation, both conscious and unconscious.

     Third is inspiration. As loyalty and respect, even admiration, grows within the child for those who are older, so does the desire to honor them with similar life values. The child becomes an adult who desires to emulate the honorable life lived in their presence.

     Training for the Christian life follows a similar pattern. Christian parents make a promise at their child’s baptism to raise the child in a church, a community of faith. Early in the child’s life there is the discipline of going to Sunday school and worship. Much about the worship experience may seem strange. Yet, the regular order of the service, week after week, results in questions that generate learning. Faith is lived before there is understanding.

     Each week, as the child matures, they observe the behavior of others in worship. Imitation ensues. The child learns that worship is a time of deep reverence – they discover that there is present in the movement of worship something sacred and attention is demanded. Slowly, but certainly the child experiences and learns how to worship as a child of God.

     Finally, our children are grown. Confident that we as parents have done what we could – and that the Holy Spirit has been a participant in the process all along – we anticipate that our children will choose weekly worship from a deep place of inspiration. They have observed and experienced something deeply moving and meaningful in the simple act of gathering with others to honor and praise their creator and savior, Jesus Christ. They have been trained well for the Christian life that will sustain them in joys and sorrows, good times and bad. More, they have been provided with guidance for what to do when they welcome their first child.

Joy,

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Of What Use Is Spiritual Progress?

     Many who sit in Christian churches Sunday after Sunday have little inclination as to why. For some it simply feels right, raised by parents who instilled a sense of duty or obligation that this is a responsible course for one’s life. Some are present because of a gnawing sense that something is missing in their lives – they are genuinely looking for that something whatever that something may be. Others may have come with someone else, present in worship because it is important to the person they came with. Though it is fair to say that some have come for excellent music or an inspiring sermon, the question remains, what is it that the music and sermon bring to the table of the individual life? To offer the answer that music and sermons advance the spiritual progress of the person fails to answer, of what use is spiritual progress?

     It is a common question in this practical age. Whether the question has been clearly fashioned in the mind or remains a rather nebulous vapor seeking shape doesn’t really matter. It does not matter if the question hides in the shadows of the mind or stands unashamed upon center stage stripped of all pretenses. The question betrays a particular point of view: God is a utility that is available to serve needs. This is a deeply flawed point of view and may answer why there is such complacency among many church members. God sits on the spice rack of life. We reach for God when life needs a little seasoning or flavor. God’s purpose is to advance our life in whatever direction we chose.

     Friendship will not open its door to the one who keeps asking of others, “Of what value can you add to my life?” Attempts to use people for personal advancement betray sincerity and ruins friendships. Marriage will not afford access to its rich blessings to the one who asks, “Of what advantage will this spouse provide my life?” The use of a spouse for personal gain or advancement degrades marriage. To approach the holiest relation of them all – fellowship with God – with the expectation of personal enrichment or value bars the communion of God and personal spirit.

     Naturally, friends often prove of greatest service, and a spouse can often be of incalculable enrichment but these are gifts of a companionship that is sought for its own sake and not as an opportunity. The pursuit of a relationship with God also presents various gifts. But, as with friendships, to pursue a relationship with God solely or primarily for the benefit it may provide ruins the relationship. As Barbara Brown Taylor has wisely observed, the most important thing we get in prayer is God. Properly understood, prayer is less about obtainment of wishes and personal advancement. Prayer is about taking the journey of life with another – sharing life’s journey with God. This practice of prayer rejects God as utility, a force like electricity or microwaves to be harnessed for our ends. As someone once observed, that is magic, not religion. God desires a personal relationship with us and that relationship seeks trust and love, not the tapping into a source of power for personal desires.

     Let us return to our original question: of what value is spiritual progress? I propose that the value of spiritual progress is the deepening of a personal relationship with God – for relationship sake only. From what we have explored above, we must dismiss the pursuit of a relationship with God as an aid in achieving personal or social goals. That places the goal first and God second, even in a subordinate and auxiliary place to the goal.

     As friendships develop and marriages mature, there is present a healthy and natural dynamic; a growing shared interest and concern for one another. Shared interests develop and common pursuits are sought. They are not the objects for which a relationship is forged but, rather, the fruit of relationships that grow and mature. This dynamic is true for a relationship with God. As that most holy of relationships deepens and matures, so emerges the realization of God’s international intention – to bind all people of every nation into one holy communion under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Further, the heart and mind becomes conscious that God pursues that international intention through the gifts, talents and energy of those who accept God’s invitation to a life-long relationship.

     Of what use is spiritual progress? Simply, it is to enjoy that most holy of all relationships with another, to know God and enjoy God’s companionship in the journey of life. Yet, as in any relationship, we are changed as a result of paying attention to God, as a result of our life rubbing-up against the life and activity of God. Awareness of what God values – the upmost well-being for all – becomes important to us. We discover that our own little life projects become increasingly insignificant as we participate more and more in God’s project in the world. Then, one night we close our eyes and prepare to take our rest from our labors and we realize that we have discovered – and lived – our divine destiny.

Joy,

Friday, October 25, 2013

Unconscious Spirituality

     M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. suggests that spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others (Invitation to a Journey, p.12). In an earlier blog (September 27, 2013), I shared that the spiritual life is one that is characterized by two attributes, consecration and inspiration. Consecration is the dedication of our lives, including our talents and abilities to God’s purposes. Inspiration is the realization that our best effort produces more than what we can reasonably expect; that something else shows-up in the midst of our own best effort, adding value to what we are able to accomplish alone. That something else is God’s power.

     A common experience of those who have both consecrated their life to God and experience God’s inspiration is “unconscious spirituality” – the working of God through the devoted man or woman who is unaware of that work until some later time. When at some later date there is a sign or indication that God has quietly used them, there is a renewed confidence and exalted sense of usefulness of a single life placed into God’s hands.

     My father experienced this on a number of occasions. Once a man walked into my parent’s place of business and asked me if Mr. Hood was available. Clear to me, this man was unaware that he was addressing Mr. Hood’s son. I introduced him to my father and politely excused myself. For nearly thirty minutes the two spoke softly. I continued my work with more than the occasional glance at their conversation together. Then the unexpected, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. My father placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and the two prayed. Following the prayer, the stranger left and neither my father nor I ever saw him again.

     Naturally curious, I asked my father what that was about. Seems this man was a stranger to my father as well. This stranger simply told my father that he had heard that Mr. Hood was a follower of Jesus. He wanted to know what that was like, what it meant in practical terms in day to day life. I remember the answer my father gave. In clear and simple language, he told this stranger that Jesus was God’s Son Who loves each of us very much. Jesus wishes to share life with us, wishes for us to know Him as we can know Him from His teachings and to trust Him. My father shared that he lives in continued conversation, through prayer, with Jesus throughout the day; that he is given uncommon wisdom from that conversation as well as strength. Simply, “I know Jesus is there with me and I trust Him,” replied my father.

     This unusual request for my father’s testimony was followed by something even more unusual. The man, with moisten eyes said, “Thank you. You may well have just saved my life.” My father prayed for him and the stranger left.

     My father went to bed that night wondering where this stranger had heard that he was a Christian. What brought this man to my parent’s business that day? What did he mean that my father’s story may well have saved his life? These questions remain unanswered – known, of course to God. Though my father would never know the answers to the questions that stirred in his mind, he feel asleep once again with the quiet confidence that God had, in some way, used him for God’s ongoing, redemptive purposes in the world.

Joy,

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Our Core Beliefs

“Our core beliefs are the convictions that are revealed in our daily actions, 
based on what we actually do.” 
Greg Ogden

     In the summer of 2012, The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story about the wide use of Facebook in our present culture. What the editors of that magazine found most startling was how pervasive is the practice of misrepresentation. A significant number of persons on Facebook actually present a personal profile that is simply untrue – identifying favorite books that have never been read, favorite television programming that is never viewed and hobbies that are never pursued. These people are not lying, except maybe to themselves. They really wish to read those books, view PBS and the History Channel and enjoy gourmet cooking. Simply, there is a chasm between what is desired and what is.

     I believe this phenomenon is as old as there has been human life. There exists within each one of us the ambition to be better, faster, stronger and more intelligent. In truth, it has little to do with our desire that others to see something more in us. We want more in us. The Apostle Paul says as much when, in a conversation with God, he declares that the things he wishes not to do he does and the things he wishes to do he doesn’t. Paul isn’t remotely concerned about what others think of him. It is all about what Paul thinks of Paul. If he was on Facebook, he would be no different than many of us. Paul would be guilty of misrepresentation.

     During the transition period between Senior Pastors, First Presbyterian of Delray Beach was asked for what was most important in the new ministry that would follow Dr. Ted Bush. Second to strong preaching, a significant number indicated the desire for help with intentional spiritual growth. Tending to matters of walking more closely with Jesus and experiencing a life that is continually transformed by that walk is a high and worthy ambition. The question presses, is that the idealized self or a path that will intentionally be sought?

     On Saturday, November 9th, First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach will welcome Dr. Greg Ogden as the first presenter for the Center for Christian Formation. I am confident that we begin this new ministry with the finest thinker and practitioner in spiritual formation working in the church today. His one purpose on that day is to provide the understanding and tools for personal growth in your walk with Jesus. My hope, as your pastor, is that what this church posted on its Facebook page, figuratively speaking, results in a strong presence for our first Center for Christian Formation.

Joy,  

Friday, October 11, 2013

Doing Something With Your Faith

     Before I met my wife, I participated in a singles Sunday school class at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. One morning, a young man, a student of Georgia Tech, asked if he could speak to the class. He shared, “Several years ago I said I believed in Jesus Christ and trust Him as my Savior. I was then baptized in this church. Yet, I did nothing with my faith so my faith did nothing for me.”

     Fortunately, that was not the end of the story. He shared that it was now his intention to change; to take his faith seriously. He asked the pastor to help him chart a path for intentional progress in the Christian faith. Part of that path was accountability. That is where the singles Sunday school class came into the conversation. This young man was asking us, fellow class members, to walk with him and encourage him as he sought to be changed by his faith. Changed – a powerful word. Formation is another word that means the same thing. As people who say that Jesus Christ is Lord, we are people who seek to be “changed” or “formed” increasingly into a person who acts like Christ, speaks like Christ and thinks like Christ.

     Five times a year I reprint in our monthly newsmagazine, The Spire, a basic approach to growing in Jesus Christ. This approach is summarized by four important words: Practices, Solitude, Community, and Sharing. It is a pathway or means that, if followed, will result in our own change or formation to look more and more like Jesus. Simply, that is what is meant by the terms Spiritual Formation or Christian Formation. Take the journey and when you need your faith the most it will be there to strengthen you.

Joy,

Friday, October 4, 2013

Marks of a Healthy Congregation

     The Alban Institute, a non-profit that conducts research on what makes for effective churches in the United States began asking, “What would a transformed congregation look like? After considerable research, they concluded that a congregation is healthy and vital if it has fourteen characteristics:

1.      Created and sustained by vital authentic quality worship that bonds the people to God and one another.
2.      Enriched but not imprisoned by the past and open to the guidance of the Spirit.
3.      Caring for the “Corporate Soul” of the congregation as well as individual souls.
4.      Committed to a shared vision from which it prioritizes and uses its energies and resources.
5.      Committed to an effective discipling process.
6.      Healthy Leadership, both clergy and elected church leaders.
7.      Committed to membership growth realizing that growth brings change.
8.      Able to face and deal constructively with conflict.
9.      Actively engaged in addressing the issues and problems of its community.
10.  The congregation enjoys an “adult/adult” relationship with its denomination.
11.  Places a high priority on biblical literacy and the capacity of members to utilize the biblical story to illuminate their own lives individually and collectively.
12.  Committed to thinking globally while acting locally.
13.  A wise steward of its resources.
14.  Manifest a healthy sense of humor.

Whenever the question is asked, “How are we doing?”, it is helpful to have some tool or instrument for shaping an answer. After considering the fourteen benchmarks mentioned above, where do you think First Presbyterian of Delray Beach is succeeding in its mission? Where do we still need work?

Joy,

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Marks of a Spiritual Life

     The spiritual life is often spoken of with little understanding of precisely what is meant by it. In many circles, its use remains vague and may have various applications. A person may be admired for civic devotion yet be said as lacking any evidence of spiritual depth. A coach may be ineffective but spoken of having a spiritual impact upon the team. A church may be involved in many ministries of outreach in the community but have a reputation for having little spiritually among the membership. Is it surprising that there exists a lack of clarity of what is meant by the spiritual life?

     An answer to this perplexing question may be located by a careful look at any number of persons in the Old and New Testament. For the sake of this brief discussion, let us limit our attention to the Apostle Paul. From a careful examination of what the Bible tells us about Paul, I suggest that the spiritual life is marked by two irreducible qualities. First, consecration. Paul took his gift for deep thought and ability to communicate complex ideas simply and with clarity and dedicated it to the cause of God. Paul’s intellectual capacity was not in itself spiritual. History is replete with women and men of enormous intellectual gifts who did not believe in God. Paul’s intellectual gifts became spiritual when devoted to the divine purpose of God’s work in the world. The spiritual life, then, may be said as that life that is given a new direction or given to the new purpose of serving God.

     The second irreducible quality of the spiritual life is inspiration. Paul was aware of the Divine Presence. There was something more about Paul than his own natural talent and gifts. This “more” was the indwelling and active God. Paul spoke of this “more” often and in various ways particularly when he spoke of the evidence of God’s strength in his own weakness. When a person presents their life to the purposes of God, what we earlier identified as “consecration”, the Holy Spirit is released and works God’s work through them. Consecration and inspiration are the individual-directed and God-directed aspects of the spiritual life.

Joy,

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sound Theology Will Do That

“Yes, sound theology will do that.”

     Dr. Greg Ogden shares in one of his books the delightful Peanuts cartoon where Linus and Lucy are involved in substantive dialog. Lucy is worried because it has been raining so hard for so long. She wonders whether there will be another world-wide flood as in Noah’s day. Linus informs her that this won’t happen. Referring to Genesis 9, he reminds her that God promised never to flood the earth again. Lucy says, “Well, that takes a load off my mind.” Linus, while sucking on his blanket, says, “Yes, sound theology will do that.”

     Sound theology is shaped by God’s Word, the Bible. The authority for what is sound theology has never been placed to a democratic vote by the people. As Christians, we submit to God. Now this may sound obvious to many but consider this true incident. A North Carolina pastor shared with me some years ago that he was called to start a new church. The agency funding the church start wanted to lay the foundation, provide the blueprint for establishing a large congregation. The expectation is that by staffing for a large church and providing biblical principals of administration, the church would grow rather quickly into a large church. In fact, the experiment was successful. The church now has over one thousand in worship on an average Sunday.

     Early in the church, start a woman came to visit this pastor. She was interested in joining but wanted assurances that the pastor would provide all the pastoral care that her family would require. Tactfully, he said that he would participate in a system of pastoral care that included trained lay people for care with an associate for pastoral care. Simply, he would participate with others in responsible pastoral care but would not be doing it all himself. That was not acceptable to the woman. “That’s not how it’s done in my church!” she protested. The pastor then proceeded to show her the biblical principals for pastoral care within churches, demonstrating that those principals speak to pastoral care as something the church members provided for one another. Her response was, “I will not permit the Bible to inform what I know is right!”

Joy,

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The First Christian Small Group

     Jesus’ own pattern of disciple-making was to be intimately involved with a few so that His life and theirs would develop such traction that transformation would occur organically. The disciples comprised the first Christian small group, and their close contact with Jesus provided not only learning experiences but the opportunity to view appropriate application in daily cultural settings. Observing Jesus not only as teacher but as a fellow sojourner in life offered the disciples the insight required to make incremental changes in their own lives to conform to His. Jesus taught the crowds, but He discipled a few in a small group.

     Alexander B. Bruce, in his book, The Training of the Twelve, provides considerable clarity as to the methods Jesus used to develop His disciples and deploy them in the ministry of spreading His message to others. Bruce observes, “From the evangelic records it appears that Jesus began at a very early period of His ministry to gather round Him a company of disciples, with a view to the preparation of an agency for carrying on the work of the divine Kingdom.” Bruce goes on to unfold the three stages in the history of the disciples’ fellowship with Jesus that would insure that they were committed to continuing His ministry beyond Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. What becomes apparent is that Jesus desired not only to have disciples, but to have about Him those whom He might train to reproduce their discipleship in others. By limiting His discipling efforts to a few, who would then reproduce themselves in others, Jesus was capable of reaching men and women on an extensive scale.

     Effective discipling today must imitate the model of Jesus: selecting a few, pouring one’s life into them, and asking that they reproduce themselves in a similar manner with others. This model, equipping disciples through a small group, provides intimacy and the value of shared spiritual gifts exercised within the group, without the intimidation of a larger group setting. The high level of interaction between Jesus as discipler and those being discipled teaches well, provides a high level of accountability, and can be a center for shared missional activity that further promotes maturity in Christlikeness, the ultimate goal of the Christian journey.

Joy,

Friday, September 6, 2013

Creative Spirituality

     In an engaging and insightful book, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Heart, Robert Wuthnow identifies some of the criticism that has been voiced in recent years about spirituality in the broader culture. One of the most recurrent criticisms is that too many Americans shop around for spiritual cues, rather than settling into communities of faith where they can learn discipline or serve others. Spiritual seeking draws criticism because it seems to reflect a shallow consumerist mentality.

     Against this consumerist mentality, Holy Scripture, the Bible announces that an authentic relationship with God is rooted in a personal engagement in all that God is doing in the world. It is an announcement from personal gratification to participation in God’s activity; from an inward spirituality to an outward commitment to disciple the nations. Quick routes to personal gratification may be an easier course to navigate, but is a pilgrimage that is unknown in Scripture and one that fails to encounter the deep mysteries of faith.

      This failure to navigate the deeper waters of faith leaves people standing on the shore of God’s promises, rarely encountering God in a fashion that results in transformation. Discouragement settles in, and those who claim to follow Christ wonder if there is not something more. In more than twenty-six years of ministry, I have met many who have derisively commented that faith failed to do anything for their lives. In each instance, my unspoken question has been, “What exactly did you do to care for and nurture that faith?”

Joy,



Monday, August 26, 2013

Things Happen

“But Steve Jobs realized that when people run into each other, 
when they make eye contact, things happen.”
Matt Woodley, Leadership Journal, summer, 2013

     I have twelve to fourteen years as your pastor before I retire. This reality has placed me among those who are asking, “What legacy do I wish to leave, what difference do I hope to make in this place.” This is a common question people in their fifties ask. Most of us want our lives to count for something; to live for something larger than ourselves. When your fifties roll around, that question receives considerably more attention.

     It is no secret that my most urgent passion is to engage increasing numbers of people in intentional Christian formation. I want to move people from membership to discipleship. The difference is considerable. Members are always seeking privileges like those who carry an American Express Card. Disciples are always asking how they may be used in a mighty way for advancing God’s purposes. Members spend a good deal of their time thinking about their wants and needs. Disciples spend a good deal of time seeking God’s presence at work in their communities and then joining God in that work. Members focus on themselves. Disciples focus on others.

     Solid Christian formation is always the work of God in our intentional engagement with classic spiritual disciplines such as solitude, reading and applying the Bible to our lives and participation in a small group. God does something and we do something. Christian formation requires both.

     Something else is helpful – a professional church staff that shows us the way forward. Church staffs, ordained clergy and lay staff, work together to pray, think creatively and develop ministries that support, encourage and direct the holy environment where we grow as Christians.

     Yet, for staffs to bring maximum value to an organization, they must be “forced to interact, to run into each other regularly.” That idea was advanced by Steve Jobs when work was being done on a new Pixar facility. “Things happen,” said Jobs when people make regular eye contact and speak with one another throughout the day. What happens is a creative force that simply is absent when staffs are isolated from one another.

     When Pixar became a huge international success following the release of the movie Toy Story, there were plans for three separate buildings to accommodate the growth of the company. One building would be for the animators, another for the computer programmers and a third for the management. But Jobs scrapped that plan and instead moved everyone into an old Del Monte canning factory that had one huge room with an atrium in the center. Jobs wanted to create a space where people throughout the company could bump into each other, deepen relationships, and share ideas. The idea worked and the level of creativity released by the staff soared beyond anyone’s expectation.

     To maximize the value of this church’s staff, I want the same thing as Pixar – I want the staff to all be under one roof where we can bump into one another all day, deepen relationships, and share ideas. Naturally, this will require careful thought for the renovation or expansion of our church facilities. Organizations rarely build just to have more or newer buildings. Buildings are tools for advancing the mission of the organization. We can take a page from the playbook of the Holly House; they understood that their ministry would advance if they could all be in the same room where there was greater interaction with one another. Today they have that facility. It’s the same story with Pixar. I hope one day it will be the story for your church staff.

Joy,

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Stories

“I don’t believe there are any storytellers. 
There are only stories and each one of us gets to carry one of them for awhile.” 
Thomas Long

     In my last sermon during the month of July, Stories That Matter, I shared the above quote from my friend, Thomas Long. They are not his words. He heard them from a participant in a Storytellers Festival. These words ring true for me. As I think back over my life, I remember it in stories. The story of how I met my wife. The story of when my children were born. The story of the various churches I have served. We live our lives in stories, one story strung together with another. This is also how we live our faith, in stories of God’s encounters with us.

     This makes me curious why so may of us have difficulty sharing our faith with others. Each of us has unique stories, personal stories. Stories of disappointment and stories of delight shape each one of us, mark each one of us. We are simply a unique anthology of stories. And I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t been able to share one or more of their stories.

     Perhaps the difficulty with sharing our faith is that we have misunderstood what Christ asks of us. The customary misunderstanding goes something like this: We should teach others the great truths of our faith. We are all storytellers but are not all teachers. For some, the assignment to teach produces a considerable level of inadequacy and anxiety. There is a huge difference between teaching and sharing a personal story. Christ calls each one of us to share our story of faith.

     Now it is correct that at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in Christ’s Great Commission, Jesus mentions that we are to teach. Maybe that is were the confusion and anxiety comes from. Yet, the command to teach is given to the church; it is what followers of Christ are to do corporately. In plain speech, as a local congregation, we are responsible for identifying persons among us with the gift of teaching and then charging them for doing just that, teaching the great truths of the faith. What Christ asks of us individually, and we see this in almost every personal encounter Jesus has, is to simply share a story.

     How do we do that? The Bible offers a simple template or formula: Share what your life was like before deciding to follow Jesus, how you made the decision to follow Jesus and how your life is different now. Three stories: life before Jesus, decision to follow Jesus and life after that decision. It seems to me any of us can do that.

Joy,  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

God's Power Meets Our Effort

“Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life 
and you would want to change the lives of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
Michael, a Christian turned atheists and quoted in The Atlantic magazine.

     Larry Taunton, Executive Director of apologetics ministry of the Fixed Point Foundation, recently initiated a nationwide campaign inviting active members of atheist student groups to share what led them to unbelief. The findings of the study startled Taunton: without exception each student said that there was a disconnect between the claims of the Christian faith and the lives of professing Christians. To be clear – not one student expected to find perfect lives among professing Christians. Each of these students was above average in intelligence and had a firm grasp on the human condition. We are imperfect people.

     What led each student to becoming an atheist was that they saw no evidence of the power of the Christian faith to change lives. The church preaches and teaches about this power of God that is at work in the world and in the lives of followers of Jesus. If it was true, where’s the evidence? People in the church looked exactly like people who didn’t belong to the church. People in the church behaved and spoke exactly like people who didn’t belong to church. People in the church would give financially about two to three percent of their income to the church – no different than people outside of the church giving to charitable causes. Where was the sacrifice? Simply, perfection wasn’t expected, but effort was.

     It is sobering to realize that each of us may be partially culpable for the growing unbelief in our nation today. We speak about the power of God – or at least pay a pastor to speak about it on our behalf. But where is the evidence? What those atheists failed to understand is that the Christian faith is a participatory activity – lives don’t become different simply because we say, “I believe.” The Bible teaches that we have a responsibility to make an effort, to practice certain spiritual habits like regularly reading the Bible and intentionally applying to our lives what we understand the Bible to say. The promise of the faith is that the power of God shows up when there is effort on our part.

     Perhaps these students with above average intelligence didn’t know that important aspect of the faith - that God’s power meets our effort. Could it be that they didn’t know because Christians never taught them? Or is the difficulty simply that the Christians they witnessed simply never bothered to follow an intentional path to spiritual growth?

Joy,

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Intentional Activity

“…change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were…”
Ephesians 4:22 (Common English Bible)

     Paul is writing about intentional activity. Paul is asking that we purposefully live differently than we did before deciding to follow Jesus. Simply, at one time we behaved one way, now we are to behave in a different way. Change is not something that occurs for the wishing. We must set our minds to it – and our feet. We are to walk a different walk.

     A careful reading of chapter four and five of Ephesians reveals that what Paul is concerned with is life change. Our lives are to be lived differently because of Jesus. That includes unwholesome talk and bitterness and being unkind to each other. Nearly everything Paul has to say here in these two chapters of Ephesians has to do with what kind of jokes we tell, how our conversations go and all the little things that reveal whether we are just like everyone else or something more because of Jesus.

     Naturally, this requires constant monitoring; constant self-awareness of our motives, thoughts and behavior. It sound exhausting, doesn’t it? That is because sin is so pervasive. Great effort is required. But isn’t it true that anything of value must follow great effort? The good news of our faith is that we are not alone; that we don’t depend upon our own strength alone. With our effort, we are met by an uncommon strength in God’s activity in our lives. That presence of God, active in our effort, is what the church calls the Holy Spirit.

Joy,

  



Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Continual Presence of God

“The most excellent method…of going to God
 is that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men,
and (as far as we are able) purely for the love of God.”
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God.

     I am reading again the wonderful small book, The Practice of the Presence of God. It is actually a collection of thoughts, sayings and various conversations with a Roman Catholic monk known as Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Born as Nicholas Herman, in the French village of Herimenil in the province of Lorraine, in 1611 his name was changed when he entered the monastic life. This book followed his death and was prepared as a guide for others in movement toward a deeper relationship with Christ.

     Brother Lawrence’s life as a monk began with a difficulty common to each of us - sustaining a period of prayer all the while being interrupted by straying thoughts. This was a source of considerable frustration for him and one to which he gave considerable effort and reflection. His final solution to this difficulty was a simple one: he developed the habit of continual conversation with God. Whether at prayer or at work or at leisure, it became his practice to focus his heart and mind on God. Throughout the day, Brother Lawrence acknowledged the continual presence of God; thanking God, praising God, and asking God for God’s grace to do whatever was required of him. Rather than prayer being something done at set times during the day, it became a continual conversation with God as Brother Lawrence went about his daily tasks.

     For the first fifteen years of his monastic life, Brother Lawrence was assigned “kitchen duty” for which he had a natural aversion. Yet, from his “practicing the presence of God” all during his awake hours, Brother Lawrence resolved that he would seek to please God in whatever responsibility was assigned to him. He approached everything he did – including kitchen work – prayerfully. The result was joy even in the smallest tasks.

     Often I hear good church people make the comment that they are simply too busy to pray. Perhaps Brother Lawrence has a helpful word: resolve to acknowledge the continual presence of God throughout your day and speak to God as if God were standing right next to you. Further, with the realization that God is ever present, try completing every responsibility given to you with the sole purpose of pleasing God. The result may be increased joy throughout the day – even while cleaning the kitchen.

Joy,   

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Be Kinder Than Is Necessary

“Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
Heather Brogowski in Woman’s Day, August, 2013

     Wonderful words! These words should be posted on everyone’s bathroom mirror as a reminder of how we should behave throughout the day. We seem to need reminding because personal experience suggest that we all have a flawed default setting, it seems that we quite naturally speak of others – or to others – in a critical, complaining manner. What is that about? Why do we spend so much time huddled with a few others complaining about something or someone?

     My suspicion is that we are critical because all is not well with our lives. We have suffered a loss or brokenness and are experiencing grief. Perhaps we are disappointed or fearful. It may simply be that someone was recently unkind to us and we are not processing it very well. Whatever is going on in our hearts, the words above are true; everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

     The reason we are unkind to others is because we have become wrapped-up in our own wounded souls and can no longer see that others are also suffering from wounded-ness. So we behave badly. These words from Brogowski remind us that it isn’t just us who are hurting, so is everyone else. If we are not careful with our words and behavior, we will simply multiply the hurt of everyone. As a pastor let me say, Satan would be most pleased with that!

     What are we to do? Brogowski is absolutely correct; we must be kinder than is necessary particularly when we are not feeling so well ourselves. It just may be that if we share a kind thought or gesture, our own wounded souls may begin to experience healing. Satan, naturally, won’t be pleased. That is because kindness to others has a way of drawing heaven a little nearer.

Joy,

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Invited to God's Kingdom

“We appealed to you, encouraged you, and pleaded with you to live lives worthy of the God 
Who is calling you into His own kingdom and glory.”
I Thessalonians 2:12 (Common English Bible)

     Notice the tense of Paul’s writing – it is past tense. Paul is reminding the church in Thessalonica of his previous visit with them. Additionally, he wishes to underscore his teaching while he was with them. Perhaps Paul has heard, as we have, that repetition is the mother of all learning. Here we see the heart of Paul; if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ our lives must demonstrate evidence. As Paul writes, he has appealed to them, he has encouraged them and has pleaded with them to truly live as persons who belong to God. There is a hint of frustration here.

     If we are truthful, we all could do a better job of living lives that bring honor to Jesus Christ. Paul is that honest. In another place, Paul admits that he holds the honor of being the greatest sinner of us all. And in I John, we are told plainly that if we don’t honestly admit that we stumble from time to time, we simply are not being truthful. So there is no argument, we all could do better.

     This all begs the question, why these words from Paul? Though we can’t answer with certainty what is in the heart of Paul as he writes these words, there is evidence that Paul is concerned about their effort, or the lack of it. Never does Paul have the illusion that we can be perfect – though he does say in another place that striving for perfection is a worthy goal. Nor does Jesus expect perfection. Jesus simply calls us to be “holy.” Understand that “holy” doesn’t mean “perfect” but to be “set apart.”

     If we are to be “holy”, which means in the Bible to be “set apart”, then what is clear is that there is an expectation of “effort.” The question becomes, “Are we even trying to be different from everyone else? Do we still complain when everything doesn’t go our way? Do we still spend more time being critical of people rather than lifting them up and encouraging them? Are we careful about how we behave and the words that we permit to come over our lips? How do we manage our financial resources? Is our giving to the church an appropriate response to God’s work in our lives? It’s not perfection Paul seeks. It’s effort. It seems that the church always has some people who give little effort to living differently from the world.

     During my ministry in Texas I had someone tell me that they had been invited to a dinner in the state capital with the governor. Immediately, they became occupied with thoughts of what they would wear and if their table manners were up to what they needed to be. The invitation resulted in “effort.” Paul tells us here that we have been invited into God’s kingdom. Are we asking the right questions of ourselves as we prepare for the occasion?

Joy,  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Clarity of Purpose

“Intentionality in the leader results from a compelling sense of mission”
Reggie McNeal

     What separates great organizations from ordinary ones is clarity of purpose. This is true for churches. Many churches are simply consumed by the urgent demands each day brings, responding to the felt needs of it members and repeating what was done last year. All of this is done without questioning if the church’s mission is advanced by all this busyness. These churches remain stagnant in membership and spiritual vitality for a few years before a gradual decline begins. Then one day, the church leaders question how they will pay the power bill. I see this dynamic being played out currently with a once prominent south Florida church. Their lack of focus has resulted in attempting many good things that has exhausted their staff and depleted their financial resources.

     There is another kind of church, of course. Membership and worship attendance remains strong and there is a palpable energy that is contagious. I have not seen one church like this that lacked a clear, compelling sense of mission. Most striking is that a majority of the membership is aware of the mission of the church and is active, in some measure, in advancing that mission.

     The New Testament Book of Acts instructs the modern-day church of God’s intention for the church, what I will call the four central tasks of the church. These tasks are:

* Bring new people to faith in Jesus Christ and membership in the church. (Connect)
* Provide a clear pathway for people to grow as obedient disciples of Jesus Christ. (Grow)
* Equip and mobilize members in ministry according to their God-given gifts. (Serve)
* Provide a comprehensive ministry of care for all people. (Care)

     For this congregation to move toward becoming an “Acts” church, a change in how we think about church will be required. Perhaps the primary change will be to abandon all thoughts that have to with “what I want from the church,” replacing them with thoughts, “what can we do to advance the four central tasks?” This, of course, requires that we stop saying that we don’t like something, but, rather, questioning if an idea moves the church toward God’s purposes. This isn’t really so difficult when we accept the notion that the church isn’t “my church that exists to serve me” and remember that it is God’s church that exists for people who aren’t yet members.

Joy,

Friday, June 28, 2013

Spiritual Practices

“If you’re not careful, you can go to this meeting, and teach that class, and visit the Sunday school party, and wind up spending your life carrying on a program, and never reproduce disciples. 
That’s what you have to watch. It’s difficult to keep that perspective.”
Robert E. Coleman

     Coleman wrote these words to pastors. But they speak to all of us, don’t they? It is very easy to become busy in good church activities and neglect the intentional work of spiritual growth. What is most tragic, many who are busy planning meetings and various church socials think that is all there is to “doing” church. What are neglected are intentional spiritual practices such as daily prayer, study of the Bible and seeking intentional application of God’s teachings to the daily living of their lives. Many are good at “playing church” with all their good intentions, energy and effort. And the church is the stronger for their effort. Difficulty is, what all this activity produces is exhausted Christians who show little formation in their personal lives.

     Make no mistake, the church must have people who will run meetings and plan social activities. The question is, “What is all this activity about?” The bottom line for Jesus Christ – and every organization must have a bottom line – is that increasing numbers of people begin to live differently from the rest of the world. As William Willimon once said, “We know we are making progress in the Christian life when others look at us like we are some sort of alien.” People who are growing in Christ simply look different from the rest of the world. They are more generous with their money, they exercise care with how they speak and treat one another and there is urgency in their lives to advance the work of God in their spheres of influence. Church members who are busy with church functions certainly make the church stronger for all their effort. People who are attentive to their Christian formation make the church the bride of Christ.    

Joy,

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Discipleship is a Life-long Commitment

Discipleship is not a program. It is not a ministry. It is a life-long
commitment to a lifestyle
(George Barna)

     There is a crisis in the church of North America. A growing number of voices are joining the chorus that is giving voice to the crisis, most prominent among them, Darrell Guder of Princeton Theological Seminary. The symptoms of the crisis include diminishing numbers, clergy burnout, the loss of youth, the end of denominational loyalty, biblical illiteracy, the perceived (italicized word my own, reflecting my bias)  irrelevance of traditional forms of worship, the loss of genuine spirituality, and the widespread confusion about both the purpose and the message of the church of Jesus Christ. The typical response of church leaders, asserts Guder, is to identify methodological solutions. All it takes, it would seem, is money, talent, time, and commitment. This approach to the crisis may seem to be the answer but it is not. The answer to the crisis of the North American church, continues Guder, will not be found at the level of method and problem solving. The answer, quite simply, is a recovery of the missional church.

     Foundational to the missional church is the nurturing of a congregational culture where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus think differently, behave differently, and use financial resources differently than persons not actively following Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are less concerned with whether the local church is meeting personal needs and preferences and more concerned with intentionally integrating their life with the practices and habits of Jesus. Disciples view membership in the local church not as entitlement to privileges but as an arena where citizenship in God’s kingdom is actively lived.

     The difficulty, according to Dallas Willard, another voice in the chorus, is that in many churches, persons are expected to automatically know how to grow as a fully committed disciple of Jesus. What many church leaders are now discovering is that they don’t. A clear, manageable, pathway for being shaped into Christ-likeness is not presented to church members with the unfortunate result that many are asking, “Is this all that there is to being a Christian?

     This November, First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach will host Dr. Greg Ogden, a Presbyterian pastor, author and leading voice today in Christian formation. The small group resources he has published are the most effective materials today for moving people deeper in their formation in Christ. Your elected leaders and staff want an even more robust future for our ministry. Such a ministry will have an exponentially greater impact for God’s kingdom in Palm Beach County and the world. This future begins with increasing numbers of church members taking personal responsibility for intentional Christian formation in their lives. Greg Ogden will show us the way.

 Joy,  
           





  





Friday, June 14, 2013

Discipleship Malaise

“People don’t allow the Bible to get in the way of their theology.”
- Todd Martin, Discipleship Presenter at Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church, 2009

     One way of defining “theology” is that it is how our worldview is shaped, the lens through which core values come into focus and the fixed-point of our lives by which we make judgments of what is appropriate and responsible. What Christians, and I am speaking here specifically about those who claim to follow Jesus, often miss is that our theology is sometimes shaped not by God’s Word but by how “we have always done it.”
  
     The history of the church is replete with moments when church leaders have sensed that theological thought and the practice of ministry have moved from the clear instruction of God’s Word. The challenge in those moments has been a recovery of sound biblical instruction and guidance for moving the mission of the church forward. Just as the human body suffers when proper nutrition is consistently ignored, such as consuming to much fast food heavy in salt and fat, so does the body of Christ, the church, suffer when its diet is something other than God’s design for health and growth.
   
     Naturally, when proper nutrition is ignored for too long, the body suffers. The human body loses strength, energy and vitality. The same is certainly true for the church. Each year, for the past 10 years, the Presbyterian Church USA has lost membership: the lost often totaling 60,000 plus each of those years! Our church was once nearly four million strong and today, barely half that. The Presbyterian Church, as most mainline, Protestant churches, is dying of poor nutrition.
   
     Today, multiple church leaders are looking closely at our practice of ministry to diagnose the source of ill health. They love the church and are concerned about its survival. One of those leaders is Greg Ogden, former Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Several years ago, Ogden accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at my former church, the Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church in New Britain, PA. He provided instruction to the Elders about his research into the illness that has diminished the strength of the Presbyterian Church. His presentation was titled, “Getting to the Root Causes,” and has been published in his book, Transforming Discipleship.
   
     Ogden identifies eight causes for the discipleship malaise that has gripped the church resulting in stagnant or dying congregations. Naturally, you can purchase the book from most booksellers and read the research yourself. What I hope you will do is mark your calendar for the weekend of November 9 and 10 this year and listen to Greg Ogden and interact with him. He will be our first guest in our annual School of Christian Formation at First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach.
             
     I share with your leaders the desire that First Presbyterian will be a church that is marked by energy and vitality. More, we desire a church that will be a force in the local community for multiplying disciples for Jesus Christ. This, of course, means a recovery of the Bible’s instruction for a healthy church. The primary difficulty that your leaders will face was summed-up by Todd Martin: “People don’t allow the Bible to get in the way of their theology.” I pray that we will be better than that.
    
Joy,

Friday, June 7, 2013

Disciples of All Nations

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …”
Matthew 28:19a

     Making reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ is the central purpose of the church. Sometimes, as good Presbyterians, there is a tendency to think that each church should determine what the central purpose should be. I struggle in this area as well. After all, I was raised as a Presbyterian and well groomed in my theological training to appreciate the Presbyterian approach to being the church.

     But let me be clear, if we are to call ourselves The Church of Jesus Christ, then there are some decisions that are non-negotiable. The purpose of the church is one of them. Christ gives us our “marching orders” in the great commission of Matthew’s Gospel. The church’s primary focus is to direct resources that make disciples of Jesus Christ.

     It is easy to get distracted from this overall and primary mission. But then, in our personal lives, we see this all the time. We are distracted from God’s purpose in our lives by our own wants, needs and preferences. The Bible calls that sin. When our lives become more about “me” than “God” then Christ isn’t really Lord.

     There is a corporate culture in any effective organization, including the church. And that is a good thing, particularly when it provides guidance for optimal advancement of agreed-upon goals. The trouble, however, is that the corporate culture tends to assume authority in the church that belongs to Christ alone. Such a culture has rewritten the charter of the church over a period of many years. The result is a church that has edited out the biblical mandate to make disciples. In its place has come the concern with members’ interest and preferences. It is simply another manifestation of the classic struggle between God’s interest and the interest of the people who make-up the membership of the church.

     As your pastor, I am committed to continued study of the Bible and learning how God instructs all of us to be the church. This includes a determined dedication to the Great Commission of making disciples as our primary purpose. I am certain it will be a pulse-racing adventure!

Joy,

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Taking Scriptures Seriously and Personally

“There can be no true Christian spiritual formation
 without taking the Scriptures seriously and personally.”
 Richard E. Averbeck

     Twenty years ago, I invited a church member to share in a Bible Study I was leading. Her response surprised me; “I took a Bible course in college so I don’t need your study.” Only a few years ago, in my former church in Pennsylvania, I invited someone to a Bible Study. Their response was equally surprising; “I already do a lot around the church. I don’t have time to read the Bible.” Both of these persons demonstrate little understanding of the role of the Bible in our growth as Christians. Richard Averbeck is absolutely correct, there simply can be no true Christian spiritual formation (Christian growth) without taking the Scriptures seriously and personally.

     Neil Cole puts it this way, “Most of us would be ashamed if we compared the amount of books, magazines and newspaper articles we have poured into our minds with the amount of God’s Word we have invested into our souls. Doesn’t that tell us that we really value the world’s philosophies more than God’s? This must change if we are ever to become a living example of the people of God! We can start by investing approximately half-an-hour each day to hearing from God!”

     Last year, during a week of personal study, I read that the average person in this country views twenty-seven and one-half hours of television each week. That is the equivalent of more than one entire day per week! This author went on to write, quite persuasively, that those who hear the Bible read only on Sunday mornings, followed by a twenty-minute sermon, are in serious trouble. There is simply no way one reading from the Bible and a twenty-minute sermon can compete with twenty-seven plus hours of television. God’s Word is outmatched in sheer quantity of time. The values taught by television programming will trump the values of God in the lives of the believer.

     I am confident of this: the local church only has power when the majority of its membership chooses to read the Scriptures in large amounts, in whole context (not a chapter here and a verse there) and regularly, even daily. Jesus has called this church to an uncommon work in Palm Beach County and the Presbytery of Tropical Florida. This will require an uncommon source of power: the power that is released in the lives of those who take the reading of the Bible seriously and personally.

     Jesus said, “People won’t live only by bread, but by every Word spoken by God" (Matt. 4:4 CEB). What is required first is a hunger for God’s Word born out of a desire to be useful to God.

Joy,