October 29, 2016

No Church Has to Die

Once there was a worshiping community who was radically devoted to God. They were committed to spreading the Gospel.  They were connected in such a way that they called each other brothers and sisters.  They even sold their property and possessions so no one in the community would have to live without basic needs.  And walls came down!  Gender, racial, social and economic differences dissolved away.  They were washed in the blood of the Lamb.  They experienced the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit in their community.*

This vision of what the church can be is from Acts 2.  Some few of us may have been part of such a church.  Most of us haven't!  Our churches, for the most part, have not been that faith inspiring.  Our churches haven't moved us to do that much.  Most of us have not experienced an Acts 2 church.

Why?  Why don't we have churches like that today?  Has God lost His power?  Is the Holy Spirit no longer fired up?  Does the Gospel no longer change lives?  The problem isn't God, the Holy Spirit nor the Gospel.  The problem is us!  The problem is people won't risk everything to build an Acts 2 church.  That's the problem!

Leadership matters in all churches of God because people matter to God.  The only reason God spilled His blood on the cross of Calvary is His love for people.  We in the church all have a sacred obligation to grow as leaders, develop our ministry skills, and learn how to do the Lord's work better.  Everyone wins in church when a leader gets better.  A church grows when its leaders get better. 

It's our decision as leaders to get better as whatever we do in the church.  When we feel in our own spirit that we are developing, our hearts are growing, our heads are growing, our gifts are growing, then people around us sense our growth and begin to live their lives that way.  Leaders who are growing lift people up, build up the church, and are a blessing to others. 

A church loses this lifting up - building up - blessing others, when its leaders stop growing.  Churches without growing leaders are dying churches.  And over time dying churches finally have to close their doors.  What is more sad than a light of God's kingdom that goes out?  We live in a dark world.  There aren't that many lights.  So, when a church's light flickers, and then goes out, it's a tragedy.  It's a tragedy when a church dies.

It's all gets back to what the church is really about.  The church is all about evangelism, discipleship and compassion.  When evangelism is happening supernaturally, when people are getting saved from their sins, when people are becoming faithful followers of Jesus, when people are reaching out to those who are hurting with compassion and care, praise God!  That's it!  That's the beauty, power and potential of every local church.  When church works right, there is nothing else like it on earth.

No church has to die.  Every church, with God's help, can stay fired up and faith filled.  Keep telling people that God loves them, that the Holy Spirit is still working in people's hearts, that the Gospel is still transforming people's lives, that the church is still the only hope of the world.  Keep beating that drum.  Good things will happen. 


*I'm indebted to Bill Hybels (Good News magazine September/October 2016) for his testimony to Gods' grace in his life and ministry, part of the outline of which I used for this post. 

October 9, 2016

The Enormity of Our Salvation Through Faith in Jesus Christ

I wonder sometimes if we ever really understand what we've been saved from.  So much of what we go through in life - disappointments, diseases, heartaches, hurts and pains - are like a childhood disease in comparison to a life without Jesus.  Life without God is far worse than anything we can conjure up.  Whether we realize it or not, if we're living right now without Jesus as our Savior and Lord, we're very sick.  We're sin sick!

Our disease - our sin - isolates us from the only One who can cure us and give us life.  We're all, to some extent, living with the disease of sin, which also isolates us from one another.  We have a common disease.  We're all sinners saved by God's grace, if we're come to faith in Jesus.  But whether we have or have not believed in Jesus, we're constantly in need of God's cure for our lives. 

We don't naturally have a relationship with God.  All we have is a disease, called sin, which separates us from God.  The only way we can approach God is with a cry for mercy:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner. We can't stand before God in our own righteousness or counting on our good works to give us enough credit with God to save us.  We are totally at God's mercy and grace for everything.  We come to God as humble sinners, or we come not to God at all.

Many choose the not at all option.  Many of us take our sin disease for granted.  We think:  Everyone has it, so it must not be that bad!  Others seem to be doing all right with it, so I can, too!  Every kind of moral ethics is being challenged these days, so if I fail, what does it matter?  Everyone else is failing, too!  Why do I even have to hear about it?  I can always find a church that accepts my sin disease and makes me feel good about myself.

What we're doing by taking our sin disease for granted is masking our ourselves so well that only our masks become important to us.  Out masks become all that's real to us.  We become so convoluted in our perverted minds, that we accept a lie as our reality - a reality in which a lie becomes the truth for us.  This is the essence of what it means to be sin sick.

The the Gospels of the New Testament we read that Jesus of Nazareth lived His whole life to fulfill God's will as the Messiah - the Christ of God.  After three years of teaching, healing and doing the works of God, His Father, Jesus headed to Jerusalem to do final battle with the sin disease.  There He takes on our disease, every last bit of it, and becomes our sin,  Our sin makes Him into Someone who is despised, because Jesus has no mask.  He is despised, rejected, stricken, afflicted with our sin - your and mine.  

And from the cross, upon which He died, He cries out in agony as He bears all our sins, "Father, why have You forsaken Me?"  Then He says, "It's finished!"  And He bows His bleeding head and dies, taking with Him all our sin - your sin and mine.  

Jesus arose from the dead three days later.  And nothing - nothing - nothing has been the same since.  The isolation from God and one another is gone.  God is our God.  And He's alive!  Jesus is our Lord, our Master.  And He's our cure from the burden of our sin disease.  Jesus cures, Jesus gives freedom from disease, Jesus saves everyone who comes to Him and asks, "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner."

This is the enormity of the disease from which we are saved.  As we come to saving faith in Jesus, we gratefully follow His command to proclaim to the world that Jesus Saves!  The salvation we have in Christ is as big as the love God has for us.

July 22, 2016

God's Work Continues at Wounded Knee

God's work continues as faithful servants are called, and will be called, to places of ministry all over the world. Last month, thirty six ago, I answered the call of God to work for Him at Wounded Knee, SD on the Pine Ridge Reservation among the Lakota Sioux people.  After only two years of ministry, I had to leave the post for personal reasons, wondering what would become of the mission there.  Last summer, though, it thrilled my heart to see the land once again, as my wife and I dropped by for a visit.  I was encouraged to found out that others had taken up work, and that great improvements had been made in every facet of the ministry.

When I arrived in 1980, fresh out of seminary, with great aspirations as a newly appointed Home Missionary, my thoughts were much about the people (about a hundred who lived in the village and surrounding area) and the property (about five acres).  Begun in the early half of the 20th century, the land had been acquired by the Church of God (Anderson), and they began sending missionaries to win the people to the LORD.  I had read all I could get my hands on about the mission, prepared myself as best as I could for the work, and was sent with much enthusiasm to carry on God's work at Wounded Knee.  

There were many signs of past work in the area, both religious and secular.  Several old church buildings were in sight from the mission (some still being used), including the early missionary Catholic church (long since abandoned).  Over the hill was the village of Wounded Knee, which was actually a plot of government built housing - mostly in bad repair with individual houses without windows.  Just down the road from the turn-in to the mission compound, the burned ruins of a community store were still heaped up after the 1973 American Indian Movement (AIM) uprising.  On the property itself was an old building, which had been the original church (being used during my time there for a fellowship hall), the new teepee chapel (pictured above), and an well-used trailer in which my family and I lived.

My work there was as a restart-up ministry.  Little had been accomplished since AIM had destroyed so much of the property, and the will of the people, seven years before.  My missionary mentor from Anderson came to visit me during my first year there.  When he saw the ruins, he said "history dies hard."  The people and the place were still hurting, in many ways like so many of their ancestors throughout their history.  I did all I could to tell the people about Jesus' love for them and show them that God cares for them.  By the time I left, it seemed that I had done so little.  But others followed me, the church continued to send missionaries, and the LORD never gave up on the ministry there.

I went on to other fields of ministry, but my heart was touched in such a way that I'll never forget the people and the place of Wounded Knee.  God's work does continue there!  And for His grace and mercy shown us all, who have been called (and will be called) to work for Him there, I give all the glory to our heavenly Father.

May 16, 2016

"I'd Rather Be A Door-Keeper ..."

An Apologia for My Life
Samuel M. Shoemaker

I stay near the door. I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out. The door is the most important door in the world. It is the door through which people walk when they find God. There's no use my going way inside, and staying there, when so many are still outside and they, as much as I, crave to know where the door is.  And all that so many ever find is only the wall like blind men, with outstretched, groping hands, feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door, yet they never find it. So I stay near the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world is for people to find that door - the door to God.  The most important thing that anyone can do is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands and put it on the latch - the latch that only clicks and opens to the person's own touch.  People die outside the door, as starving beggars die on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter - die for want of what is within their grasp.  They live on the other side of it - live because they have found it.  Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it, and open it, and walk in, and find Him.  So I stay near the door.

Go in great saints, go all the way in - go way down into the cavernous cellars, and way up into the spacious attics - it is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.  Go into the deepest of hidden casements, of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.  Some must inhabit those inner rooms, and know the depths and heights of God, and call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.  Sometimes I take a deeper look in, sometimes I venture in a little farther; but my place seems closer to the opening.  So I stay near the door. 

There is another reason why I stay there.  Some people get part way in and become afraid lest God and the zeal of His house devour them; for God is so very great, and asks all of us.  And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia, and want to get out.  "Let me out!" they cry.  And the people way inside only terrify them more.  Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled for the old life, they have seen too much: once taste God, and nothing else will do anymore.  Somebody must be watching for the frightened who seek to sneak out where they came in, to tell them how much better it is inside.  The people too far in do not see how near these are to leaving - preoccupied with the wonder of it all.  Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door, but would like to run away.  So for them, too, I stay near the door.

I admire the people who go way in.  But I wish they would not forget how it was before they go in.  Then they would be able to help the people who have not yet even found the door, or the people who want to run away again from God.  You can go in too deeply, and stay too long, and forget the people outside the door.  As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place, near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there, but not so far from people as not to hear them, and remember they are there, too.  Where?  Outside the door - thousands of them, millions of them.  But - more important for me - one of them, two of them, ten of them, whose hands I am intended to put on the latch. So I shall stay by the door and wait for those who seek it.  "I had rather be a door keeper ...."  So I stay near the door.

May 1, 2016

Reluctantly, Yet Willingly, Taking Up My Cross

I've been thinking today about a new church appointment and whether I should be willing to take it. At this stage in my pastoral ministry it is not about the money. I'm able to fully retire comfortably, as long as the federal government doesn't go under. What it is about is remaining open to the LORD's leading in my life into new ventures in discipleship. It's about deciding to accept the new things that God is doing in my life, to start afresh in ministry.

Jesus told each of His followers to take up their cross daily and die to themselves. The cross the LORD has given me to take up for Him is not some burden I must endure such as a chronic disease. It is, instead, a new challenge which I can evade, if I so choose, but one I nevertheless take up willingly, even if it has some misgivings.

Jesus, my LORD, reluctantly, yet willingly, took up the cross that was presented to Him in Gethsemane. In so doing, He fulfilled God's will for His life and set the pattern for discipleship for me. So, as a new church appointment possibility begins to take place, I find myself willing, even eager, to see God at work in new ways in my life. I will work to identify God's newness in my life, especially when it doesn't seem to be there. I am determined to trust God in new ways, even if I'm apprehensive about what He might be doing in my life. Mostly, I will in all things seek to give God the glory and thanks for His wonderful gift to me at this late time in my ministry.

Just as at the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, He has now promised to bring forth a new heaven and earth at the end of time. My prayer is that He grant to the church, my wife and me a firm conviction of His goodness and a zeal to participate fully in whatever He intends for us. I pray that we all may be effective witnesses to the world in both word and deed as people who steadfastly proclaim God's love.

February 10, 2016

An Ash Wednesday Meditation on Death

In 1624 John Donne, the poet and preacher, lay seriously ill in a house in London next to St. Paul's Cathedral of which he was the Dean. It was the custom, then, to toll the bell of the church whenever a member was dying. The bell called the faithful to prayer. First, though, each household or neighborhood had to send someone to the church to find out for whom the bell was tolling. Thus Donne wrote his famous meditation on death, an appropriate one for Ash Wednesday (or any other time).

Now, this bell tolling softly for another says to me: "Thou must die." Perchance he for whom the bell tolls be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that those who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

The church is catholic, universal, and so are all of her actions. All that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for the child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and in one volume. When one man dies one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.

God employs several translators. Some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness ....

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for thee.

January 2, 2016

More Than Prayer: An Epiphany Changed My Life

It was a beautiful late afternoon drive. The sun was getting low as we traveled through the south Alabama countryside. It had been raining and the wet grass smelled sweet. The clouds had given way to beams of light. The air was clean and refreshing. Yet, ahead there bulged a huge dark cloud. More rain was coming our way.

My wife and I had squeezed all our possessions, along with our two small children, into our green Volkswagen Superbeetle. Our things were packed all the way to the ceiling in the back of the car, so the kids had to lay on top of it all. Even then, it wasn't enough room for everything. Several suitcases had to be strapped onto the luggage carrier on the roof.  Our little car was very heavy, so much so that the back wheels bowed outward under the weight.

As we drove south down a less traveled county road, which we had taken as a short cut to our destination, I could hear the plastic wrapping over the suitcases on the rooftop flapping in the wind. They would surely get drenched by the coming rain. I needed to stop and recover them. So, I began to look for a place to pull over and make the adjustments.

Just over a little hill, there appeared an abandoned farm house with a circle drive to the front gate. It looked like a good place to stop, tighten the plastic coverings, then get right back on the road. So, I turned in. As I drove onto the driveway, the car began to sink in the mud. It was slick, silty, soft, clay mud. I tried to drive on through it and get back to the road, but it was too late. The car was stuck! I shifted in and out of reverse to get some traction, but the car only sunk deeper - all the way up to the axles. The dark rain cloud was getting closer. And not a vehicle had driven by us on that lonely road.

I feverishly looked around for a shovel to dig the car out, and on the porch I saw one. I also noticed a man, sitting in an old chair, looking like a vagrant drifter. He was probably using the old house for shelter, but I didn't know for sure. I ran to the porch to get the shovel and asked, just in case it was his house, if I could use it. The man only looked at me. His eyes twinkled with a clarity I didn't expect. He said nothing. So, I took the shovel, went back to the car and started to dig around the wheels.

After what seemed like a very long time, but was only a few minutes, I realized my digging wasn't going to help. As my wife and children stood by, I simply stopped, bowed my head and prayed, "God, help us." It wasn't more than a minute that an orange county road truck came over the hill. I waved my hands and yelled for them to stop, because it looked as if they were going to drive on by us. The truck stopped and winched us out of the mud back onto the road. I tried to pay something, but the driver refused to take money. He simply said, "Don't you know any better than to pull off the road in Lowndes County after a rain?" I thanked him and the truck drove off. I went to put the shovel back on the porch and to thank the man, but he was gone. I didn't look for him. In a way it felt as if he had never really been there at all.  

My family and I got back into the car and drove onward with much relief into the rain storm with the plastic covering over the suitcases still flapping. But it didn't seem that important now. Something much greater than anything I had ever experienced before and since that day had happened to me. God showed Himself to me in the twinkling eyes of a homeless man on the porch of an old abandoned farm house by a little traveled road in Lowndes County, Alabama, when He sent a county road truck to pull me out of the mud in answer to my simple prayer of faith. It was more than a prayer. It was the epiphany that changed my life. I would never be the same again.