Peace in the Midst

October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

pizza-with-slice-taken-out-middle

“Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.” (Acts 9:31a)

Can you imagine that? What was that like? As an elder in a church, it’s hard for me to picture “a time of peace” in ours. There are definitely times where the problems in our church don’t seem too overwhelming, though it seems there is always some form of unrest happening.

But I became an elder during a particularly hard time for our church. I compared church leadership to a Jim Gaffigan comedy sketch I’d heard where he imagines what it must be like as President of the United States to be woken up early every single morning by an aide patting his shoulder and whispering, “Sir… Problems…”

The above passage in Acts follows a time of turmoil for Saul, and likely the church at large, as this newly converted Pharisee began stirring up trouble in Damascus and Jerusalem. Saul “preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus” and “debated with the Hellenistic Jews” who then tried to kill him, so the believers he was with had to relocate him (v.s 27-30).

So maybe the “peace” the church enjoyed here was a reprieve from persecution, or maybe it was peace in the midst of persecution.

Most of the New Testament Pastoral Epistles were written to a particular church addressing a particular problem like heresy or divisions, so I don’t think the church ever enjoyed a lot of peace in the problem-free sense. In at least one of those epistles, we find an important reminder of the availability of peace not just before or after, but in the middle of trials.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:4-9)

Paul tells the church in Philippi about God’s peace that “transcends all understanding” that “will guard your hearts and your minds” from whatever threatens the joy we should have in Christ. How do we possess this sense of peace and “rejoice in the Lord always”?

  1. Know that “the Lord is near” (vs. 5). God’s presence kept Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego safe in King Nucchadnezzar’s fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25), and He will do the same for you. Jesus promised His disciples in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
  2. Pray (vs. 6). As an alternative to anxiety, ask God for help, remembering that worry does no good (Matt. 6:27). Also pray for others and thank God for what he’s already done in your life.
  3. Occupy your mind with “whatever is true… noble… right… pure… lovely… admirable… excellent… praiseworthy” (vs. 8). A heavenward focus on the good things of God is a mind and heart guarded from anxiety.
  4. Put into practice what you’ve learned (vs. 9). Hear, but also do (James 1:22). Evil never brings peace to the one doing it. Matthew Henry comments, “All our privileges and salvation arise in the free mercy of God; yet the enjoyment of them depends on our sincere and holy conduct.” We find peace in doing what God wants us to do.

Clearly, the peace God has for us to claim and find our faith strengthened through is not found in the spaces between life’s turmoil. Maybe God’s peace “transcends all understanding” because we tend to understand peace to be the absence of trials rather than the presence of God and God-given opportunities to grow in our trials.

Peace!

The Existence of God is Worthy of Debate—But an Atheist Minister in a Christian Church?

October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

atheist-pulpitFrom the UC Observer Magazine, published by the United Church of Canada: “After nearly a week of deliberating, the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference voted to ask the General Council of The United Church of Canada to conduct a formal hearing to determine whether to fire Rev. Gretta Vosper — the last step in a long process that now seems increasingly likely to remove the atheist minister from her pulpit.”(1)

Ponder these things:

1. Somehow, there is a congregation that identifies as a Christian church that at some point actually hired a minister who identifies as an atheist.

2. Somehow, an atheist has been allowed to minister at a Christian church for 19 years.

3. Somehow, it takes a “long process” of “deliberating” and a vote to request a “formal hearing” to consider whether or not an atheist should continue to pastor a Christian church.

Does a doctor, while seeing a patient with a knife in his gut, deliberate for weeks over the decision to remove the knife (whether or not it was self-inflicted or allowed to fester for a long time)? This boggles the mind.

For sure, people are upset because bounds—that should never have been set—are being overstepped in the process, and some fear that “the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity”—code words for theological compromise that began long ago. Obstacles that should never have been.

Gretta Vosper has fans in the church (she is also “a prolific blogger, author and guest speaker”). In fact “a petition in support of Vosper…calls on the church ‘to show loving kindness to everyone, irrespective of belief or no belief.'”

Loving kindness respects all people as human beings made in God’s image, regardless of their beliefs, and love calls us to seek God’s best for them. Loving kindness does NOT invite heresy, or entrust the preaching and teaching of God’s Word to someone who does not even believe in God or His word. This doesn’t seek God’s best for the congregation either.

“Vosper calls herself an atheist and has been serving her church for 19 years. She has stated that she does not believe in a Trinitarian God or a supernatural god. She said love is the most sacred value and that she had stopped using the word ‘God’ because it was a barrier to participation in the church.”

God is love. To exclude God from Vosper’s “preaching” is to exclude love. If “God” is a barrier to participation in this church, what can there be in this church that is worth participating in? The love of God? The truth of God’s Word? The good news of salvation from sin through God’s one and only Son? If “God” is not preached from Vosper’s pulpit, the silence of the name of “Jesus” will be even more deafening.

Thankfully, “others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith.” At least someone sees the problem.

Vosper’s lawyer “called for Conference to put the review on hold for a year in favour of a structured dialogue or debate,” meanwhile Vosper would remain a minister. Structured dialogue and debate is a great thing, but if you’re expecting that process to take a year, you’re likely not looking to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”(2) You’re contending for theological liberalism or atheism, heresy we already know God detests and Jesus died for.

If a minister is an atheist, and a congregation is a Christian church, then the atheist belongs in the pew, not at the pulpit. The pairing makes no sense at all, and frankly there’s little to debate about that. Now if we want to debate the existence of God, let’s have a dialogue.

1) Milne, Mike. “Atheist minister Gretta Vosper one step closer to dismissal, formal hearing requested” UC Observer Magazine. United Church of Canada, 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. (Link: http://www.ucobserver.org/faith/2016/09/vosper_atheist_minister/)
2) Jude 1:3: Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

The Effects of a House Divided

September 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

“The children of divorced parents have grown up to be adults of no religion,” a new Pew Research Center study(1) says, according to the Washington Post. “People whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to grow up not to be religious as adults, the study found. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents told pollsters they are now nonreligious, compared with 23 percent of people whose parents were married when they were children.”(2)

divorce

The correlation in this study seems pretty strong. Does it make sense that when an impressionable young person sees something as fundamental and life-shaping as a safe and sound family structure, where he placed his faith, divide, it can lead to the shaking of other foundational structures, like his understanding of God and faith? And maybe in particular faith in the community aspect of church life?

From the Post article: “Everything in a divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides… Even religion takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult.”

From politics to family to church, Jesus’ words (also famously quoted by Lincoln) seem to have an increasingly wider application: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

Maybe the lesson for the church is to strive in unity and love as an answer to those soured on it by broken families, if they will come.

1) Cooper, Betsy. “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back” Pew Research Center. PRRI, 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 29 Sep. 2016.
2) Zauzmer, Julie. “How Decades of Divorce Helped Erode Religion” The Washington Post. WaqshingtonPost.com, 27 Sep. 2016. Web. 29 Sep. 2016

‘Hedge of Protection’ Prayer Gets an Upgrade

August 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

The popular prayer for a “hedge of protection” may be getting an upgrade to stronger materials. Many pastors and missionaries, seeing a higher level of danger both physically and spiritually in today’s culture, are praying for a more substantial means of protection than the hedge, which dates back to the book of Job.

-1x-1“A row of leafy bushes simply doesn’t cut it anymore in today’s world,” said Dale Hill, a pastor and structural engineer in Bakersfield, CA. “At our church, we’ve started to pray actual fences. Wood or vinyl at least. When we feel really spiritually oppressed, we go for steel-reinforced concrete barriers and the like.”

Julian Deever, who leads worship at Hillside E-Free in Denver, is trying a more transparent approach. “We’ve actually constructed sturdy plexiglass cages, like the one surrounding our drummer, for our entire worship team and pastoral staff. Take that, Satan!”

Denise Stewalski, a prayer warrior who owns ToughTree Landscaping in Chicago, doesn’t think Christians need to abandon the traditional hedge concept just yet. “There are some very sturdy bushes available to pray around your pastors, missionaries, and loved ones. Junipers, for instance, make pretty formidable barriers, and the reasons most homeowners hate them make them a great option. The roots are tough, they’re prickly to the touch, low maintenance, and they’re usually full of spiders and lost baseballs. I’d like to see the Devil try to get through a Juniper hedge.”

“We also have a sale on them this weekend,” she added.

What many Christians see as an issue over what a “hedge” is made of, some have a greater faith in the One who plants it. “If God puts a hedge of protection around you, the kind of shrubbery doesn’t matter. You are safe!” says Ellen Green, head of Horticultural Ministries at Park Forest Chapel in Memphis, TN.

If God’s ideal place for Adam and Eve was a garden, should we worry that His “hedge of protection” won’t protect us? Maybe we’ll be just fine among the hydrangeas.

‘First They Came’ Redux

July 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

That’s a poem written in 1946 or so by Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who spoke out against the Nazis, but regretted not standing up for his Jewish neighbors during his own imprisonment. Here’s how a Christian in Iowa, in light of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s latest measure about churches and public accommodations(1), might rewrite Niemöller’s poem today, considering the advancement of the modern sexual revolution:

First they came for the florists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a florist

Then they came for the bakers
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a baker

Then they came for the photographers 
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a photographer

Then they came for the pastors
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a pastor

Then they came for me 
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

 

1) Patroski, William “Churches Challenge State on Gender Identity Law.” The Des Moines Register, 6 July, 2016. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2016/07/05/church-sues-state-iowa-over-transgender-bathroom-rules/86700392/

A Question About Churches and Psychic Fairs

June 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Serious question: Should a Christian church or ministry have a presence at spiritual, holistic, or metaphysical expos or events?

The Iowa Metaphysical Fair (formerly the Iowa Psychic Fair) is this weekend in Des Moines. The vendor list has what you would expect: psychics (including pet psychics), palm and tarot readers, channelers of the dead (séance), spiritual coaches, various artists and musicians, minerals, crystal and jewelry retailers, paranormal experts, shamanic healers and expounders and sellers of other various types of holistic screenings and wellness.

In other words, everything “spiritual” in the offerings, but nothing explicitly Christian or Biblical. I’m sure the reasons churches don’t consider renting a booth at such events steeped in spiritualism and the occult are Biblical (Deut. 18:9-14, Lev. 19:31, Prov. 27:1, Gal. 5:20-21, 1 Cor. 2:11).

But considering that people come to these fairs and expos looking for spiritual answers, is it a legitimate mission field for Christians? Don’t we have a lot to say about the metaphysical? Do we get a booth and offer the Gospel at places like this? Or are these places where Christians should “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…” (Eph. 5:11)?

Climbing Together

February 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

FullSizeRender copyI took my wife to the local climbing gym for her birthday. It had been years since either of us had been on a climbing wall, so we were up for a new adventure. Once there, we ran into an old friend, Jamie, who was now quite obviously a very skilled climber and a regular at the facility—He has a nine year old daughter who climbs competitively, and they had recently conquered a 250 foot cliff together in Wyoming. As we caught up, Jamie quite literally showed us the ropes and talked about his love for climbing and especially “the community” at places like this.

We quickly saw what he meant by “community.” Jamie enthusiastically introduced us to a spirited and friendly guy named Ed, and within minutes we all knew where each other worked, worshiped, what we liked to do for fun, and where these guys have vacationed together to climb. A young woman they both knew appeared and the group of fellow climbers exchanged hugs and jovial hellos. She expressed how busy she’d been teaching piano (but was dropping four students), and we all sympathized with her recently having to say goodbye to a beloved horse she owned.

Now about these hugs. At a climbing gym. I can remember some casual conversation with a few of the folks we see at our fitness club regularly, but I couldn’t imagine a hug fitting into those relationships. These climbers were quite obviously friends who genuinely cared about each other’s lives.

Throughout the afternoon of climbing the walls around the gym we saw this played out a lot, at least among the regulars who knew what they were doing (as opposed to newbies trying out climbing because they had a coupon or had climbed a wall at Bible camp a couple times—like my wife and I). I began to think about this “community” and why the climbing world seemed to have it down so well. Jamie and Ed happened to be Christians, but I sensed there was something about the sport itself that cultivated and strengthened this relational atmosphere. Then I realized it had to be about the belay.

If you don’t what the term belay means (climbers do), it’s the act of managing a rope, which is attached to the climber’s harness and runs around a bar or belay device at the top of the wall, and then back down. The belayer’s job is to stay below and anchor the opposite end of the rope, which is also attached to a harness on his own body, and let out slack as the climber ascends. The critical part of the gig is to exert friction (squeeze) on the rope if the climber slips off the wall so he doesn’t fall. In a gym with 50 foot walls, a belayer is pretty important. On a rocky mountainside with 250 foot walls and no cushy mats on the ground, they are a matter of life and death. These climbers take turns belaying for each other, basically putting their lives and limbs in each other’s hands. I’m willing to bet this is a big part of what fosters such a tight climbing “community”. It’s critical to know who is on the other end of the rope, and you continually practice trusting them with your life.

Do you routinely hug people at your gym, office, book club, pottery class? How about your church? Out of all our communities, church should be a place of not only warm greetings but sincere love and care for one another. The church is marked by what we do there (teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer—Acts 2:42) and also by its purpose to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20), to encourage each other toward a deeper and grounded faith (Romans 15:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:11), to look out for one another’s welfare (James 1:27) and to love each other (Mark 12:31). Church is where life’s biggest questions and our biggest struggles should be brought and shared in community. Church is where we point each other “heavenward in Christ Jesus” because of what He has done, but we trust and help each other to move closer to Him. When a church is doing what it should do, we are trusting each other with our lives, and the rewards can be eternal.

Other than catching a climber before he falls, a belayer is often a coach. He has a different perspective of the route and can often see things the climber can’t. If the belayer is a more experienced climber than the one on the wall, he can offer suggestions on what handholds and footholds are best and which ones to avoid. The belayer’s objective is not just to protect the climber if he slips up but to encourage him to be “straining toward what’s ahead.”

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2) Remember what hangs in the balance at church, and that your part as God’s hands and feet is important, even moreso than the pastor’s part. God uses this important community to change lives, and sometimes to save them. If your church isn’t known as a community of people “devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10), then it starts with you. Be a belayer. Pick up the rope and help someone along. Or head to a climbing gym and see how community is supposed to work!

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