Life Together

“Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts.”

These words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer are from his book “Life Together.” Even though he penned them decades ago in a different time and culture, they have meaning for the church today.

I’ve known about this book for some time, yet have only now been able to work through its pages. This has had additional meaning for me as I’ve been leading a group of men in our church through a discussion on Bonhoeffer and this classic book on Christian community.

It’s a small book, but going through and sorting out the implications of Bonhoeffer’s words for the 2018 church has been a challenge. Perhaps the central lesson thus far from reviewing these pages is that the American church has a whole lot to be thankful for, not the least of which is the freedom we have to gather and worship as the people of God.

I admit I can’t comprehend a context in which the church couldn’t meet freely and without fear, yet Bonhoeffer did and indicated the value of community especially in a culture where persecution existed and could be expected. When he wrote “when Christ bids a man come to him, he bids him come and die” this was not merely a “spiritual” kind of death. It was very real and personal for him, and Bonhoeffer’s bravery in the face of his arrest and ultimate execution is something that should convict all of us.

I’m not a Bonhoeffer expert by any means, so it’s been rewarding to work through this work alongside of men who have a similar viewpoint of this theologian and martyr. We’re learning through the reading and shared time together that the church doesn’t do a very good job of celebrating little victories or expressing gratitude for what we have been given.

I’ve still unpacking his challenge of “giving thanks for the little things” as a precursor for being given larger blessings. But, it rings very similar to Jesus’ admonition to “be thankful in the little things” in order to be granted access to the greater things.

It can be frustrating being the pastor of a local church. There are any number of complaints, criticisms, and unmet expectations voiced from unhappy churchgoers. Sometimes, I admit, these unpopular critiques can weigh on me, especially when there is so much (in my view) to be thankful for as God’s people.

I’m reminded that the church needs to distinguish between being inconvenienced and being persecuted. There is a lot more of the former and very little of the latter. And, I wouldn’t count going through another round of “the war of Christmas” in a few months to qualify as being persecuted.

Bonhoeffer didn’t know what it was like to live in a free church in a free state. He risked and ultimately lost his life by leading the confessing church rather than compromise with the Nazi government. The church at that time sacrificed its prophetic voice in order to secure its existence, and as is always the case, anytime the church becomes associated with the government, the church loses every time.

We can’t wait until things get better or more to our liking in order to make a difference for Christ. The only time we have is the present, and now is the most important time that we have because we aren’t guaranteed another day.

Based on what I’ve read so far, it is evident that Bonhoeffer recognized a time of persecution and crisis as an opportunity for the church to be a witness for Christ. The American church doesn’t have that hardship to be concerned about, so it’s entirely possible and likely that we don’t realize the little things that are given to us each and every day.

The church definitely needs renewal, and a good step in that direction would be revisiting the value of practice of being thankful. It would transform us as the body of Christ. We would appreciate more our unity in Christ rather than our political biases, and there would be less grumbling about “not getting our needs met” and more gratitude about the time we have together as the people of God. There would be less critique about the kind of music or preaching we experienced in worship and more celebration that we had the freedom to be together in the first place.

Life Together. It really is a challenge, but it truly is a gift. And it’s worth it. Let’s not take it for granted.

 

 

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The Time Traveler

Last week a group of friends of mine from college days spent a few days in Branson (#Branson18). It had been decades since I’d seen many of them, and thanks to the ongoing efforts of a core group, we were able to secure a time and place to pull off a reunion.

 

For a bunch of 50 year olds, we didn’t do too bad on the activity front. We spent the day at Silver Dollar City and rode the rides, ate the food, and took in a few shows. I have to say that I fared pretty well until getting on “The Time Traveler” which I’m glad I did, but I found myself unable to speak for about an hour afterwards. It was pretty intense. It was also pretty great to spend a day on Table Rock Lake riding around on a pontoon boat.

 

Those few days with some lifelong friends refreshed me. In a way it was like time travel back to the 1980s to see people I knew at a school (formerly) known as Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, LA. It was a time of flag football, spades, working at a dry cleaners, and forging what would be life long friendships.

 

I especially enjoyed being able to re-connect with two mentors who had a profound impact upon my life. Charlie was my BSU Director and Gene served on staff at a church known for its ministry to college students. Talking with Gene reminded me of that Sunday I came forward during the invitation portion of the worship service to publicly acknowledge the Lord was calling me into vocational ministry. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but that experience along with the others in the BSU were vital to providing a spiritual foundation for the kind of work I’m in now.

 

There’s an old adage that says, “Life is good, but it isn’t easy.” I’ve found this to be particularly true over the decades I’ve been involved in church life. It’s easy to be blown off course by the ongoing comments, criticisms, and critique that are directed at those who serve in leadership positions in congregational life. Getting a way for a few days helped reorient my thinking and reconfigure my spiritual compass.

 

Eric Black provided a great  editorial entitled, “Remember Who You Are” from the Texas Baptist Standard. He writes, “When the news is chaotic, bad or frightening, knowing your primary identity will put all other things into perspective. Being pulled in different directions won’t move you if you are rooted and secure in your primary identity.” Black explores the various identities that are available to us, emphasizing that what is primary is a relationship to Jesus Christ. The others relate to political, social, and economic variables. What is noteworthy, is that no matter what happens in our country and world, if we are rooted in Jesus Christ, we won’t be unduly frightened by the changes that are going on around us.

 

I’ve tried to teach and model this important truth, but events in the church and world sometimes cause me to wonder if what I’m doing is really making a difference for Christ. There are times I think about the course my life has taken and need a reminder that “my labor for the Lord is not in vain.”

 

A few days in Branson with some college friends helped me gain some perspective on life. Regardless of what happens to me professionally, I know that those formative experiences we shared still serve as my spiritual roots and remind me that my future remains in Christ. It has been helpful to revisit where I’ve come from so that I know that I’m still on the right path.

 

It’s also good to know that others care for me for who I am rather than what I do, and as a pastor, that’s a very freeing realization. These dozen or so guys from NLU each have their own lives, but taking a few days to tell some old stories helped me take a breath and step back from the ongoing demands of pastoral ministry.

 

I’ll have to get back to work and life in the church soon, but I’m thankful for people who knew me before I became a pastor and remain concerned for my well-being. I’m also grateful to be pastor of a church who appreciates investing time, money, and other resources into the lives of 18-22 year olds attending college right across the street from our building.

 

I’m proof of what happens in your 20s doesn’t necessarily stay in your 20s. And, I hope that I can encourage students of the 21st century to take advantage of the time they have now to forge meaningful friendships and deepen in their relationship with Christ.

 

In a sense, we’re all “time travelers.” Like that roller coaster, there are many ups, downs, twists, and unexpected turns that can come at us in this life. It can be disorienting not knowing what or why things happen the way they do. Yet, the entire process can be exciting and provide all kinds of life lessons along the way if we’re able to hang on for the duration of the ride.

 

It was good traveling back in time for a few days to catch up with old friends, and good to return back to the time and place where the Lord has placed me for a while. I’ll do my best to remember who I am and be thankful that my primary identity remains in Christ and that “nothing will snatch me from the Father’s hand” (John 10.28-29).

 

Muriel Johnson at UHBC

“. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1.6).
Our church was blessed beyond words to have Muriel Johnson with us these last several days. Her preaching, teaching, and presence inspired and challenged us. I can’t begin to express my gratitude for her time with us. I needed it. We all needed it.
Muriel has been the Associate Minister for the Great Rivers Region of American Baptist Churches (USA) for 18 years. This was not the first time she’s been to our church, but it is the first time she’s been with our church.
What I mean by that is, she was able to spend valuable time meeting with groups and individuals in our church family. She talked and listened about their hopes and dreams as it relates to “outreach” and what that means for God’s people.
I have had a few people chuckle at me when I have suggested that we need to know what outreach is, but the truth is that we don’t all use the same lens to view what the church needs or how things are going. We don’t always recognize what God is already doing in our midst, and it was good to have Muriel help us see the signs of life and vitality that we all too often take for granted.
Muriel will be formulating a report about her time with us and I’ll pass that along when I receive it. She has offered to continue working with us, and I have graciously accepted that invitation. This is what she does in ABC churches, and as an ABC church, we are fortunate to have access to her knowledge and experience.
In short, you will see Muriel again and she’ll have more to say to us concerning church growth, church health, and the value of relationships. I want to table the idea of a consultant for a while to allow Muriel to be our guide as we seek the Lord’s direction and do His work in this community. Let’s do this “without becoming mean in the meantime.”
There were many takeaways I could share about my spending time with Muriel, but I’ll only select two. However, it does make me to glad to know we’ll continue walking with her for a while as a church family.
One takeaway relates to “reaching more young people.” It’s a refrain I’ve heard in this church, and Muriel has heard it in most of the churches she visits. The truth is that we need to reach ALL people rather than promote one demographic as more important that the other.
But, to position ourselves to reach more young people, we first need to respect and listen to the young people we already have, including those on our church staff. We must be willing to pray, support, and follow their leadership in their respective areas. We can offer suggestions and ideas along the way, but realize that God has called them to their respective areas and their voices are important.
The Apostle Paul told Timothy “do not let people look down on you because you are young” but to set an example for the church (I Tim 4.12). He said because there were people in the church who dismissed Timothy’s leadership role because of his chronological age, even though his spiritual age was more than those who were older than he was
There are times that the 21st century church can treat its young leaders that way too. Let’s be thankful for the “young people” we already have and celebrate them and their growth and example.
The second takeaway is that for all the talk about outreach, we need to be doing outreach. There were uncomfortable but necessary moments during the last Outreach Task Force meeting when Muriel asked each one of the question: “when is the last time you invited and brought someone to church?” The answers were pretty revealing, and I suspect many others in our church would have to acknowledge a basic failure in this area too.
There is no substitute for EACH one of us inviting and bringing people into the church family. No program or activity alone takes the place of establishing relationships with people. It’s not something that someone else can do for you, and there are no shortcuts or “silver bullets” that bring in the people. It’s about embracing the Great Commission and the Great Commandments of Jesus Christ.
A primary goal I have for our church right now is to recognize our need for GOD. You can’t quantify spiritual growth and development. It’s not always about how many people show up on Sundays. There’s a maturation process that is dynamic and unfolding; it’s about personal relationships. There’s no way around that.
One final thought, I have been thinking about what our “sweetspots” (as Muriel says) are as a church. We’ve already identified several, but another one I’ve thought of is being a home for those who are hurting, especially those who have been “church hurt.”
We heard it mentioned last Wednesday night from one of the attenders during a dialogue time with Muriel. It’s not a quantifiable goal, but a spiritual and emotional goal nonetheless. People know when they are welcome and accepted. Our church does this already in a real and organic way; let’s build on that.

A Generosity without Borders

First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral was Saturday. It was an inspiring and a for a brief moment refreshing display of a kinder, gentler time in American politics.

David Priess posted an amazing photo on his twitter feed of each of the presidents in attendance and their wives. He made this comment, “Each president in this photo did things I disagreed with politically. Quite a lot, in fact, for most of them. And yet I never doubted that every single one of them acted based on core values, including love of country—not, primarily, love of self.”

Several persons offered meaningful eulogies about the former first lady, yet it was a line from the rector of the church that stood out to me. In referencing Bush’s approach to others, Dr. Russell Levenson said, “Her generosity did not draw lines to keep others out.”

That’s another way of reinforcing the words of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s not easy being a pastor. One of the great challenges I have is interacting with people who have such divergent political views. Yet, it is also a privilege to learn from people who are different from me and not make one’s political (or theological) approach a basis for my having a friendship with them.

The level of discourse in our country has deteriorated to toxic levels, and while that might not be all that surprising, what has me deeply concerned is what is happening in our churches. Specifically, I am most troubled by the behavior of those who call themselves ministers of the gospel.

Pastors, ministers, rectors, and clergy of all denominations (or lack thereof) must take responsibility for setting a positive tone of civility in our nation. I’ve heard people say that pastors shouldn’t be political, but I’m more inclined to think that partisanship is more detrimental than being political.

Our church hosted the ChurchNet Spring Gathering on April 20th. The keynote speaker was Jeremy Bell, Executive Director of the North American Baptist Fellowship. During his remarks, he talked about the fact that church members needed to be able to explain “the damage that our votes are making” upon our society. Bell indicated that no matter who or what you voted for, there would be a certain level of collateral damage upon our society. That’s because there is no perfect political viewpoint or candidate.

What I inferred from those remarks is that our primary emphasis needs to be on the prophetic message of Jesus Christ in our communities. And this message needs to be communicated to all persons, regardless of background or viewpoint.

I’m working on practicing a generosity that doesn’t “create lines to keep others out.” Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but that’s the kind of generosity Jesus had toward those around him.

It would be wonderful if it didn’t take a funeral to bring people together. Most people are naturally more sympathetic and supportive during times of grief and loss, but wouldn’t be great if  we could hold differences of opinion without hating one another?

Fred Rogers, host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” for so many years will be the focus of a movie this summer. One of the most meaningful things he said was this: “Love is at the root of everything; all learning, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it”

May God help us to have a generosity that doesn’t create boundaries or lines.  Let all us of us as church leaders take the lead on creating a more positive world with room for differences of opinion. We can be influential and prophetic with the gospel without excluding people from its message.

 

 

 

Holy Week at UHBC

    Fred Rogers, the wonderful creator of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” once said, “Love is the root of everything. All relationships. All learning. Love, or the lack of it.”
    There’s going to be a movie about his life this summer, and after watching the movie trailer, I have to say it’s going to be very moving. Rogers dedicated his life talking to children–not down to them. And for his time, he was pretty progressive.
    Rogers dealt with subjects like death and divorce on his show. He also included an African-American cast member to further racial reconciliation during a time of civil unrest. Yes, it was a beautiful day in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
    We are beginning Holy Week this Sunday. It is a moment to remember a time when love, and the lack of it, was at the root of everything. Let’s slow down and lean into this holiest of occasions for us as followers of Jesus.
    Pay close attention over the next several days to the opportunities to worship and reflect, both as individuals and as a church family.
    This Sunday is also a commitment time, as we will have a special called business meeting at the conclusion of the worship service. We will be voting on the Nominating Committee Recommendation, Deacons, and the new operating budget.
    We are blessed with good leadership, and they have put in countless hours of time and effort in the presentation of what you’ll be voting on Sunday. I hope you will join me in supporting the new budget along with the other matters we will be voting on Sunday.
   As we look ahead, keep in mind that I’ll begin a new series this Wednesday on “Faces at the Cross.” I’m framing this as a discussion about several individuals who found themselves close to Jesus as he approached his death on the cross. It should be a time for us to reflect upon what it could have been like during the most stressful period of our Lord’s life, and how those moments impacted those around him.
    Maundy Thursday always provides a meaningful opportunity for us to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. I’m particularly thankful for this worship service; it causes us to slow down and realize the depths of love God has for us. The imagery, lighting, and Lord’s Supper will help us look back upon what that last week was like for our Lord. There’s an existential component to this time together, and I know it will be a spiritually important appointment for our church. I hope we’ll all take advantage of it.
    On a different note, Saturday morning will be our annual Easter Egg Hunt and is a high point of the year for our children. I’m looking forward to many in our community joining us once again for this time together. The weather has been improving and I am hopeful all will go well in that department on that day.
    And yes, Easter Sunday should be glorious! The music and message will point to the risen Christ. There will be an excitement in the air on that day and we will see friends and guests in our building. Even for those who don’t ordinarily attend, there will be those in our worship service simply because it’s Easter. Let’s be sure to show hospitality and encourage those around us to experience the spiritual renewal that following Christ can bring.
    May God help us make love the root of all that we are and do as a church. Take time to talk to a friend about his or her relationship with Christ and church involvement. People are receptive to these conversations during the Easter season. And, please join me in praying that Holy Week will be a season of renewal in our family of faith.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

Gordon Livingston was a surgeon in Vietnam who returned to the United States after his tour of duty to become a psychiatrist. In that capacity, he listened to countless numbers of individuals talk to him about their problems.
He himself experienced great tragedy over a 13 month period of time, as his oldest son committed suicide and his youngest died of leukemia.
Out of those experiences came a book entitled, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: 30 True Things You Need to Know Right Now.” It’s a thin book of axioms and truths gleaned from a lifetime of dealing with the pain and challenges of life.
Here are a few of them: We are what we do. Any relationship is under the control of the one who cares the least. Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but it is not the same thing. The fear of losing happiness is a roadblock to our experiencing it. The major advantage of illness is relief from responsibility.
I referred to these axioms at Dr. Kinder’s funeral this week, and I’ve given additional thought to them as we paid our final respects to our dear friend John McCullars. It has been an emotional and difficult week for us as a family of faith.
“We are what we do.” That’s a good way to describe Doc’s and John’s lives. They both demonstrated through their actions what was important to them, and we are the better for knowing them.
Let’s use the experiences of the past week to recognize what’s truly important, and that a life well lived is of great value. May each one of us aspire to leading a life that is “worthy of the calling of Jesus Christ” so that others might see our blessed Savior in us.
Sunday’s coming–an hour earlier! I hope to see you all then. Philippians 1:3

Ash Wednesday in Broward County

 

     Nick Cruz walked back into the high school he had been expelled from armed with an assault rifle. He pulled a fire alarm to get students into the hallways, and then began filling the air with a hail of gunfire. In the chaos that ensued, 17 students were killed.

     This isn’t the beginning of Lent that anyone could have imagined.
     In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Robert Runcie, Superintendent of Broward County Schools offered these remarks: “This has been a day where we’ve seen the worst of humanity. Tomorrow is going to bring out the best in humanity as we’ve come together to move forward from this unspeakable tragedy”
     Ash Wednesday will forever take on a different meaning for the people in that south Florida community. We will grieve with them and remember the victims, the families, and the surviving students who are traumatized with the reality of what happened. These students are dealing with the deaths of classmates and the awareness that their security and peace of mind has been shattered.
     This is a time when our nation offers another round of “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and families. While doing so, we need to realize that this sort of senseless school violence only occurs in the United States of America.
     It’s going to a particularly painful Lenten season for Broward County.
     It’s important to note what is happening in our nation, as well as our world. Theologian Karl Barth once said that pastors should do their work with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other (it would probably be a smartphone now). I think that’s an apt description of the work I’m called to do, and in a similar way, the work the church is called to do.
     Lent is upon us. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes the day before Easter. It’s a season of 40 days (not including Sundays) in which the Christian community should reflect, repent, and prepare for the arrival of Easter. Lent is a period of time for us to pay particular attention to our relationship with God.
     By the way, the reason Sundays in Lent aren’t included is that each Sunday is a “little Easter.” On these Sundays, we should temper our melancholy mood with the anticipation of Easter Sunday.
    It’s not uncommon for some Christians to “give up” something for Lent. It’s a way of fasting from something that we typically do as an exercise of discipline. It’s a smaller but can be meaningful way to recall the 40 days of fasting and temptation that Jesus endured (as mentioned earlier, Christians don’t have to practice self-deprivation on Sundays in Lent).
     If you’re looking for suggestions, Twitter has a list of 100 items to “give up” during Lent. The top choices are: social media, alcohol, twitter, chocolate, meat, sweets, swearing, coffee, soda, and Snapchat (ask a teenager what that is).
     In addition to giving something up for Lent, it’s also a time to give one’s time and compassion to others. For this reason, our church is promoting the 40 Days of Change Calendars sponsored by Safe to Sleep. “Safe to Sleep” is a ministry of the Council of Churches that helps at risk women (and children) find shelter and security.
     I’ll be using one of these calendars, and challenge the rest of us to do the same. It’s not the monetary benefit to Safe to Sleep that’s most meaningful, but rather the time spent reflecting upon how much we truly have for which to be grateful.
     Broward County will be grieving for a long time. And, in a nation in which the “worst of humanity” is often on display, let us do our best in representing Christ to show the “best of humanity.” This should begin in our own individual families and extend through our church family into our own county and world.
     The world needs hope. Let the church be that hope.