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Foot-washingIn the church blogosphere, church leaders–specifically elders in Churches of Christ–are the target for much criticism.  Yesterday, I happened to be a neutral observer in a elders/members confrontation that will encourage you.

Apparently the worship wars that most big city congregations faced a decade or two ago had just become real at this good-sized church in a small town.  Some of their young people–but not exclusively young people–had been clapping and raising their hands during worship.  The ultimate offense, however, was some “stomping.”  I wasn’t there, so I can’t describe these actions.

Some of the brethren just left for other congregations in the county, but a few didn’t want to give up their pew without a fight so they threatened the elders with their ultimate weapons–withholding their contribution and/or divorce.

You have these options in many counties because there are so many congregations for so few people! I was recently in a Main Street congregation where the preacher told me there were 26 churches in a county with around 30,000 people. Many of the congregations were started in horse-and-buggy days when people didn’t want to be too far away from their cows and chickens–which to me explains adequately why they all started, but not why they still exist today!  My experiences suggest that they continue to exist because of tradition, turf, dynasties, clans, and sectarian feuding.

What this multiplicity of congregations has led to, however, is a consumer mentality among Christians. If I don’t like the price of milk at this store, I just go down the street to their competition. If this church doesn’t give me what I want, do what I want, worship like I want, I just go down the road to one that will.

Our actions suggest that God made a big mistake by describing the church as a family or a body. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if our bodies were built so that if our toes didn’t like where the foot was going, they could just leave!  And we know all too well how destructive abandoning one’s family is!

God hates divorce! But we seem to have created a congregational marketplace which encourages it!

Back to our story:  the elders of this congregation studied and prayed about these worship questions. Their conclusions were not to create laws and limitation where the Bible did not.  They delivered their prayerful decision to the church in a gentle and loving way, which is what brought out the threats of divorce!

So, last Sunday, this general “family meeting” as they described it, was not about worship, rather it was about what it means to be a family!

The elders did so many things right!  The first was to have the open meeting during the Sunday school hour so the maximum number of church members could attend. It says that they really wanted to talk to the family rather than exercising their perogative to “rule” from their board room!

Each of the elders spoke briefly–showing their unity of Spirit and their united commitment to the family.  No doubt they had not all been on the same page when they started praying and studying together, but they were by the end of the process. Majority rule has no place in church leadership.

The first elder who spoke was probably the least eloquent, but he set the tone for the meeting by admitting to how nervous he was. He quoted someone who said that nervousness is the price of being a racehorse instead of a cow!  The laughter–the humility– was good for the family!

Several of the elders spoke of their longevity in that congregation–through thick and thin, a cliche that was worn out by the end of the meeting.  One elder described the tapestry of experiences that he himself was, mentioning first the people in his life and then the congregations where he had attended.  He was just saying that we all bring a lot of different experiences with us when we become part of a congregation.  He went on to talk about how he had been shocked in 1991 when this congregation had men serve communion without a coat and tie on!

All of the elders spoke of their love for the family, their constant prayers for the members of the body, and their willingness to listen honestly to every concern.

And here is where they really acted as shepherds of the flock, over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28). The elders described their prayerful search for a biblical answer to this worship question–and then told the church what they believed God wanted this body to do!  These men lovingly led the church–prayerfully and humbly, not from seats of power–toward unity and freedom.

Unity and freedom–words conjoined over and over again in the statements from each of the elders, instructing the congregation to seek these same values as individual members of the body. Their “oversight” meant seeing what was good for the whole Family, the whole Body, and their word from God was not to bind on anyone what God had not bound, but also to call the members of the family to faithfulness, not divorce.

I understand why churches are moving away from the term elders; most have moved to the synonym shepherd. I don’t think that resonates much with most of us who have never had anything to do with sheep. I’d prefer for elders to be called pastors if we need to use a more modern term.  Theirs is more the pastoral role. But their title is not nearly as important as their hearts.

Thank you, God, for prayerful, humble, and courageous church leaders who live out the unity of the Spirit and the freedom in Christ and who lead their congregations by speaking the truth in love.

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Glasco ChristianIn the late 1870s,  my great-grandfather and my and other family members were part of starting a new church in a small Kansas town.  They just called themselves Christians, and so the church was also called a Christian church.  As one reads the history of this small insignificant church in this scarcely populated wheat town in the Solomon River valley, the description inadvertently betrays the post-civil war rift in the Restoration movement.  On some pages, the words introduce former preachers while just a few pages later, a new minister is called a pastor. Pages are periodically silent about the music, then suddenly there is an organist, only to go silent again for a few more years!

Our  family’s conclusion is that this little wheat field town’s church members hardly noticed the differences that other Restoration Christians in larger cities were debating and dividing over.  They were first a community of Christians, living and worshiping  together–with no further adjectives necessary.

By 1906, someone who was somebody decided it was time to differentiate the two groups–that is, the instrumental, mission society Christians from the acapella, non-missionary  society Christians.  I wonder how long it took the Christians in that tiny town in Kansas to know to which group they belonged?  They may have been confused and just thought that they were Christians.

For one hundred years, the two groups operated with few exceptions in completely different circles.  We each developed our own jargon, our own heroes, our own missionaries, our own colleges.  With the exception of a few touch points, we were not talking, certainly not fighting–because we hardly knew the other existed.

The instrumental churches of Christ–not everyone bothered to change their name–later split into two distinct fellowships:  the Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ (because not everyone changed their name!) and Disciples of Christ.  The movement which began as a unity movement . . . oh, well!

Some individuals of all three groups continued to keep the hope of unity alive with annual gatherings, some pretty scholarly publications, and an occasional token invitation to a lectureship, but with the exception of this high-level contact, the average members of these churches continued to exist in different worlds, practically oblivious to the others.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the separation of Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches in 2006, several leading preachers and pastors in both groups declared that the 1906 breach was wrong and that the unity of the Restoration Movement should be restored.  At several high-profile gatherings, representatives of both groups repented for participating in division, asked for forgiveness, extended  fellowship to their counterpart, and ceremoniously traded Bibles as peace offerings.

Let me tell you why I am thinking about this.

My personal history is in the acapella Church of Christ. During the last few days, however, I have had the privilege of being on the campuses of two of the Independent Christian Churches larger colleges/universities.  I have been extraordinarily well hosted and extended complete and unreserved cooperation.  I would not have expected it to be any other way between Christians!

What  continues to sadden me, however, is how little either of us really knows about the history and the daily life of the other.  Just today, in casual conversations with colleagues,  I have learned of marvelous missions efforts,  of amazing heroes of faith, both alive and dead, even of Christian colleges/universities–all completely unknown to me.  I know a lot about our side of the aisle, but embarrassingly little about these brothers and sisters.

Maybe we have reconciled, but not actually restored fellowship.  Let me suggest a few actions that could possibly get us started in the process of really loving the whole brotherhood.

  • Local congregations should begin getting to know other congregations. It might only be a common potluck at first, but perhaps with the goal of getting to know each other.
  • Preachers could swap pulpits and use some of their time to introduce the history and heroes of their congregations.
  • Youth ministers from both groups could plan joint outings/camps/mission trips together.
  • The Christian Chronicle and The Christian Standard could each begin a section that deals with the news and ongoings of the other group.
  • Christian colleges/universities of both groups could include tracks in their lectureships/conferences that introduce both groups to each other.
  • Perhaps somebody needs to start a ministry of fellowship restoration, specifically focused on bringing not just the leaders, but the grassroots of these two groups together until we learn how to love each other again.

I know somebody is going to think that all this talk of getting to know each other and fellowshipping with people that we hardly know and may not entirely agree with is going to be a slippery slope to  . . . you know where!

I’m sure they (the others!)  aren’t perfect–but I’m not either, so I’m not going to be afraid of loving someone who loves God.  Fear makes us do terrible things–like ignore people who belong to the Body of Christ.

Maybe those people in that little church in Kansas knew something about love and fellowship and unity after all!

EDS Byron Nelson ClassicI always think of Byron Nelson, the legendary golfer, during this time of year. I met him eight years ago, just  weeks before he died.  But I’ll finish that story later.

Let’s Start Talking is in the middle of our biggest fund raising activity of the year. Once a year–during August and September–we have what we call our Season of Generous Giving.  Typically, we conclude this season of fund raising with the September Celebration Dinner, this year on September 25.

The activities and emotions of this season are all over the place!  We start with trepidation! Since September 30 is the end of our fiscal year, we need a successful fund raising effort to finish paying for the work that we have already done! The difference between a successful effort and a less successful effort can mean the difference for us of finishing our fiscal year with a positive or negative bank balance! So much is at stake!

But we also start with great faith that our God is rich in mercy and His people have all the resources needed for His kingdom to advance.  Most years, our prayers and efforts are richly blessed, but other years, the same prayers and often greater efforts do not result in all we thought we needed.

In this context, I was thinking about Luke 10 and  the report of Jesus sending out the 72 on their short-term mission.  “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals . . . ” (v.4).  What was he thinking about there–what was he trying to teach them?

If LST put a team on a plane to somewhere, but told them not to carry a suitcase and don’t take any money, we’d be considered irresponsible and negligent.  If a church required missionaries to go without support, they would be used as a negative illustration at every missions conference for the next decade.

So what was Jesus doing?  Teaching?

For those being sent out, perhaps he was trying to teach them total dependence on the Great Commissioner!  If they went out completely self-sufficient,  they would not learn to be content with whatever God provided.  Remember Paul’s words, a missionary who also went out with insufficient support–measured at least by today’s standards–but with absolute trust in the One who sent him: ” I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:11,12)

But, if the workers had gone out with all they needed, what would those to whom they were going fail to experience or learn? This is what gave me the most pause for thought.

They would not have learned that to be asked for help is an opportunity to participate in the plan of God.  I’m always a little surprised during this Season of Generous Giving at a few people who are somehow offended when we ask them to participate  with us financially.  Some of them are perhaps like Ebenezer Scrooge and simply don’t believe in charity because they believe so strongly that they have earned and deserve everything they have!  What foolishness!

I suspect most, however, just find it awkward, and they don’t like to be put in awkward situations. Either they don’t think money is something you talk about, or they may not be able to say either Yes or No to the request without some embarrassment–and they don’t want to be embarrassed.

So should someone not hear the Gospel because you are embarrassed?  Or maybe this is a place where God can transform our thinking, to refocus us on others rather than ourselves?

They would not have learned that it is more blessed to give than to receive!  We only know that Jesus said this because the great missionary Paul told us so. It’s not recorded in the Gospels.  Those who received the 72 would not know what God would do for them if they had not offered them food, shelter, maybe money, and sandals!

What would God do to bless us if we gave to support those who are going?  I can only imagine good things–and He is able to do more than we can imagine.

They would not have learned that generosity is at the core of the message proclaimed by those who go!  Can you even imagine a person of peace saying, “Well, I totally accept the message from God that you have brought into my home, but I’m not going to give you a bed or share a meal or offer to give you an extra pair of sandals because if I do, I won’t have enough for myself.” Unthinkable!

The 72 took nothing with them because they believed that people of peace would offer them all they needed to accomplish their mission.  My experience with a lifetime in missions is that some are generous if you ask–but almost no one is offering. 

Now back to my memory of Byron Nelson.  One Sunday in August 2006, I was teaching an adult class at church, talking about LST.  After class and after the aisle had cleared, a large elderly man came toward me on his scooter.  He introduced himself to me–but I knew who he was. It was one of the greatest golfers of all times Byron Nelson.

He immediately  asked me a question which I am almost never asked: “How is your ministry doing financially?  Is there something I can do to help?”  I was literally speechless for a second,  managing finally to tell him that we were always in need of support–a pretty lame answer for such a generous question.

He invited us to come to his home that week and present our needs more particularly.  We met him and his wife Peggy, presented our need, then left them to talk and pray about it.  Within days, we received a check in the mail from the Nelsons–not for the amount that we had requested–but for TWICE AS MUCH!

Here was a man of peace who offered  without being asked and who was more generous than “required.”  He will be remembered by many for golf, but he is known by God for his faithfulness and his generosity!

Go out today–and tomorrow–and offer to support someone who needs your help to do the mission of God.  Offer without being asked–and watch that missionary’s  eyes glisten and voice crack–and know that God is smiling.

 

 

Dr. Tim Spivey is my son-in-law, and not just because of that, I have great respect for his work. This particularly insightful post meant much to me today, so I wanted to share it with you. 

DontgiveupWe MUST orient our energies and ministry around health, not pathology. We must spend our focus, time, and missional energy on the spiritually growing rather than those who refuse to accept appropriate responsibility for their spiritual growth.

Let me explain.

It’s easy to spend most of one’s energy worrying about those who aren’t there, virtually forgetting about those God has gathered. It’s easy to spend too much energy focusing on disappointments rather than blessings, or negative feedback over calling and the encouraging voices and signs all around us.

This pulls us off mission as much as anything, because we focus on Satan’s accomplishments rather than God’s provision. It tears down our faith, beats us down, and depletes our passion for ministry. When I’m thinking about what I think God isn’t doing, I’m not thinking about what He is doing–and what He’s doing is far more important than what I perceive He isn’t doing.

At any given point in time, God is doing far more than we realize, and we need to recognize that in our attitudes. We do this by orienting our thoughts around blessings and provision rather than criticism and difficulties.

How do we do that? The same way we change any attitude. We repent, pray, trust God’s work in us, renew our focus and efforts, and do what we need to do to nourish a heart of thanksgiving rather than scarcity. Maybe we need to change up who we spend time with, talk to, listen to, or what we feed our eyes.

Perhaps you’re going through a phase of ministry that is bringing you to the brink of quitting or at least despair. Well, hear this…Getting discouraged doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of being a great leader.

…Moses wanted to die rather than go on with the Israelites another day.
…Elijah thought he was the only one left. He wasn’t.
…David wondered why God was taking so long to deliver Him.
…Even Jesus lamented the hard-headedness and worldly perspective of His followers.

But, in each case, God revealed or did what was needed at just the right time. He usually didn’t change their ministries or solve their problems for them, He fortified their courage and renewed their souls by calling them back to what He was doing, and what He had done in the past.

He can do the same for you.

MW–You can read more of his posts at this regular site: http://www.timspivey.com

InChristsNameWhen we first moved back to the States from Germany, I was scrambling around doing any work that I could find to bridge the months until my new salary at Oklahoma Christian would start.  One of the most interesting jobs I took was to translate for a graduate student who needed it for his thesis a 19th century German theological book, considered one of the definitive works of its time, on the Name of God.

I don’t know how helpful it was to him, but I came away with a totally different view of His Name–a greater sense of its reality and presence–and power, one that it probably more spiritual and a great deal less rational than I had believed to that point in my life.

Not everyone in the world understands names or uses names like Americans do!  We pay some slight attention to the fact that royalty in other countries–especially England–carefully choose the names of their children. Some who inherit the throne unexpectedly actually rule under a different name than the one they used from birth.  King George VI of England, the one of The King’s Speech was known as Prince Albert, Duke of York, his entire life prior to his unexpected ascension and more informally in the family as “Bertie.”  He chose to reign as George, however, to emphasize continuity and stability within the monarchy.

In Germany, even the language–especially the form of address–distinguishes between people who have a relationship with you and those who don’t.  You never call a stranger by their first name; you always address them as Frau Schmidt or Herr Lange–nor would they tell you their first name anyway.  People may work together for years and not know the person’s first name who sits next to them.  You must be specifically invited to a new level of familiarity in order to address a person by their first name.

Other countries also have very different customs regarding whether children take the father’s or the mother’s last name.  Some cultures always include the day of birth as part of the name (Monday, Tuesday, etc.).  Many Catholic countries see most children named with the patron saint’s name of their birth day.  Other countries have an official list of names and spellings from which parents may choose to name their children–none of this making up your own name and spelling it creatively like Americans do.

It may be this casual attitude toward names that has caused American Christians to lack appreciation for the powerful holiness inherent in “the Name” of God, whether it is part of the Old Testament revelation of God or central to the message of the Son of God in the New Testament.

For too many of us, “in Jesus’ Name, Amen” are just the words we were taught to use to close prayers.  In reaction to the empty ritual it has become, others consciously avoid these words. We are a little better with the Trinitarian formula “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” especially at baptism, but even there we do not think of the words carrying either holiness or power. They are… just words.

Dr. Greg Pruett, President of Pioneer Bible Translators, has written a powerful book entitled Extreme Prayer: The Impossible Prayers God Promises to Answer.  One of the most instructive chapters in his book is “Chapter Two–Name Power: God Answers Prayers in Jesus’ Name.”

Here is the paragraph where Dr. Pruett reveals what for many may be a transformative bit of information about prayer “in the Name of Jesus” :

               What is the significance of praying in Jesus’ name?  In the Bible, a person’s name represents his or her nature.  Praying in Jesus’ name doesn’t mean asking for a Ferrari and tacking on the magic words “in Jesus’ name.”  It means presenting requests that resonate with Jesus’ character, praying “for his name’s sake” prayers that advance his plans for the earth–in other words, proclaiming Kingdom of God-oriented prayers.

He goes on to explain:

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew root word meaning ‘to save.’  Praying in Jesus’ name literally means praying about obeying Jesus’ command to bring his salvation to each person and to the ends of the earth. Prayers in Jesus’ name center on the desire to see people far from God coming to know, love, follow, and obey Jesus.” (p.20)

And his thesis is that it is these prayers in Jesus’ name that God has promised to “do whatever you ask”–not just any prayer.

In a workshop with the Let’s Start Talking staff, Dr. Pruett made a distinction between prayers that are based on “our story” and prayers that are based “in God’s story.”  And it is not that God doesn’t hear the prayers in our story–quite the contrary; He is certainly the God who knows when every sparrow falls from the sky. However, the promises of “whatever you ask” are not specifically linked to the prayers for our story, but rather to God’s story, to those prayers that are about His kingdom coming, His Will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

At LST, our prayers have changed because of this teaching.  As a ministry, we continue to pray for our families and pray for the sick–but we are now consciously praying in Jesus’ Name, asking for the people we could send and the funds with which to send them in order to share the Name of Jesus in places and to hearts where the Name does not live.

And we are learning–still learning–to believe that God will do whatever we ask in Jesus’ Name.

This is not the last time we will talk about this.

underthedomeScientists now say that we live in a bubble! According to yesterday’s headlines, our whole solar system exists inside of a hot bubble of gases about 300 light years in length and shaped like a peanut. The thought of living in a bubble makes some people a bit claustrophobic, though 300 light years is quite a lot of space.

The townspeople of Chester Mills might beg to differ. You see, they do actually live in a bubble. Several weeks ago, an invisible dome dropped down, totally surrounding their town. I know it dropped down (as opposed to just appearing) because the rim of the dome sliced cows and houses dramatically in half.

Of course, I’m talking about the fictional town of Chester Mills depicted in the TV series Under the Dome, which is finishing its second season on CBS. The show itself is kind of like Lost for teenagers, with a lot of the show being a bit supernatural. The only mildly interesting part of the show is the reaction of the townspeople to being in the dome and completely cut off from the rest of the world–most of the time. Being under the dome seems to push people to being better people or worse! Of course!

I was walking through our neighborhood early one morning this week as is my somewhat irregular custom. I often pray while I walk, but I also try to look for God when I walk. Sometimes I look for things for which to thank Him; other times I pray for the children waiting at the school bus stop; or for the man with the two tiny dogs that yap at me as I walk by.

On this particular morning as I was walking, I looked up at the blue sky and had the strange feeling that we lived “under the dome.” I’m sure these were residual thoughts from having watched the TV show the night before, but it did give me pause.

How do you feel about being in a glass house, where your life is on display? How do you feel about being trapped on a planet with people you did not choose? How do you feel about whoever dropped this dome or blew this bubble around you?

The way different people react to confinement is the stuff of drama. Some feel sheltered, while others feel imprisoned. Some see a chance for personal gain, while others see opportunity to serve the community. And such close community feels like an invasion of privacy to some, while others love the freedom that transparency always offers.

The Garden of Eden was a kind of bubble, at least as it is described in Genesis: naked transparency, perfect community, harmony. After the bubble burst because of sin and Man was driven out, the world became more dangerous, with less commonality, less community.

You may not like it, but Jesus said the people of God live “in the world” but are not “of the world” (John 17). The “otherness” of the people of God makes many, many Christians uncomfortable in this age of egalitarianism. Admittedly, “otherness” has been misused and abused by Christians past and present enough to deserve this mistrust–BUT, the trajectory of human history as we move closer to the Omega, the End, the Day of Judgment–is that God in His love is restoring and will restore the harmony, the transparency, the community of the Garden.

Just as with the dome, some hate the restriction and the loss of “freedom,” but those who know God will revel in the restored and perfected fellowship that surrender brings.

St. Paul said, “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8 NLT).

So we live in this big peanut-shaped hot bubble, and our sky is a kind of dome–but what a glorious place to be if we can say, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

100FootJourney5373a4c3573be-560x373Distances between cultures can be vast, seemingly insurmountable chasms. What cultures–specifically, what cuisines could be more different than French and Indian? Richard C. Morais brought this cultural clash to life in his book The Hundred-Foot Journey, which Oprah Winfrey then recommended in 2010 for her summer reading list. Just a couple of weeks ago, Dreamworks released the film version of this cultural clash. I highly recommend it to you.

You will delight in this film, not because it is great, but because it is . . . . good! Helen Mirren plays Madame Mallory, the somewhat embittered owner of a famous French restaurant where even the French president sometimes dines. Om Puri plays the head of an Indian family with a long history of restaurateurs and cooks, but a family which is currently homeless and looking for a place to open a restaurant in Europe. Because their brakes fail–“and brakes break for a reason”–they decide to stop in a small village in France and open their new restaurant–directly across the street–just one hundred steps away–from Madame Mallory’s renown restaurant.

The “war” between the two restaurants is fairly predictable, but entertaining. The reconciliation of their differences is also predictable, but carries the message of the film deeper than most viewers might expect.

The title The Hundred-Foot Journey began to take on new meaning to me when I thought about the variety of reasons these one hundred feet were crossed during the film other than just to reconcile differences between cuisines.

For instance, some characters walk the one hundred feet to paint ethnic slurs on the outer wall of the Indian family’s restaurant; others cross the 100 feet to the French side, thinking there to find a better future.  And if I tell you more, I will tell you too much, but every time someone makes that 100 foot walk,  something dramatic happens–so watch for it!

If all “wars” just could be solved so easily! I began to think of our trip to Jordan and Israel last spring and how I literally stood on the Arab side of the Jordan River where supposedly Jesus was baptized and looked at the Israeli side just one hundred feet away. The barbed wired, the armed soldiers, and the many warning signs, however, were all meant to remind me that one hundred feet can be a treacherously long distance.

How far apart are the one hundred feet that separate the black neighborhoods from the white neighborhoods today in Ferguson, Missouri?

How deadly is the one hundred foot path between the militant Muslims and the Christians in Kurdish Iraq?

How far is the journey from life to self-inflicted death for someone who has lost hope because of a terminal disease, or because of broken relationships?

How far is the walk from integrity to dishonesty?  Or from dishonesty to integrity?

And lest we just think only other people have trouble with these hundred steps–how far is the walk from legalism to loving kindness, from condemning to reconciliation, or from self-righteousness to

humble submission?  How many steps–and how hard to make that journey!

Even so, it can remind us that real integrity, sincere concern for others, honest communication,  and a belief that we are part of a greater community than the one on my side of the road–these go far in answering the questions of why we should walk one hundred feet to the other side.

Didn’t Jesus tell us, long before this film, that if a man needed you to go with him one mile, then you should go two?  I suspect he would say, if it will bring peace, don’t draw the line at one hundred feet.

Go as far as it takes.

 

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