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Martin_Luther_King_Jr_St_Paul_Campus_U_MNI can’t remember ever believing that I had absolute freedom to say whatever I wanted to say. 

Terrorists in France attack and kill cartoonists for publishing words and pictures that Muslims find offensive—sometimes even blasphemous.  The world media is appalled at the attack on what many consider a basic human right, that is, freedom of speech.

Most Christians in the United States would stand on the side of freedom of speech, but we are sometimes among the first to want to censor those who oppose what we believe to be true.

Moving out of the world arena and into just a congregational context for a minute, think about how “freedom of speech” is sometimes controlled and/or completely censored among Christians.

I personally know of one congregation where the leadership does not want non-Christian visitors to attend services because they might say something that was not true!  The argument is that if they say something that is not true, then that might lead other people to follow them into untruth.

I know of another congregation where the preacher was instructed never to talk about hell because one of the leaders of the congregation doesn’t believe in hell and nobody wants to offend him.

Some forms of censorship at church are more subtle.  How many of our congregations, for instance, would tolerate the preacher saying anything positive about Obamacare from the pulpit?  Or what about anything negative about the U.S. military establishment? Or something complimentary of Pope Francis?

And it is not just the preacher whose freedom of speech bumps into arbitrary boundaries. I just heard about two congregations who weren’t speaking at all to each other because one of the churches refused to speak out publicly, condemning the use of musical instruments in the assembly.  They were not actually using instruments, but they wouldn’t/didn’t judge others who did. They would not say the right words, so other Christians won’t speak to them!

No one really believes in absolute freedom of speech.  All believe in laws against libel, that is, purposefully publishing damaging remarks about someone which you know are not true.  We Americans don’t believe anyone has the right to threaten the life of the president.

Once we were driving to California when Sherrylee saw a minivan that was splashed with painted slogans all over in 1960s hippie fashion.  The largest words painted on the side which we passed said, “Kill Obama!”  Or so we thought.

She called 911 and reported this to the local police who promised to investigate.  Shortly, thereafter, she got a call on her cell phone from the Secret Service wanting more details, and asking her if it were possible that the painted van said “Kill Osama,” not “Kill Obama,” since they had found and investigated people in an anti-Osama minivan matching her description!  Oops!

God talks a lot about speech—but I don’t think He ever mentions free speech.

Today, at LST we read Ephesians 4, where the Holy Spirit through St. Paul speaks about speech.  These are good words for all of us to hold on to:

          15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. . . .

        Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. . . .

         29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. . . . . 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Something seems to be more important than freedom of speech and that is the truthfulness and the intent of the words, as well as the heart from which the words come.

       “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1)

toilet_2I’m never going to try to fix my own toilet again!  That is not a New Year’s resolution; it is a “why-haven’t-I-learned-this-already” resolution.  I confess: I’ve had the chance to learn this lesson before.

In reality, this last December’s incident was not very dramatic.  The toilet upstairs was just constantly running. That’s an easy fix!  I’ve replaced the little red flapper in toilets many times.  But as I was slipping the corroded flapper-off and the new one on, I broke the arm on the float!

Not to worry! I’ve replaced those too, so off to Home Depot I go in order to fix the damage I’ve caused.  While inside, I succumb to looking at all the gadgets for toilets and make the fatal decision to upgrade the mechanism in the toilet to one without an arm to break.

Resolutely—and proudly confident, I return home and tackle the job, but the line in from the wall spicket does not fit into the new mechanism, so I take the whole tank off the toilet, bend the wall line until it does fit! Brilliant!  I put it all back together, turn the water on, and —  it leaks everywhere!!! Arghhh!

Suddenly it all came back . . . . this minor moment flooded me with flashbacks of my last toilet repair incident fifteen years ago.

That time it was just a cracked toilet tank lid—nothing else, but it was in the small guest bathroom by the front door, so very unimpressive to all of our guests who stopped there to rest.  I told Sherrylee that I’d take care of it. I’m always pretty proud of myself when there is something that I can fix around the house because. . . well, I was an English major, not an engineer—if that explains anything to you.  Nevertheless!  I could do this.

My first minor defeat was learning that you can’t buy just a replacement lid for a toilet tank.  But you can buy just the tank—so I did.

But in spite of my best intentions, the tank did not fit properly, so I took the plunge and bought an entire toilet—not an expensive one. These were extremely tight days for us financially, which is why I was doing all this anyway.

Well, the new toilet looked great—but it did not match the drainage hole in the floor. Oops!

The cracked lid had already cost me $150, so, instead of a plumber, I called a friend to come in and finish this little plumbing job for me–but our house was too old and the toilet was too new, so he got a lot of water on the carpeted floor and worked a long time before he said it was fixed.  Finally!

Except that the old carpet did not fit around the foot of the new stool.  The newly installed toilet sat on bare concrete and frayed carpet edges…not acceptable.

So now we had to go find a new piece of carpet not just to install around the new toilet, but, of course, to cover the whole bathroom. $$$

Laying the carpet and trimming around the toilet was not that difficult to do myself since I have a Ph.D . . . except when it was finished, Sherrylee informed me that the beige in the new carpet no longer matched the beige in the old wallpaper in that bathroom, so the re-carpeting now required that I re-paper that bathroom.

Which I did—and that was the end of that drama! By the final curtain, I had spent three days and more than $300 in order to repair a cracked toilet lid that I had thought would take me one hour and maybe $25.00 at the most!

So I told Sherrylee that I was never going to try to fix the toilet again!  And her reply was, “Good!”

I did have another sobering thought.  I wonder how many people I have tried to fix?

Without the right tools, with embarrassingly  false expectations and unrealistic assumptions, with too little time, and without the necessary knowledge but with the best intentions—I wonder how many people we try to fix?

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.      Galatians 6:1-3 (NLT)

churchofchristsignI think many Churches of Christ are caught in a dilemma that they don’t even know will have a long-term effect on them.  See if you agree with me.

Prior to the last quarter century, Churches of Christ viewed as part of their core identity their non-denominationalism.  In fact, the earliest roots of the Restoration Movement in the U.S. were a reaction to the fact that denominationalism had become the means of excluding those from one’s fellowship who had different creedal beliefs.  By laying aside all human creeds and denominational organizations, restorationists believed they were more perfectly practicing the unity of the Spirit in the one Body of Christ.

During the 1970s, many in Churches of Christ began to believe that regardless of our theology, our practice had become denominational.  Churches of Christ had in practice adopted a brand that was defined by its own traditions and that brand was used to exclude rather than include.

Whereas in the sixties, we argued over whether to write “church of Christ” with a capital C or not, by the 70s, those debates were over, and we had become totally tolerant of talking about “Church of Christ” preachers, “Church of Christ” colleges, “Church of Christ” elderships, buildings, JOY buses, and when asked about personal membership “Church of Christ” was the only acceptable answer.  The term “Church of Christ” no longer was just a descriptive name borrowed from Romans 16:16, but rather a brand name and trademark of a very particular group of Christians—the very definition of denominationalism.

Interestingly enough, about the same time period, two new developments began to surface in the broader Christian community:  a number of new non-denominational  groups like Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard,  and The Way were started.  Also the whole Bible church and community church movements flourished. These were typically individual congregations very loosely associated with other churches, if at all.

As these independent non-denominational churches became more numerous, they were seen to be taking advantage of growing tolerance among evangelical Christians in particular.  Congregations of mainline denominations, seeing the tide moving away from denominationalism, began changing their congregational names to more generic names.  New names like Harvest Church, Covenant Church, New Life Church, etc., replaced old names and left old denominational identifications to very small fonts in parentheses, if visible at all.  Some of these churches quit their denominational organizations, but most just changed names.

 So as I see it, about the time the Churches of Christ became comfortable about being one among many churches—at least among evangelical churches (although I myself think we are very inconsistent to only identify with evangelical churches),  those same denominations started moving away from that very position and towards the non-denominational position that Churches of Christ were abandoning.

Here are my conclusions for Churches of Christ:

  • Churches of Christ need to return to their roots and recover their non-denominational theology.  What a great opportunity to be what we have historically claimed to be, a unity movement.  What a great time to preach and actively embrace the unity in the Body of Christ.
  • Churches of Christ need to quit trying to imitate “successful” churches and decide who God wants them to be and what He wants them to teach. Turning to market research for our identity has two big drawbacks: It leaves us being a lesser imitation—a knock-off—of an original, and it means we are always catching up to the “latest trends” often after those who established those trends have moved on.
  • The highly autonomous congregational approach to church is robbing Churches of Christ of the power in community, in fellowship, in “many members but one body!”  We must learn to be more collaborative, to look for true fellowship in the work of the Gospel, and to welcome partnerships with other members of the Body.  Isn’t that the only way to be a whole and healthy Body!

Watch for more on this last point later.

marseilleOne month ago today, I started this particular trip through Europe on behalf of Let’s Start Talking. I’ve tried to avoid making the posts during this time simple travel logs, but rather I’ve tried to record reflections as I’ve traveled.

Today is different though!  I have to tell you about the wonderful day Sherrylee and I had yesterday in Marseille, France.

I began the morning scavenging the neighborhood outside our hotel for croissants and coffee for breakfast, trying to beat the $20/person cost of breakfast in the hotel. I found a beautiful little Pattisserie/Chocolateria just about a block away where I got the croissants, but I had to get the coffee in the hotel because none of the little “bars” in the area had takeaway cups for their coffee. Still it was much less expensive this way—and much more interesting.

Craig and Katie Young, missionaries in Marseille for 23 years, picked us up and took us to a little eating place in downtown Marseille. I hardly remember what we ate though because we had the greatest conversation with them!  Of course, we talked about their LST project that they are having this summer, but the talk quickly slipped over to life—as it often does, we find, with missionaries.

It is not really the creature comforts, the lifestyle, or anything material about “home” that missionaries really sacrifice when they move to a foreign country (and most would be embarrassed even using the word sacrifice), it’s the deep relationships with other Christians and opportunities to share with people who have had similar experiences that they miss.

To whom do they turn when they want to talk about what it will be like to have a baby in their new home, to start school with their six-year-old, to face high school years in a country that you have never experienced high school in??

What do you do when your children start leaving home and going off to college in America?  What do you do with elderly parents when you live a continent away?  What do you do when your children are seriously dating people they’ve met, but you’ve never been closer than 5000 miles to the person they are falling in love with?

To whom do they turn when suddenly their body starts slowing down: is this normal, is this allowed for missionaries?  How do they explain that to their sponsoring church?  “I need to do less,” might not go over so well? “I need to come to the States more often to see my children—or my grandchildren!”  Will their supporters go for that? Our mission partners are leaving—now what are we supposed to do? Stay by ourselves? Start over somewhere else?  And who can they talk to about these things?

These are the kinds of conversations Sherrylee and I have with missionaries all over the world, and because we are pretty gray now (although Sherrylee doesn’t show it J), we’ve been through some of it and have talked with others who have been through most of it, God can use us as listening ears and sounding boards for these saints who have served most of their lives abroad.  We had that kind of conversation with Craig and Katie, from which we were blessed and hope they were too.

During that conversation, however, we realized that we had the opportunity to use the afternoon to train the young people in their Christians On Mission program to be used in the LST follow-up, so hastily Craig called them together and Sherrylee and I spent an hour with about six of their students, teaching them that the Word is the Teacher and that they are the Illustration and what the ramifications of those two principles are for working with unbelievers.

Craig and Katie started Christians On Mission for French young people, not as preacher training, but as training to be a strong Christian. Max and Phillippe Dauner also teach in the program. Currently they have students from the US, from Tanzania, and from France.

Immediately following our hour of training, we went to their Children’s hour, where about 20 kids met to sing and hear Miss Katie tell them about Easter eggs—and the real story of Easter.  During the last part of the hour, Miss Sherrylee got to tell them all about LST and getting their parents interested in practicing their English when the American students are here in the summer.

Between the Children’s hour and the Ladies Bible study that Sherrylee was going to speak to, we had 30 minutes.  Sherrylee had accidentally wandered into a neighbor’s house, thinking it was part of the church building. . . . ., but it turned out that this neighbor had been baptized a couple of years ago, so as Craig was explaining to the neighbor why Sherrylee had walked into his house, he invited us in for tea and cookies. Khered (?) is his name and he is Algerian.  He and his wife want to return someday to Algeria, which could be a great opportunity to carry the Good News with him.  He says he is the first Christian in his family in over one thousand years!  Think about that!

Sherrylee talked to the women’s Bible study about LST, then Craig took us to a little hole-in-the-wall kind of “snack bar” named Ishtar!  The owner is Iraqi, an Iraqi Christian—Chaldean Christian.  Where do those words take you?  To Ur, or the Babylonians, or where?

In broken French, a smattering of German, and almost no English we talked with him and his brother-in-law and a couple of other people about the millions of Christians that had been in Iraq and protected under Saddam Hussein, but who were immediately persecuted and killed after the Iraqi War by the Islamic fundamentalist until today there are only a few hundred thousand left, mostly in the north among the Kurds—at least that is the way it was reported last night by these Iraqis to us.

As we ate, one of them led us in prayer and then said the Lord’s Prayer in Aramean—the same language Jesus used.  It was a special moment. With the flat bread and the wine on the table, it felt like communion.

We fell into bed last night, having said goodby to Craig and Katie, but thanking God for them, for the saints here in Marseille, and for the blessings we had received from Algeria and Iraq.

26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.Yet he is actually not far from each one of us. Acts 17:26,27

Do you need to spend ten hours on learning Chinese if you are going to go to China for a two-week missions project?  Do you need to spend five sessions learning about Communism for your mission trip to Albania?  If you are the missions ministry leader at your church or the youth minister in charge of the teen mission trip,  and you believe that everyone who goes on a short-term mission should go equipped—which I hope and pray you do–, how do you determine the best way to equip those workers going out from your church.

Let’s look in the next few posts at some suggestions about the content of training for short-term mission teams.

God first!

Everyone who goes on a short-term mission needs to be prepared spiritually! Just like you get vaccinations and take vitamins before the trip, you need to help your workers bolster their spiritual health before they go.  They need prophylactic preparation to prevent spiritual sickness, they need instruction on managing their spiritual health while they are there, and then they need to know what to do if they get sick.

  • Talk about motivations for going—and be honest because most people have multiple motivations, including adventure, travel, self-improvement, improvement of personal skills, and—of yes, helping someone else to know Jesus!  Preparation should include acknowledgement of these motivations along with a healthy way to prioritize them.  Acknowledging the lesser motivations helps remove any guilt or shame workers might otherwise carry with them. Good preparation will help them know ways to focus their motivations so that their activities will be both appropriate and effective for reaching their higher goals!
  • Talk about the spiritual goals for this trip. It is not enough to just hope that somehow conducting a VBS will make an impact for Christ. How will you know if you have made a difference or not? Do you have short-term and/or long-term goals? Are you planting seeds or harvesting because of what others have done before you?
  • What spiritual challenges might workers meet?  Most short-term mission projects are mountain-top experiences for the workers, but in every mission situation, there are also inherent possibilities for spiritual challenges.  If your workers are prepared for those challenges, they are more likely to overcome them effectively.

                For instance, sometimes workers are confronted by “differentness” at the mission site: different doctrines, different rites, different styles of worship–and it shakes up their spiritual world for a while. Other workers are challenged when they try to verbalize their own faith and fail to do so adequately. Some workers find moral temptations more alluring away from home and are challenged!

I’ve often said that being on a mission field is like being in a pressure cooker and any little crack in your spiritual armor may be put under enough pressure to split wide open and leave you very vulnerable.  Preparation for such challenges before a worker goes should give him/her an opportunity to check for cracks!

  • What role will praise and prayer play? If you will have daily times together for praise and prayer—and I hope you will—then you will need to prepare for those times before you go!  Nothing is more discouraging than haphazardly prepared devotionals with half-baked thoughts and dashed-off prayer to cap it off.  Nothing is more encouraging than good time with God and your fellow workers, when you are giving thanks, praising Him, listening for His instructions for the day, interceding with Him for those people with whom you are working, and asking Him to work powerfully through you.

Putting a spiritually healthy team on the plane, a team prepared for spiritual challenges while on the field, must be one of the highest priorities for your mission preparations.

The fault in our starsIf the new releaseThe Fault In Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, could talk, it would tell you that it unashamedly intends to play on your most maudlin emotions and will use all of the film clichés about death and dying to do so, BUT if a good cry does you good, then you’ll love this film.

I agree with the film—if it could talk!

Two teenagers with cancer meet at a support group, one with an attitude and one with—well, another attitude!  They both are coping with their terminal illnesses within their own understandings about life and death.  One of my favorite scenes and a scene that really demonstrates the quality of the actors is their first meeting at the support group meeting when Gus is just looking and smiling at Hazel and she is trying first to ignore him, then warn him off—both of them speaking volumes without words.

Such a script demands a wide range of emotions from both Woodley and Elgort. Woodley does a remarkable job as the terminal teen, mildly depressed and mildly bitter about her fate.  Ansel Elgort’s performance is equally believable—but only when he is in his relatively idealistic mode; he is less convincing with his dark side.

With no more information than I have given you, you can probably finish the rest of the plot with at least 90% accuracy, that is, the story is quite predictable.  So what makes the film worth seeing?

Here is why I can be positive about the film—as long as you know you are going to need your tissues!

Hazel and Augustus each have very real questions about death and dying for which they hope to discover an answer before they die. 

Hazel Grace wants to know if the lives of her loved ones will be ruined by her death? She is afraid her mother will lose her motherhood, that when she dies they will lose their purpose in life because all she knows of them is that they have spent all of her life focused on her and her illness.

Augustus wants to leave this life having made an impact, being remembered forever, leaving his mark on the world! But what if he doesn’t? What if he sees the end before he has time to live remarkably.

The drama of the film is not about whether they live or die, but whether they find the answers to their questions, whether they are able to find not only love but peace and a measure of understanding.

I hate the title and I hate the way religion is portrayed in the film.  If you are a Christian, then you will also hate the portrayal of the “heart of Jesus” support group which is a caricature of the worst of pastoral care in the name of Jesus.  The film would have been a better film with more realistic and sympathetic people of faith.

With regard to the title The Fault Is Our Stars, there is a disconnect for me between the title and the film script.  Perhaps the title came from the book’s author or the publisher and is appropriate for the book, but the prevailing philosophy in the film is optimistic, not fatalistic, one of hope for something other than oblivion.

Finally, don’t take young teenagers or pre-teens to this film; they will leave thinking it is all about love. And they will remember the obligatory sex scene as much more important than it is.

 

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!

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