Why you need to leave your culture every 24 months – Relationships: with the world, Part 1

Did you ever play that game, “If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, where would you go?”  I would love to go to Wales, England because my grandmother was born there.  I would love to go to Israel, Turkey or Greece because of the biblical sites.  I would love to go back to Kingston, Jamaica, because we lived there for a year, and I haven’t been back since 2005. 

But really, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many places, and I’ll be okay if I never get to visit any of those places above.  I have to admit, though, that one of Michelle and my greatest fears when our family moved home from Jamaica was that we would lose a sense of God’s heart for the world.  We had become convinced during our years in college that God so loved the world, as the famous verse, John 3:16 states, that we wanted to share his love.  After a year church planting in Kingston, Jamaica, a year that did not go according to our plan, were we done with that phase of life? Was it just a phase? Should it be a phase? What do we do about God’s heart for the world?

To follow God’s heart for the world, we had come to believe in the idea that we should leave our culture once every 24 months if at all possible.  If you don’t leave your own culture, you can start to get myopic and prejudicial about your culture, thinking that yours is the best culture, the most important, and truly forget the beauty, value and necessity of being cross-cultural.  We continue to believe that, even though the reality of life has meant that we haven’t been able to travel to another culture every 24 months. 

But that frequency was our desire.  Is that desire overkill?  Once every 24 months?  Really?  Maybe it is overkill, especially given the expense of travel. So perhaps the better question, when it comes to the world is: What is God’s heart for the world? 

This week we conclude our five-part series about relationships with God, family, church family, community and now the world.  We have been seeking to apply the Fruit of the Spirit to all these relationships.  But the world seems far too big.  How do we express the Fruit of the Spirit to the whole world?  It’s obviously not possible when you consider the geography and the quantity.  So we might be tempted to think it is a waste of time to have any sort of relationship with the world.  But in so doing, I believe we miss God’s heart for the world. 

To begin to learn about God’s heart for the world, we read the following in Genesis 12: 

“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’.”

God would repeat this covenant in Genesis 13, 17, and 22. Then again to Abraham’s grandson Jacob in Genesis 28 and 35. Each time, the repetition of the covenant was nearly verbatim, “Your family will be a blessing to the whole world.” The ramifications of this are clear.

God’s heart was not that Abraham’s family would have a family god that they would keep to themselves, putting it on display in their living room (I know…they didn’t have living rooms per se…they lived in tents).  As if a family, or even a nation could have possession of their own god.  We’re used to the idea of nations having a national anthem, a national bird, a national flag, and so on.  Even though we are very much used to national this and national that, we Americans are not so much used to the idea of a national god.  Though some might wish for it to be true, we are not and have never been formally a Christian nation. Some states had a state religion, but that was abandoned in the aftermath of the US Constitution Bill of Rights which unequivocally declares the our national approach is freedom of religion for all. Which amendment is that?  #1. 

When my wife, Michelle, helps her coworkers, refugee women at Stroopies, study for their citizenship tests, the First Amendment is fact of American life they all find beautiful. Historically, however, and in many other countries still today, there were and are national gods. 

In the Old Testament, we frequently read that the nations surrounding the people of Israel had their own gods.  This is why we also read that Yahweh, the one true God, was Israel’s God.  The people of Israel saw Yahweh as their God.  They were not wrong, in a sense.  Often Yahweh told them that if they would abide by the covenant he set up between himself and them, he would be their God and they would be his people.  His chosen people.  In fact, he articulated it in such a way that he wanted to be in a loving relationship with them.  God and Israel did have a special relationship. 

But that’s not all he wanted, as if God’s desire was for the smallness of some codependent relationship with Abraham’s family, and the nation it would become.  It seems, however, that the people of Israel wanted God as their property, their own special God, and no one else could have him.  They were so self-deceived by their selfishness that they likely believed that God wanted the same thing as they did.

That’s what so often happens to our view of God.  Our understanding of God and our understanding of God’s desires can become remarkably similar to our personal desires.  We can very quickly and easily grow an idea that God agrees with us and all of our opinions.  And he disagrees with everyone else.

When it came to the family of Abraham and the nation his family grew into, that very tendency happened.  Instead of them looking more and more like God, they created a viewpoint about God that looked more and more like their selfish hearts.

How do we know this?  Because God’s covenant with Abraham, a covenant that he repeated over and over and over through years, rarely came to fruition in its second part.  That line about being a blessing to the whole world?  Yeah…barely happened.  Maybe for a few decades during the reigns of David and Solomon. 

Why didn’t it happen, though, for the most part? Why didn’t Israel want the world to experience God’s blessing? As we’ll see, their failure wasn’t God’s fault.  When you read the story of Israel, and the Mosaic Law code, you observe God repeatedly trying to give Israel a vision for something larger than themselves, a vision to reach the world.

We’ll talk about that in the next post, because just as God wanted Israel to have a vision for the world, he wants us to have that vision too.

Photo by Engin Yapici on Unsplash

Baseball and God’s heart for the world – Relationships: with the world, Preview

My freshman year of high school I tried out for my high school baseball team, as I thought baseball was my best sport. I had played soccer the previous fall, making the Jr. High team as a 9th grader, and I enjoyed it. I also considered trying out for the basketball team, another sport I love, but my high school had just come off an incredibly successful season in which they went deep into the state tournament. So as a newbie (I had gone to a small Christian school for K-8th grade), I was intimidated, and didn’t try out. But baseball? I thought I was far better at baseball than I was at soccer or basketball, and I was excited for the season.

Something unexpected happened, though. I didn’t get a single hit during the week of try-outs.  As you can guess, I was cut.  That ended my baseball career, but not my love of the game.  I suspect many of you also enjoy following baseball teams. For years Lancaster has been the home of the minor league Barnstormers, a wonderful asset to our community.  I’m excited to travel to Philadelphia in a few weeks to see the Phillies play, and I’m hoping they make a playoff run. I’m also excited about a potential new opportunity to play baseball.

A few weeks ago this summer, Faith Church had a special visit from missionaries we support. They live and serve in Meco, Spain, where they told us about the baseball club that they started at their daughters’ school. When you think of Spain, you probably don’t think of baseball. You think of soccer! But Spaniards are interested in baseball, and our friends are hoping to make relational connections through sport.  As our friends were telling us about the club, they invited our church family to get a group together to travel to Spain and help them run the club for a week. I thought to myself that it would be amazing to get a group from Faith Church to travel to Spain and help our missionaries do a week of baseball camp, build relationships, and perhaps share the story of Jesus.  I personally would LOVE that. 

On the one hand, it would be exciting to help bring baseball to Spain. We could teach the basics of baseball rules, positions on the field, hitting, fielding, pitching. But on the other hand, we would not just be helping to bring baseball to Spain, we could have the opportunity to share the story of Jesus’ love for all people in word and deed.  We would be seeking to share the blessing of God to those who might not currently experience that blessing. That’s why our friends live and serve in Spain. They desire what God desires, that all people would know his love. 

It is not just professional missionaries, however, that have a heart for the world. You and I can too.  Better yet, I would make the case that all Christians will have a heart for the world.  Why?  Because God does.  

What is God’s heart for the world?  This coming week we conclude our series about relationships, and we’ll be talking about we can and should have a heart for the world.  Isn’t the world too big, though, for us to realistically have a heart for all the people of the world?  Check back on Monday as we talk about it further!  

Photo by Eduardo Balderas on Unsplash

Christian, what aroma does your manner, method and message give off? – Relationships: In the community, Part 5

My wife, Michelle, works at a local café.  She and the other servers say that the Sunday, after-church crowd are some of their least favorite to serve.  Why?  Their manner, message and method stink.  They can be demanding. They can treat their servers coldly or disrespectfully. They can lack polite manners. They can barely tip, or not at all. The worst is when then behave like that, and then leave a Gospel tract on the table. What is your aroma?

The aroma of Jesus should impacts Christians’ manner, message and method.

The manner is the sweet-smelling fragrance of the Fruit of the Spirit, the method is the pursuit of justice, and the message is content of the good news describing the hope we have for abundant life now and eternal life after death because of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.

In other words, we strive for our relationships with people in the community to have sweet-smelling content, sweet-smelling tone, and sweet-smelling actions.  When we share the Gospel we pay close attention to our manner, message and method. 

We see this multi-faceted emphasis in what is called Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20,

“Jesus came to his disciples and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The task that Jesus gave us is to make disciples, teaching them to follow him and his ways.  The process of making disciples, therefore, cannot simply be sharing of content.  It cannot simply be teaching, like a sermon, or a Bible study in a classroom, or a person on a sidewalk proclaiming a message.  Those can be helpful, if done in the sweet-smelling Fruit of the Spirit way. 

But notice that there is a transformative aspect to the process of discipleship that Jesus wants us to follow.  Disciples are people who actually do what Jesus would do if he were living our lives.  Disciples are people who strive to live like Jesus.  That means disciples are people who are walking in step with the spirit, growing the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives, and helping others do the same.

Remember that first we need to see the people in our community.  Ask God to help you look around more, and to do so with eyes and a heart of love.  Ask God to heal your heart of judgment.  Ask God to give you his heart that sees and knows especially those in need in the community.  Ask him to give you his heart to sacrificially serve the needs you see.

Think about your relationships with people in the community, how do you smell?  What fruit are you striving to grow in your interactions in the community?  Who are you helping to grow the Fruit of the Spirit, and how are you helping them grow that fruit?  By helping people grow the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives, you are helping them not only believe in Jesus, but actually become more like him. 

That’s why you and I need to walk in step with the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to grow his Fruit in our lives first and continually.  Then we strive to help the people in our lives do the same.  Along with this comes the wonderful hope of eternal life.  But I would recommend that we emphasize the availability of the abundant life of Jesus now, which is a life lived flowing with the Fruit of the Spirit. 

That aroma, even if people say, “Not for me,” is undeniably pleasing. 

Photo by RR Abrot on Unsplash

Do you give off the aroma of life or the aroma of death? – Relationships: In the community, Part 4

When I go running with my dogs, one of the most amazing things is the smell of breakfast cooking emanating from the houses we pass by.  Or maybe you are more familiar with the smell of someone cooking burgers.  Or a chicken barbeque.  The wind can carry that smell really far.  I grew up in Lititz, PA, on the south side of the borough to be exact, on Kissel Hill.  On certain days the wind would carry the delicious scent of Wilbur chocolate just over 1 mile to my house.  The same happens here at Faith Church with the pretzel factory nearby.  When you smell those delicious aromas, you want to linger and take a deep breath or two.  Even if you just ate dinner, and you go outside and smell that, you can think, “That smells so good!  Let’s eat again!” 

But the pleasing aroma isn’t the only aroma.  We Lancastrians know all about the other kind of aroma because we live in a farming community.  It seems to me there is normal manure and there is progressively worse manure.  Sometimes after farmers spread manure, the smell is absolutely putrid, to the point where you think something must be wrong.  I remember driving by newly-sprayed fields with young children who started dry-heaving in the car. 

Worse yet, have you ever had that aroma get stuck in your house?   This past spring I had to drop something off at the high school office on a day when a farmer nearby had fertilized his fields, and that small high school lobby took a direct hit.  Something about the direction of the wind and the ventilation of the lobby kept the smell trapped in there.  I was waiting in line for what seemed like 10 minutes, thinking, “Am I the only one that smells this???”  It was horrible and it made you want to get away from there so fast. 

The same happens with Christians when we interact with our community.  We give off an aroma.  But what aroma is it?  Are we the pretzel factory or the manure field? 

I’ve seen both.  Christians can be very off-putting, or we can be the Aroma of Christ. 

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.”

What’s the difference?  Paul makes a great point here: aroma is subjective.  There are some people that might take deep breath of manure and think it smells good, while there are some people who smell the pretzel factory and it makes them gag. 

We see this in the ministry of Jesus as well.  His life and ministry was a breath of delicious pure mountain or beach air to the masses, to the peasantry who had very little hope in the world, to the humble elite who submitted to his teaching and leadership, to men, women, children and people of all ethnicities who sought after him.   They flocked to his grace, his love, his…well…Fruit of the Spirit. But to many of the religious, political and wealthy who were self-righteous, arrogant, power-hungry elitists, Jesus was the smell of manure.  They couldn’t stomach him, and he made no bones about confronting their hypocrisy and wickedness. 

Jesus continues fulfilling this sweet-smelling prophecy to this day in the life and ministry of the church, as we, the church, walk in step with the Spirit, growing the fruit of the Spirit, and allowing that fruit to flow to the people in our community. 

When we walk in step with the Spirit, allowing his love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, kindness and self-control to flow freely and abundantly through our lives, many people will smell the sweet aroma of Jesus, and they will want more. 

Notice what this aroma is not.  It is not defeating people in religious and theological arguments.  That convicts me.  I’m about to teach a theology class at Lancaster Bible College this fall, and I suspect there will be students in the class who hold to some theological viewpoints I disagree with.  There is a very repugnant smelling part of me that wants to get into debates with them so that I can defeat them.  That’s not to say that Christians cannot have healthy debates and disagreements, moderated by the Fruit of the Spirit.  We can and should.  I talked about that in the previous week’s blog series when I mentioned unity in the church.  We can be unified even when we disagree.  What I am talking about is an inner desire to tear down, to humiliate, to own.  That desire is not the aroma of Christ.  It is not in line with God’s heart.

If that desire to win arguments is wrong amongst Christians, then it is even worse to have that attitude toward those who are not Christians.  We should not approach evangelism, outreach, witnessing, sharing the Gospel, whatever you want to call the communication of the content of our belief in Jesus, as an argument to win.  When there is a winner, there is a loser, and the result is that the loser rarely thinks to themselves, “I feel better now that I lost that argument.”  No, the loser much more often has a bad feeling, not only about themselves and their loss, but also toward the person who beat them.  The aroma they smell is manure. 

As you heard in those verses from 2 Corinthians chapter 2, Paul makes the point that for some people even the Fruit of the Spirit may not help them give their lives to follow Jesus.  For some, maybe even for many, they will choose to disagree.  And that is their prerogative. But when they disagree, if we have communicated in the Fruit of the Spirit, they will at least have to admit that our manner of communicating the teachings and ways of Jesus was graciousness, love, kindness, patience, and humility, backed up by a life of good deeds that is consistent with the teaching and mission of Jesus.   

Manner, Method, Message. How do yours smell? We’ll talk more about that in the next post.

Photo by Mirko Fabian on Unsplash

Jesus’ mission in five balanced statements – Relationships: In the community, Part 3

What was Jesus’ mission? Or better yet, how did he understand and articulate his mission?

In Luke 4, we read his understanding of his mission.  The first 13 verses tell the story of Jesus who was full of the Holy Spirit, which had just come upon him at his baptism, and now who was leading Jesus alone into the wilderness.  There Jesus faced temptation employing the word of God to defeat the devil.  We read in verses 14 and 15 that Jesus is flowing with the power of the Spirit, and he begins his ministry.  What is his first stop?  His hometown, Nazareth.  He enters the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he reads a passage from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Let’s read it as well.  Luke 4, verses 18-21. 

“’The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’.”

Jesus says that this prophecy, though it was issued hundreds of years before, is now fulfilled in him.  It is his mission. What is that mission?  Notice the five parts of his mission.

Proclaim good news to the poor

Freedom for the prisoners

Sight for the blind

Freedom for the oppressed

Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor 

The five tasks of Jesus’ mission include the proclamation of good news in both word and deed.  There is a wonderful balance to Jesus’ mission, and there should be a balance to ours.  If we are overemphasizing proclamation of good news content, we are missing out on sacrificial neighborliness that sees the needs of marginalized people around us.  If we are overemphasizing the good news of social outreach, we are missing out on the story of Jesus’ loving salvation in his birth, life, death and resurrection that makes abundant life and eternal life available to all.  We need both. 

Jesus taught both and demonstrated both in his ministry.  People flocked to him because both his words and deeds were like a very pleasant aroma.  Aroma? Yes. We’ll learn more about that in the next post.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

How to see your neighbors – Relationships: In the community, Part 2

A Bible scholar once tried to trap Jesus in a game of Bible trivia.  This particular guy was an expert, and he thought for sure that he was going to easily crush Jesus.  As you and I well know, the last person that you want to go toe-to-toe in a game of Bible trivia is Jesus.  But this guy didn’t know Jesus like we know Jesus.  Here’s how it went down, as told in Luke 10:

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?” The Bible scholar answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But the Bible scholar wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

That is the very question we are thinking about today: who are the people in our community?  Who is my neighbor?  The answer might seem obvious.  Think about your neighbors, the people who live next door or across the street.

Jesus, however, has a shocking response for the scholar.  As he so often does, Jesus tells a story.  Look at Luke 10, verses 30-37.

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

So how does Jesus answer the question? Jesus actually answers the question with a bit of a different focus than that with which the question was originally asked.

We expect “Who is my neighbor?” to receive the following response: “The hurting man, even if he makes you unclean in the process.” That alone is a powerful answer. And Jesus does give that answer through the story, but he also answers the question: What does it mean to be a neighbor? His response is in the phrase “was a neighbor.” Which one was a neighbor?  To put it another way that makes it even more clear: Jesus is asking which one of the three passersby was neighborly? Which one demonstrates neighborliness? Clearly it is the Samaritan.

This is all the more powerful when you consider how Jews and Samaritans were two different ethnicities that treated each other quite poorly over the years.  Jesus, himself a Jew, is telling this story to other Jews. To avoid offending his fellow Jews, Jesus could have told the story with the Jew in the role of neighborly hero. He still would have been making a bold point, in that the Jew as hero would not only have been reaching out to the other ethnicity, but it is likely the Jew would also have bloodied his hands, thus making himself ritually unclean. 

But Jesus turns the tables, making this story far more difficult for his Jewish audience to stomach, making their enemy the hero.  The expert in the law was probably mumbling through gritted teeth, answering Jesus’ question with “The one who had mercy.”  He couldn’t even say the word “Samaritan,” when he answered Jesus.  Even in his answer, correct though it was, the expert in the law reveals his prejudicial view of the Samaritans.

What Jesus has done, then, with this profound story is not only describe neighborliness that sounds an awful lot like the Fruit of the Spirit of love, kindness, goodness and self-control.  Jesus has also broken down the wall of ethnic prejudice that so often divides us.  When we answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, it is the people who don’t look like us, don’t dress like us, don’t talk like us, don’t think like us.  Jesus says that we need to move away from any kind of “us vs them” mentality and instead think in terms of “we.”

In our American culture, the parable of the good Samaritan has taken on a life of its own, and for the most part that is a good thing.  There are Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan laws where restaurants can give away unused food, and the more general idea of being a good Samaritan, which is helping people.  That heart of care is wonderful, but I think it can also dilute the punch of Jesus’ story a bit. 

For Jesus, a Good Samaritan is one who practices risky barrier-breaking self-denial on behalf of those in need.  A Good Samaritan sees the need and acts in selfless love.  That is the first step to the kind of neighborliness that disciples of Jesus practice, lifting our eyes up, away from ourselves, and diligently observing for the needs of others in the community.  Often in the Gospels, we read that Jesus saw.  He was cognizant of the needs.  Jesus sees our need and acts in love.  To learn who is in our community, we actively look, we see the need.

Photo by Yifan Gu on Unsplash

How do you smell? – Relationships: In the community, Part 1

How do you smell?  You can check.  Sniff your armpits, or maybe your breath.   Don’t be embarrassed. 

When you go to work, school, or most anywhere, my guess is that most of you get ready in the morning by showering, putting on deodorant, perhaps cologne or perfume, and maybe brushing your teeth or having a mint to offset your coffee breath.  I have been informed by certain family members that I have horrible coffee breath.  So I typical grab a mint before I head out the door

In the summer after my junior year of college, I did a missionary internship in Guyana, South America for 13 weeks.  While I was there, I read an article about how damaging antiperspirant deodorant can be to the body, because our bodies, and especially our armpits, were designed to sweat.  Antiperspirants put unhealthy chemicals on our bodies to stop them from doing what they are supposed to do. Which is why I wear a t-shirt under my regular shirt every Sunday when I preach, but even that isn’t enough to block the sweat. 

But after reading that article, and learning that in the Guyanese culture, deodorant wasn’t commonly applied, I just stopped using it altogether.  What the Guyanese did instead was wear perfume and cologne.  After a few weeks of no deodorant, I didn’t notice my smell anymore.  The summer went by, and I flew home to JFK in New York City where my parents and Michelle picked me up.  Michelle and I had been dating for about two years at that point, and being apart for 13 weeks was pretty much the make or break it for our relationship.  Obviously, we made it.  But Michelle points out that her reintroduction to me at the airport was smelly because of my BO.  Body odor. 

I had gotten so used to not wearing deodorant, I didn’t think about how it would matter to my American family and girlfriend.  Not to mention that when you fly, especially the long flight from Guyana which included a stopover in the Caribbean and then a final leg to JFK, even people wearing deodorant might not be smelling the greatest.  I was smelling raunchy, and when she pointed that fact out to me, I revealed to hear that I was not wearing deodorant anymore.  Guess how long that lasted? 

What I was happy to discover is that the people who make deodorant make plenty of versions without antiperspirant chemicals.  And that is what I have used ever since. 

How do you smell to the people in your community?  While regular showers, deodorant, mouth wash, and brushing teeth are very important, I’m talking about a different smell. 

On the blog for the past month, we have been talking about relationships, from our relationship with God, our family, then church family, and now to our relationship with the community.  We’re also connecting this blog series on relationships with the previous series on the Fruit of the Spirit.  As we walk in step with the Spirit, we allow the Spirit to grow his fruit in our lives. 

What is the Fruit of the Spirit?  It is nine qualities of attitude and action which primarily apply to our relationships.  Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, and Self-control.  We’ve talked about how the more we have those qualities of the Spirit growing in our lives and flowing out of our lives into our many relationships, the more healthy relationships we will have.  Imagine a world where more and more relationships are governed by the Fruit of the Spirit! 

I’ve asked you to consider how the Fruit of the Spirit could impact your family relationships and your church family relationships.  Now this week, we want to see what Scripture has to say about our relationships with people in our community.

For starters, we need to answer the question: who are the people in our community? Interestingly enough, someone once asked Jesus a variation of that question. We find out how Jesus answers that question in the next post.

Photo by Ana Essentiels on Unsplash

Are you a quality friend? A good member of your community? – Relationships: In your community, Preview

Who are your neighbors?  Do you know their names?  Their story?  Their beliefs?  Evaluate your relationships with them.  Are you close?  Distant?  Would they say you care about them?  What about your co-workers?  Your friends?  Your classmates?  What does it mean to have godly relationships with the various people in your life?  Are we just trying to get them to accept Jesus as their savior, or would Jesus himself want something more in our relationships with our friends?  I think he would want something more!

Now think about your community.  How are things going in your community?  Because Faith Church’s property is located in East Lampeter Township, we focus on the township as our community.  I scanned through the church directory, and nearly two-thirds of our congregation lives either in East Lampeter Township or the Conestoga Valley School District.  We love that other third who are part of the family of Faith Church, and the people in the communities where they live are equally important. But Faith Church has intentionally decided that we are not a regional church.  Instead we focus on our local community.  This is why we strive to reach out to Smoketown Elementary School and the CV School District, including ministries and social organizations serving in our area.

So how are we doing reaching our community for Christ?  What does even it mean to “reach a community for Christ”?  There are many ways to answer that question.  Some people believe it means giving every person in the community an opportunity to accept Jesus as their savior.  Some people believe it means pursuing the mission of Jesus in the structures and systems of the community. 

If that latter activity sounds vague to you, what I am getting at is something that I most clearly learned while spending time with our sister church in Chicago, Kimball Avenue.  In 2010 a team from Faith Church took a trip to work with and learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ living and ministering in Chicago.  I’ve been on many mission trips over the years, and that Chicago trip remains the most impactful.  Why?  Because Pastor Bruce Ray and his daughter Ellen walked our team around the city, helping us see what their church has seen over the years.  What did they see?  In one word: injustice.  During that week, our team’s eyes were opened to God’s heart for justice. 

When our team returned to Lancaster the following week, with newly opened eyes, guess what we now saw?  Lush farmland, gorgeous neighborhoods, a very healthy school district, and many successful businesses, including a vibrant tourist industry.  East Lampeter Township is vastly different from urban Chicago, and we didn’t see injustice anywhere. 

At least not at first. 

It was as if our eyes needed time to get adjusted to a new light.  Little by little the signs of hurt, pain, and yes, injustice became apparent here too. 

Why do school buses stop to pick up children at hotels on Lincoln Highway?  Why does the CVSD have more homeless students than any other school district in the county, except for the School District of Lancaster?  Why does the principal of Smoketown Elementary have to drive students to various medical appointments?  What ramifications are there when you consider that there are 30+ languages spoken in the student body of Smoketown Elementary?  Why does the East Lampeter Township Police Department spend a lot of time addressing human trafficking? 

Don’t get me wrong. East Lampeter Township and the CVSD is truly a wonderful place to live.  But there is a shadow side here, and it breaks Jesus’ heart.  With that in mind, what is God’s heart for your relationships in your life, in your community?  This coming week we continue our mini-series about Relationships, this time focusing on how to apply the Fruit of the Spirit to our relationships in our communities. 

Photo by Matt Donders on Unsplash

How not to leave a church – Relationships: In the Church, Part 5

Did you know that when a pastor leaves a church, anecdotal evidence suggests that 25% of the congregation will also leave the church as a result?  Not a guaranteed stat.  It could be way less.  Could be more.  But it should be zero, of course depending on the situation.  What I am referring to is a healthy pastoral transition.  There are many bad scenarios that lead to a pastor leaving a church, and there are many very good ones.  There will come a day when Michelle and I leave Faith Church.  Our hearts’ desire is that it is one of those very good scenarios.  God sometimes calls people to a new ministry.  Or maybe they reach retirement.  There are probably other good reasons as well.   

Assuming one of those good scenarios for me leaving the church, my hope and prayer is that zero people move on.  Of course the next pastor and their family will be different.  That will likely be difficult in some ways.  But stay committed your family, your church family.   

Over the years we’ve had people leave the family of Faith Church.  Some for good reasons.  Some for bad ones.  It has easily been one of the most difficult aspects to pastoral ministry.  We contemporary American Christians are far too quick to leave a church family.  It reminds me of this video:

While Crist’s video is hilarious, in real life, church-hopping is so damaging.  Church worship as entertainment is so damaging.  The mentality of “what can a church offer me and my family” is so damaging. 

What we have clearly seen in the biblical passages in this week’s five-part series on church relationships, passages that have taught us about church family is that rather than focus on our own needs being met, a healthy approach to church family is to be filled with the Fruit of the Spirit, marked by self-giving love, pursuing the mission of Jesus to make disciples who practice unity in diversity.

It is very intentional on Paul’s part to talk about unity in diversity in the body of Christ in 1st Corinthians chapter 12, then to follow that up by talk about the central place of love in the very next chapter.  We read 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, at weddings, and it certainly fits.  But Paul was writing about love in the church family.  I read it last week, and it is so important that I’m going to read it again. Just verses 4-8.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Let love rule your relationships in the church family.  The church family in the city of Corinth was a mess.  If you read through the letter of 1st Corinthians, you’ll see Paul address issue after issue, trying to correct their disunity and point them to loving unity in Christ.  I preached through 1st Corinthians several years ago, and it seemed to me that Paul could have written that letter to the contemporary American church.  What the Corinthian Christians were dealing with 2000 years ago, we are also dealing with.  Celebrity preacher worship.  Sexuality.  Marriage.  Worship wars.  Theological disagreement.  Ethical disagreement. 

Paul says that we should let love rule us rather than the break apart and start a new church or go search for another one.  In his day, there was no other church.  The Christians had to work it out.  In our culture, it is so easy to get stuck in the rut of bitterness and annoyance and selfishness, so rather than work it out, rather than the practice self-giving love like Jesus did, we leave. Or we stay but we disconnect. 

Instead, I urge you to connect!  Love!  Invest!  Choose to care for one another and let yourself be cared for.  One of the best ways to do this is to get involved in a small group.  If you are not already, talk with your church leaders to see what options you might have to join a small group or start one. Here’s a great article about small groups.

A loving church family is an astoundingly beautiful thing.  I’m so thankful for the family of Faith Church.  There have certainly been rough spots these past 20 years, and yet, from my vantage point, I have seen a church family who have been patient with my mistakes, a church family who is teachable, eager to learn what God has for us, and who are growing hearts to see and know God. 

As we conclude this series on church relationships, please read this helpful reminder from the writer of Hebrews, a reminder that I think sums up the series quite well:

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

Why dying to self and rising again are the way to have healthy… – Relationships: In the Church, Part 4

We continue the story of Jesus to see how his birth, life, death and resurrection is instructive for church family relationships.  We celebrate Jesus coming in the flesh at Christmas.  We must also consider Good Friday, as Paul reminds us in Philippians 2 that God, who was willing to take on human flesh, also took on human death.  It is astonishing that God would be born as a human, when you consider that he didn’t have to.  God not only became human, but he also submitted himself to the experience of death.  In Jesus’ death, he shows us mind-boggling love. That is our example for loving one another in the church family.  We die to ourselves, we follow Jesus, we give sacrificially of ourselves to one another. 

Also reflect on the fact that Jesus died for all.  Every single person in the church family has dignity and worth and value, because every single person is equally loved by God, equally made in the image of God, equally worth our time, our effort, our money, our sacrifice.  Thus it makes sense that Paul connects loving self-sacrifice with unity in the church. 

Let’s be clear that unity is not uniformity.  Uniformity is when there is sameness.  Same beliefs, same thoughts, same actions.  Uniformity cannot handle dissent, difference, and disagreement.  But unity can.

Unity in the church embraces, listens to and learns from different ideas and perspectives, but all toward the mission of Jesus.  Unity is humble and teachable, eager to learn, quick to say, “I don’t have this all figured out, but I love Jesus, you love Jesus, and we can learn from each other.”   

Therefore, in unity, we can disagree in a loving way. We can have differences of opinion in a gracious way.  And we should.  The variety of perspectives, the diversity of gender, generation, theology, ethnicity, wealth, political ideology, background, and experience is a beautiful thing.  We welcome diversity.  We strive for more diversity.  We seek a diversity that is grounded in unity that selflessly loves one another.  That means we lovingly sacrifice our power, our position, our control to move in a Jesus direction, because he taught and embodied that kind of self-giving love. As you can imagine, that attitude and action doesn’t always come naturally, and thus we need the Fruit of the Spirit actively growing in our lives.

Paul in his letter of 1st Corinthians writes quite extensively about how the church can practice unity in diversity through the image of a body.  In 1st Corinthians 12:1-11, Paul says the Spirit of God plays a central role to the unity of the church.  The Spirit empowers and enlivens us, blessing us with a variety of gifts to be used in unity for the common good.  The Spirit is essential to the life of the church. 

Think about how that relates to the Fruit of the Spirit.  When we walk in step with the Spirit, we grow the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Kindness, Faithfulness and Self-control.  When we grow those qualities and allow those qualities to flow freely from our lives into the lives of the people around us in our church family, we will be guided by the kind of self-giving love that Jesus demonstrated.  This is where we remember that Jesus didn’t stay dead.  His resurrection reminds us that he rose to new life.  Likewise God’s Spirit works resurrection power, new life, in our bodies. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”  The presence of growing Fruit of the Spirit in our lives is evidence that God’s Spirit is at work in us.  As members of the Body of Christ, we have gifts of the Spirit and Fruit of the Spirit.

Filled with the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit with a variety of gifts that we all use, Paul continues in 1st Corinthians 12:12-31 to describe how the diversity of people in a church family are like a body.  Look at verses 12 and 13, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”

Every single person in the church family is equally important, just as every part of the body is important.  You each have been gifted by the Spirit to serve an important role in the life and ministry of the church family.   You know the 80/20 rule?  Or a variation of it.  I goes like this: 20% of the people do 80% of the work.  I don’t know if it is accurate.  But is speaks to a reality that some people serve more in the life of the church, and some serve less.  Some people serve a lot, some serve hardly at all. As we read 1 Corinthians 12, though, Paul corrects that thinking.  He says, all serve, all give, all pray, all love.  The Christian faith is very clearly not an individualistic faith.  Instead it is an “all” faith.  Everyone involved. 

When a church family practices an “everyone involved” approach, though it will require personal sacrifice, that sacrifice leads to something beautiful.  I’ve talked a lot about sacrifice so far.  Who likes thinking about sacrifice and selflessness?  But when a church family practices loving, gracious unity, the self-sacrifice leads to the beautiful experience of the healthy body of Christ.

I am not making an argument that the only kind of ministry that counts, or that matters, is church-based.  You can absolutely serve the Kingdom of God, as the body of Christ, outside the four walls of the church.  In fact, I encourage you to do so.  What I hope you receive from this post is that there is clearly something important and life-giving about a church family working together to pursue the mission of God, whether in a building or outside it. 

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash