Tag Archives: church

How to have loving diversity in a church family

9 Oct
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  Sometimes church families are like any other family, and that means we can butt heads.  We don’t always see eye to eye.  With the exception of ethnic diversity, my congregational is quite a diverse.  Young and old.  Male and Female.  Rich and poor.  Conservative and Progressive.  Introvert and extrovert.  That diversity is a beautiful thing, but it means we often disagree.

In this post we continue through 1st Peter looking at chapter 4, verses 7-11, and Peter is talking about how church families can handle this kind of diversity.

Peter, in verse 7, starts by mentioning that “the end of all things is near.”  What end?  We’ve been having blood moons in recent years, and people talk about how blood moons signal that the end is near. 

When we think about end times, our minds jump to ideas like a rapture where Christians suddenly disappear, maybe a time of tribulation, or a great war called Armageddon, but did Peter think of “the end of all things” like that?  What images did he have in mind? 

Almost certainly Peter is referring to the return of Jesus.  We read in Acts 1, that right after Jesus returned to his father in heaven, angels appeared and told the disciples that Jesus would come back. But when?  Peter says “the end is near”?  Did Peter think that Jesus was going to return in his lifetime? Probably. The early church seemed to think this.  It is mentioned more than once in the NT writings.

Think about that, Peter said this 2000 years ago.  So does that mean Peter is misinformed or misguided?  I don’t think so. It is best to understand “near” in the sense of “it can happen anytime”.  As Jesus himself said to his disciples, “no one knows the time of his return, so be ready at all times.”  Jesus himself said that the Kingdom of Heaven in near.  “Near” is best understood as something that can happen at anytime, rather than something that will happen soon.  We don’t know when it will happen, but it could happen anytime.  So we must be ready.

Peter goes on to say that one way we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return is to be “sensible”.  In the NIV that word is translated as “clearminded” which is to have understanding about practical matters and thus able to act sensibly.

Peter also says that we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return by being “self-controlled”, and the word Peter uses means the opposite of getting drunk.  But he is not just talking about alcohol. One scholar defines this as “to behave with restraint and moderation, not permitting excess in general.” It is an attitude that affects action.  When we say that someone is sober-minded, we don’t mean that they are simply not getting drunk.  We mean that they have an attitude of self-control about their lives, and that attitude leads to self-controlled actions.  Peter is not just saying “don’t get drunk” or “don’t get high”.  He is saying something much larger or broad.  Be a self-controlled person. 

When Peter talks about self-control he is saying that we organize our lives in such a way to prioritize the mission of God’s Kingdom.  How do we do use self-control to focus our lives on the mission of God’s Kingdom?  Peter says that we pray. We make time in our lives for spiritual practices so we can know God more, depend on him, and make him the focus of our lives.  But Peter is not suggesting a legalistic, rigid approach.

I remember that when our two oldest were babies and toddlers; there were stretches where Michelle and I did not go to Sunday School because it was so difficult to get ready, and to place them in childcare for long stretches. Likewise, a friend recently told me the story about a phase in their lives where they had to get up really early for work, 5am.  She wanted to have time alone with God, maybe reading the Bible and praying. But given that work schedule, it wasn’t going to happen even earlier.  Every now and then I hear that we should sacrifice sleep in order to spend time with God.  I’ve come to believe that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is get good sleep.  So my friend said her devotional times were on her days off.  That’s okay.

What I’m saying is this: following the way of Jesus is not a legalistic thing.  There are phases in life where it will look different, but what should always remain is the self-control to put his ways, his principles, the fruit of the Spirit, first.  We won’t be perfect in that.  But, that is the goal.  To put his ways first.

Again, Peter says, “Because the end is near, be self-controlled, so that you can pray.”  I wouldn’t have expected that.  Why prayer?  If the end is near, shouldn’t Peter be telling people to get out on the streets to invite more people to follow Jesus?  I think Peter has something else in mind.  A memory.

Could Peter be transporting us once again back to the night Jesus was arrested in the Garden, the night before he was crucified?  We know that night was the most impactful and vivid of Peter’s life.  He had many incredible moments with Jesus, but that night was etched in Peter’s mind.  Remember what happened that night at the beginning of their time in the Garden?  Jesus brought his disciples to the Garden.  That alone was not unusual.  It was a walk outside the city and Luke tells us that in Jesus’ final week, he went out there every night to pray.

Then in Matthew we read that he asked Peter, James and John to break away from the group and go a little further into the Garden.  He said to them that he was overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death.  Jesus was really going through it, the anxiety was intense.  And specifically asks Peter, James and john to stay there and keep watch.   This is Matthew 26:38.  Jesus went a little farther from the disciples, fell with his face to the ground and prayed that famous prayer, “Father…not my will, but yours be done.”  We don’t know how long Jesus prayed.  If it was just the text Matthew gives us, it is a very short prayer.   I suspect it was a good bit longer, because Jesus mentions “one hour in the next verse.”  I also think it was a longer prayer because of what we learn next.

Matthew records that Jesus takes a break from praying, and goes back to check on Peter, James and John, and what does he find?  They are asleep. He wakes them, and Matthew mentions that Jesus specifically speaks to Peter, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?…Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.”  Then Jesus went back and prayed again, “Father…may your will be done.”  And again he checked on the disciples and again they were asleep. This time he didn’t wake them, instead returning to prayer, praying the same thing.  Finally Matthew says that he returned to the disciples a third time, waking them with, “Are you still sleeping and resting…Look, the hour is near.”  Just as he was saying those words, Judas, the betrayer, arrived with armed men to arrest Jesus.

I think Peter remembers that night quite well.  “The hour is near,” Jesus said.  The exact same words that Peter uses in 1 Peter 4.7!  “The end is near.”  Just as Jesus called Peter and the disciples to watch and pray, now Peter is calling Christians to be self-controlled and pray.

These are parallel situations.  Moments of intensity and ultimate destiny, and where Peter failed to be self-controlled and therefore did not pray, he wants something better for these Christians 30 years later. 

But again I ask, prayer?  Why prayer? Why then?

Because prayer roots us in the will and ways of God. Prayer says, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”  Prayer is a submission to God.  Prayer is act that shows that we depend on God.  In the middle of crisis, prayer is especially vital.  Normally in crisis, we want to take matters into our own hands and resolve it.  Prayer, however, hits the pause button and refocuses our lives on God, who is the true power.  But when we are freaked out it is hard to pray!  Maybe when we are so distracted, so anxious, our minds are out of control and we can’t pray.  I have definitely felt that in moments of high anxiety.

We can be so emotional that we just can’t settle our minds enough to prayer.  I believe this is where Peter is going with this. He remembered his own failure and wants these people to learn to depend on God during moments of crisis.

Or we become so distracted by the things of this world that we set prayer aside.  We are literally too busy to pray, we say.  But I know for myself that, while I can say that I am so busy, and I feel so busy, I sure have time to watch TV daily, check the news on my phone.  So let us make more space in our lives for prayer.

With this foundation of depending on God in prayers, Peter builds on that in verse 8, returning to a theme that we have seen multiple times in the letter: that the church family should love one another deeply.  He quotes an Old Testament verse, Proverbs 10:12, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

This also quoted by James, and there are echoes of it in the famous love chapter 1 Cor. 13.  What does it mean, that love covers over a multitude of sins?  If you love someone you have to accept their sinful choices and be okay with them?  This is very picturesque word. In Proverbs, it is the image of love as clothing that covers over sin.  Forgiveness is very much a related concept, and in fact the Hebrew word used in Proverbs 10:12 is in some circumstances translated “forgive”.

Love can overlook faults, it doesn’t seek revenge, forgives.  Love gives grace, and it doesn’t seek perfection.  You know how some personalities rub you the wrong way? Love says that we accept the people who are difficult for us. 

Remember that proverbs are not promises.  Proverbs are principles that are generally true.  They hold true in most cases, but not in all cases.  So when Peter quotes this proverb, he knows that.  He is not trying to say that love means we should somehow turn a blind eye to sin.  What he is saying is that in a church family, we need to be gracious and forgiving.

But how do we know when to cover over the sin?  I would submit that a big part of the answer to that question is how the sinning person responds.  If they are repentant and humble and seeking to change, then let love cover over their sin.

But if they are unrepentant, repeating their behavior, unwilling to submit to correction, then the most loving thing to do is hold them accountable and create boundaries for them.

This is hard.  We are not people who like boundaries.  We flee boundaries.  We want chances to start over, wipe the slate the clean, as if the past was gone. 

What, then, does repentance look like?  I want to bring up a word called penance.  We need to be people of penance.  Penance means that you work hard to show you are sorry, that you are repentant.  You are willing to do the hard work to heal a broken relationship, make real changes in your attitude, actions, and lifestyle choices.

Have any of you watched The Crown on Netflix?  The final episode of season 2 tells the story of John Profumo.  Ever heard of him?  Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War in the 1960s and he fell into a sexual scandal that led to his resignation. 

Politicians and sex scandals.  Sadly, we’ve heard that before many times, right?  I read an article by writer AJ Jacobs who tells the untold story of what happened next that the episode of The Crown didn’t tell.  And where political sex scandals are commonplace, the untold part of the Profumo story is unheard of.  Still today.  Though Profumo was well-connected and likely could have gotten a cushy job, he left public life and never fully returned.  You know what he did?  He began to volunteer at Toynbee Hall, a charity in London that seeks to alleviate poverty.  He started by doing menial work, and over the decades…decades!…he became a primary fundraiser for the charity.  He never sought office again.  For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.  He did this for fifty years.  That’s penance.  He knew he did wrong and made changes in his life that showed that.

Peter now goes on in verse 9 to say that our love for one another should demonstrate itself in being hospitable to one another without grumbling.

Look around your life: who needs hospitality?  What is hospitality?  The specific word that Peter uses is to be a friend to strangers, but notice how he also qualifies this word by adding “one another.”  Showing hospitality to strangers.  What strangers?

There are strangers around us.  Refugees, tourists, and people in our neighborhoods and schools who we don’t know.  I have been particularly convicted lately about the lack of ethnic diversity in my life.  That concerns me because my local school district reports that it is 1/3 comprised of people of color.

Do we have eyes and hearts open to practice hospitality to strangers?  We Christians should be leading the way in that!  We should be known for that!

But remember Peter’s qualifier, “one another”.  He is primarily talking about how these Christians practiced hospitality or friendship with one another. The reality is that some people in our church family are strangers to you, or some feel very different from you.

In Peter’s day, these Christians were very counter-culture.  They were following a religion that was very new and considered a cult.  As we saw last week in verse 4, these Christians were facing abuse because they were following Jesus. 

So they had to break down the norms.  They had to create family where there was none before.  One author I read said this, “In certain cultures that are strongly family-oriented, the bringing of strangers into a house may be somewhat shocking.  Yet Christians overcome these conventions because God’s love has made them into a single great family.”

There is nothing wrong with spending a lot of time with people you find enjoyable and are close with.  But it is also important to reach out to those who you are different than you, even people you butt heads with, and you still reach out to them anyway and Peter says to do so without grumbling. 

That’s family isn’t it?  There are those within our natural families that are easier for us to connect with than others.  There are those within natural families that we want to be with more than others.  But, still we are family, and still those who are feeling alone, and those who are not, need to try to reach out to each other.

Then offer your friendship and hospitality, and this is the kicker!, without grumbling. I get it, helping people can be a great joy, but it can also get to a point where it can be tough. It can go on a long time, and over time the hospitality wears us down and we can grumble. Some people are easier to offer hospitality to than others.

But Christians are people who are self-controlled and loving and thus go beyond the difficulty and awkwardness!  We are people who serve, and we serve some more, and we sacrifice.  We get this strength to press on in love for the strangers among us by making time in prayer and by making the way of Jesus our priority.

That’s exactly where Peter goes next in verse 10. He says that you have each received a gift, and you are to use it to serve one another as a good steward of the manifold grace of God. What gifts?  They are received gifts.  Received from who?  God.  God has blessed each one us with a gift. And how are we to use these gifts?  To serve others.

When the NIV says “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” Peter is using the word “steward”.  We are stewards of God’s grace.  Stewards are not owners.  We have been given a gift, but that doesn’t mean it is now our possession to do with what we want!  God is just giving it to us as a privilege and honor, and we are to use our gifts the way he would want them to be use. They are gifts of God’s grace, Peter says, gifts that are graciously given to us, and in various forms.

So in verse 11 Peter talks about the two main categories of gracious gifts that God gives us to steward.  Speaking gifts and serving gifts. Notice what kinds of gifts that Peter is not talking about.  Not the miraculous.  Not healing, not speaking in tongues, not prophesying. The gifts he is talking about are gifts that minister in a church family: speaking and serving

First of all the Speaking gifts.  What speaking?  Teaching, preaching. 

When we use the gift of teaching and preaching and speaking into someone’s life, Peter says, it is like an oracle of God.  Or speaking the very words of God.  Wow.  Does that mean if I speak, I am guaranteed to be speaking the words of God.  No.  But Peter is saying “do it AS one speaking,” meaning that we should see the weight and responsibility of it. The impact should be to glorify God, to encourage people in God’s direction.

Next are gifts of Serving. 

Who are you choosing to serve in our church family?  Who are you reaching out to?  Each of us should be ready and able to answer this.  Who are you serving?  Peter says, serve with the strength God provides, so that God may be praised through Christ.

Note that the focus on this is clearly God, for the use of both categories of gifts.  Peter wants the focus on God.   Not on ourselves.  Not on our comfort.  God and his ways are to be our priority.   As a pastor, I have the distinct blessing of being able to see so many ways that many in my church are reaching out, are serving, are sacrificial to others within this church family.  I am so grateful for that.  Keep at it.

So whether the person next to you in church is old or young, Democrat or Republican, male or female, and any other category, let us sacrificially love one another to keep our focus not on ourselves, but on God.

I want to end with this quote that my wife found in a Beth Moore study she’s doing.  In it she is speaking about discipleship, but I think you will see the connection.

“Discipleship involves a constant volleying between being apart and being a part. To pursue deeply satisfying intimacy with Christ, learning how to be apart from everyone else and alone with Him is a necessity. But discipleship also places a high premium on community and fellowship, on camaraderie and co-working. To know only how to be apart with Jesus but not a part of a holy partnership of believers leaves more than a deficit of human company…it also subtracts from our knowledge of Christ. Similarly, we are vastly less equipped in our effectiveness if we’re perpetual spiritual shut-ins. Isolation is not His way….One common cause of loneliness is the natural human tendency to limit our search for comrades to people who look or seem very much like us. We will miss what would have surely been some of our favorite people on earth if we don’t look beyond our mirror image in age, marital status, background, and personality.”

So we need to be working on our priority relationship with Jesus.  Time with him in prayer and time growing ourselves in HIS ways is so important.  From that foundation, then, we take those things we are learning, and we work them out with each other in our church family. So let’s be somber-minded and self-controlled as we focus on making his ways our priority.

Are Christians in America being oppressed?

7 Aug

This week we are studying 1 Peter 3:13-17.  As you turn there, remember that the backdrop of this letter is that the Christians were being persecuted for their faith.

You might remember three months ago when we started this series, I talked about the situation that these Christians found themselves in.  They were being persecuted.  So when Peter says in verse 13, “who is going to harm you?” he knows there is a real possibility that not only had his Christian friends already been persecuted, but more could be on the way.  It was not a widespread persecution like the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews.  It was much smaller.  But the Emperor in Rome, a kinda crazy guy name Nero, did sanction some persecution of Christians.  It is likely that both main leaders of the church, Peter and Paul, were killed by Nero.

Most of the persecution these Christians were facing, though was small, as I said, and in their own towns and cities.  So what Peter is saying here is that if they are eager to do good, it is less likely that they will be persecuted.  That is common sense.

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  Very few people.  That is a principle that is true today.  If you are a loving, kind person, people may disagree with your decision to follow Christ, but it is unlikely that they will harm you.

But it is not a promise.  Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, even if they were amazingly good, were being rounded up and exterminated.  In many places throughout history, and still today, there is persecution simply because of ethnicity, nationality, gender, politics, religion.  Even if people are good, they can still be persecuted simply because of the color of their skin, or because of their beliefs.

Does this apply to us Christians in America? Are we American Christians persecuted for our faith?

On the books, because the USA has freedom of religion, persecution and discrimination based on religion is illegal.  If persecution would happen, there is legal recourse that we can take. Just because it is illegal, though, doesn’t mean persecution doesn’t happen.

Does persecution for being a Christian happen in the USA?  The simple answer is “I don’t know.”  I don’t have comprehensive knowledge of everything that happens in the USA.  No one does.  So my guess is that persecution, in some form, does happen.  By that I mean that there are probably times when Christians in America are persecuted for their faith.  Possibly even physical, bodily, painful persecution.  But my suspicion is that it is extremely rare, as Christianity is by far the majority religion in every single state, and that persecution is against the law.

Also I think it is important to note that there is not any systemic, government-sponsored persecution in a physical bodily way against Christians or any other religion.  Sometimes, though, we Christians can act like there is a conspiracy against us, like the picture at the top of this post suggests.  But it is simply not true.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is wrong for American Christians to act like or think or declare that we are oppressed in the United States, when there are millions of Christians around the world, living in countries where it is actually illegal to be a Christian, and where they daily face physical bodily persecution.

As you can see on the picture, most persecution against Christians takes place in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The newest issue of Persecution magazine came out recently.  I urge you to check it out and learn about what is happening around the world.  Just reading that could make you extremely grateful for the freedom of religion that we have in the USA.  And it could encourage you to pray for Christians around the world who are, right now, being persecuted.

So what persecution do we face in the USA?  We do, from time to time, face ridicule from those who disagree with us. What that means is that we are affected by our Christianity.  As we should be though, right?

We Christians hold to the way of Jesus, and even in free society, there will be people who think believing in God is ridiculous.  They might have all kinds of ways to make fun of us, belittle us, or marginalize us.  We should not be surprised when this happens.  Think about what happened to Jesus.

Photo by Christop Schmid on Unsplash

One author I found said, “We can’t stop people from shooting us down, but we can stop giving them ammunition.  When we respond with anger, bitterness, revenge, we give people ammunition to tear us down.”

Is it persecution when a company takes a stand on an issue and people who disagree with the company’s stand decide to boycott? Should the company say they are being persecuted?  Or should they just say “We took a stand for what we believe is right, and we knew that not everyone would agree, and maybe we’ll lose a lot of income.  But we’re willing to accept those consequences.”

If people treat us illegally, of course we have legal means to pursue getting justice, because in our country there is freedom of religion. But Christians have another way to respond when we are simply insulted or made fun of.

Peter is saying in verses 13-15 that when we are mistreated, we can absorb it, because Jesus is our Lord.  We don’t have to be afraid.  Furthermore we can know that when we are mistreated, Peter shockingly says in verse 14, we are blessed.  Jesus taught that to Peter.  In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

So instead of responding negatively to criticism or insult, look how Peter says we should respond in verse 15, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”  This is crucial. And tomorrow we’ll talk about how to set apart Christ as Lord.

Why and how to submit to governing authorities

10 Jul

Image result for submit to governing authorities

Yesterday we looked at Peter’s principle in 1 Peter 2:13a, “Submit to human created authorities, for the Lord’s sake.”  As he continues teaching, Peter illustrates this principle three ways:

  • Illustration #1 – verses 13b-17 – respect and submit to the governing authorities.
  • Illustration #2 – verses 18-20 – slaves respect and submit to your masters
  • Illustration #3 – verses 21-25 – Jesus as the ultimate example of submission

Starting with this post, and continuing for two more, we’re going to examine each illustration to see if we can discover why Peter would have mentioned that.  What was going on in the life of the church and in the Roman Empire that might have caused Peter to bring this up?

Read 1 Peter 1:13-17 and you’ll find Peter teaching that those Christians need to submit to the government.  He mentions the king, which is the supreme authority, and in that day it was the Roman Emperor.  In verse 14 he mentions governors, which would have been regional authorities.  And finally in verse 17 he says, “show proper respect to everyone.”

Do you remember the king Peter is talking about here?  We know exactly who he is referring to when he mentions the king, the supreme authority.  It was the Roman Emperor, Nero, who was a bit crazy.  He persecuted Christians.  Wait a minute.  Submit to Nero?  I want to say, “Peter, that is ridiculous! You should be telling these Christians to rise up and rebel, not submit!  They’re being persecuted.”

When you are being persecuted, life is hard, and certain personalities will just react, and fight back.  Perhaps Peter is hearing talk about Christians who are sick and tired of being persecuted, and there are whispers of starting armed conflict.  When we read 1 Peter 2:13, I can hear Peter saying “Woah, people time out.  I know all about what you’re going through. You do not want to pull out your swords, believe me.”  You know why I think this?  Remember what happened when Jesus was arrested in the garden?

Travel back in time with me another 30 years.  Jesus and his disciples, one of which was Peter, had been traveling around Israel, and Jesus was a rockstar preacher, gaining crowds with thousands of people.  Right around the end of his third year as a traveling preacher, things had started to get a bit heated between Jesus and the religious establishment.  The people were fans of Jesus but the religious leaders were not.  The religious leaders were jealous of Jesus’ popularity, and they hated how Jesus regularly confronted them and they couldn’t win arguments with him. They were eager to take Jesus down.

When Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem for the beginning of Passover week that year, the people want to make Jesus King.  They’re ready to start a war.  The Jewish religious leaders see their moment.  If they can convince the Roman authorities that Jesus is a rebel, they could get Jesus killed.  Jesus knows this.  He’s not surprised.  At the end of the week, after spending a last supper with his disciples, Jesus goes out to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city.  He brings the disciples with him, minus Judas who had mysteriously left the dinner early.  The disciples also are getting a sense that something is brewing.  Jesus has not been quiet about his fate.  He’s been telling the disciples straight up for weeks that he is headed to Jerusalem and a confrontation.  But the disciples didn’t get what he meant.  Jesus was so popular.  That night in the Garden, though, suddenly Judas shows up, now a traitor with a kiss, and with armed soldiers to take Jesus captive.

Peter has a moment of clarity.  This could be the day of Jesus’ ascension to the throne.  Peter whips out his sword, ready to fight!  He cuts off the ear of a guy in the group who had come to arrest Jesus.  Peter is ready to start a rebellion.  Until Jesus rocks Peter’s world.  Jesus looks at Peter and says, “My kingdom is not about that.  Put your sword away.”  Then Jesus heals the ear, allows himself to be arrested and taken away.  Peter is utterly shell-shocked.  His whole conception of Jesus and the mission of God’s Kingdom is now in shambles.  You know what Peter does next?  Maybe an hour later?  He denies even knowing Jesus.  Peter got it wrong.

I suspect 35 years later, Peter is remembering that awful night.  He does not want these new Christians to think that the Kingdom of God is advanced by fighting and war.  Because it is not!

Peter was writing to Christians about how to handle themselves while living in a nation that did not always treat them kindly.  So how should Christians respond to government, even a repressive one?  As much as possible, Peter says, they should obey. Submit. Follow the law.

But you might ask, “Should they give up their faith or break God’s laws if the government said so?”  No way.  Absolutely no.  How can I say that?  Because Peter also had to deal with that too.  A few months after Jesus died, rose and went to heaven, Peter was a changed man.  Jesus had brought him back in to the fold, and now Peter understood the mission of God’s Kingdom.

In Acts 4:19 the authorities in Jerusalem arrested Peter and John for preaching Christ, and do you think he denied Jesus then?  Nope.  He said to them, “Judge for yourselves whether is it right for us to obey you rather than God.”  Jesus had given them marching orders to make disciples, preaching the good news of the Kingdom, and the religious leaders were telling them to stop.  Then a few months later, they were arrested again.  This time Peter says in Acts 5:29, “we must submit to God rather than men.”

So how do we know where to draw the line about when we should submit and when we shouldn’t?  Has Peter changed his mind 30 years later?  I would submit to you that Peter has not changed his mind.

In Acts 4 and 5 what was happening?  These are the first times Christians were persecuted for their faith.  The leaders were essentially saying to the Christians, “Give up your faith in Christ.”  Peter responds, “No we’re not going to do that.  Come what may.”  What came was a severe beating, but Peter and the other Christians kept right on preaching Jesus, totally disobeying and not submitting to the religious leaders.

But in 1 Peter 2, 30 years have gone by. Peter is writing to Christians in the Roman Empire who have already been persecuted for their faith.  Those Christians didn’t need to hear “obey God rather than men and keep the faith,” because those Christians had already been faced with that choice and they had remained faithful.  What those Christians needed was guidance about how to keep the mission of God thriving.  Therefore Peter is essentially saying to them, “Don’t rise up, rebel and start a war.  As much as possible, follow the rules, live good lives.”

Look at verse 15. He teaches them to do good in the face of ignorance.  Don’t go tit for tat.  Do good.  Silence the ignorant with your goodness. If you are being mistreated, handle it with kindness.  When you are good and kind and peaceful in the face of poor treatment, it makes a huge statement.  It makes Jesus attractive!  That’s powerful!  People take notice when you handle mistreatment with grace and kindness.

Then in verse 16 he continues this thought.  He says, “You are free,” which means free to disobey government, “but don’t use your freedom for evil!”  Christians are not citizens of an earthly country. We are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, so we could say that we don’t have to follow any rules of an earthly country.  We are a holy nation, the people of God.  But to that, Peter says, don’t abuse your freedom in Christ.  Instead, practice submission to the governing authorities.

He concludes with a very expansive statement in verse 17: show proper respect for everyone.  Love the brotherhood of believers, Fear God, Honor the King.

Peter is covering three major groups that Christians should practice respect.  First, the church family, which is a repeat from what he said in chapter 1, verse 22.  “Love one another deeply from the heart.”  Second, fear God, which is a repeat from what he said in chapter 1, verse 17. “Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”  And third, honor the king, which is a repeat of what he said in chapter 2, verse 13 and 14 which we read today. “Submit to the King and governors.”

Peter is desperate for these Christians to be respectful.

Respect the authorities.  That doesn’t mean you need to agree with all the behavior and choices of the authorities.  In their day, Nero was a wicked man.  Of course they didn’t need to agree with him.  But as much as is possible, respect and honor and submit to the King.

It has become something of a test of authentic Christianity to be disrespectful to our leaders on social media.  I think Peter would be appalled.  So, Christians, respect authorities.  Disagree if you disagree, but do so with humility, grace and respect.  Too many Christians have damaged the cause of Christ by being out of control with their approach.  “Submit yourselves, for the Lord’s sake.” And remember that the Fruit of the Spirit is to be flowing through out: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control.

Would you go to a church named “The Church of the Holy Royal Priesthood of the Living Stones”?

3 Jul

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

I would like to propose a new church name: Church of The Holy Royal Priesthood of the Living Stones.

Do you like it?  Would you go to that church?

I don’t know if I would.  I’d be thinking, “Huh? Something is off there.”  I would really be suspicious of going to a church with that name.

And yet in our next section of 1st Peter, 2:4-10, Peter uses those exact terms to describe the Christians he is writing to.  So actually, if a church named itself the Church of the Holy Royal Priesthood of the Living Stones, we would have to say that church has a completely biblical name.  A weird name, for sure, but straight off the page of the Bible.

Why would Peter use those words to describe the church?

Read the passage again, and what you’ll find is that there are actually more terms Peter uses.  There were so many I couldn’t figure a good way to include them into a church name.

He starts off calling them Living stones, a Spiritual house, and a Holy priesthood.  Then it gets confusing because the next one he says is “Royal priesthood”.

Didn’t he just say “Holy Priesthood”?  He did.  Now he goes on and says “Holy nation.”  Is he changing his mind?

Holy priesthood, royal priesthood, holy nation. Peter is all over the place.  Can we sort this out?

Imagine being these new Christians hearing this read to you for the first time; would this passage be helpful to you?  In my mind, I read and think, “Peter, what are you talking about?  What is a holy, royal priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices?”

Is Peter trying to give them a job description?  Is he saying there “Here is what I want you to do?”

The simple answer is Yes.  He is giving them a job description.  That means by extension, he is giving us a job description.  We can learn in these verses what we, a church, are to do.

But before he gets to job description, he is giving them an identity, which is why he mentions all these labels.  And in particular Peter needs them to see the central place that Jesus must have in their identity as his church.

In verse 4 Peter says “you come to him.”  To who?  To Jesus.  Jesus, Peter says, is the living stone.  Then he goes on to describe Jesus three ways: Rejected by men, Chosen by God, Precious to him.  Those phrases describe Jesus’ identity.  A living stone who was rejected by men, chosen by God, precious to him.

It gives me the image of a game of backyard soccer.  The neighborhood kids come together, and they start to pick teams.  There is often one guy or girl that no one wants.  All the kids are getting picked, running over to their team captains, so thankful that they got picked.  You know how it feels to be picked for a team, right?  Doesn’t matter if you are kids or adults.  If you get picked, it is so life-affirming.  Sadly we also know what it is liked to be rejected.  To be the kid who is waiting there, hearing other kids’ names called, desperately hoping their name gets called, and one by one, the options narrow down and their name is still not called.  Then it comes down to the final two.  At the final two, you do not want to be picked last.  Your heart starts pounding, your face flushes red with embarrassment and fear.  Then you hear it. The other person’s name.  You are last.  Rejected.  No one wants you, and it hurts.  The team captain with the final choice looks at you and says “I guess you’re on my team.”  Wow, that stings, right?

Peter says that person picked last was Jesus. Jesus was rejected by men when he was crucified.  But surprise!, there is an unexpected turn of events.

Jesus was chosen by God not to die, but to rise again!  The dead stone lives.  Jesus is precious to God.  This odd living stone, whatever that means, though he is rejected by men, is actually quite amazing from a totally different viewpoint, from God’s viewpoint.

Peter is saying this because these Christians he is writing to are experiencing the same thing in their world.  They, too, were being rejected by men.  They are being persecuted.  They are not wanted in their communities.  These Christians are a tiny minority, and they seem really odd to the vast majority of the people around them.  When these Christians received and accepted the Gospel, the good news about Jesus, the word of God that was preached to them, and they started following the way of Jesus, they started becoming different.

So Peter reminds them that they, like Jesus, are actually chosen by God, and what’s more, they are precious to God!  Peter is saying that they also need to see themselves as living stones, just as Jesus was.  He is their foundation.

They are living stones built on the foundation of Jesus.  They are being built into a spiritual house to be a royal priesthood.  Time out?  What?  Peter is changing images so fast here.  Living stones?  We barely have a clue what that is about, and now he is calling the Christians a royal priesthood?  Why is he changing images so fast?

We will look further into those two images, but first let’s keep going through verses 6 and following. There we see that Peter goes on to describe the foundation of Jesus.

He quotes some Old Testament passages in verse 6-8 showing that Jesus is the foundation.  More specifically, Jesus is the precious cornerstone of this spiritual house.  But there is a problem.  Not everyone thinks Jesus is precious.  We who believe think he is precious, of course, but for some other people, Jesus is a stumbling stone.

You ever walk on rocky path and stumble because there was a stone you didn’t account for?  At our house, it is dog toys.  It seems like every day, someone in our family, me included, walks across the living room carpet, not looking down, and steps on a dog toy, stumbles, looks hilarious doing it, and says “Bentley!” our dog’s name.

Jesus, Peter says, is a stumbling stone for people who do not believe.  It’s not just that they don’t believe in Jesus.  They find him distasteful or repulsive.  All that Jesus stands for, they find unnecessary or unhelpful, maybe even wrong.

So when we look at Jesus as precious, we stand out at odd.  When we see Jesus as precious, we want to follow his way.  We want to be like him.  That is what Peter is saying.  We are living stones, built on the foundation of the original living stone, Jesus.

How is Jesus a living stone?  He was dead like a stone and came back to life!  Because Peter calls Christians living stones, how are we living stones?  Check back in tomorrow when we’ll take a look at why Peter uses this unique image of living stones.

The one thing needed for a church to become a family

18 Jun

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

One church I visited during sabbatical did something that weirded me out a bit.  You know what they did?  During the worship service they introduced themselves to new guests by saying, “We’re a family here, and we want you to be a part of our family.”

You might be thinking, “Joel, why did that weird you out? Don’t many churches say that?”

Well, as a first-time guest there, I have to be honest that when I heard them say they wanted me to be a part of their family, it felt intrusive and odd.  I thought, “Does this church really think that I could become part of their family after one visit?  I’m not part of their family after just one visit.”

Or how about Olive Garden Restaurants which once had an advertising slogan stating, “When you’re here, you’re family”?  That’s nice, but it’s not true.  Deep family-like relationships take time.  You can’t just walk through the doors of restaurant or a church and instantly become family, right?

Then it hit me.  I call Faith Church a family too!  Our church newsletter used to be called The Family of Faith newsletter.  We often start our weekly church emails with the line “Dear Family of Faith Church.”  I had to admit that though I felt weirded out at that other church, I still want Faith Church to be a family, not just a label, but an actual family.

I believe that identifying as a family and acting like a family is a primary distinguishing feature of what any local church should be.  But as I sat in that other church service, I had a whole new perspective.  You can’t just declare that people are your family, can you?

I know, I know, maybe I’m being picky.  Good for those churches or any organizations that want people to feel like family.  That’s really the important thing, right?  We want the people in our church to become like a family, to act like a family, and for new people to become part of the family.

This week we continue looking at 1st Peter, and we come to the end of chapter one, verses 21-25.  Remember that Peter is writing to Christians scattered around the Roman Empire. He has called them strangers and aliens.  But are they a family?  Read the passage and see what Peter has to say.

After you read the passage, look with me at the middle of the passage.  Did you see in verse 23 that Peter brings up the idea of being born again? What does “born again” mean?  This is the second time that Peter has mentioned this.  The previous time was in verse 3.  What does it mean to be born again?

Born again means a new beginning, a new life, but this time the Holy Spirit of God is with you, helping you and empowering you to be different.

It is an image that points to the transformation that we Christians should be seeing in our lives. And furthermore, just as we saw last week, our new birth in Christ means we have citizenship in a new country. In the same way, our new birth in Christ means we are born into a new family.

Now let’s go back and add verses 21 and 22.  Peter says that being born again starts with belief (which he mentions in verse 21).  Being born again starts with believing in God who raised Jesus from the dead, so that our faith is in God.  Belief, faith, and trusting in God is the critical starting point.  But it doesn’t stop there.  True faith in God, and the evidence of new birth, Peter says, is obedience to the truth (as he mentions in verse 22).  Put these two things together (belief in verse 21 and obedience in verse 22) and you get the words of the classic hymn “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

As we have seen so many times already in his letter, Peter is not teaching something new here.  He is repeating what Jesus taught him.  Jesus often told his disciples that they, followers of Jesus, first say, “Yes, Lord, I place my faith in you,” and then follow up that faith with action, obeying the teachings of Jesus.  When that trusting and obeying happens we can know that we have been reborn into a new family that resides in a new Kingdom.

What is so interesting, then, is that when Peter talks about obedience in verse 22, he mentions one thing that is the outflow of the obedience.  He has all kinds of actions he could choose from to illustrate obedience to Jesus here: Tell the truth.  Be honest.  Preach the Gospel.  Feed the hungry.  Clothe the naked.  Give to the poor.  He doesn’t choose any of those.  Later in his letter he’ll get to some of that.  But for now, he chooses one thing and one thing only to illustrate obedience to Jesus.  That means this one thing he chooses is probably very important for us to learn.  What is that one thing?  Look at the final phrase of verse 22.

“Love one another deeply from the heart.”

Once again, Peter is teaching something that Jesus taught him.  Check out Jesus’ teaching in John 13:34-35.  “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

There you have it: Christians, followers of Jesus, are born again into a new family that is marked clearly by loving one another deeply from the heart.

Check back in tomorrow as we explore further what Peter meant by “love”.  It might surprise you.

When I visited other churches (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 4)

2 May

https://justindametz.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/old-church.jpg?w=876&h=584

One of the most frequent questions I got before going on sabbatical was, “Where will you go to church?”

When I asked people what they thought I should do about church, they had many responses.  Some people suggested I take a break, which is essentially the definition of sabbatical.  I seriously considered not going to church during the whole sabbatical. I concluded that it would not be wrong to take three months off.  But I was excited about another idea.

I looked at Sunday morning as an opportunity to visit other churches.  From my first Sunday, when I felt nervous and awkward going to another church, to my final church visit, it was like being on a field trip each week.  Remember the energy you felt as a kid when your school class went on a field trip?  Each visit was informative, even eye-opening.  I would return home, open my laptop and write a report about the visit.  I recorded my thoughts about that church’s website, their parking lot, their greeters, lobby, worship service, bulletin, use of technology, sermons, and on and on. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

First of all, we need to visit other churches!  I would recommend that all of us, pastors included, should be visiting other churches at least once or twice every year.  Some people say that is what vacation weeks are for.  Others say vacation weeks are for taking a break from church.  I’ll let you decide.  I believe there is very good reason to take a break sometimes.  During my sabbatical, I took a few weeks off, and that was needed.  I also found it beneficial to visit other churches.

The writer of Hebrews say: “Let us not give up meeting together.”  The Christian habit of gathering together is not some random, legalistic biblical principle.  Being highly committed to a weekly practice of gathering as a church family is important, the writer of Hebrews says, because when we gather, we encourage one another.  When you prepare yourself to gather together with other Christians, get yourself ready by praying, “Lord, I am asking you to help be an encouragement to my church family today!”

Also read Acts 2:42-47, which describes the pattern of the first followers of Jesus.  They gathered regularly to hear the teaching of the word, to pray, to give, to encourage one another, and to worship God.  They met both as a large group at the temple, and and in small groups in homes.  We need to make our church family’s regular gatherings a priority.

Within that context of intentional, consistent gathering, I recommend that at least once or twice each year, though, you visit churches outside your comfort zone.  Think about it.  What expressions of church or which worship styles seem most distasteful to you?  Attend them.  Go to a liturgical church. Go to a megachurch with rocking music.  Go to a house church. Go to a church from a different ethnicity.  It is good to put yourself in the place of a first-time guest.

Second, we need to reach out in kindness to guests.  It is hard to be a first-time guest.  It feels awkward. The parking lot, the lobby, the service, the fellowship time…all of it is brand new.  A guest has no idea how it works or what will happen.

At one church I visited, they instructed guests to fill out a connection card, similar to ours.  I am not in the habit of bringing a pen with me, and there were none in the pews.  I couldn’t fill out the card.  It wasn’t a big deal, but it felt awkward.

At another church I walked into the lobby about 8-10 minutes before the service was to begin, and it was nearly empty.  I peeked in the sanctuary doors, and though the lights were on, the sanctuary was empty.  I was confused.  There were plenty of cars in the parking lot.  Where was everyone?  Did I get something wrong?  I then realized they had Sunday School first, but still I thought, shouldn’t there be more people here with only 8 minutes to go before the service began?  It felt awkward.

Soon a whole bunch of people started entering the lobby from a different part of the building. I overheard people saying that they had been at a congregational meeting, and it only let out a few minutes before their worship gathering started.  Now I understood what had happened. But there was no signage about this.  And the few people in the lobby never greeted me.  It felt really uncomfortable.

Another church was in the middle of a sermon series that relied on printed materials that they had given out at a previous date.  It was a guidebook that had Scripture and notes pages.  During the worship service, at the point where they were to read Scripture, they told people to go to a particular page number in the guidebook.  As a guest, I never got one, and was uncertain of what they were talking about.  No one offered to share.  Again, this is a minor concern.  I could follow along in my own Bible.  But as a first-time guest it immediately had me feeling out of place.

And then there were the liturgical churches…they took awkwardness to a whole different level.  I’ll talk about them later on.

You also need to know that a couple churches greeted guests very well.  They had people at the front door who were friendly, people in the lobby with big smiles on their faces, welcoming me.  That made a difference.  To come to a church that is new, especially where you don’t know anyone, takes courage.  It feels super awkward, and that is why so many people just stay home.  But in the smaller churches like mine, we know right away when someone new comes. The newcomer knows that too.  So we need to go out of our way to reach out to guests with balance and grace.  We don’t want to overwhelm people.

I encountered a few more things about interacting with guests, about finding that healthy balance of being friendly and welcoming without being overwhelming:

There was the church where, at the end of the service, a guy seated in a pew near me actually engaged me in conversation.  He showed interest in me.  Asked me questions.  It wasn’t overwhelming.  It was just nice, and made me feel like a human.  That should be the minimum we strive for.

At one church I actually stayed for a fellowship meal afterwards.  During the meal people at my table entered into lengthier conversations which was wonderful.

Let us be a people who reach out to guests, and by that I mean actually go to them and talk with them. Ask their name, where they are from. The basics.  Offer to answer any questions about the church.  Invite them to have coffee and tea in the fellowship hall and to stay for classes.  This goes for those who are not just first-time guests.  Reach out to those in your church family who you have seen before but don’t really know.  Even if you have seen them many times.  Reach out.  Make connections.

As you talk, be gracious and non-pressured.  Have in your heart and mind that those seeking a new church family are in a very stressed situation.  Leaving their previous church was likely an emotionally conflicted decision.  Often it came after many months and lots of deliberation.  It is daunting to step foot in a new church.  It means they are being courageous, but they are also often coming to church from a wounded place.

So we need to be gracious.  It is not about us.  We don’t want to give any impression that we are salivating for new people to join us.  It is about God’s Kingdom and what is best for his Kingdom.  We can be gracious and admit that our church might not be the right church family for a person for many reasons.  That’s okay.  We are who we are, and we can be secure in that.  It is okay if guests are looking for a different kind of expression of Christianity than who we are.

The next big thing I learned from visiting other churches is that there were intentional elements of worship services that left me totally confused or distracted.

One church had a lady tastefully waving flags throughout their singing times.  I was aware that some churches do this, but as a guest who had never experienced it before, I had questions that were never answered.  What was the purpose of the flags?  They were green and white.  Did the colors mean anything?  I wish I had understood a little more about what things meant.

At the two liturgical churches I visited, I was really out of place.  The Catholic Church had no bulletin. If I had not gone with friends I would have been totally lost.  Even with my friend’s guidance, there were a few instances where I felt like I was line dancing at a wedding. Have you ever been line dancing, and you have no idea what to do, but you want to join in and not be the awkward one left out?  So you’re watching the person next to you, but you’re constantly late with a step, or totally off, and you feel like everyone in the whole room is watching you make a fool of yourself?  That’s me every time I’ve tried line dancing.  That’s also how I felt at the liturgical churches when there was kneeling or standing or making the sign of the cross.

But hear this: it can be a good thing, a very good thing, to feel out of place and out of your comfort zone.  We also need to remember that most people in our culture do not like that feeling.  Just showing up as a first-time guest will feel like that, no matter what church you are in, simply because it is new, with new people.  How out of place do we want people to feel?  What is the balance?

There are times when we change things up at Faith Church during worship, when we experiment, and we do that purposefully so that we all feel a little out of place.  There is a time for routine and habit, and there is a time for getting uncomfortable, as it can and should cause us to learn.

But I also think it is very healthy, like I said last week, for us to have an honest opinion about ourselves as individuals.  Today I ask that about our large group worship expression.  Are we so different or confusing that we are actually distracting?

Faith Church family reading this, how are we unique or different or odd?  Our open-mic sharing time?  Not a single other church I was in did that.  I suspect it is rare.  Sometimes it is awkward, isn’t it?  But we keep doing it because we believe that all of us are participants in worship.  Sharing the good and the bad is what a family does, and we want to be able support and care for each other.

So let’s be odd, but in a balanced way.  Let’s know how we are odd and why we are odd.  Odd is not always a bad thing.  It’s okay to be doing something different from another.

Fourth, I learned that in every church gathering there was something unintentionally disruptive.  And that gave me great solace because of how often disturbances happen during worship at Faith Church!

At one church a baby cried during the entire sermon.  The parents and baby were sitting up at the very front!  I kept thinking “Why don’t they take that baby out?”  I wondered what the pastor was thinking.  It can be hard to preach when there is disruption. And it can be hard to listen when there is disruption.

At one church the projection system stopped working just before the service started. The computer locked up and the same slide was showing on screen from the time I sat down a couple minutes before the service, through all the welcome and announcements, the whole way to the midway point of the third song.  Before he started playing music, the worship leader deftly mentioned the technical difficulties and led us in beautiful worshipful singing anyway.  In that third song, you could start to the see mouse pointer on screen moving all over the place.  Then finally, they got it working and displayed the correct slide.  I will admit I took some solace in that situation, thinking about all the times we’ve had technical difficulties at Faith Church!

The much larger church I visited had a worship service with no distractions that I noticed.  But after worship there was one major oversight.  They ran out of coffee!  Ha!

Our goal for our worship gathering is not to produce a perfect show.  We want to pursue excellence, for sure.  If we make mistakes, we strive to improve.  But our goal is to worship the Lord, and to help our church family learn from him.  If and when mistakes happen, I encourage you to be gracious and smile.

Finally, I want to talk about what I learned during my visit to the Orthodox Church.  I went to Christ the Savior Orthodox in Harrisburg where my friend is the priest.  Father Stephen and I were in the Clergy Leadership Program together.  The Clergy Leadership Program is a pastoral education program based out of Messiah College, and our cohort met from 2015-2017.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Orthodox church, it has a legitimate claim to be the oldest Christian denomination.  They would say that the Roman Catholic Church broke away from them.  While they are quite similar to Catholics, there are also many differences.  My personal impression is that I felt like the Catholic worship service was mostly familiar.  The Orthodox worship service felt like a whole new ballgame.  I want to describe the Orthodox church for you a bit more in detail because there was an idea that struck me that day, an idea that I want to share with you.

The first thing I noticed was the numerous times throughout the Orthodox service where they used incense.  I like smells.  But I struggled a bit with that smell, which I suspect was frankincense.  I wonder if they can use other smells such as fresh bread?

Incense was not the only way Orthodox worship was so different.  There was no technology, except a couple microphones.  There were no musical instruments.  Zero.  Instead there was a call and response choir in the back.  They did call and response during the entire 2 hour and 15 minute service.  Sometimes we would sing with them.  And did you hear me say that they service was 2 hours and 15 minutes?  Also I would venture a guess that 75% of that time we were standing.  That included a period of about 45 straight minutes of standing during communion at the end of the service.

There was tons of kneeling and bowing and kissing.  Anytime the liturgy mentioned the name of God, they made the sign of the cross, and the liturgy said the name of God a lot!  The service followed a prayer book which was in the pew.  I was constantly flipping pages, thinking I found the right spot, and then getting totally lost, and flipping pages again.  Afterwards my friend told us that the whole time we were in the wrong section of the book!

And then there was the communion part of the service.  I was not allowed to participate in either Catholic or Orthodox communion, because you have to be a member of their churches, and I respect that.  So I observed from my seat.  At the Orthodox church, I had never seen anything like it.  Participants went forward in a single-file line.  They had deacons holding a napkin right under each participant’s chin so as not to drip a single drop of the blood of Christ.  The priest holds a huge goblet, into which is the bread soaked in the wine.  He then dipped a spoon into the goblet, ladled out a piece of wine-soaked bread and spoon-fed it right into the participant’s mouth.  Person by person by person. At the same time the choir in the back was repeating one line over and over, slowly, chant-like, “This is the body of Christ, the fountain of eternal life for you.”  The congregation was singing with the choir during the whole communion.  I think we must have sung that line at least 50 times, maybe more.  My feet hurt, my back hurt, and I admit that I got to a point where I wanted it to be done.

And you know what I thought?  It was actually refreshing.

It was long, smelly, and made my back and feet hurt from all the standing.  It was confusing at times, beautiful at others, and somewhat hard to follow.  Yet I found it refreshing.  Why wasn’t it distracting like some of those other worship services?  You know why?

Because the Orthodox Church is what they have been for centuries, and they stick to that. Furthermore, every single element of worship carries significance.  From the incense to the candles to the kissing and the liturgy and the icons and the spoon-feeding, all of it has a theological underpinning.  There is a beauty to the depth and symbolism of all. I found that super-refreshing.

I get it that other people might find Orthodox worship very distracting.  That’s okay.  To be honest, my feeling of finding it refreshing stems from a couple places.  First, the priest is my friend. I have a personal connection.  Second, I am a pastor, and my feelings were impacted by that.  Let me explain.  A pastor in the Orthodox church doesn’t have to make sure the PowerPoint is good, or that he has great videos, or cool illustrations in his sermons.  There is no pressure to have really awesome worship services to reach people who could just as easily go to the ultra-cool church down the road. They just don’t care about the consumer-minded culture of their people.  And man, that was a breath of fresh air to me.

That is the idea I want to share with you.  We Americans are steeped in a consumer culture, and we bring that to church.  But we should be on guard against that.  A consumer is one who chooses between a multitude of options as to what they like, and they select what they like, and they consume it.  The focus is on them.  The Orthodox church, in how it worships, assaults this notion of the consumer as the focus. Clearly Jesus is the focus.

We low-church protestants tend to give high-church liturgical worship a bad rap.  We say that we don’t see high liturgy anywhere in the New Testament.  The reality is that when I read the New Testament, I also don’t see the kind of worship that non-liturgical churches like ours practice.  What worship is acceptable to Jesus?  Probably all of it, if he is glorified, his word is preached, and people are encouraged to be faithful to God, with an opportunity for the sacraments.

I saw Christ honored in every single one of the churches I visited.  Jesus was glorified at the megachurch, and at the small church. He was glorified at the liturgical churches, and he was glorified at the churches with worship services like Faith Church.  I saw a theme in all the churches I visited: worship should help us stop being self-focused consumers, and reshape us to be God-focused disciples of Jesus.

I don’t think Faith Church is perfect or better than those churches I visited. But I can say that I love where we have come on our journey learning about gathered worship services.  We have learned some important biblical principles that we are trying to apply week in and week out.  Worship, first and foremost, must glorify God.  He is to be the focus of all we do.  Worship should be participatory.  That means including a variety of people in the service.  Worship should be experimental, meaning that we should be teachable learners, admitting that we don’t have the corner on the worship market, and thus willing to try new things from time to time.

That experimental attitude was at the heart of my desire to visit other churches.  It is something I commend to you too.  So at least a couple times each year, go visit a church you’ve never been to, and be a first-time guest, be a learner, worship God with that local expression of what he calls his body, the church, and come back and report on what you learned so that we, this local expression of his body that we call Faith Church, can learn from what you experienced!

Why I am Going on a Three-month Sabbatical

3 Jan

I started sabbatical January 1st.  For the first three months of 2018 I will put my pastoral duties on pause.

I have so much gratitude to Faith Church for allowing this, and for facilitating it.  Over the last few years, as the church considered and planned for the sabbatical, there have been numerous people in the congregation who have invested much time and energy to make it a reality, and I deeply appreciate it.  Now, as I begin my sabbatical, I look at how many people in our church family are serving in new and different ways just so I can go on sabbatical.  That is incredibly meaningful to me.

As I start the sabbatical, I am keenly aware that most people don’t get a sabbatical and could never dream of one.  Sabbaticals seem most common in the educational realm, especially in higher education.  But in my congregation, filled with hard-working professionals, a sabbatical is unheard of for most.  So I’ve wrestled a lot with whether or not I should even want one in the first place.  When so many people in my church family work in fields that don’t offer sabbaticals, maybe I shouldn’t get one either.  Like me, they work long hours in sometimes difficult jobs.  What makes me different?

In most ways, I’m not different.  In other ways, very different.  For example, my denomination recommends that pastors receive a sabbatical from their church every 7 years of ministry.  I started full-time at Faith Church as Youth/Associate Pastor in October 2002.  Then in July 2008 I became Senior Pastor.  I started talking about sabbatical in 2009 when I hit the seven-year mark of full-time ministry.  But having just become senior pastor the year before, my wife and I decided to hold off on that discussion.  Once I reached seven years as senior pastor, I brought it up again.  So I am within denominational recommendations for taking a sabbatical.  But again, I question, should I?

Here’s why I pursued the sabbatical.  We Americans tend to have a very individualistic mindest, and with that, we’re loathe to admit weakness.  I often succumb to both of these tendencies.  I just don’t think of it as a succumbing. Instead, and maybe you think this way too, when I am successful as a lone ranger, I can feel so affirmed. I did what I was supposed to do. I was responsible and accomplished and strong. It’s easy to become prideful, under a guise of being responsible.  But the reality is that deep within, I feel much less certain, individually strong and accomplished than I might give off.  To reveal more of what actually goes on inside my mind, I need this sabbatical.

Pastoral ministry is difficult, and yet as I type that, I hate to admit that.  On one hand I’m concerned about coming across as saying “my job is harder than your job.”  There are many jobs that require a lot from people.  Pastoral ministry is not alone in that regard.  But I do think it is fair to say that pastoral ministry is a difficult profession.  Plenty has been written about the rigors of being a pastor.  Here is an example.  And another.  (Furthermore, being a pastor’s wife is a uniquely difficult role.)

As I have served for 15 years, I see the value in my denomination’s recommendation that pastors take a sabbatical every 7 years.  I am ready for this sabbatical.  I feel the strain of those 15 years deep within, and I feel it bubble up to the surface, all too regularly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am so thankful to God for bringing us to Faith Church, and I love my church family. I am very much looking forward to many more years pursuing the mission of God’s Kingdom together.  And I am convinced that this sabbatical, and another one in seven years, and another in seven more years beyond that, and so on, will enable us to have a healthy future serving the Lord.

I recently read an article saying that the pastor can be the greatest hindrance to the church’s growth.  Those words “church growth” can mean many different things to people.  The kind of church growth I am talking about is not more bodies, buildings and bigger budgets.  Instead I am talking about people experiencing transformation in Jesus.  That transformation looks like people stopping a selfish sinful life and learning from Jesus how to live what he called the abundant life, and after having been changed, helping more people get transformed too (which we call discipleship). I’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog.

Deep down I worry that, in my role as pastor of Faith Church, I can be the greatest hindrance to people in my church family actually experiencing that kind of transformation. I wonder if my personality, preaching and leading abilities (or lack thereof…in all three areas) are the biggest hindrance to the church’s growth.  At various times I think I don’t pray enough, visit enough, sacrifice enough.  The balance to all those concerns is that no one is perfect, and I do work on personal growth in all those areas, and know I have much learning to do.  Surely I can be a hindrance to the cause of discipleship to Jesus, because of these areas.

But that is not what the article was talking about.  The article was talking about how pastors too often do the work of ministry for the people.  In the church family people do serve and give quite a lot.  But there exists a line where that serving stops.  When people get to that line (and the line is different for every pastor), the people think “I’ve done what I can do, and now I’ll hand it off to the pastor, because it is his or her job to do the rest.”  I suspect you know what that line is for your church and your pastor.  You know what the result of the line is?  The pastor feels fulfilled because he has pastoral work to do, but the people never grow beyond the line.  If the pastor always takes over at the line, the people will only grow up to that point.

What if Jesus has transformative work he wants to do in people’s lives, but it will require them to go beyond the line of pastoral ministry?  I am convinced that Jesus does have that kind of work he wants to do, and by maintaining that line, we pastors hinder the growth of our people.

So during my sabbatical the line at Faith Church is about to be crossed.  People in the church family will be stepping across the line to do nearly everything that the pastor does.  I’m nervous about that, and I’m excited about that.

Will I be out of a job when I get back?  I don’t think so.  What I hope, though, is that perhaps I’ll need to change my job description. Maybe I have been preserving the line, when I should be pulling people over it.  I can’t say for sure.  My sabbatical has just begun.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I do have some goals.  One is to learn to recognize the voice of the Lord.  Some other goals are to read a lot, write a lot, and get away to quiet.  I’ve already deactivated my Facebook account.  Weeks before that I deleted all the video games from my phone and my laptop.  I want to learn to be more present.  I want to learn to not be hurried.  That one I learned from Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast interview with John Ortberg (it is episode 168), who was very close with Dallas Willard.  Ortberg said Willard was wholly unhurried.  That amazes me.  I’m always hurried. Always checking the notifications on my phone.  Always wanting to do not just one thing, but usually trying to do two things at the same time.  “Redeem the time” can be an excuse for all sorts of poor use of time.  I want to learn all these lessons so that they are not just for sabbatical, but so they can flow into whatever pastoral ministry will look like starting April 1st.  (Which is Easter, by the way.  I know it is April Fool’s Day too, but I have a feeling Easter is going to take precedence.  And on Easter, we talk about new life!  Very interesting juxtaposition of themes for this sabbatical.)

So this will be my final post until April 2018.  I wish I could write about Psalm 148, which was the text for my final sermon before going on sabbatical. It is so joyful, and needed after four weeks of lament.  Just read it and you’ll see.