The Advance Team

advance teamIn Holy Vocabulary: Rescuing the Language of Faith, Michael Kelley compares the Church to a military advance team called the Delta Force. “The Delta Force is an advance team of specially trained agents who act as the precursor for the army. They perform secret missions, do the hard prep work, and engage the enemy before the entire army arrives. They are the ones who announce that the full army is going to invade” (p. 104).

I like the picture that paints of the value and position of the church. We are doing necessary and important work. Our calling is to wake people up to the reality of what is yet to come: the holy invasion of Christ and all his angels to take believers back with him to heaven.

This is serious business and not to be taken lightly. We have a message to bring to people that has life-and-death consequences: Follow Christ and live or face the death that is hurtling toward us brought on by sin and the devil, which our mortal enemies, literally.

Every day in the Church involves s skirmish, a battle of some sort against these enemies of ours and enemies of Christ, and we as the Church need to show the world that we have the power of Christ on our side to do battle with them and win. We have the very armor of God to protect us. (See Ephesians 6:13-17).

But what is also involved is the act of preparing the way, in much the same way that John the Baptist did in advance of the first coming of Christ. We too need to be the voices crying in the wilderness, boldly speaking about the Way, the Truth and the Life in ways that people will listen to us. I am not saying we need to wear camel’s hair and eat locusts, but we do need to portray in some way that we as the Church are different from the rest of the world and draw people into our congregations to learn more. There, as John did, we can bring people to be baptized, to repent of their sins and to set their minds on the coming King.

We do not want people to be surprised by the Second Coming of our King, but to be ready. That helps me to see in a new way the urgency and vitality of the Church. The work of the Church is not something we can choose to be a part of or not a part of. It is something that we have to do, that we get to do, that we have been specially selected to do. It is an honor and a privilege to bring more and more people to the knowledge of salvation won for us by Christ on the ultimate battlefield of Calvary.

 

 

Butterflies

butterflyTherefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

The company logo of Creative Communications is the butterfly. I see it so much that I take it for granted, but on this Easter Day, I look at it with fresh eyes and see the miracle it represents.

The butterfly is truly a “new creation” that comes out of a cocoon (a tomb of sorts) after a period of time. What once was a scrawny, wormy like creature that was only able to crawl on the ground is now a colorful, beautiful, glorious creation that can fly to great heights.

What a wonderful picture of what happened through the resurrection of Christ. We who were once lowly creatures who roamed the earth in sin are now made new beings that are filled with his life and are able to soar for him spiritually speaking in this life and on the Last Day, we will fly to be with him in heaven.

The wonderful news of Easter is that because Christ went through this transformation from death on the cross, to three days in the tomb, to resurrection life, we too will rise from death and the grave to a glorious eternal life.

Every day is now an Easter Day, a day for us to celebrate that we are now God’s “butterflies,” so to speak, able to flit from place to place to spread the good news that Jesus is alive and we will be alive with him forevermore.

Creative Communications is just one small part of this picture as it spreads this good news through packages of church resources sent across the globe. But the greater impact is the new life that each of us can share in what we say and do in the name of our risen Christ to all we meet every day.

 

The Model Prayer

Lord’s PrayerAuthor Michael Kelley in the book Holy Vocabulary: Rescuing the Language of Faith, takes a good, hard look at how we approach the Lord’s Prayer.

“in modern usage,” he says, “the prayer has become something of an incantation, recited laboriously before a sports event or a civic meeting. It’s become a tool we use in an attempt to guarantee God’s endorsement of whatever we’re about to do” (p. 30).

Sounds somewhat harsh at first reading, but the more I think about it, the more he is right about how I personally approach the Lord’s Prayer from time to time: something to just say, get through and check off to say I talked to God today.

But Kelley suggests that we look at the prayer differently. “A better description for this prayer,” he says, “might be ‘The Model Prayer,’ since Jesus never meant for his specific prayer to be repeated over and over again. Jesus advised that his followers pray like this—not pray exactly like this” (p.30; see Matthew 6:8).

In fact, in the verses right before the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus cautions against any kind of praying that amounts to mindless repetition:

 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. … And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” —Matthew 6:5, 7

The idea of looking at the Lord’s Prayer as a Model Prayer helps me to break out of the monotony of simply repeating the prayer. Now when I pray it in church or other places, I think of ways in which I can make it may own—emphasizing certain words that strike me more on that day and thinking of specific situations in my life this week that fall into the realm of each petition.

In many ways, Jesus gave us a framework to work with in giving us the Lord’s Prayer and he wants us give “meat to the bones,” so to speak, by making his prayer our prayer.

Take time this week to write your own prayer based on the concepts of the model prayer of the Lord’s Prayer Christ gave us.

Here’s an example: O dearest Dad above, you are in perfect control of everything in my life. Help me to listen to you and follow your plan for me in this world that you are the head of. Thanks for all the things you have given me. I know I have messed up and deserve only punishment, but I ask you to take away all that I have done wrong and I ask that you help me to be just as generous to others who hurt me. Keep me focused on your path and not be led astray and get me out of any trouble that comes along. I know that all things are in your hands. Amen.

Already in the writing of this, I could feel myself becoming more personal, more real, more in touch with my true circumstances in my conversation with God.

The bottom line is that God wants us to be ourselves with him when we pray, and we need to do all we can to make sure that happens in our prayer life, especially during this holy season of Lent.

 

Immediacy

immediacyAnother aspect of the new reality of communications, according the Pastor Matt Peeples, is that we now expect immediacy.

In general, these are the new rules: We assume people are always plugged in and available. We want an answer to our communication right now. We must answer our phone or text at the moment we receive it, no matter where we may be.

It is now acceptable to stop a personal conversation to take a call. It is OK to step out of a meeting to answer the phone. It is considered multitasking to text while listening to someone else talk. These were not the rules less than a decade ago. Then these types of behaviors were seen as rude, but they are now par for the course.

As a church body, we need to be aware of this shift, and as much as we may not like it, we must be tolerant and not offended when people text in church or check their phones in a Bible class. This is the norm and is not the exception.

In addition, congregations need to embrace immediacy as much as they can when it comes to communicating changes in worship schedules or cancellations of any kind. Many churches I know have an app that people can use to check the times and dates of events at the church at one click or swipe.

But for me, the drawback of this immediacy shift is that it makes us a very impatient people in all things—even when it comes to our communications with God. We pray for something and then we want it NOW. We witness to someone about our faith and we want them to believe TODAY. We want to know God’s plan THIS MINUTE.

But as we all know patience is a virtue and something that the Bible lets us know is valuable.

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. —James 5:7

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. —Romans 12:12

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. —Ecclesiastes 7:8

Good things do indeed come to those who wait and it is our calling to be patient with ourselves, be patient with others and be patient with God, just as he has been patient with us. Let us never forget that, even in this immediacy environment.

 

 

Recovery

fontThe image above appeared beside the article “The Church and Recovery,” in the February 2017 issue of Living Lutheran. It is a unique baptismal font at Common Ground Recovery Ministry based in Wyomissing, PA.

The shattered pieces of glass used in the design of the font represent “booze, bottles, glass syringes and other paraphernalia that separated us, not only from God, but also from all that sustains life,” according to the ministry. The light blue cross represents the waters of baptism in which we are all washed clean and given new life in Christ.

I was moved by this wonderful symbol of how our old, sinful selves are reformed and made new through baptism and our new place in God’s kingdom as his sons and daughters.

It reminds me too that things like addiction and alcoholism and drug abuse are not things that are beyond the scope of the Church and of our embrace as the body of Christ. These are very real issues that brothers and sisters in Christ as dealing with, and we should not keep those who are suffering from these conditions in the shadows or at arm’s length.

After all, the Church is all about recovery—recovery from the ravages of sin, in whatever form they may take in our lives. There are not any situations that are beyond the reach of God’s love and forgiveness, care and help.

On the cross the darkness of every addiction, every abuse, every bondage was destroyed, drowned, done away with through the blood of Christ.

The Bible puts it this way: When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6).

It is in baptism that the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit takes place. And as the Bible says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).

That newness of life can occur for us every day as we daily drown our sins and are restored through our baptism. God’s recovery program is found in the font. Let us remember that every time we pass by the font in our parish and let us be ready to bring those in need of recovery of any kind to the knowledge of new life in Christ.

As the Bible reminds us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Let recovery begin today.

 

 

Burden Bearing

burden bearingOne of the practices that the Bible says we should carry out is burden bearing. Here are some passages to consider:

Galatians 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Romans 12:15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

Each of these passages talks about being intimately involved in helping to alleviate the suffering and struggles of others. But what does this look like? Timothy Keller explains it this way: “Picture how you help a person who is trying to carry a load that is too heavy. To help with a burden, you must first come very close to the burdened person, standing virtually in their shoes.  Next, you must put your own strength under the burden so its weight is distributed on both of you, thus lightening the load for the original bearer. To “carry the burden” means to come under it and let some of its weight, responsibility, and pain come to you” (Gospel in Life, p. 65).

Our example in burden bearing, as Galatians 6:2 suggests, is Christ, who fully bore our burdens on the cross. It is that ultimate model that inspires and motivates us in our burden bearing for others.

Our approach to bearing the burdens of others should be one of love. We must remember, though, that we are not Christ, and we cannot take the burdens of others fully onto us, but we are present to ease the burden. Our role is only to loving help and to be available to others in their need. We are not asked necessarily to fix the problem or take the problem away.

I love the imagery of Christians coming under the burdens of people and lifting some of the weight off them. There is a natural tendency in that visual to have a sense that we are in this together and we will get through it together and we can grow to know each other more in the process.

That makes the call of burden bearing a whole lot more appealing and a whole lot more valuable to all involved. What burdens of others can you help to bear this week?

The Church in Action

church in actionAnd they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. —Acts 2:42-47

The passage above gives us a prime example of what the church in action looks like. What can we learn from this model church?

• They were devoted. They were committed to learning more, to being together, to taking communion, to praying. The church was a priority for them.

• They studied the apostles’ teaching, not some other teaching. They wanted to know what the witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had to say. It was focused learning.

• They had a sense of reverence for what they were learning and it opened their eyes to the amazing things of God that were happening all around them. The words of the apostles came to life among them.

• They saw the need to serve those in their community and not cling to their earthly possessions, but give them to those who were in greater need of them than they were.

• They regularly got together with fellow believers (every day!), they welcomed people into their homes, and they were enthusiastic about what they were doing together and why they were doing it.

• Their group was growing and more and more people were coming to the knowledge of salvation in Christ through the witness of the group.

Applying even one of these attributes to our congregations today can do a world of difference. To me, the remarkable aspect of all these traits is the underlying attitude of genuine gratitude and excitement and joy in the Lord, which can so often dwindle away when we get too busy or too preoccupied with ourselves. Think of ways to recapture the joy of being a part of the church this week and see what God does with that joy.

 

 

6 Guidelines for Loving Each Other

loving each otherWe are well aware that Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34), but that sometimes does not come as easily as it could or should even (and often especially) in the church. Because of this reality, Pastor and author John Piper gives us six guidelines for loving each other, which I find extremely helpful:

  1. Let’s avoid gossiping.
  2. Let’s identify evidence of grace in each other and speak them to each other and about each other.
  3. Let’s speak criticism directly to each other if we feel the need to speak to others about it.
  4. Let’s look for, and assume, the best motive in the other’s viewpoint, especially when we disagree.
  5. Let’s think often of the magnificent things we hold in common.
  6. Let’s be more amazed that we are forgiven than that we are right. And in that way, let’s shape our relationships by the gospel. (from the Desiring God website: www.desiringgod.org, August 4, 2009)

I do feel indicted by several of these, and what they say we should do helps me to approach any future difficult encounter with someone in the church from a more loving, uniting perspective. We are all in this together after all, this journey of faith. Why not make this journey working together, not separately or in opposition to one another?

All of these guidelines do not come from a vacuum, of course. There is biblical grounding for them, most clearly in Romans 12:9-10, 14, 16-18:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Live in harmony with one another. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

The last verse strikes me most. It acknowledges that we can only do what is in our power to do to live peaceably (As far as it depends on you … ). What others may or may not do is out of our control. The other thing that resonates with me are the two words: with all. We are to live peaceably with all, not just some people, but all people. This is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Be peaceable with everyone! That will go a long way toward greater unity.

 

The 7 Visible Marks

churchWhat is the church? It is a question that comes up more frequently these days amid technological and cultural shifts. Amazingly, Martin Luther actually wrestled with that same question 500 years ago. And thankfully for us, Martin Luther expressed what a church is by writing down what he called the seven visible marks of the church:

  1. The Word of God
  2. Baptism
  3. Holy Communion
  4. The Office of the Keys (Confession and Absolution)
  5. Called ministers
  6. Prayer, public praise and thanksgiving to God
  7. Bearing suffering patiently

Luther called these the seven principal parts of Christian sanctification or the seven holy possessions of the church.

I like that concept of all of these being “holy possessions.” We can so often take for granted the fact that we pray and read Scripture and have the opportunity to confess our sins with other people of God in church. But these are privileges and blessings and sacred activities that God has graciously put into our possession.

We need to treat these seven visible marks with care and reverence. They are the outward manifestations of what God has done for us in Christ and they are the window to all the world of the nature of our God.

Through these marks, we as the church tell the world that God wants to talk to us and listen to us. God wants to make us his children. God wants to forgive us. God wants to shepherd us through life through his under shepherds. God wants to celebrate and sorrow with us.

When we look at church in this light, we have a better grasp of what God had in mind for the energy and vitality of his people on earth behind the brick-and-mortar steepled structures.

 

Worldviews

worldviewIn his book Gospel in Life, Timothy Keller puts the concept of worldviews into a language that we can understand. In short, a worldview is a way of looking at the world in which there is a purpose, a problem and a solution.

Worldviews are organized in several categories, Keller says, based on what people see as the purpose, the problem and the solution to our human condition in life.

The traditional religious cluster of worldviews includes Platoism and many traditional religions. The purpose in this worldview is to know and live in accord with the perfect realm of ideals. The problem is that the soul is good but the body is bad. The solution is to make ourselves good and virtuous people.

The naturalism cluster of worldviews includes Scientific Naturalism and Psychodynamism. The purpose in this worldview is to survive. The problem is that there are winners and losers in this world and we must fight to win. The solution is to investigate scientific and empirical data and implement that knowledge to eliminate threats to human survival and to get ahead.

The anti-realism cluster of worldviews includes existentialism and post-modernism. The purpose of this worldview is to create our own reality and be free from any absolute or objective values. The problem is that we do have to define and decide what truth-claim to follow. The solution is to create meaning for ourselves and undermine and discount any other truth claims in order to gain power.

Finally, we come to the Christian worldview, whose purpose is to know and serve a loving God who created us and all things and, then, to love and serve one another. The problem is that we cannot always live in the way that pleases God and pleases others because of sin. The solution is that God sent Jesus to live a perfect life, die in our place to remove sin from our lives and rise again that we might live with him in perfect harmony in heaven.

It is helpful for me to make these distinctions of worldviews and to be able to categorize the viewpoints of others who speak to us about how they look at life. When we understand the differences, we have a better ability to explain what ultimately drives us in our Christian worldview—not anything we have done, not anything science has told us, not anything from our own human insight, but simply Christ alone and what he has done for us.

So when we view the world, we see it only through the eyes of Christ. He is the sole Solution to our sinful predicament.