Hosea 6:3 “Let’s do our best to know the Lord. His coming is as certain as the morning sun; he will refresh us like rain renewing the earth in the springtime.” (CEV)
I think that springtime has indeed arrived. I’ve seen flowers pushing their way up through the earth, worms on the sidewalk during the rain, robins hunting those worms in my back yard, grass that is greening, geese and ducks, and vernal ponds temporarily full of life. The earth is being renewed after a long rest during the winter. I think that the same can be said of our church.
We all agreed that we needed a winter, a time of rest. Now we see spring emerging. The service that we held to honor veterans, especially those from the Vietnam Era, brought many tears of compassion to the eyes of people who were present. We were able to share together and listen to words of turmoil and hope. A week later I watched Doris, Irene, Phyllis and Tony perform an impromptu quartet rendition of “I Believe” while Doris played the accordion. During both of these occasions I was reminded of how much love there is in our church. Watching the joy on their faces as they sang, made my soul feel renewed just like the rain renewing the earth in the springtime. Hosea reminded us to “do our best to know the Lord.” In recent weeks we have been imagining a life of perfection with the Lord and examining what we believe as individuals.
During our Bible study times (Tuesday evenings at 6:30 in the Lighthouse) we often share what we believe and what we can imagine. During these studies, we look at the readings for the week ahead and talk about what they mean to us. For some, it helps to give more meaning to the message that is shared on Sunday morning. I invite anyone who would like to join us to attend. Each week is different so you don’t have to worry if you haven’t been before.
As we move forward on a path of discovery for our church we will keep Hosea’s words in mind. We will do our best to know the Lord because we know that His coming is as certain as the morning sun. My the Lord’s light shine on us as push up through the soil and bloom reveling in the brightness of His love! Spring has sprung.
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. Romans 8:24-27 (NIV)
We just celebrated the victory of our Lord over death. His sacrifice means so much to us. Because of His sacrifice, we are the recipients of the Holy Spirit. How lucky are we that we have a God who cares enough to hear our prayers. And luckier still, the Spirit knows the inner most concerns of our hearts and speaks on our behalf when we don’t even know what to say. Have you ever had that time when you just couldn’t find the right words to express the way that you felt? The Spirit can express those feelings for us.
The flowering of the cross during our Easter service really spoke to me about hope. We start with a bare and barren cross and through the simple act of adding flowers, we see a masterpiece unfold before us. Each flower that was placed on the cross brought a new sense of hope for beauty and completeness. Working together, that hope was realized. For anyone who had never witnessed this happening, it can be quite awe-inspiring to see the finished product.
I think the same is true for the future of our church. Right now, we are quite bare (but definitely not barren). We will be adding flowers as we move along the path to charting a new future for our church. The Spirit will be active among us and will cry out with the words that we are searching for. We will need many to come and help. Each flower that is added will help us to create a path that moves us onward toward the Will of our Lord.
We will keep you updated about meetings that will happen to determine the next steps in our journey. We invite many, those who regularly attend our services and those who do not, to come and add your thoughts to the process. The more input we have, the more awe-inspiring the results will be.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
As Lent builds to its Holy Week climax on Good Friday and Easter, it becomes more and more difficult for us to avoid the brutal reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and the mysterious claim of Christ’s resurrection. Both are topics we’d prefer not to have to deal with. The crucifixion is an uncomfortable reminder of the fact that even the most sophisticated societies can cruelly torture and destroy the lives of good and innocent people. The resurrection, on the other hand, strains our credulity by challenging us to accept the possibility that death is not only the end of life, but also a new beginning. It would be so much easier for us if we could just think of Jesus as a great moral teacher, a committed social reformer, or a highly gifted healer, without having to wrestle with death and resurrection. But the Christian gospel doesn’t afford us that more comfortable luxury.
The fact is, Jesus nonviolently faced head-on the murderous hostility of his enemies, and refused to take any evasive action. Throughout his ministry, he trusted God to work through him in wonderful and unexpected ways. Even when confronting his own execution, he continued to trust God to manifest divine love and power through him. Most people, then and now, would regard his faith as naive and unrealistic. But on Easter morning, his confidence in God was dramatically vindicated. Death was not the end for him, but the beginning of a ministry of eternal scope and power.
Some people like to point to Jesus’ experience as something unique to him, and irrelevant to ordinary people like us. But Jesus’ instructions to his disciples make it clear that the ministry to which he called them included trusting God to work through their own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and deaths. Their faith in the undying, life-giving power of God’s love was to characterize their own lives as it had his, right to the very end of life as we know it.
This is a difficult instruction for most of us. Our human nature instinctively wants to preserve our lives at all costs, fighting and destroying the lives of others if necessary to do so. But Jesus promises that God’s Spirit will help us to see beyond the ending of our own lives to envision the transformation of the world we’ll leave behind us. By living our lives in a way that will benefit people who come after us, even death can be faced as an act of love.
This is an invitation to strengthen our mystical connection with God as individuals, and also as churches. Most people today regard the church as a dying institution that no longer has a place in the modern world. It is seen as hopelessly trapped in the music, rites and rituals of a by-gone era and which no longer has anything to contribute to 21stCentury life. For that reason, the church is routinely ignored by all but a handful of people each week, despite the professed “Christian” convictions of the stay-at-home majority. Despite the heroic efforts of church leaders to keep the institution alive, it is clearly on life-support, and cannot survive much longer. It has been nailed to a Cross by human indifference to God’s presence among us just as Jesus was crucified centuries earlier.
The institutional church as we have known it must die, just as Jesus did — not because its death will remove all trace of Christ’s presence among us, but so that God can resurrect it in a new, more perfect form. The church that must die has become preoccupied with structures, rules, roles, personalities and personal preferences instead of focused on the life-giving and life-transforming Spirit of God at work among us, creating a kind of humble unity that we alone can’t generate. The New Creation that God will resurrect in its place will not be concerned about buildings or bank accounts, but with the Mystery of God’s activity in their midst: reconciling our differences, healing our brokenness, forgiving our failures, vindicating our suffering, calming our fears, ending our loneliness and giving us hope for the future. This resurrected entity will be known, not by its words or rituals, but by the mysterious peacefulness and warmth that emanates from it.
The Lenten season is about crucifixion and resurrection — not just that of Jesus, but our own! The question it asks of us is: How much of what we normally think of as “ours” are we willing to let die so that God’s love can be revealed? We know how Jesus answered that question. What will our answer be?
When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. (Exodus 16:14-16)
The book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites’ journey from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. It is a story of the hardships and frustrations they endured, and of the many times they were on the verge of giving up and rebelling against Moses’ leadership. But each time they felt like God had abandoned them, something wonderful would happen that showed them that God was still with them and providing the resources they needed to continue their journey and reach their destination. The verses above refer to one of those special moments when they discovered that God had provided an unexpected food source for them. We commonly refer to this strange dessert-bread as “manna” but that name actually means “What is it?”
That original meaning is worth remembering. It is a reminder that God’s resources are not always recognized for what they really are. If Moses hadn’t been there to help them appreciate the value of this unfamiliar substance, they would have overlooked it and either starved or returned to captivity in Egypt. But once their fear was allayed, they realized that their situation was not as desperate as they had originally thought.
This was a lesson they had to learn over again during their time in the wilderness: God will lead them and provide for them if they will put more trust in God than in their own wisdom, power, experience and abilities.
That lesson is just as important for us today as it was for the ancient Israelites. Nowadays, churches all over the country are in decline, and church leaders are desperate to find ways to sustain and revive them. They are as frightened as the Israelites were in the wilderness about the bleakness of their future. The familiar “foods” that previously “fed” them are no longer available, and institutional starvation and death seems imminent.
But what if, like the Israelites, God’s providential resources are already right in front of us? What if our problem is that we don’t recognize them because they’re not the same as we’re used to? What if we look around us and all we can say is “What is it?” What if our mistake is to seek to feed our institutional hunger with our own resources rather than God’s? We think that more money or more people will save us and restore the church to its previous condition. But the food God is offering is different, and we don’t recognize it. It isn’t food to return us to the Egyptian captivity of yesterday, but to feed us for our journey to the land of promise and freedom. Instead of buildings, bucks and bodies, the food God will nurture the church with is with a new sense of divine purpose. The future of the church is people who are passionately pursuing God’s dream of a new society that is unlike anything they’ve ever known before — a society of dreamers that seeks to let God build relationships among them that are more just, loving and compassionate than the world has ever achieved on its own — a society that discovers God’s providence in the midst of life-threatening hardships, and finds God giving us new life even while dying on a Cross.
The future of the church in our world today depends on our readiness to ask “What is it?” What is the source of hope and strength and nourishment that God is offering us in the midst of our most desperate situations? What is the gift that God will reveal to us as we hover on the edge of giving up? What is that Holy Spirit that enabled the impoverished, persecuted church of the first century to expand at the fastest rate in history?
That is a question we must ask over and over and over again, kneeling together in the presence of the only One who can give us the answer. I hope we have to humility to do it and the spiritual discernment to hear God’s answer!
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. (James 1:22)
When I was in my teens, I did a lot of bowling. My father bowled in a league, and he shared his enthusiasm for the game with me. We sometimes would go bowling as a family activity. Eventually, I joined one of the teams in the league my father bowled in, and for much of my high school career, I bowled every week. But when I went off to college, I no longer had the time (or money!) to bowl every week. I went from being an dedicated bowler to being a person who still enjoyed the game and knew how to play it, but one who didn’t actively participate in the sport on a regular basis. I no longer consider myself to be a bowler, but merely an afficianado of the game — someone who has happy memories and good feelings about the sport, but who no longer actually bowls.
You may have undergone similar changes in your life. In your younger days, you may have been an avid baseball player, skater, dancer or musician, but as time went by, your involvement in those activities diminished and eventually ended.
Unfortunately, some people’s spiritual life follows a similar trajectory. While aging will naturally impose a limit to our ability to engage in vigorous athletic activities, the same is not true of spiritual practices. Prayer, worship, bible study and meditation are not activies that require the vigor of a youthful athlete to perform. In fact, it is often those who have lived a long, fruitful life and experienced more of life’s difficult and painful challenges who get the most out of regular spiritual disciplines. They find that, beneath the religious ideas they learned in childhood which seemed so bizzarre and unbelievable, lies a level of profound experiencial truth that they never knew existed before. Words that meant little to their minds now speak eloquently to their hearts.
Sadly, there are also those whose only religious activity ended in their childhood, yet who still consider themselves “active” Christians and church members. They live in a state of denial, refusing to acknowledge that their behavior exposes the delusion of their claims. It’s as if their nostalgic memories of childhood or their private religious convictions could exempt them from any responsibility to express their faith in any outward way. It’s as rediculous as me still claiming to be a “bowler” even though I haven’t touched a bowling ball in over 30 years!
My purpose here is not to insult anyone who may have drifted away from the church, but to challenge them to emerge from their state of denial. Christian faith has never been some private, inner world of spiritual ideas, but a way of life that engages us in a distinctive community that seeks to demonstrate God’s love for those whom the rest of the world has rejected. It is not a community that exists only in our minds or on some abstract spiritual plane, but which requires tangible participation. Bowlers must bowl. Christians must be part of making the Body of Christ visible in the world. Athletes may be forced to give up their sport due to age or disability, but Christians do not. All over the world, there are elderly and disabled people who find ways to participate in Christ’s body in tangible ways, whether through their giving, by ministering with cards and letters, or by hosting group meetings that others may attend.
Participation in a Christ-centered community — not abstract ideas or pious feelings — is the hallmark of the Christian faith, just as a bowler is defined by rolling a ball down the lane. A bowler may throw a strike or a gutter ball, but at least there can be no doubt that that person is really in the game. Participation is how we tell if a person is a genuine follower of Christ or just an afficianado, uninvolved and standing on the sidelines.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13.11)
As we begin a new year, many of us will be engaging in the annual ritual of making New Year’s resolutions. While some of us will give thoughtful consideration to the resolutions they make, others will treat it as an exercise in futility, knowing that most resolutions will be lucky to survive the month of January. It’s not that the resolutions we make aren’t well-intentioned and worthy of pursuit, but we just seem to sabotage them much too easily.
Behavioral scientists tell us that the primary reason we don’t make the life-changes that we know are in our best interest is due to some conflicting primitive motive that lies just beneath our conscious awareness. For instance, our inability to lose those extra 20 pounds may be due to a stronger unconscious desire to free ourselves from the dietary restrictions once imposed on us by our parents. Therefore, unless we recognize the childish desire that betrays our adult intentions and honor it in more appropriate ways, then we’re bound to continue to struggle to make those important changes we need to make in our lives.
This seems to be exactly what Paul is getting at in the passage quoted above. Spiritual maturity involves leaving behind those childish behaviors that hold us back from enjoying the fullness of life that Jesus makes possible for us. Paul knows that as children, we learned to obey established authority, avoid conflict, play it safe, and protect our security whenever possible. But he also knows that, in Christ, God sets us free from our self-centered concerns and enables us to love and serve others, regardless of the risks that may involve. For Paul, new life in Christ begins with our willingness to leave the past behind.
This is true for individuals, and also true for the church. A growing majority of the population is turning their back on the church because they perceive it as too reluctant to leave the past behind. They see the church today as too reluctant to abandon the rituals, music, art and architecture of an earlier century in order to follow the Holy Spirit of God that is alive in the world today. They perceive the church as trying to drag them back into a type of retro environment that is alien to the world in which they live today. It’s not Jesus they’re rejecting, but only the cultural anachronisms that distract them from the kind of relevant lifestyle that Jesus himself embodied.
The challenge for churches today is to free themselves from the illusion that the church of tomorrow should look like the church of yesterday. If we listen closely to the voice of God’s Spirit, we will hear it calling the church to new and innovative expressions of grace that will speak to the children of our modern world. The challenge for individuals who have turned their back on the church will be to free themselves from the illusion that their negative stereotypes of church life will always be true in the future. God is calling allpeople to a way of life characterized, not by doctrinal homogeneity, but by trust, hope and love. Our longing for those things transcend all national and religious boundaries. But to achieve it, we must leave some childish things behind. We must open ourselves in deep and fervent prayer to the God who makes possible all those things that elude our best efforts and intentions — things like love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and community. May that be our New Year’s resolution!
. . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)
The Bible is full of stories about people of action. Moses, David, Deborah, Esther, Jesus, Paul, and others all stand out in our minds because of the things they did. It wasn’t just the great ideas they had or the profound thing s they said, but the way those beliefs and ideas expressed themselves in their behavior. But for all the great things they did, we rarely hear any of them say, “I did this!” and blowing their own horn. Instead, they always talk about how God is the one responsible for these magnificent accomplishments and that God is the one who deserves all the credit.
What do we make of this? Are these people all just being overly modest about their own achievements, or did they all experience something at work in their lives other than their own egos? We know that ancient people often described experiencing the influence of “supernatural forces” and having their lives shaped by “demons” and “spirits” — things that in our day are usually described as psychological events. We refer to “mood swings,” “anxiety disorders,” “chemical imbalances” or “psychotic episodes,” with a wide range of drugs, self-help books and counselors available to help us control them. The modern workplace (and society generally) expects us to take personal responsibility for our behavior at all times, and we are usually held accountable in some way if we don’t. Today, any reference to God’s activity in our lives runs the risk of making us sound mentally unstable on the one hand, or unwilling to take responsibility for our own actions on the other.
But the Christian mystical tradition knows that inviting God into our lives is neither a sign of mental illness nor a method to escape personal responsibility. On the contrary, welcoming God’s Spirit makes us responsible to God for tasks more difficult and demanding than normal. Rather than cutting us off from reality, God connects us to Cosmic Reality on a much deeper level, allowing our behavior to address values and concerns of univeral importance, and not just seeking our own personal or institutional advantages. When the Apostle Paul speaks about Christ living in him, he is neither delusional or irresponsible, but now living and acting in a way that expresses more perfectly the person that God created him to be.
The Bible has many stories of ordinary, imperfect people who come to discover that God has somehow made them capable of so much more than they ever imagined possible, if only they will let God bring that “enhanced capacity” to a fuller expression. This is the “new life” that Jesus brings to us, but the transformation it brings about rarely takes place all at once. Instead, God reveals this new inner landscape to us gradually. Just as the dawn of a new day allows us to see more and more of the world that was previously hidden in darkness, so Jesus helps us to see the undiscovered sources of vitality hidden within us. As that spiritual sun get higher and higher in the sky of our consciousness, we see more clearly the destination that lies ahead of us, and how to avoid the obstacles that stand in our way.
God doesn’t call us to think a certain way or believe a certain set of doctrines. God wants us to live our lives to the hightest possible standards of justice and love. Unfortunately, we can never discover our hidden capacity for such behavior on our own – it always eludes us until God reveals it to us in the life of Jesus. It’s a wonderful revelation! It’s hard to believe that our lives can be so full of love, so free from fear, and so rich in joy! It’s such a change from our previous experience that it feels like our old self has died and a new one taken its place. Or, as Paul puts it: “. . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. Maybe when enough of us start saying similar things, people will begin taking churches seriously again!
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2)
Although I read many books over the course of a year, I rarely agree completely with the authors’ insights. A notable exception is the new book “Facing Decline, Finding Hope” by Jeffrey D. Jones, associate professor of ministerial leadership and director of ministry studies at Andover Newton Theological School. (Rowan and Littlefield, © 2015 — subsequent location references are for the Kindle addition) As the title of the book implies, he is acutely aware of the challenges currently faced by many local churches. While he demonstrates a profound understanding and sympathy for the situation these churches and their leaders find themselves in, he makes it unmistakably clear that these churches must change if they are to remain faithful to their divine calling — a calling that does not guarantee their survival any more than it did for Jesus himself!
Jones recognizes that many churches are struggling with dwindling attendance and lack of financial support, but raises the question: “Is this focus on institutional maintenance and survival pursued to the detriment of God’s mission in the world?” (location 621) He insists that unless we constantly reexamine our operational assumptions about the church, our institutional concerns can become a form of idolatry that undermines our usefulness to God. To prevent this from happening, he says that we must replace five of our old questions with five new ones that are more responsive to God and to our cultural context:
Old Question: How do we bring them in?
New Question: How do we send them out? (location 698)
Old Question: What should the pastor do?
New Question: What is our congregation’s shared ministry? (location 883)
Old Question: What’s our vision and how do we implement it?
New Question: What’s God up to and how do we get on board? (location 1071)
Old Question: How do we survive? (or in churches that are less desperate, “How do we structure?”)
New Question: How do we serve? (location 1267)
Old Question: What are we doing to save people?
New Question: What are we doing to make the reign of God more present in this time and place (location 1408)
Jones then goes to some length to explain the importance of each new question and to identify some of the implications they have for churches that seek to answer them. He also identifies many of the forms of resistance that will be faced by anyone seeking to make the changes this new approach to church life will demand.
I completely agree with the insights and conclusions presented in this book. I feel that Jeff Jones has clearly articulated the priorities that have guided my ministry for the last 43 years, and also explains why my best efforts have so often met with intense and sometimes irrational resistance. I’m sure that you can now see how my (admittedly imperfect) efforts to restructure our congregational life reflect my concern for the new questions Jones presents. I take great comfort from the thought that my efforts have been faithful, even when they have not always been effective. I pray that God may have used me to plant the seeds of these new questions here in Sharon that may yet germinate and take root in the days and years ahead.
‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:12-13)
As the time of my retirement approaches, I feel a great resonance with Jesus’ words quoted above. There are so many things I want to say to you, but now doesn’t feel like the right time to say them. Some things are just impossible to put into words. Other things have already been said but not fully understood – truths that can only be known when they are experienced. Just as Jesus must have wanted to thank some of his disciples for their kindness and loyalty, he must have also wanted to grab others by the collar and shake them, screaming: “You think you understand everything, but you still don’t have a clue what my ministry was all about!” I have those kinds of feelings too.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jesus’ words above is that he both acknowledged that his disciples still had much to learn and also expressed his confidence in the Spirit’s ability to teach them everything they’d need to know when the time was right. It was an amazing act of relinquishing his leadership role and entrusting those he loved to the ongoing care of God. Hours before he sacrificed his body on the cross, he sacrificed his ego on the altar of God’s love. Few leaders can resist trying to preserve their legacy by putting in place rules, regulations and structures that will endure after their gone. But outside of commanding them to love one another, he leaves their future in God’s benevolent hands.
What makes that remarkable is Jesus’ trust that God will actually provide that kind of guidance for his disciples.. . and that the disciples will be able to recognize and accept it! Given their imperfect grasp of everything he’d tried to teach them up to this point, that was an extraordinary leap of faith on Jesus’ part. It demonstrates his incredible confidence in God’s power to use even the most deeply flawed people to carry out God’s redemptive work. He didn’t leave them with an institution to run or an empire to govern. All he asked of them was that they allow God to lead them from this point on.
So despite my own frustrations at not having been able to say more of those things that need to be said, I will leave you with that same request: Allow God’s Spirit to lead you. The greatest temptation that churches face today is to rely on their own wisdom, their ownfinancial resources, and their own personal preferences to lead the church instead of relying on the guidance and resources God’s Spirit will provide. Buildings will crumble, and bank accounts disappear, and membership may decline, but God’s Spirit will always provide that one crucial ingredient that God’s people need the most. Local churches in our denomination have tended to listen more attentively to the voice of their members than to the voice of God in recent years, and the results speak for themselves. But as Jesus knew, the future of the church depends on the Spirit’s leadership, not on our own. Knowing that makes it easier for all of us to face the future unafraid.