Posts Tagged ‘context’

We Still Need Easter

March 1, 2017

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association that was released last week found that:

66% of Americans feel stress about the future of our country

57% feel stress about the current political climate

49% feel stress about the results of the 2016 election.

I think people have always felt some level of stress and worry about what is going to happen in the future, but these anxieties seem to be stronger and more widespread today than they have been in a while.

Part of what I think is contributing to this is our diminishing level of confidence in our leaders and institutions to address the challenges of our times.  People seem to have a decreasing level of trust that our leaders can focus on the big issues, have the competence to handle complex challenges in compassionate ways, and can bring people together to find solutions for complicated problems.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we have destroyed ourselves.”  The old cliché is “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  As much as we worry about terrorists coming in to our country from outside and attacking us, our biggest problems actually come from ourselves.

This is what we learn from the Bible.  The Bible teaches us that sin lives in every one of our hearts.  In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus says that evil flows out of every human heart.  In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:3, Jesus said, “Why are you worried about the speck in someone else’s eye, when you have a log in your own?”  We don’t have to look far to find evil.  All we have to do is look in the mirror, and there it is.

In 1933, Simone Weil wrote about the suffering we experience in a world that seems to be falling apart.  She said that one of the most disorienting perplexities is that evil isn’t always recognizable.  Sometimes it is incognito.  She wrote, “Never react to evil in such a way as to augment it.”  That is one of the challenges of our current times.  How do we not throw gas on the fire?  How do we not make the situation worse?  How do we act so that evil decreases rather than increases?

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the evil that was experienced under the Nazi leadership in Germany, she talked about the deliberate disconnect from reality that she called “holes of oblivion.” (Today, we call them “alternative facts.”)  She said that one of the key ways to confront evil, and the lies that it keeps telling, is for simple, ordinary people to keep standing up and speaking the truth.  Evil will try to suppress the truth.  Evil will try to shut people up by firing them, putting them out of work, or trying to discredit them.  But, there will always be a few who will speak up and tell the truth, even in spite of the consequences.  While people worry that the evils of the Nazi way of thinking could happen anywhere, the truth is that it did not happen everywhere.  That is what gives us hope.

The presence of evil in the world, even the growing presence of evil in the world, continues to show us our ongoing need for Easter.  This month, we begin the season of Lent.  Lent is the 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter.  It has traditionally been a time for reflection and contemplation on the meaning of Easter, the sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf, and our utter dependence upon God.  Easter was the day that Jesus defeated evil in the world.  Yes, evil still exists, and evil continues to flail around as much as it can.  But, it has already been defeated.  The game is over even though the time has not run out yet.  Evil doesn’t want to admit that it is losing, and it will lose, but it will.  Easter is our assurance of that.

Easter reminds us that evil is real, that we do not have the power to stop evil by ourselves, and that we are dependent upon Jesus to defeat evil for us.  We will continue to battle it the rest of our lives.  Evil is like a boxer that has already been knocked out.   But, he continues to get up off the mat and flail his arms around, trying to inflict a little more harm on us, before he completely collapses, totally defeated, never to get up again.  Without Jesus, evil would win.  Without Jesus, we would lose.  Without Easter, we would be without hope.

Because of Easter, evil has width, but not depth.  Evil is like a bad weed that grows and grows and takes over the topsoil.  It looks like it is everywhere.  But, it has no roots. It has no depth.  It can kill off the grass and the plants on the surface, but it can’t go deep, which means that it won’t last.  Only good has the roots to go deep.  Because of its roots, good will outlast evil.  Good will conquer evil in the end.  Good has the depth that evil lacks.

That is what we learn from Easter.  That is why we look forward to Easter.  That is why we have hope.  The evil that we see now will not last.  Evil was defeated on the cross.  When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter, he signed evil’s death sentence.  It’s only a matter of time, before He shuts it away completely.  Hang in there.  Easter’s coming.



The “Good Ol’ Days” Are Not Coming Back

June 30, 2016

As I look at what is going on in our world today, I hear a lot of people voicing a deep sense of frustration.  Many people sense that the world is stuck and isn’t getting any better.  Since 2000, most people’s wages have not increased much, if at all.  Since the collapse of the housing market in 2008, many people have not seen a financial recovery in their own lives.  The job market does not seem to be getting better.  Our economy does not seem to be getting better.  Our educational system does not seem to be getting better.  Washington DC does not seem to be getting any better.  We feel stuck.  We feel frustrated.  And we feel angry.

In Yuval Levin’s best-selling book The Fractured Republic, he says that this has led many Americans to look back at the “Good Ol’ Days” and try to figure out how we can go back in time.  Many of our imaginations were shaped by the post-World War II years, where our economy was growing, jobs were plentiful, America dominated the world stage, and life seemed to get better every year.  Levin says that the Democrats keep looking back to the Great Society years of Lyndon Johnson and want to go back to that period in our history.  He says that Republicans keep looking back to the 1980 years of the Reagan Revolution and want to go back to that time.  But, the problem is, those “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.  We can’t go back in time and nobody seems to be looking forward.

We see this with the Brexit vote that was taken last week.  The United Kingdom voted to pull out of the European Union (EU).  Many people were expressing their frustration with the current realities of globalization and immigration and free trade and wanted to take their country back.  They wanted to become more British.  However, after the vote to leave the EU, the most asked question from England on Google was “What is the EU?” implying that people didn’t really know what they were voting for.  It seems as if they didn’t realize their vote would crash their financial markets, weaken the value of the pound, and put their economy in the tank.  Many wanted to go back to the Good Ol’ Days, but they are not coming back.

We see this in our country as well.  One presidential candidate wants to “Make America Great Again”, which is slogan that is looking to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which cannot be done.  The other presidential candidate talks about bringing back the financial heyday of her husband’s presidency, which is looking to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which cannot be done.  Nobody is looking forward, and people are frustrated with their leaders.

We see this in the Bible as well.  In the Old Testament, after living in Egypt for 400 years, the Israelites were finally set free by Moses, and crossed the Red Sea into the wilderness.  After two years in the wilderness, they were on the edge of the Promised Land.  But, in Numbers 13-14, it tells us that they became anxious and scared, and wanted to go back to Egypt.  They wanted to bring the “Good Ol’ Days” back again – something which could not be done.  They were frustrated with their leaders – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  They wanted to vote them out of office and pick new leaders.  Sound familiar?

Today, in the United Kingdom, here in the United States, and around the world, we are still making the same mistakes the Israelites made in the wilderness some 4000 years ago.  We can’t go back to the past.  The “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.  If we keep pining for yesterday, we will never find the path to tomorrow.

Because the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, they ended up having to stay in the wilderness for another 38 years.  They remained stuck and frustrated until the whole generation who were in leadership had died off.  They had to wait for the next generation to grow up, with fresh ideas, new perspectives, and a new imagination.  They needed people who were not afraid to take wise risks, to launch new experiments, and discover a new way to live in a world that had shifted significantly.  Our God is a creative God, and we need to encourage people to be more creative.  Jesus was a provocative and disturbing Bible teacher, and we need to encourage people to teach like him.  The Holy Spirit leads people through visions and dreams, and we need to encourage people to dream.  The seven last words of the church are “we’ve never done it that way before.”  Our past should never inhibit our future.  It should always provide the foundation to build new steps to a different future.

The Israelites in the Old Testament learned a hard lesson.  They learned that they couldn’t go back to the “Good Ol’ Days” and that they were never coming back.  Because of their stubbornness, they got stuck in the wilderness for a generation, before people were open to God’s new imagination.  We don’t want to make the same mistakes today.  Whether we are looking at our nation, our world, or our church, we don’t want to keep looking to the past when God wants to prepare us for a new future.  What will it look like?  We don’t know.  But, we have to keep looking forward, not backward. We have to learn to adapt to new situations and not be afraid to start new ministries.  We have to grow deeper in the scriptures to understand fresh ways to engage the new missionary context in our world.

We don’t know what the future holds.  We are faced with a lot of uncertainty.  But, we know that God holds our future.  We know that Jesus is leading us forward.  We know that the Holy Spirit will guide us on our journey.  We know that we don’t need to be afraid.  And we know that the “Good Ol’ Days” are not coming back.



May 2015 Ministry Update

May 25, 2015

Executive Presbyter’s Report – May 19, 2015

1.At our last presbytery meeting in February, we shared with you that we had begun work on developing a new website. It is not finished yet, but hopefully it will be sometime this summer. But we do have a new logo which is up on the screen behind me here this afternoon. The logo consists of three waves which remind us of the water of the Pacific Ocean which are so much a part of our identity here in San Diego. The image also reminds us of the waters of our baptism as we are baptized into Christ. The three waves remind us of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The three waves remind us of the identity of our presbytery which is to be a spiritual, missional, and relational community. The logo is designed to show movement – that we are a presbytery on the move. We are not static, we are dynamic. We are not stationary, we are moving in a definite direction. We continue to seek to be active participants in the mission of God in our world. As we move forward, you will continue to see more of our logo. We hope you like it.

2.Last month, our Board of Pensions held one of their Regional Benefits Conferences here in San Diego. They sent out a video team that wanted to talk to people who had been helped by our health insurance plan as well as filming some of our churches and ministries. One of the places they visited here in San Diego was our Grace Presbyterian Church in Vista. Their camera guy took some video of their community garden. It happened to be a Tuesday evening when they have a bi-lingual worship service and offer a meal for the homeless. They also saw their community resource center which offers tutoring and computer assistance. After this was over, and they were walking back to the church office, the videographer had tears in his eyes and he said – I am from Philadelphia. I have been to a lot of churches, but I have never seen anything like this before! The next day I was able to meet with Holly Baker who set everything up. Without any prompting, she said – San Diego is the best presbytery I have ever seen! She said – I am a liberal from the northeast, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But, if we had a bigger budget, I would come back so we could talk to more of your people! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

3.For years now, we have been talking about our need to be God’s missional people – the need to
Get out of our buildings, get off our campuses, and move back into our neighborhoods
We started giving away missional experiment grants
On one hand, this has been great. We have stirred up some new missional imagination
People are looking outward to join what God is doing in our communities in
New ways
On the other hand, we still have a long way to go
Some of us still don’t quite get what we are trying to do
Our Evangelism/Missions committee met last week and reviewed some new grant
Proposals. We could tell some people are still trying to figure out what being
missional is all about
Missional is not about putting down new carpet, putting a new coat of paint on a
Building, fixing up your buildings, building new portables or new buildings
These things are all good and all important, but they are not what we are talking
This is still the Field of Dreams model – if you build it, they will come
If all you do is build it, they won’t come. It’s not about buildings
It’s also not about paying a salary and hiring someone to go and be missional for us
It’s not something we can hire out
We can’t hire a talented 30 year old to go and be missional for us
We have to learn how to do this ourselves
We have to go into our communities and build relationships with people who
Don’t already come to our churches
It’s really hard work.
It takes time.
It takes energy
It requires that I change my schedule and re-arrange my priorities
It requires that I set aside what I want to do for others and talk to them and listen
To them and find out what they really need and want

When we give out Missional Experiment grants, we are not looking for a great idea from
a single individual
We are looking for a whole congregation that has buy-in to do something in their
Own local community. We are looking for something:
That the session has approved
Where numbers of members are involved
Where people are already putting time in to it and wanting to go to the next level
We are looking for people who are personally/actively involved in the mission of God
Some of the grant requests we received are just not ready to be funded yet
At this time, we are not saying no, we are saying not yet
We are saying, go back, do some more work, make some revisions, and return
The problem we have in the church is that when you ask people to think of new ideas,
A lot of people think of the same ideas that have always done before.
Or they try to copy what another church has done
You can’t copy anybody else and expect it will work in your neighborhood
You can’t simply cut and paste what some other church is doing
You have to discern what God is asking you to do where you are.
It’s hard work, but it is rewarding work

4. Continually Changing Context
All of this is important because our world continues to change dramatically around us
a.Last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) released the latest denominational statistics
Our membership in 2014 declined by another 92,433, dropping our total membership down to 1,667,767. The membership of our denomination has now declined every
Single year for 50 straight years. I have never known us to be a growing denomination.
The number of churches also declined by 209 down to 9,829. 101 of these were
Dismissed to another denomination and 108 went out of existence completely.
One church consultant that I read observed that over the last 10 years, we have lost 1/3 of our members, about 650,000 people. He described this as a Free Fall for sure. Clearly, we have work to do.

b.These statistics come alongside the latest Pew Research Report on the Church in America which showed that the number of people who call themselves Christians continues to decline and the number of “Nones” continues to rise.
• Since 2007, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has declined from 78% of the population to 70%, although my opinion is that the number of Christians in America is actually a lot lower than 70%.
• The biggest declines have been among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Protestants are down from 18% to 14.5% and Catholics, who are down from 24% to 21%. However, evangelical Christians are only down 1% from 26% to 25%. Evangelicals are now the largest subgroup of Christians in America.
• Those with no religious affiliation have increased from 16% to almost 23% of the population.

I have two sons who are in the mid to late 20s. They are millennials. They are both single. They are both in church practically every Sunday, playing in the praise band and leading a young adults group. I was talking with my older son about this report and he said that his young adults group feels like churches treat them like they are adults sitting at the KIDS TABLE. They feel like they are still waiting in line for respect, and the church won’t pay attention to them until they get married and have kids. Wow. Do we even realize we are communicating that?
He said the church is good at “using” kids to reach their parents but don’t know what to do with 18-30 year olds.
He said the whole culture has become less loyal and more unaffiliated, so why are we surprised that that is happening in the church, as well?

My son’s opinion, as a 28 year old, is that the future of the church is to become more MISSIONAL and more MYSTICAL. He said his young adult group loves to do community service projects. They want something hands on that they can do where they feel like they are making a difference in the world. And this has to take place outside of the church building. His said his generation are pragmatists and they absolutely loved helping out at their local food pantry.

He said the future also has to be more mystical – that his generation are emerging spiritualists. As a reaction to their fragmented technological world where everyone is checking their phones every 10 seconds, he said people in record numbers are signing up for meditation and yoga classes. They are longing for some kind of deeper spiritual connection. They are not always finding that in the church. But, they really want to know Jesus, Who He really is, what He really taught, and what does that mean for their lives.

It is for these reasons and others, that I keep talking over and over about our need to be SPIRITUAL, MISSIONAL, AND RELATIONAL.
Spiritually – introduce people to Jesus Christ and provide deep experiences to actually know Him, to meditate on the Word, engage in spiritual practices, and lead people in their spiritual formation
Missionally – making a concrete difference in the world as we join the mission of God in our communities. It’s not about being selfish and trying to increase church membership. It’s about being unselfish – giving ourselves away For the Life Of the World
Relationally – families and relationships are breaking and broken at high levels. People are hungry for healthy relationships. Many people don’t even know how to build a healthy relationship. If they can’t develop good relationships in the church, they will leave or not come back. If they can, they will stick like glue. Ministry has always inherently been about relationships. If we don’t have relationships, we don’t have ministry.

I will continue to do whatever I can, to help us continue to grow spiritually, missionally, and relationally. This is not an easy time to be the church in America, but it is a time that is ripe with opportunity. God is on the move. There are so many possibilities around us. I want us to focus our time and energy on leading, not leaving. And we will leave the rest to God. It makes me proud that a visitor from the northeast, who was only a San Diego for a couple of days, could say – this is the best presbytery I have ever visited. I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Thank you!