Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Your Questions

May 1, 2017

This month, we are taking a look at the questions that people are asking about God, faith, and life.  If you had one question you could ask God, what would it be?  What is the one question that keeps you awake at night?  We don’t have time on Sunday mornings to discuss all the questions that were submitted, so here are some responses to three others:

1.At what point does temptation become sin?  Or is temptation sinful?  What about Matthew 5:28 where Jesus says “If a man looks lustfully at a woman, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart?

There is a difference between temptation and sin.  It is possible to be tempted and not sin.  Sin is giving in to the temptation, and acting inappropriately on what has been seen or heard or felt.  Hebrews 4:15 says “15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”  This verse is telling us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we have been, yet he never sinned.  The sin comes when we take action on the temptation.  When Jesus talks about lust in Matthew 5:28, this is more than just noticing an attractive person.  This is more than feeling drawn to someone you are not married to.  This is dwelling on someone in your heart and in your mind.  It is allowing your imagination to go down a road it shouldn’t.  While perhaps not acting physically inappropriately, it is an inappropriate mental action.  It allows your heart to stray and your mind to go to places it shouldn’t.

It is hard for us to say “no” to temptation in American society today, because so much of our advertising and our cultural philosophy encourages us to give in to temptation.  We are told that all of our desires are good.  They are not.  We are told that all of our feelings are healthy.  They are not.  We are told to indulge every emotion we have.  We shouldn’t.  Hebrews 2:18 says,

“18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  And James 1:13 says, “13 When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”  God will never tempt you to disobey God.  He will never lure you towards evil or to act vs. your original design.  Because Jesus was tempted too, He is available to help you whenever you ask.

2.What does God say about drinking?  Should we drink or not?

We know that drinking alcohol is not a sin because Jesus drank wine.  Some people will argue that the wine is Jesus day did not have as high of a level of fermentation as our alcohol has today.  That may be true.  But, there is nothing wrong with one or two drinks.  What the Bible says is a sin is getting drunk.  Ephesians 5:18 says, “18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”  In other words, instead of being filled with alcohol, be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Drinking too much is a problem.  Some people get addicted to getting drunk.  Some people are in denial about it.  Getting drunk can ruin your life.  But, if you don’t get drunk, having a beer or a glass of wine is fine.

In Romans 14:1-15, Paul was addressing a controversy in his day around eating meat that had been offered to idols.  Some people thought it was OK to eat the meat, because they didn’t believe in the idols.  Others thought it was a sin, because it had been offered to idols.  Who was right?  Paul’s answer was that there is nothing wrong with eating meat offered to idols.  It was not a sin.  However, if you cause a weaker Christian to sin because you are eating meat, then you shouldn’t do it.  Don’t put a stumbling block in someone’s way.   This verse can be applied to our present day concerns about alcohol.  Having a drink is not a sin.  But, if it causes a weaker Christian to sin, then give up your freedom to drink, for their sake.

3.What does the Bible say about Christian values for families?

Colossians 3:20-21says, “Children obey your parents, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”  Ephesians 6:1-3 says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise— so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

 These verses remind us that parents need to teach their kids to obey.  Parents should not give their kids everything they ask for.  Parents need to discipline their kids and teach them right from wrong.  Parents who always praise their kids are not doing them any favors.  This teaches them the world revolves around them when it doesn’t.  They will raise kids who are brats that nobody wants to be around.  On the other hand, these verses also tell us not to embitter our children.  Parents should not expect perfection from their kids.  They should not be the kind of parents who are never satisfied.  You can crush a child’s spirit if don’t notice their accomplishments and tell them when they are doing a good job.

The Bible gives us a pattern in Luke 2:52 when it tells us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.”  These are the four key areas we need to help our children grow in.  They need to grow mentally, physically, spiritually, and relationally.  We need encourage our kids to grow mentally by letting them know the importance of an education.  We need to teach them the value of reading, writing, doing their homework, turning in their work on time, and getting good grades.  We need to encourage our kids to grow physically.  Less than 1% of kids will grow up to be professional athletes, but we can teach them how to take care of their bodies, how to eat healthy, how to exercise, and the values of good sportsmanship and working with a team.  Kids need to learn how to win and how to lose.  We need to let our kids lose.  We need to let them fail.  They need to experience failure if they are going to become mature, healthy adults.

We need to help our kids grow spiritually.  We need to read stories to them from the Bible.  We need to teach them to pray at meal time and at bed time.  They need to see that faith is important to their parents, and that we don’t skip church for less important matters.  And, we need to help our kids grow relationally.  They need to learn how to make friends and be a friend to others.  They need to learn how to share and how to care for others.  Social skills are important, and kids need to see their parents modeling healthy relationships.

I hope you will join us on Sunday mornings this month as we continue to reflect on people’s questions, how to think about our faith, and how the Bible relates to the everyday, practical realities of our world.  Don’t be afraid to ask any question.  That’s how we learn.  God wants us to keep learning all the time.  Asking questions is what helps keep our faith growing.

 

Thanksgiving

November 1, 2016

Every year during the month of November, we pause to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  There are certain national stories that are important to our country.  There are certain Biblical stories that are important to our faith.  There is value in telling these stories again every year, to remind us of who we are and how we got here.  They help us reflect on why we do what we do today, and help us get “back on track” when we forget where we came from.

The first major British settlement in America was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.  Jamestown was named after King James of England.  The first settlers came for political reasons (to expand the British Empire) and for financial reasons (to look for gold).  13 years later, the Pilgrims settled in Massachusetts, arriving in 1620.  They came for religious reasons.  Thus, we see that our nation originated from different groups who arrived at different times for different purposes – some political, some financial, and some religious.

The Pilgrims set sail from England on the Mayflower on September 6, 1620, with 102 passengers and 30 crew members.  Their goal was to sail to Virginia.  The Atlantic winds blew them off course.  Instead of landing in Virginia, they landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620.  The trip across the Atlantic Ocean was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship’s topside deck.  The passengers suffered from shortages of food and of other supplies.  There were two deaths on board the Mayflower, and there was one baby born, who was named Oceanus.

After landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims wanted to sail south to Virginia to reach their original destination.  But when the weather would not cooperate, they decided to spend the winter in Massachusetts.  To establish legal order and to quell increasing strife within the ranks, the settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

On November 27, an exploring expedition was launched under the direction of Capt. Christopher Jones to search for a suitable settlement site. They were obviously not accustomed to, or prepared for, the bitter winter weather they encountered.  The expedition was forced to spend the night on shore in below-freezing temperatures with wet shoes and stockings that became frozen.

The Pilgrims spent the entire winter on board the Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.  When it ended, there were only 53 passengers still alive. Half of the Pilgrims had died.  Half of the crew died, as well. In the spring, they built huts on shore, and on March 21, 1621, the surviving passengers finally disembarked from the Mayflower.

The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.  This feast lasted three days, and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”, which were days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.

Squanto, a Pantuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had learned the English language during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when the supplies brought from England were insufficient.  The feast was cooked by four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White, along with young daughters and male and female servants).

When we read this story, we are reminded of a few key points:

  1. The first Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks to God for their survival. The Pilgrims were not ready for the harsh wintry conditions they encountered.  Half of their group died from disease.  This was a scary time.  The people who survived did not live because they were smarter or more talented or more prepared or because they had more faith.  They survived by the grace of God Who kept them alive.  They set aside three days to thank God for saving their lives.
  2. The first Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks for the grace and the hospitality extended to the Pilgrims by the Native Americans. The Pilgrims would not have survived without them.  God saved them through the Native people.  They had knowledge of the winter, the land, the crops that could grow, and how to survive, which the Pilgrims needed.  Thanksgiving was a time to thank the Native Americans for coming to their rescue.
  3. The Pilgrims were an adventurous people. They were willing to take a huge risk to leave England and journey thousands of miles to America, knowing that they might not ever see their loved ones again, and might not survive.  They were probably driven by a mixture of fear and hope, desperation and faith, uncertainty and adventure.  They were entrepreneurs.  They were willing to make huge sacrifices to find a better life.  They had a deep faith in Jesus and were moved to pray and thank God for saving their lives.

Their first year in America probably did not go as they had hoped or planned.  They had to adapt.  They had to learn lots of new things.  They had to adjust their lives to fit the new world they were now living in, while remaining grounded in their faith in Jesus, rooted in the scriptures, and interdependent on one another.  These are good lessons for us to remember today.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this month, what are we thankful for?  Are we still willing to make great sacrifices today?  Are we willing to set out on great adventures, stretching our faith, and willing to face new situations, like our Pilgrim forebears before us?  Do we realize that we need each other?  Thanksgiving is a story of people from different countries, different continents, different races, and different sexes working together.  Thanksgiving is a story of immigration where the first Americans welcomed some of the first Europeans with grace, generosity, and hospitality.  Thanksgiving is a story of success.

So, as we sit down to our Thanksgiving meals this year, we are reminded to be thankful to God, to be thankful for those around us who have helped us, and to take risks of faith and to make sacrifices for Jesus.  We are building on the story that began almost 400 years ago.  Jesus saves us to do something.  God rescues us to go somewhere.  The Holy Spirit is preparing us for something special.  Where will God lead us to go this year?

Leadership

September 28, 2016

Five months ago, Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times where he was talking about the state of politics in Washington DC and the nature of the presidential election we are in now.  He said that the nonstop fighting between our two political parties has left many Americans feeling like the children of two permanently divorcing parents. He said that the country is starved to see its two major parties do big hard things together again.

As a nation, we are in a time of transition.  We are facing big issues.  And we are in need of strong, capable, effective leadership.  Many people have expressed their frustration at the lack of leadership we are receiving.  We seem to be missing big opportunities to change, to address complex issues, and to discover desperately needed answers.

What is leadership?  Leadership is making things happen.  Effective leadership is making the right things happen.  Effective Christian leadership is being used by the Holy Spirit to help make God’s thing happen.  Many people fail to see themselves as leaders when they really are.  Sometimes we think that we have to be in an official leadership position in order to be a leader.  This is not true.  There are many people in official leadership positions who do not provide leadership.  And there are many people who are not in official leadership positions who actually provide a great deal of leadership.  Leadership is not about a position.  It is about influence.  If you are in a relationship, a marriage, a family, a school, a church, a business, or a non-profit – if you are in any group of people, you can provide leadership.  Even if you don’t have an official position or title.

In The Missional Leader by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, they state that “missional leadership is about cultivating an environment within which the people of God in a particular location may thrive.”  They write that “leadership is about cultivating an environment that innovates and releases the missional imagination present among a community of God’s people.”  This picture is the leader as gardener.  A leader is someone who plants seeds, waters them, puts fertilizer in the soil, and makes sure the young plants get the sun and nutrients they need in order to grow.  A gardener cannot force a seed to grow, but a gardener to do many things to create the right soil or the right environment so that the seed has the best chance to grow.

A leader is someone who encourages growth.  A leader is someone who seeks to inspire a new imagination – encouraging people to dream, to think outside the box, and to take wise risks.  A leader does not seek to control people, hold them down, or hold them back.  A leader is not someone who shames people, puts them down, or makes fun of them in front of their colleagues.  A Christian leader is someone who seeks to create a culture and a climate where people feel the unconditional love of God, where people are supported through their struggles, and where people are encouraged to fail as they develop their spiritual gifts and talents.

This is what we do when we seek to provide leadership in the church.  No human being can force a church to grow.  What we can do is lead like gardeners – planting and watering and nurturing and trying to create the right conditions, the right soil, and the right environment so those seeds can grow.

One of the great leaders we see in the Bible is Moses.  For Israel, Abraham was like their George Washington.  He was the father of their country.  Moses was like their Abraham Lincoln.  He ended their slavery and led them to freedom.  He led during one of the most challenging seasons in their nation’s history.  He led them through a very tenuous forty year exodus through the wilderness until they were finally ready to enter into the Promised Land.  When we read the book of Exodus, we can see the important leadership skills that were exhibited by Moses.  Moses is one of the key models we have for what a great leader looks like.  When we study his life, we can see how we can become better leaders.  We can see how we can vote for better leaders.

The leadership skills we are looking for in our world today can be found in the Bible.  Every one of us can be a person of influence.  Every one of us can have a positive impact on the people around us.  Every one of us can be a leader.

 

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.

 

 

Of Course He isn’t Safe, But He’s Good

May 10, 2016

My friend, Rich Hansen, who pastors a church in Chicago, has just published a book called Paradox Lost.  In one of the chapters, he talks about C.S. Lewis’ classic book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the book, two sisters, Lucy and Susan, are talking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan the lion, who is Lewis’ figure for Jesus.  Susan says, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe?”  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver says, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”  So, Lucy asks, “Then he isn’t safe?”  Mr. Beaver says, “Safe?  Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But, he’s good.”

Rich describes this as a tuning fork paradox:  God isn’t safe, but God is good.  As with all biblical paradoxes, living within this tension is difficult and yet essential.  According to A.W. Tozer, the God we envision determines the person we are becoming.  What happens to people who are primarily focused on a God who “isn’t safe” or what the Bible speaks of as justice, judgment, or wrath?  We already know.  Those with the primary image of a wrathful God eventually become wrathful themselves.  Those who believe only in a judging God easily become judgmental.  They become unable to offer any mercy and, just as tragically, unable to receive mercy themselves.  This is not a pretty picture of God, and folks who see God only in these ways are not endearing to be around.  Since these judgmental caricatures are usually how Christians are portrayed in our media, who can blame churches for treating this unsafe God the way families deal with odd Uncle Harry:  keep him in the background so he doesn’t embarrass us in front of the guests.

But Rich asks:  what about the other side of Mr. Beaver’s statement:  “He’s good”?  Even beyond good, doesn’t the Bible say, “God is love?”  Unfortunately, we can subtly turn that biblical statement on its head until it becomes “Love is God.”  We then fall prey to the opposite caricature:  God the benignly loving heavenly grandfather, who smiles on his children no matter what they do.  If this is our mental image of God, we easily assume that any loving person is automatically a godly person or that any belief system with some love in it must also have God in it.  Experience shows that neither is true.  God is not only loving; God is also just.  In fact, if God were not perfect justice, neither could God be perfect love.

Rich reminds us of something else that A.W. Tozer wrote:  “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”  An opiate is a drug that dulls our senses and makes us lose touch with reality.  It’s a fatal notion that a loving God could never judge anyone.  Why do we assume that love and justice do not coexist in God?  C. S. Lewis says with wonderful understatement, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun.  They need to think again.”  God is so good, and God’s love is so pure, that nothing impure can stand before him.  It’s the justice of God that shows us what terrible trouble we’re in.  And it’s the love of God, through Jesus’ death on the cross, that allows our burden of sin to be released.

Our view of God determines the kind of people we are becoming and the kind of lives we are leading.  The Bible teaches us that God is not shallow – God is deep.  God is so deep that sometimes He is difficult for us to understand.  The nature of God sometimes brings together seemingly opposite ideas in a way that is hard for us to imagine.  This is called a paradox.

So, while we can come to know God as children, it will take more than a lifetime to really understand God, Who He is, Why He acts the way He does, and why He calls us to be the kind of people we are becoming.  God combines revelation and mystery, certainty and wonder, questions and answers.  The challenge for us is not to reduce God down to something smaller than He is.  We need to allow God to remain big, bigger than our problems, and bigger than our world.  Only then can we catch a glimpse of how amazing God is, and how wonderful the Kingdom of God is going to be in the future.  Of course God isn’t safe, but He’s good.

 

 

A More Colorful Opportunity

April 28, 2016

Back in 1965, white people made up about 88% of the population in the United States, and the nonwhite population was about 12%.  Today, people of color make up 37% of the population in the United States.  In 1965, there were fewer than 9 million Hispanics in the U.S.  By 2013, there were 54 million Hispanics in the U.S.  In 1965, there were about 16 million Asian Americans in the U.S.  By 2013, there were more than 18 million.  We are becoming a more colorful country.

The demographics of our country are changing every minute of every day.  Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90% of that growth comes from people of color.  In 2011, the majority of babies born in America (50.4%) were not white.  A baby is born every seven seconds in our country, resulting in 12,343 births per day.  At the other end of the age spectrum, the racial composition of the over-65 segment of the population is 78% white.  So, while a majority of the births in our country are from babies of color, the vast majority of deaths are people who are white.

There are about 6,048 white babies born in America every day.  There are 5,204 white deaths in America every day, meaning that our white population increases by 844 people every day.  There are about 6,295 babies of color born in America each day.  There are 1,442 deaths of people of color, meaning that our nonwhite population increases by 4,853 every day.  Do you see a trend here?

More than 90% of all immigrants to America are people of color.  In terms of legal immigration, 2,618 people are added to the U.S. population each day.  When these are added to the net increase from births and deaths for people of color, 7,471 people of color are added to the U.S. population each day, in contrast to 1,053 white people who are added to our population each day.  Clearly, we are becoming a more colorful country.

Some who have been a part of the majority, who see their numbers declining, seem to be reacting with nervousness, anxiety, and fear.  But, perhaps God is giving us a unique opportunity.  As Christians, we need to ask ourselves, what is God up to here?  Why is God causing this to happen or allowing this to happen?  Perhaps the challenges that come from our changing demographics are actually opportunities. Maybe God is strengthening us rather than weakening us.  Can we rise above the negativity and the fear of our culture and model a healthier response?

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus says that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven.” The picture Jesus gives us is that people will come from all over the world, from many countries, and many racial ethnic groups to be a part of the coming Kingdom of God.  It could be that God is preparing us for that future time by helping us get to know people from different backgrounds to understand the vast creativity and imagination of God.  We used to have to go into the world to share the good news of Jesus with people from other colorful backgrounds, but now they are coming to us.  We can now share our faith with many different kinds of people without having to leave the communities where we live.

Some people of color have a strong faith in Jesus that can encourage our relationship with God.  Some immigrants who come here are bringing about a revival in our nation as they share their faith in Christ with us.  Some people are coming here as missionaries since the United States is now the third largest mission field in the world.  What if people from other countries were not coming here to steal our jobs, but to inspire a deeper faith in God?  Why do some Christians respond with such fear, when the command found most often in the Bible is “do not fear”?  When I lived in California, I had many friends who were from Hispanic or Asian backgrounds.  I learned a lot from them, from their faith, and from how they viewed the world.

Maybe what some think is a curse is actually a blessing.  Maybe what some think is a problem is actually a solution.  Maybe what some think is a crisis is actually an opportunity.  Maybe God is surprising us again and teaching us something we need to learn.  Maybe we need to take off our cultural glasses and put on our Biblical glasses to see our world through different lenses.  Maybe we could learn to respond in faith instead of in fear.  Different is not always bad.  Change is not always bad.  Variety is not always bad.  Maybe God is leading us to a new level of trusting Him, where we realize He is still in control, and we are going to be OK.  Maybe we can all learn something new from each other.

(These statistics come from the book Brown is the New White by Steve Phillips.)

 

The Age of Generosity

November 2, 2015

In 2009, Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote a best-selling book called The Age of the Unthinkable. In it, he describes how we have arrived at a moment of peril that not long ago would have seemed unimaginable. All around us, ideas and institutions that we once relied on for our safety and security are failing – and the best ideas of our leaders seem to make our problems worse, not better. He argues that we live in a time of ceaseless, unthinkable change, yet many of our organizations are stuck in bureaucracies that are inflexible and out of date. The unthinkable has become the inevitable, and we wonder where the leaders are who can bring people together to address tough, complex problems.

Recently, David Brooks wrote an article in the New York Times called Enter the Age of Outsiders. He said that whereas our world used to function as planets revolving around the sun, with a gravitational force that kept them connected to the center, now we live in an age where the outsiders have the greater gravitational force, and they are pulling us apart. Our political systems and social systems used to work, but they no longer do. The secular vision of capitalism no longer appeals to many people and our democratic system has become dysfunctional. We are losing confidence and heading for an Age of Exhaustion. But, he suggests, our real problems are mental and spiritual.

We can make a difference in our world if we address the mental and spiritual issues of our time. Our problems will not be solved by political solutions alone. They will not be solved by economic solutions alone. They will only be solved if we also address the mental and spiritual issues that exist beneath the surface.
One way to do this is to “swim upstream” against the dysfunction of a self-centered culture. As followers of Jesus, we have to learn to “go against the grain” and not participate in unhealthy patterns of blaming, shaming, intransigence, arrogance, and narcissism. Instead of being completely focused on ourselves, we need to pay more attention on God. Who is God? How does Jesus want us to live? What changes does the Holy Spirit want to make in our lives? How can we become more like Christ? We can become more humble, teachable, and open. We don’t have to go along with every idea, but we compare them to the teachings of the Bible and see if they are consistent with what God has revealed to us.

In this age of frustration and cynicism, we don’t want our churches to be dysfunctional. It is important that we understand who we are, what we are called to be and to do, and to carry out our tasks with competence. In an age when so many organizations and institutions have become dysfunctional, if our churches can function in healthy and missional ways, we can be an example and a witness to others. We can be a breath of fresh air to those who are looking for places of healing that know how to get things done. We can be a quiet example of what people can actually accomplish when they set aside their own personal agendas, humble themselves, and come together.

What does it look like to live generously? How does a generous heart, coupled with generous actions, change the tone of our communities? If we reject the me-first, individualistic, accomplishment paradigm of our culture, and reverse it to become generous, team-oriented people who seek the welfare of the community where God has sent us (Jeremiah 29:7), what kind of impact can we have? Can we actually be used by the Holy Spirit to bring a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11)?

It begins with God. It begins with us. It begins with our own spiritual condition. It begins with our local congregation. It begins with our neighborhood. It begins with our local community. Through our daily words and actions, we can begin to usher in an Age of Generosity. We have been saved to serve. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We have received grace to be generous with others. The more we give away, the more we will gain. The more we share what we have, the more others’ lives will be touched. The more we share our resources, the more our communities will be recalibrated. Living generously can change our hearts, our relationships, and our communities.

We could buy into the cynicism, pessimism, and dysfunction of the current culture. We could be overwhelmed by the Age of the Unthinkable and the Age of Exhaustion. Or we could let Jesus change our lives and follow a different path. We could usher in an Age of Generosity and see what happens.

 

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

September 1, 2015

One of the classic movies in American culture has been the Wizard of Oz. Many of you know the story. When a tornado blows through the Kansas farmland, Dorothy gets hit in the head by a window, knocking her unconscious. She has this dream that the tornado has picked up the house and plopped it down somewhere over the rainbow. She wakes up and doesn’t recognize where she is. She’s in some strange foreign land and there are these little people called Munchkins. It’s all a big shock to her system. She has never been away from home before. She’s trying to figure out this strange, new world, when she exclaims to her dog, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

That’s a phrase that describes a lot of this unsettled feeling that many in the church have today. We look around at the world around us and we don’t recognize it. It doesn’t resemble the world we grew up in. On some days, it feels like a foreign country. There are now more people who recognize that the Starbucks logo means Starbucks, and that the Golden Arches mean McDonalds, than there are people who recognize that the cross indicates a church. Almost ¼ of Americans now claim no religious affiliation. And an increasing number of Christians in their mid-40s and younger are consciously choosing not to go to any organized church on Sunday morning. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

What do we do? How do we begin to address a world of rapid, discontinuous change that is so very different from the one we grew up in? Where do we start? How do we begin? One place we begin is by looking at the scriptures for how God’s people have done this before. One such time was in 586 BC, when the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah fell to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Their country was demolished, their temple was destroyed, and the people were demoralized. They were carried away into exile in a foreign country that they didn’t like, didn’t understand, and didn’t want to live in. They had to go through a paradigm shift. In other words, they had to shift their mental models of what the world was supposed to look like, what the world was actually like, and what they were called to do. They had to learn to live in exile.

In Jeremiah 29, God shows the Israelites how to adapt to this strange, new, cultural situation that was foreign to them. These instructions were summarized in verse 7 – “Seek the welfare of the community where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” God was telling them that they needed to move out of their homes and their buildings and engage their local community. They needed to get out and meet people. They needed to interact with the people who lived there and work for the betterment of the community. This is what missionaries do. When missionaries move into a new community, they get to know people, spend time with them, build relationships with them, find community groups to join, and seek to disciple the unchurched. They seek to build bridges with people who are not following Jesus. They work for the common welfare of the community and earn people’s trust, because they know their welfare is tied up in their community’s welfare.

I believe this is what God is calling us to do today. Rather than expecting or hoping that people will magically discover us and come to us, we need to go to them. We need to adopt this missional mindset that we are a sent people, sent out into our community by God to function as missionaries, to bless, to serve, and to heal. We love people, serve people, and make friends with people unconditionally, whether they ever believe in our message or not. This kind of approach requires that we “think outside the box.” It means that we have to be willing to experiment with new forms of worship and ministry. It means that we have to be creative and innovative and develop a new missional imagination. When the world around you shifts, and the old ways are no longer effective, it requires a lot of experimentation to figure out how to connect the unchanging gospel to a rapidly changing world, in ways that make sense to people, and connect with their stories.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s easy to get disoriented. And yet God still invites us to join His world changing mission. God continues to go ahead of us. He sends us out into our community to make a difference in our world. We are called to engage our neighbors, the people who live around us, and the community we live in. We must learn to live like exiles. We must learn to live like missionaries. God is sending us out every day. Don’t be afraid to go.

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
about
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!

A Double Crisis

May 3, 2015

Near the beginning of Mark Labberton’s book Called, he writes, “The church has lost its way in the world. What’s more, it doesn’t know it. This is a double crisis for a community that Jesus said is to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-16). It is a crisis brought on by failure to be and to do what is most central to the church’s identity and purpose: follow Jesus.”

It’s a double crisis. The church is lost in a world that is lost, and the church doesn’t realize it is lost. This is similar to the world in which Jesus was born. Israel was lost in the world that was lost and they didn’t know it either. In Matthew 10:6, Jesus says, “Go to the lost sheep of Israel.” In Matthew 15:24 He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. And in Luke 19:10, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Many in the church have thought of people outside the church as being lost. But, the church itself is now lost, having lost itself in a world of rapid, discontinuous change, and confused about what to be and to do in a foreign land.

In his book, Mark Labberton gives examples of different kinds of churches that are lost. There is the
• Self-absorbed church – it is a small, inwardly fixated club, sometimes bland, but mostly focused on itself
• Invisible church – it has become so much like the culture it is hard to distinguish any difference
• Siloed church – segregated by class, ethnicity, economics, race, or culture
• Bad-news church – always talking about what is wrong with the world but not really engaging it with any kind of hope
• No-news church – it doesn’t seem to have anything to say to the lost world

What would it take to become a good-news church? For the church to claim it knows the Way, it needs to demonstrate convincingly that it has good news deserving of that name. In a world of violence, of fear, of poverty, of injustice, it has to show up in relationships and actions of life-giving power. In other words, the church has to show a different view and practice of power than the world around us displays. It has to show it knows the Way in a time of explosive global change and confusion.

As one who has been in ministry for over 30 years now, I believe that the local church can still be one of the best contexts in which people are formed as disciples of Jesus Christ. Some churches greatly encourage me at the same time some churches greatly discourage me. I have visited some churches where I walked away thinking – why did they do that? Nothing there touched my heart. They didn’t address any of my questions. Are they trying to answer questions anybody is asking? What planet are they living on? They didn’t talk about anything that is happening in my world. Sigh.

But the good news is that there are some churches that do seem to “get it”. Some churches are working hard to listen to people and to listen to their communities. Some churches are following the Biblical command to be humble and to speak into their local context from a position of weakness. They don’t act like they know it all, but they have a strong confidence in God and how God walks with us through all of the uncertainties, anxieties, and confusions of life. They talk clearly about Who Jesus is and the good news that He brings. They remind us that God does not hate our world, but God so loves our world that He sent His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him, will not perish, but have everlasting life. These churches are trying hard to walk their talk. They know that words and beliefs are important, but that faith without works is dead. They know that our post-modern, post-Christian world will have trouble believing unless they can see tangible expressions of Jesus’ good news, what that good news is, why that good news matters, and how that good news can make a difference in their lives and in their communities. They understand that our culture has become skeptical of the church. But at the same time, they also understand that our culture is looking for something to believe in. Our culture doesn’t know where to look or even what it is looking for. But, if they meet a redemptive, missional community that seeks to bless, to heal, and to serve, they will stop and notice. If we will truly love them unconditionally, we can capture their interest.

I don’t like the double crisis. I don’t want the church to be unaware that it is lost in a world that is lost. I want the church to recover what it has lost by learning to follow Jesus again. When Jesus invited His disciples to come and follow Him, He never told them where they were going. But, they were willing to follow Him anyway. They wanted to see what He would do, what He would say, and where He would go. Jesus continues to invite us to follow Him today. We don’t know where it is going to lead us. We are called to walk by faith and not by sight. But, we follow anyway.

I believe Jesus is calling us, like our ancestors before us, to move back into our neighborhoods, to think and to act like missionaries, and to live out our calling as sons and daughters of God. In a world that sometimes feels like it is falling apart, we are called to share the good news, to love one another unconditionally, and to put our confidence in God. If we follow Jesus, He will eventually lead us through our crisis, until we come out on the other side. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.