Month: November 2008

Working with words

The Writing WrightOnce Carl Sandburg remarked about a preacher: I won’t take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth.”  I wonder if Sandburg would give us preachers a break if we also worked with pens, and not just with our mouths.  Since Sandburg is dead, we’ll never know.  But if you like working with words in speaking and writing, you need the latest book from my friend, Jim Stovall, titled The Writing Wright.  

The Writing Wright offers “notes, essays, & advice on writing, & ponderings on writers & the writing life” according to the subtitle, and Jim Stovall is the one to talk about this writing stuff.  He’s a journalism teacher (Distinguished Professor at the University of Tennessee) and has written several books, including a classic in the field, Writing for the Mass Media, soon to be issued in its seventh edition.  

The Writing Wright brims with quotes, anecdotes, excerpts, and illustrations about writers and writing.  From Samuel Johnson to Ernest Hemingway to Mark Twain plus about fifty more writers, Stovall packs his compendium with the humorous and helpful for professional and aspiring writers.  It’s the kind of book you will pick up again and again just to read it and smile because a writer you like said something interesting.  Or funny.  Or clever.  Or outlandish.  But never boring.  

I’m partial to the book because Jim is my friend.  We went to high school together and both of us chose a life working with words.  He chose journalism, I entered the ministry, and we have a shared love of books, politics, and Tennessee that spans a lifetime.  Get a couple of copies — the book would make a fine gift for someone who loves writing.  If you do, tell Jim what you think.  You can friend him on Facebook.  He and I are collaborating on a couple of projects, too.  I’ll let you know how those come out.

Sermon for 1st Advent: Watching at the Gate

I’m preaching this sermon next Sunday, November 30, 2008, on the first Sunday in Advent for Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  It’s a strange text for the coming of Christmas…or is it?  Have a great Thanksgiving and a wonderful first Advent Sunday.  

Watching At The Gate

Mark 13:24-37
24“But in those days, following that distress, 
   ” ‘the sun will be darkened, 
      and the moon will not give its light; 
25the stars will fall from the sky, 
      and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

 26“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

 28“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

 32“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

 35“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ “


A Strange Story for Advent

The text we just read seems more like the end-of-the-world than getting ready for Christmas.  But, here we are again in the season of Advent — watching for the coming of the Christ into our world.
When Mark writes his short, powerful story of Jesus’ life, he devotes two chapters to the return of the Messiah to this earth.  Mark sandwiches this two-chapter discourse between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the end of the last week in Jesus’ life.  It is as though Jesus knows his time is about finished for his earthly ministry, and he is reassuring his disciples that regardless of how things look in the next few days, or months, or years, that the Messiah of God, the Christ, will return again to this earth to finish the work he has begun.
In this passage, Jesus makes his point clearly.  First, he points out that there are signs pointing to the coming — the advent — of the Messiah — and that when we see the signs we know that the Messiah is near, right at the gate, the outside door: 

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 

Then, Jesus reminds the disciples that they are to watch, and gives them a real life example of the kind of watching for the master’s return that he expects: 

“It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.” — Mark 13:29, 34

And this servant who is assigned to keep watch is watching for the master’s return.  Why?  The master has already been there, he has already established his power and authority, he has already assigned his servants the roles they are to play.  Why do they need to watch for his return?  Why does one servant have the sole duty of watching at the gate, the outer door?

Let’s see if we can put ourselves in the place of those first century disciples, or those servants to whom Jesus referred, and imagine the scene Jesus is painting, the story he’s telling to those who are very anxious about the future.
The Door and the Doorkeeper

The first thing we have to do is get acquainted with the house of a person like the master that Jesus refers to.  While the homes of ordinary people were very simple, the house of a person who could afford servants would be a lot like the houses of wealthy people today — more spacious, more rooms, more square-footage.  
Typically, houses of the first century were walled compounds with a front entrance usually closed with a secure gate.  Outer doors, also referred to as gates, could be barred with crossbars, securing the courtyard from unwelcome intruders.  So, the servant who would watch for the master’s return, would watch at the front gate, or the outer door.
Because first century homes did not have video surveillance, or door bells, or other devices to alert the homeowner inside of approaching guests, the doorkeeper stood at the door.  The doorkeeper’s job was to monitor the door, open it for welcomed guests, and secure it against unwelcomed intruders.
The doorkeeper is referred to in Psalm 84:10 where the psalmists says —

Better is one day in your courts 
       than a thousand elsewhere; 
       I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God 
       than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

The doorkeeper was a servant’s job, not a privileged position.  An unlike the doormen in the famous hotels or apartments of New York City, the doorkeeper was not particularly rewarded for his work — he was expected to do his job.  
The Door To The Future

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but our daughter Laurie loved the movie, Back to the Future, when she was a teenager.  Actually, she loved Michael J. Fox, who just happened to be in Back to the Future.  And, she saw Back to the Future something like 14-times.  Way too much, because she was able to mouth the dialogue along with the actors on the screen.  This was what psychologist might call a bit obsessive.  Anyway, Back to the Future, to refresh your memory was about “Marty McFly, a typical American teenager of the Eighties, who is accidentally sent back to 1955 in a plutonium-powered DeLorean “time machine” invented by slightly mad scientist. During his often hysterical, always amazing trip back in time, Marty must make certain his teenage parents-to-be meet and fall in love – so he can get back to the future.”  (summary from The Internet Movie Database) Hence the name, Back to the Future.  

Now, Back to the Future wasn’t the first of these time machine movies.  H. G. Well’s book, The Time Machine, published in 1895 was actually a rehash of a previous book, The Chronic Argonauts, also about time travel.  Interesting that the term “chronic argonauts” didn’t catch on — wonder why? — but “time machine” did.  
Human beings have been fascinated by time travel probably since we developed a concept of time including the ideas of past, present, and future.  
When Jesus starts to tell the disciples about the future, they’re all ears.  “How will we know, and what will be the signs of your coming?” they ask Jesus.  Jesus then tells them about the signs:
  • The Temple will be torn down (13:2)
  • Many false messiahs will arise (13:6)
  • Wars and rumors of wars (13:7)
  • Earthquakes and famines will occur (13:8)
  • Followers of Jesus persecuted (13:9)
  • The gospel will be preached to all nations (13:10)
  • Families will turn on each other (13:12)
  • All men will hate you on account of me (13:13)
  • The abomination of desolation will occur (13:14)
  • The time will be so hard that if the Lord does not cut it short, no one will survive (13:15-20)
  • False Christs and false prophets will perform signs and miracles to deceive God’s people (13:21-23)
Then, Jesus combines quotes from Isaiah 13 and 34, where Isaiah describes God’s judgment on the nation of Babylon in Isaiah 13, and on all the nations in Isaiah 34 — 

24“But in those days, following that distress, 
   ” ‘the sun will be darkened, 
      and the moon will not give its light; 
 25the stars will fall from the sky, 
      and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

Then, Jesus says, 

26“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.


In other words, the key to the future is in the past.  Just as God came to vindicate his people and deliver them from the Babylonians, and others who opposed them, so God is coming again to deliver his people when similar governments threaten,when similar systems of oppression and unfaithfulness thrive.

After both the Isaiah passages that Jesus quotes, God shows up and vindicates his people.  In Isaiah 14:1 –

The LORD will have compassion on Jacob; 
       once again he will choose Israel 
       and will settle them in their own land. 
       Aliens will join them 
       and unite with the house of Jacob.  — Isaiah 14:1

And then from Isaiah 35: 

The desert and the parched land will be glad; 
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. 
       Like the crocus, 
2 it will burst into bloom; 
       it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. 
       The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, 
       the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; 
       they will see the glory of the LORD, 
       the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, 
       steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, 
       “Be strong, do not fear; 
       your God will come, 
       he will come with vengeance; 
       with divine retribution 
       he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened 
       and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, 
       and the mute tongue shout for joy. 
       Water will gush forth in the wilderness 
       and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool, 
       the thirsty ground bubbling springs. 
       In the haunts where jackals once lay, 
       grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there; 
       it will be called the Way of Holiness. 
       The unclean will not journey on it; 
       it will be for those who walk in that Way; 
       wicked fools will not go about on it. 

 9 No lion will be there, 
       nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; 
       they will not be found there. 
       But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return. 
       They will enter Zion with singing; 
       everlasting joy will crown their heads. 
       Gladness and joy will overtake them, 
       and sorrow and sighing will flee away.


The point is, when things are at their worst for the people of God, God is not far away — God is at the door, close by, about to appear, again.  Just as he did in the Old Testament, just as he did in the ministry of Jesus, God is coming and we are to watch for him, watch at the gate so we can open the door and admit him without delay.

When The Master Returns Home

Often when the master of the house was gone activity at the house slowed down.  The servants went about their chores, it was a good time to paint, and take care of other routine maintenance, and there were still herds to be looked after, and household business to attend to.  
But when the master returned, he returned to a house ready to come alive again.  Ready to throw a party, to tell all the neighbors that he was home, ready to celebrate his homecoming.
Stories like the prodigal son, while not exactly the same, illustrate that point.  The homecoming of a son, even a wayward one, was cause for celebration.  Even more the homecoming of the master!  Plans were made, food was purchased, cooks were busy, invitations were sent out — it was a banquet for all who would come.  
Stories like the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) are examples of this kind of celebration.  Invitations were sent and when those invited did not come, the master sent his servants to find those who would come because the feast was in full swing and nothing could stop it, not even ungrateful guests.
Another Door, Another Time

But there is another coming of the Christ, another way he comes to us, again.  In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus has given John messages for the churches.  The seven churches also represent the people of God.  
  1. To the church in Ephesus, Jesus says, “You have forsaken your first love. Repent.”
  2. To the church in Smyrna, Jesus says, “Be faithful to the point of death.”
  3. To the church in Pergammum, he says, “You did not renounce your faith in me…”
  4. To the church in Thyatira, he says, “Hold on to what you have until I come.”
  5. To the church in Sardis, he says, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains…”
  6. To the church in Philadelphia, he says, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have…”
  7. To the church in Laodicea, he says, “I wish you were either hot or cold…”
Then Jesus says to all of the churches, representing all of the people of God —

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with hiim, and he with me.”  — Rev 3:20

Jesus is at the door, knocking.  But where is the doorkeeper?  Why is no one watching? Why doesn’t anyone hear his voice?  Why don’t we have the banquet ready?  Why aren’t the invitations sent?
And, that is what Advent is about.  Watching at the gate.  Looking for Jesus.  Not getting so distracted by all of the things in our busy lives that we fail to keep looking.  Keep hoping, keep waiting.  Keep watching.  
For just as he came in the form of a baby 2,000 years ago to a nation who was not looking for a messiah, so he comes today, in human form again.  Present with his people — the church.  Coming home to his great creation.  Coming again in and through the church, if we let him in.  If we hear his voice.  If we open the door.  If we watch at the gate.  
The words of John the Revelator ring in our ears and resonate in our hearts — Amen, come, Lord Jesus!  

Happy Thanksgiving!

We had our community Thanksgiving service last Sunday night so I’m done until Sunday.  This year Debbie and I are  celebrating Thanksgiving with our youngest daughter and her family.  I hope your Thanksgiving brings you lots of turkey, football, and family — not necessarily in that order.  I’ll be Twittering during the holiday, but leaving the lappy at home for some technology down-time.  My sermon for the first Sunday in Advent goes up Friday morning at 6 AM.  So, instead of rushing to the mall, hit your google reader and take a look.  

Mostly, take a break, enjoy the season, and give thanks.  We do live in a great country, we are the most blessed people on earth, and God is good….all the time!  Grace and peace. -Chuck

101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches

I’m playing around here and this is the rough draft of  101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches.  Any others you want to add?  I’d love to hear any stories you have about any outreach ideas you’ve used.  I’m working on a book, and would like to include real stories from real churches.  Time for your 15-minutes of fame!  Here’s a start —

101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches

  1. Sponsor a school or classroom
  2. Angel Food Ministry
  3. Family movie night
  4. Super Bowl party
  5. Resource center for senior programs, etc
  6. Host a music concert
  7. Block party
  8. community festival
  9. Halloween alternative
  10. Community heroes
  11. Christmas nativity tour
  12. community garden
  13. art show
  14. build a labyrinth
  15. free hotdog lunch
  16. school supplies
  17. parents’ night out
  18. mothers morning out
  19. partner to raise money for a local cause
  20. invite former members back — homecoming
  21. themed worship
  22. recognize special groups
  23. pulpit exchange or joint worship with other congregations
  24. community vbs
  25. community thanksgiving service
  26. thanksgiving for singles, seniors, and others
  27. trunk-or-treat
  28. day camps
  29. multi-generational groups
  30. crafting, scrapbooking, quilt-making groups
  31. day trips for seniors
  32. senior adult programs, lunch
  33. talent show
  34. church yard sale
  35. blessing of the animals
  36. free carwash
  37. make a difference day
  38. martin luther king day events
  39. english as a second language
  40. computer access 
  41. computer training
  42. grief workshop
  43. grandparents day
  44. mothers day
  45. fathers day
  46. advent activities, booklet, devotion guide
  47. milestone celebrations — anniversary, debt-free, etc
  48. achievement recognition — ball teams, championships, etc
  49. election day activities
  50. county or state fair booth
  51. tradeshow booth
  52. tourism booth
  53. homebound ministry 
  54. grief ministry
  55. nursing home ministry
  56. report card rewards
  57. skate park
  58. soundcheck like event
  59. lock in
  60. lock out
  61. youth service corps
  62. door-to-door food collection
  63. christmas parties for seniors, kids, families, target groups
  64. school recognition
  65. college day
  66. financial peace courses
  67. driving courses that target very young or AARP groups
  68. election forums
  69. non-profit helping agency fair
  70. volunteer recognition and thanks
  71. social services, community action partnerships recognition
  72. literacy program
  73. addiction programs
  74. single adult programs
  75. single parent groups
  76. special needs events
  77. health screenings
  78. diet and cooking classes
  79. book discussions
  80. neighborhood inventories and assessments
  81. prayer ministry
  82. open sanctuary or prayer room
  83. daily office
  84. taize services
  85. community celebration events
  86. community unity events
  87. community newsletter or bulletin board
  88. newborn gifts
  89. newcomer welcome baskets
  90. graduate recognition
  91. community music program for children, seniors
  92. helping resource inventory and volunteer directory
  93. home blessings
  94. weddings and funerals
  95. boy scout, girl scout, b&g club sundays
  96. second sunday fellowships
  97. personalized invitation
  98. Easter, palm sunday invitations
  99. food, clothing, and cleaning supplies pantry
  100. civic club sunday
  101. family skate nights

Sermon: A Thanksgiving Prayer

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, from Ephesians 1:15-23, titled A Thanksgiving Prayer.  Have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow, and a great Thanksgiving season! 

A Thanksgiving Prayer


Ephesians 1:15-23 NIV
15For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit  of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,19and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

What Are You Thankful For?

We always seemed to have trouble developing our own family traditions.  When our girls were small, Debbie and I wanted to give them meaningful experiences, and create our own family traditions.  One night we decided that we would sing the blessing before supper.  Now that sounds like a meaningful moment.  Our girls would grow up and tell their children, “When we were little, we used to hold hands around the table and sing our blessing before meals.”  At least that was the picture Debbie and I had in our heads.  

Our girls grew up about the time the Osmond Family was famous.  Donnie and Marie were idolized by our girls, and they would watch “The Donnie and Marie Show” religiously.  Oh, and there was The Partridge Family, too.  Singing kids with a talented mom, who traveled around the country singing to sellout crowds.  And, of course, The Sound of Music with the Singing Von Trapp Family.   Amy and Laurie took it all in.  

So, it was in that media culture that we found ourselves gathered around our dinner table one night, when I announced, “Tonight we’re going to sing our blessing.”  I forget what it was we were actually going to sing, but it didn’t matter.  We were not the Osmonds.  Or The Partridge Family.  Or the Von Trapps.  Did I mention that we didn’t have any accompaniment?  Well, it didn’t matter.  We probably hadn’t gotten more than a few off-key notes out when Amy and Laurie collapsed in laughter, and that was the end of the Warnock family tradition of singing our blessing.  

But, we were not deterred by that experience.  Debbie and I were still on a quest to make meaning for our kids’ lives.  So, on one Thanksgiving I announced, “Today, before we eat, we’re going to each share something that we’re thankful for.”  This went over only slightly better than the singing blessing, and was met with cries of “Do we have to?” and “I’m hungry.”  But, we plowed our way listlessly through the typical things that we are thankful for — friends, family, and the food.  And maybe some other stuff, too, but I don’t remember.   We pretty much gave up on the idea of creating family traditions after that.  

Thankful for Faith

And, maybe this year at your table, or wherever you are this Thanksgiving, you’ll take time to go around the table and share your reasons for being thankful.  And, they will probably be pretty typical, too.  Friends, family, enough to eat, God’s blessings, and so on.  We tend to give thanks for either “things” or people.  And, that’s good — nothing wrong with being thankful for either of those.

But Paul expresses thanks for something rather strange — the faith of the Christians in Ephesus.  Paul says, 

“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16I have not stopped giving thanks for you,”

Now, what is the big deal about that?  Well, remember the story of Paul in Ephesus?  Ephesus was a major city in what is now western Turkey.  Ephesus was a crossroads of trade and commerce, and it was not a Jewish city; it was a Roman city.  You know how cities are known for an outstanding landmark, such as Paris with the Eiffel Tower; Seattle with the Space Needle; Rome and the Coliseum; and, New York with Broadway, Grand Central Station, and the Statue of Liberty.  Well, Ephesus had its famous landmark, too — The Temple of Artemis, sometimes referred to as The Temple of Diana.   

It was described by Antipater of Sidon, who compiled the list of the Seven Wonders:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught [anything] so grand”. [1]



It was in the shadow of the temple to Artemis that Paul began preaching in Ephesus. Now, in Ephesus along with the worship of the pagan goddess Artemis, there were those who practiced witchcraft and sorcery, those who were diviners claiming to speak with the voice of the gods.  It was not lack of spirituality that was Ephesus problem, it was the very vibrant spirituality of the dark side, of paganism that permeated the city.  

That’s why in Ephesians 6, Paul says, “2For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Paul was in a war for the hearts and souls of the people of Ephesus.  In the three years Paul spent in Ephesus amazing things happened:
  • The first Ephesian Christians experienced their own Pentecost, receiving the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and prophesying.  God was validating this Gentile experience as every bit as genuine as the Jewish Pentecostal experience.
  • Paul began with a group of about 12 men, not counting women, and from there began to speak in the synagogue, and then in the debating hall of Tyrannus.
  • Paul preached there for almost 3 years with astonishing results.  Miracles occurred as handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul touched were taken to the sick and they recovered and evil spirits left them.  
  • Luke says in Acts 19:17 — “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.”  
  • But opposition came to, most strongly from Demetrius the silversmith who crafted small silver shrines to Artemis, which he sold for a tidy profit — a profit that Paul cut into.  A near-riot ensued, with the people shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for over 2-hours.  
  • So, Paul decides to leave Ephesus and as he departs he warns the Ephesian church leaders that others will come in and try to tear the church apart — and some will be from among their own number!
Now, fast forward in time to the last years of Paul’s life, in prison in Rome.  Word has reached Paul that this church in Ephesus, where he spent almost three years, that this church is still strong and vibrant, and alive, and thriving, even though it still lives in the shadow of the mighty Temple of Artemis of the Ephesians.  
You can see Paul dictating to his amanuensis, his secretary, “Take a letter to the church at Ephesus.”  And so Paul begins to pour out his heart to them, telling them of God’s great blessings, and then turning to a personal point.
He has heard of their faith, and he has not stopped giving thanks for them.  
  • He is thankful that the cult of Artemis has not overwhelmed them.
  • He is thankful that they are faithful to Jesus in their daily lives.  That they do not go to the temple of Artemis as all their friends and neighbors do.  That they stand firm in their conviction.
  • He is thankful that after he left that the church had heeded his warnings, had watched out for those who sought to destroy it, and had survived.  
  • He is thankful for their faith in God, their faithful practice, and their effectiveness because he has heard about them recently.  
Paul’s Prayer of Thanksgiving
Which brings us to Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving for them.  Paul says “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”  And here is what he has been praying for them.  Here is Paul’s Thanksgiving prayer for the Ephesians:
  • That God would give them the spirit of wisdom and revelation so they could know God better;
  • That the eyes of their hearts might be enlightened to the hope to which God has called them;
  • That they remain aware of the power of the resurrection, not only in Jesus’ life, but in theirs as well;
  • That they understand that Christ has all power and authority in the present age, the age to come, in this world and in the church.
In other words, Paul’s Thanksgiving prayer is that they – 
  1. know God better; 
  2. see hope clearly;
  3. live in resurrection power; 
  4. acknowledge Christ as Lord.  




Our Thanksgiving Prayer

Like Paul, we are thankful when we look around at friends and family and our nation and the vitality of the church in other places around the world.  We are not that different from ancient Ephesus in that we as believers live in the shadows of the gods of this world — greed, indifference, hatred, violence, selfishness, sensuality, and many, many more.  In contrast Jesus calls us to live lives of grace, generosity, hospitality, peace, love, care, and humility.  So, when we look around we are gratified that faith is alive and doing good in our world.
When I was in San Diego, I heard J John, a Greek-born Christian who speaks with a British accent.  To say that J John is energetic is like saying Bill Gates has money.  J John is a bundle of energy and has one of those “you-can’t-help-but-like-him” personalities.  He told of flying one day, and seated next to him, a woman began to engage him in conversation.  J John  said he usually tries to avoid telling people that he is an evangelist, a preacher, because that tends to shut the conversation down.  So, this lady asks him, “What do you do?”
J John said, “I’m work for a global enterprise.”
“Oh, really,” she replied.
“Yes, we have locations all over the world, in almost every country.”
“Amazing,” she replied.
“Yes, we have hospitals, schools, clinics, feeding programs, clothing banks, we do disaster relief, take in countless numbers of orphans, and do more good than I can even remember.  We look after people from birth to death and we deal in the area of behavioral alteration.”
“Amazing,” said the woman, “What’s it called?”
“It’s called Christianity,” he said.
“Really!” And then he continued to tell about the rest of their conversation.
But, my point is, and J John’s was, faith is alive and well.  We are thankful when we hear about it still existing from modest beginnings in places like Africa, and South America, and Asia, and Europe, and Australia, and on every other continent on the globe.  Faith is alive, and for that we should be thankful today.
But, Paul, and we cannot stop with being thankful for hearing about faith, we must continue to support that faith and the faithful with our prayers for –
  • Wisdom and revelation so we can know God better.  We do know God better even in the last 100 years.  We have moved from hatred of fellow Christians who hold differing theological views to a dialogue of siblings in God’s great family.  We must know God better in how we govern ourselves and how our nations solve international problems — we cannot continue to turn to war as the first recourse in settling global crises.  
  • The eyes of our hearts need to be open so that we can see clearly the hope we possess and that we have in Christ for the world.  The hope of racial reconciliation, the hope of the end of poverty and hunger, the hope of the incoming of the Kingdom of God.  That’s why Paul healed, not because of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but because the Kingdom of God was breaking in right in front of the Temple of Artemis.  The Kingdom of God was displacing the dominion of Diana.  In Ephesus, about 300 or so years after Paul writes this letter, John Chrysostom leads a band who finished demolishing what was left of the great temple of Artemis.  The Hagia Sophia, the grand ancient church in Turkey, now contains columns from the temple of Artemis.  The kingdom of God is the hope of the world, and our eyes need to be open to that hope, the hope we have in Christ.
  • The way we live should reflect the resurrection power, the first-fruits of God’s kingdom.  The resurrection of Jesus was both God’s way of validating the ministry of Jesus, and God’s defeat of the forces of death and darkness.  Those forces were resident in the Temple of Artemis, and it is the resurrection of Jesus that seals their fate.
  • We need to pray for our awareness that Jesus is Lord, not Ceasar or Artemis, and that we do indeed serve a living Savior who’s in the world today.  
So, this Thanksgiving, be thankful that faith is alive and that we hear of it all across this land.  But pray that we will know God better, see hope clearly, live in resurrection power, and acknowledge Christ as Lord of all. That’s a thanksgiving prayer we can all pray this week.  

Prayers for significant public gatherings

This week I was asked to pray at the swearing in of our new county treasurer, who is also a member of our church.  I wrote Prayer for A New County Treasurer for that occasion.  I also wrote  Prayer for the Opening of Court a couple of years ago.  Both were well-received and hopefully were appropriate to the occasion.

I prefer to write out these prayers for public gatherings for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to say the wrong thing;
  2. I don’t want to sound like God is endorsing whatever it is we are doing.

So, writing public prayers helps me focus on presenting the situation to God; asking for God’s guidance, presence, or blessing depending upon the circumstances; and, reminding those of us gathered of our corporate need for Divine connection.  

Like many of you, because I’m a preacher I often get asked to pray — for the food, for the team, for the class, for whatever it is that I’m at that needs a prayer.  Those are not too difficult, but public gatherings of significance, especially those that have political overtones, require a wisely discerned expression.  

What’s your experience?  Do you write out any of your public prayers?  If so, why?  What are your favorite public prayer stories?  I’d love to hear them.  Amen.

Review: American Earth by Bill McKibben

american-earth“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his groundbreaking book, Walden.   With Thoreau as a starting point, Bill McKibben has assembled the finest, most comprehensive anthology of American environmental writing one could hope to find.  The combined work of 101 authors, running almost 1,000 pages, American Earth chronicles the changing landscape of environmentalism from Thoreau to Teddy Roosevelt to Al Gore, with 98 more thrown in for good measure.

This one volume provides a rich orientation to the world of environmental writing which McKibben contends is “America’s single most distinctive contribution to the world’s literature.”  If Walden is the book everyone claims to revere but few have actually read, American Earth offers an accessible door into not only Walden, but 100 more works of significance in the annals of environmentalism.  McKibben, himself the groundbreaking author of The End of Nature, the first account of global warming’s consequences, selects each author with the care of a conductor assembling a fine orchestra.  Some voices speak of spiritual bonds connecting humankind and nature, others tell true stories of real ecological tragedies, and some are historical markers along the environmental movement’s journey from the fringes into mainstream America.

McKibben calls upon Thoreau to set the stage for this anthology — “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.”    He continues with the likes of Walt Whitman, P. T. Barnum (raging against billboards), and features the classic writing of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.  

His list of contributors ranges from the designer of Central Park in NYC (Frederick Law Olmsted), to an  American author and journalist (Theodore Dreiser), to another writer of the depression (John Steinbeck).  Books you may have read are excerpted, such as Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; and, Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring, the classic that influenced Al Gore and resulted in a ban on DDT.

You will not agree with all the pieces included.  Lynn White’s essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” lays the blame (in 1967) for the environmental problems of the US on the Christian worldview.  Or, at least the popular Christian worldview that saw the world as man’s plaything, to use or use up as he chose.  White concludes his essay with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and nominates Francis as patron saint of environmentalists because of Francis’ teaching on humility and his love for all of God’s creation.  The activist Cesar Chavez is also included, but on the lighter side is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was set to the tune of an old Baptist hymn, When The World’s on Fire — more appropriate than even Guthrie might have thought when he chose it.    

If you want to get up to speed in Environmentalism 101, McKibben’s American Earth is the book you need.  A comprehensive survey of literature on environmentalism, the book contains scores of great quotes, real life stories, like The Fog by Berton Roueche’, and contemporary voices like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.  My newly discovered friend, Wendell Berry, is included, as are all of the other great names in the movement — the Nearings, Buckminster Fuller, Scott Russell Sanders, Al Gore, and Paul Hawken, plus many more.  

At  the list price of $40 the book is a great value both for its scope and breadth.  American Earth is even less — about $25 — from Amazon and other discounters, which makes it that much more of a bargain.  I have several of the books referenced by McKibben, including his Deep Economy, and a comparable library would run hundreds of dollars.  You’ll find yourself doing what I have done — pulling out American Earth to read another essay or chapter or poem in America’s great chronicle of all things environmental.

“8-Track of the Year” nominations now being accepted

8-track-tapeAs 2008 draws to a close, we turn our thoughts to the prestigious “8-Track of the Year” awards.  For those too young to remember, 8-track tapes were all the rage back in the 1970s.  A big, clunky endless loop tape was the hottest technology available.  You could actually play them in your car!  Imagine, music in your car…boggles the mind.  Anyway, 8-tracks are now the dinosaur of the digital age, which brings me back to our topic at hand: The 2008 8-Track Awards!  

Here’s how this works:  Nominate the church idea, practice, or product that is now completely obsolete.  Totally useless.  Nobody goes there anymore, kind-of-thing.  Example:  the weekly church bulletin service — you got a different blank bulletin with appropriate  full-color art work on the front.  Ideal for running through your “ditto” machine (remember?).  Okay, now it’s your turn.  The idea is to chronicle the changing church and how yesterday’s ideas are so, well, yesterday.  Have fun, play nice, and get your nominations in today!

The future is here and it’s mobile

I got tired of lugging my laptop to meetings, so I got a Blackberry before I went to NOC2008 in San Diego.  Of course, when I got there, everyone I saw had an iPhone or a BB, so I’m not exactly on the cutting edge here, but I’m still impressed.  I had no idea you could do almost everything on a mobile device, which brings me to the point — take the quantum leap and make everything you do mobile.   Here’s what I mean:

  1. Redesign your blog.  I realized that I had to scroll down the left column of my blog on my BB before I got to the middle column where my posts are.  I’m rethinking my blog design and hope to find a more mobile-friendly design.  But, I actually posted to the blog from my mobile.  
  2. Redesign your website.  Same problems as above, only more so.  Mobile delivery is how most people will get their content soon (Asia already does this), so your site needs to display well on mobile devices. 
  3. Blog on Twitter.  I hadn’t realized the value of Twitter until I got a BB.  Very convenient, to the point, and fast. Look for more bloggers to go this way (okay, I know they’re already going this way — check Ed Stetzer, for example.) Twitter also posts to Facebook — two birds with one stone.
  4. Chunk-up your content.  Shorter is better on mobiles, I’ve discovered.  Chunk-up content into bite-sized pieces.  Forget the 3,000 word posts.
  5. Checkout the apps stores for mobile devices.  Lots of good apps including searchable Bibles, ebooks, weather, news updates, and tons more.  You’re no longer tethered to the lappy or the desktop.

Okay, some of you are way ahead of me on this.  How are you using your smartphones in ministry?  What apps have you downloaded and how do you use them?  Is anyone out there all mobile all the time?

You Can’t Change a Tribe

tribes-by-seth-godin1I’m reading Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes.  Godin packs his small book with pithy observations about the nature of “tribes” and the qualities tribes are looking for in leaders.  Although he doesn’t explicitly say this, it occurred to me that a small church is a tribe.  Small churches tend to be held together by families, tradition, or both.  

Pastors spend a lot of time trying to change the small church tribe into one with more appeal to outsiders. But, if we do, we kill the tribe.  Now there are times that tribe might need to be killed, but most of the time small churches serve their purpose well and the members of that tribe are fiercely loyal.  But that doesn’t mean that church leaders, pastors especially, shouldn’t be trying to gather a new tribe.  New tribes like a different type worship than the existing tribe.  New tribes dress casually, while the old tribe dresses in their Sunday best.  The new tribe might be younger than the existing tribe.  Or, the new tribe might be single instead of predominantly married.  You can’t change a tribe, but you can start a new one alongside it.  

Years ago Lyle Schaller remarked that “new people need new groups.”  Schaller was referring mostly to Sunday School classes for newcomers, but the same applies today to entire congregations.  Godin might say it this way, “New people need a new tribe.”  I’m going to try this one out.  I’ll let you know how it goes.