Month: January 2009 is up and running again

new-church-report1 gathers the best of blogs, news services, and articles about church from around the internet.

Scott Linklater, the creator of  New Church Report, handed the site over to me a couple of weeks ago.  With the help of Nathan White, we’ve made some changes to enhance the content on the site, but we have kept many of the sources that Scott used.

New features at include:

  • Spotlight. An outstanding article positioned at the top of the site that will change daily.  I select this article each day.
  • News. This column aggregates the best and broadest church news possible. Please suggest other church news sites you’d like to see posted here.
  • Featured. These posts are top-drawer ideas and inspiration from technical experts, the business world, church leaders, and other outstanding ministry personalities.  I hand-select each post each day to pick the best-of-the-best church stuff out there.
  • Blogs. Guest bloggers are featured in the right-hand column everyday discussing everything from theology to outreach techniques to personal opinions.  These bloggers are real people in real ministry with helpful things to say.  I pull from the same list Scott did, with some new additions.  I welcome additional blog suggestions for this feature.
  • Feed. Nathan has installed an RSS feed, so you can read in your feedreader now.  We still have an issue with Google Chrome, but the feed works in IE7 and Firefox. is a one-stop source for the latest in church news, ideas, inspiration, and opinions.  Let me know how we can make it better.  Of course, I’m still here most every day writing about small church ministry, too.

Sermon: Everything Is Changing!

Everything Is Changing!

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
29What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Waking Up To a New World

One of my favorite short stories is The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka.  It is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who lives with his parents and his sister.  A rather non-descript life, except that one morning Gregor awakens to find that sometime in the night he has changed into a large cockroach.  Or as Kafka puts it, “a monstrous verminous bug.”  A cockroach.  

Here’s how Kafka begins the story:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.

“What’s happened to me,” he thought. It was no dream. 

The story goes on about the difficulty Gregor faces as he comes to grips with his new form, the struggle simply to roll over from his back, and the reaction of family and his employer.  It is a great understatement to say that Gregor Samsa went to sleep in one world, and woke up in another world entirely.

The Situation in Corinth

In the brief passage we read today, Paul is writing to tell the believers in Corinth that “the world in its present form is passing away.”

The city of Corinth that Paul visited had been rebuilt less than a 100 years before, after its destruction in 146 BC.  Paul arrives there about 50 AD, and finds a thriving, prosperous cosmopolitan city.  Jews are among the inhabitants of Corinth because all the Jews have been made to leave Rome, and many resettled themselves in Corinth.  

The Corinthian church is composed of many faithful members — Aquila and Priscilla perhaps form the core leadership there. Acts 18:1-11 provides the historical background for us:

1After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 

4Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.[a] 6But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

7Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

The church in Corinth was also home to many new believers and we get an insight into the struggles of new Christians who are seeking to live life differently than they did as former pagans.  Paul writes to the church in Corinth about:

  • Divisions in the church.
  • Immorality among the membership.
  • Lawsuits among believers.
  • Sexual immorality.
  • Marriage
  • Food sacrificed to idols.
  • The difference between the feasts of idols and the Lord’s supper
  • Order in worship
  • The proper preparation and observance of the Lord’s Supper
  • Spiritual gifts — prophesying, speaking in tongues, knowledge, miracles
  • The body of Christ in the church
  • The resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead
  • Offerings
So, they had lots of problems, but were well on their way to being a viable church made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
It’s A New World
But in the passage we read today, Paul’s instruction for them is “the time is short — the world in its present form is passing away.”  In other words, everything is changing!
Now, we’re no stranger to change ourselves.  In the last 100 years we have seen amazing changes:
  • Invention of the automobile
  • Invention of the airplane and manned flight
  • Invention of the telephone
  • Invention of electrical distribution systems and the light bulb
  • Discovery and harnessing of atomic energy
  • Space flight
  • Man walking on the moon
  • Discovery of antibiotics
  • Cure for diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries
  • Invention of the computer, the internet, and all electronic devices
  • Life that gets cheaper, easier, and busier
As a matter of fact, social scientists tell us that we encounter so much change that the only thing we are certain that will not change is change.  And, change is not what it used to be.  During much of the 20th century, we lived in an era of continuous change — by that I mean that one change led to another.  The invention of the internal combustion engine led to its use in the horseless carriage — the automobile.  One invention led logically to the next.
But now sociologists tell us, we live in an era of discontinous change.  Change no longer takes place in an linear motion.  Change is all around us, popping up in places we never imagined from our cars to our computers to our economy to our politics and even to our religion.
Everything is changing!  We can learn something about how we cope with change from Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians.
The Church’s History of Dealing with Change
Now, the Christian church has not always dealt very well with change.  Let me give you a quick run-down to illustrate my point here:
  • Less than 200 years after Jesus, the church in the 3rd century has already become corrupt.  So, a group that came to be known as The Desert Fathers (although there were women, too) left the cities and moved to live an ascetic life in the barren deserts.
  • In 313 AD when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and returned property back to Christians, the church entered a new era, the era of politics.  Constantine saw the rising population of Christians as a powerful force in his empire.  Whether his conversion was genuine or not, Constantine managed to bring the church under the political umbrella of the Roman empire, leading to her further corruption.
  • About 300-years after that, others decided that the way to preserve the church was to form bands of the highly dedicated.  The monastic movement gathered devotees who would dedicate themselves to work and prayer.  No longer would they live alone as hermits, but would band together into communities to work together, to share the gospel, to bring salvation to new lands.  
  • Around 1000 AD the church dealt with the rising Muslim world by engaging in military campaigns to drive the “infidels” from the holy city of Jerusalem, to eradicate entire populations of unbelievers, and to impose Christian rule on the entire civilized world.  Not our best moment, and we still reap the whirlwind today.
  • In the 1500s, many in the church saw its corruption, and armed with the emergence of rational thought of the Enlightenment combined with the invention of moveable type, the Protestant Reformation set about to reform the church, and then, when that failed, to reinvent the church.
  • About 200 years after that, Christians rallied to the cry from freedom, and Christians from around the globe sought countries in which they could worship freely.  Our own nation became a refuge for a wide variety of religious expressions — as long as they were Christian — as we developed freedom of religious practice and expression led by Christians, and Baptists in particular.
  • The darkside of those colonial years was the affirmation of slavery by many Christians, including those who would later become the founders of The Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
I could go on and on, but what picture do you see emerging here?  It is the story of a church which is reacting to the changes it sees around it — changes in politics, money, and power.  
That is not what Paul is suggesting to the Corinthians.  
Not The End, But the Beginning
It is not the end of the world that Paul warns them against.  It is not his advice to gather all the believers on an high mountain top and wait for the second coming of Christ.  No, the change Paul speaks of is not the change of a church reacting to the world.  It is not the change of a church adapting to the world around it to become more powerful, more wealthy, more worldly.  Paul says, “The world as we know it is passing away.”
Why?  Not because God is destroying it, but because Christians are remaking it.  Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth about marriage, money, and worship matters because Christians are different — we live in such as way that we reflect the coming kingdom, not the current kingdom.
That’s why Christians should not live their lives like everyone else — we serve a different king, a new world order, a coming regime, that is present and will one day be pervasive.  Until then, things are changing. The world is being transformed, Christians are empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit to bring life, not death, to this world that is God’s creation.
The world as we know it is passing away, but it is because we live our lives differently than others.  We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, love is our language, hope is our watchword.  We are changing the world by our lives.  
A Story of Change
In David Augsburger’s book, Helping People Forgive, he tells this story:
During the 1915 massacre of more than a million Armenians by the Turks, a military unit attacked a village, killing all the adults and children and taking the young women as hostages.  An officer led a raid into a home in which he shot the parents, gave the younger daughters to his men, but kept the oldest daughter for himself.
After months of captivity and unspeakable abuse and servitude, she escaped.  Over the years she rebuilt her life, and took training as a nurse.
One night while on duty in a Turkish hospital, she recognized the face of a desparately ill, comatose patient in intensive care.  It was her captor and abuser, the murderer of her parents.  He was unconscious and required constant care to survive.  A long and difficult convalescence followed, with the man too ill to recognize his surroundings.
One day as he was much improved, the doctor said to him, “You are a very fortunate man.  Had it not been for the devotion of this nurse, you would never have made it, you certainly would be dead.”  
The officer looked at the nurse a long time.  ”I’ve wanted to ask for days — we have met before, have we not?”
“Yes,” she replied, “we have met before.”
The officer knew instantly who she was and what she meant. “Why did you kill me when you had the opportunity? Or why didn’t you just let me die?”
“Because,” the nurse replied, “I am a follower of one who taught, love your enemies.”
That is why the world as we know it is changing.  It is changing because we are changed.  It is changing because we as followers of Christ live by new rules.  It is changing because God’s kingdom is finding a home in hearts and minds.  It is changing because we follow the one who said, ‘Love your enemies.’”



The power of a true story

At our church last night we discussed the inauguration.   Those commenting spoke of hope, joy, inspiration, and goodwill.  Others have expressed similar feelings, and while I know there are detractors and naysayers seeking to steal the spotlight for themselves, our nation does seem to have shared a special moment on Tuesday.  I believe there were tears and laughter and joy and hope, not because one political party triumphed over another.  I believe Tuesday was historic, not just because a person of color assumed the Presidency.  I believe the inauguration of Barack Obama returned the nation to our true story.  

Stanley Hauerwas says that a true story offers a moral framework to a community.  True stories, he asserts, contain these characteristics:

  • A true story should have the power to release us from destructiveness;
  • It should provide a way of seeing through our current distortions;
  • It should have room to keep us from having to resort to violence;
  • It should have a sense for the tragic, for how meaning transcends power;
  • It must be one that helps me go on. *

I believe that we as a nation returned to our story on Tuesday.  America’s story had been one of creation, not destruction.  Our story had provided the hope of the American dream to immigrants who flooded onto our shores.  Our American story had said that we do not start fights with other countries, that we will take the first blow, that we are never the aggressors.  Our nation’s story had survived a war of independence, a fledgling government, a civil war that almost ripped us permanently apart, two world wars, a great depression, the immorality of slavery and the injustice of segregation.  And yet we went on, we learned from our own mistakes, we gave the right to vote to women and minorities, we continued to believe that America stood for the best in our common humanity, that we were a global lighthouse to others who yearned to be free.

On that September 11th morning in 2001, Americans were doing the things we had always done.  We were working, going to school, shopping, calling our families, and planning our futures.  But terror struck more than buildings that day.  Terror struck our own national psyche.  

Maybe we were wrong, we thought.  Maybe our story was no longer valid in a rapidly changing world.  Maybe instead of taking the blow, we needed to take the first shot.  Maybe instead of abiding by the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners we had to suspend the rules to protect the homeland.  Maybe the old story didn’t work after all.  We would live by a new story.

This new story no longer called for sacrifice in time of war; it called for shopping and traveling to keep the economic engines turning.  This new story we tried to tell ourselves forgot that our own grandparents were immigrants, and sought to keep immigrants from coming and shouted for the deportation of those already here.

This new story dashed our ideals of constitutional guarantees in the face of imminent danger.  This new story we tried to tell ourselves sought to shock a perceived enemy population with the awe of our sophisticated weaponry.  

But the more we told ourselves this new story, the less satisfied we were with it.  We grew tired of the bombings and death tolls reported by our media.  We chafed at the suggestions that the war might go on 100 years.  We bristled at privacy lost, freedoms abridged, hopes dashed, and fear rising.  

And finally, when all the shopping failed and the banks collapsed, and the stock market sank, we wondered if this new story was only a phantom, an invention, a reaction.  

We sought a return to the old story.  The story of hope, of peace, of responsibility, of opportunity, of community.  The story of faith that unites rather than divides.  The story of helping each other, of learning from our mistakes, of picking ourselves up, of calling on God.  We began to believe that the old story was a better story, it was our true story.

I believe that is what happened on Tuesday.  America reclaimed her story.  For in the end, the story is all we have.  The story is what makes this country great. The story begun in the hearts of those who sought a different life — a life of freedom, in a land of opportunity, where everyone could realize their God-given potential.  A story that was not segmented by class or color or creed.  A story that was true, and that could be true again.  

*Helping People Forgive, David W. Augsburger, pg. 119

Joint Community Services Provide 4 Benefits

The four Chatham pastors — Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian — met today to discuss our joint lenten services.  We’ll have a simple dinner and 30-minute service each of the five Wednesday evenings during lent.  We also have a community thanksgiving service, community Holy Week services, and a joint vacation Bible school.  Here are the 4 benefits these services provide:

  1. Larger attendance.  This may be obvious and is not very spiritual, but frankly a larger group at these services encourages everyone.   Rather than 4 services with a handful each, we have one service with good participation.  
  2. Shared traditions.  Baptists and Presbyterians get to take communion by intinction at the altar when we worship with the Methodists or Episcopalians.  Because the four pastors also share preaching responsibilities at each other’s church, we learn from each other about different worship practices, liturgical symbolism, and theological distinctives. 
  3. Common faith.  Despite our liturgical and theological differences, community services highlight our common Christian faith.  We are all Christians who love and serve the same God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
  4. Good fellowship.  Several of these events involve table fellowship — eating, in other words.  We enjoy seeing our neighbors at these events and it helps foster continued friendships. 

Joint community services work in our small town.  They may not work as well in other settings, but these ecumenical events build stronger bonds in our community.  What do you do with other denominations or groups?  How do you bridge theological and liturgical differences?

The sheep are coming

sheep_racingLast Sunday we received two new members — a wonderful young couple who moved to our community to restore an old family home out in our county.  One of the discouraging aspects of small church ministry is a lack of new members, so we were glad to have Amy and Richard join with us.  But, let me tell you a story that God used to encourage me about new members two years’ ago. 

Debbie and I were praying one morning after discussing how discouraged we were because we were reaching so few new people.  

Now this is where the story gets weird. I want you to know that I think this part is weird, so you will realize that this doesn’t happen to me all the time. In our praying about what we should do, Debbie kept telling me to be patient that the “sheep were coming.” It didn’t look like the sheep were coming to me, but she assured me they were.

One night not long after that, I had a dream. I saw the letters S-A-U-B-R-I-G in big block letters, like they had been printed on a large sheet of paper. That was it — “saubrig.”  When I woke up, I wrote the letters down because I felt there was some significance to them. But what?

So I did what anybody does now — I turned on my computer and googled, S-A-U-B-R-I-G. What I got back were a bunch of references in some foreign language that I did not recognize. But one entry was in English. It was an article about ancient Yorkshire surnames and place names. Not exciting reading, but as I scrolled down through the article, there it was — the word saubrig. Only it was two words — sau brig.  

Let me read you the article at this point –

Sau (pronounced sow) in Scandinavian is sheep. Brig is a dock, or trading post area. Perhaps it [sau brig] was an old way of describing a ‘sheeptown’s dock’ or, gathering point – the Saubrig…

Isn’t that amazing? And that settled it for me. I knew that in spite of my mistakes that God was still at work.  This is the sheeptown’s dock, the gathering point. I believe the sheep are coming. I believe they are coming here to this place, to this town, to this church, to our community, to this congregation.

I included this story in a sermon I preached last year, and the story seemed to encourage some of our members, too.  Right now, we have about a dozen new members pending.  That’s huge for us and I do believe the sheep are coming. They don’t come in our timing, only God’s.  So if you’re discouraged that you’re not reaching people fast enough, be patient.  The sheep are coming, you just don’t know them yet.

Prayers for a new president

The prayers of a nation are with you, Mr. President.  

officialportrait1I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.   — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

How I prepare for a memorial service

A memorial service  should accomplish two things — it should bring comfort to the family, and it should connect with the life of the deceased.  To meet those two criteria, I ask the family to help me by providing these 6 things:

  1. Scripture passages.  I ask if they have scripture passages that hold special meaning for them.  I do not promise I will use all the passages, but they usually give me a place to start in message preparation.
  2. The Bible that belonged to their loved one.  I have asked if the family would like for me to read from their loved one’s Bible. Some do not have a Bible they have used frequently, and I move on. 
  3. Stories. I am looking for stories that characterize their loved one’s life.  These can be funny, serious, spiritual, or everyday stories but they need to capture some aspect of the person’s life.  I always ask if I can share that at the service.  Sometimes people tell you stories as a part of their griefwork, but they do not want them told publicly.
  4. Hymns or songs.  In our community we get requests mostly for  traditional hymns like In The Garden or Amazing Grace.   Some families may select recorded songs that may or may not be apppropriate, but you can guide the family to use music that honors both God and the individual’s memory.  I conducted a teenager’s  funeral years ago, and the family played heavy metal music prior to the service.  I thought someone at the funeral home had a radio on.  I complained to the manager, who informed me that this was the family’s request.  I would have tried to steer them to a more appropriate means of honoring their son. 
  5. Poems, prayers, or readings.  Some families want a special poem, prayer, or reading used during the service.  I try to accomodate those requests as often as I can.
  6. Eulogies.  Often families want to give an opportunity for others at the service to share their memories with the congregation.  I suggest that one or two of these be planned so there is not a long period of silence while waiting.  

If you’re a pastor, you probably have a similar list of helps that you’re looking for when you prepare for a funeral or memorial service.  What questions do you ask?  How do you connect the service with the life of the person being remembered?