Month: February 2010

Forgiveness Is Not A Simple Act

One of the big ideas we deal with as pastors and church leaders is forgiveness.  Obviously, God in Christ has forgiven those of us who have come to Him in faith and repentance.  Jesus taught forgiveness and demonstrated it by forgiving the woman caught in adultery, and the thief of the cross, not to mention Peter himself who betrayed Christ.

Christ commands us to forgive, not just seven times, but seventy times seven, or an infinite number of times.  So, the teaching that we should forgive is at the heart of what Jesus taught and what we believe.  But I now see forgiveness as a much more complex act than I might have thought a few years ago.

Here are some questions I’m wrestling with right now:

1.  How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone? Do you quit having hostile, or less-than-friendly feelings toward them?  Do you re-establish the relationship?  After all Jesus said leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled, and then come and offer your gift to God.  What is the definition of forgiveness?

2.  Can you really forgive without a response from the person who wronged you? I just finished reading The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From The Civil Rights Movement to Today. The horror stories of beatings, assaults, murders, and indignities inflicted on African-Americans during the civil rights era is astounding.  Yet, the leaders of that movement continued to say that civil rights wasn’t about being able to ride in the front of the bus, or use the “white-only” water fountain. Rather, the struggle was for reconciliation of black and white Americans.

3.  How can we help our members with forgiveness issues? A better question might be, How can we model forgiveness in our own life and ministry?  As I have read several books on forgiveness lately, I have been struck by my own unforgiving spirit Continue reading “Forgiveness Is Not A Simple Act”

Lenten meditation: Remembering the Journey

This is the meditation I am sharing tonight for our community Lenten service.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

1 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket.

Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.

5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.

8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey;

10and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

God brings us down.

Jewish life is full of storytelling.  The Passover is the most well-known example, when the youngest child asks the question, “Why is this night different from all others?” Then, among other things, the story of the exodus from Egypt is told, very much like this telling we have just read.  But our passage tonight covers a lot of territory.

First, “My father was a wandering Aramean” probably refers to Abraham to connect the storyteller with the ancestry of all Jews.  Aram and Chaldea were closely connected, although we don’t have time to go into that here.  But this is probably an attempt to Continue reading “Lenten meditation: Remembering the Journey”

5 Keys to Transformational Youth Ministry

“Kids have better things to do than come to a big event,” youth minister Prentice Park commented.  “Kids are looking for something deeper, more meaningful, and they’re not going to get that at a big event.”  Jeremy Zach, also a youth pastor, echoed Park’s point: “In our setting, youth ministry can’t be event-based because we don’t have the budget or the space.”

Jeremy and Prentice serve neighboring churches in the Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel communities of southern California.  Both churches average about 300 in worship.  Youth ministry in smaller churches like theirs relies on building personal relationships and creating space for conversations about Jesus.  Reaching an always-on, technology-native generation means more than serving pimento cheese sandwiches at an after-church fellowship.  Teens today deal with complex issues of identity, meaning, and the need to belong.  Smaller churches can engage teenagers effectively without having to produce big events requiring huge budgets.

During an interview, Park and Zach identified five keys to reaching and keeping teenagers engaged in ministry:

1.  Build relationships. While this doesn’t sound like new advice, both Park and Zach see relationships with teens as the number one key to effective youth ministry.  “Kids don’t need more ‘hello’ friends,” Park noted.  Building relationships is really about building trust between adult leaders and youth group members.

2.  Share ministry. Zach suggested a ratio of one adult leader for every eight teens when building a youth ministry.  “Students need to see adults living out their faith,” Zach said.  Having a 1-to-8 adult-to-teen ratio allows adults to connect with clusters of kids.  Youth ministry becomes a “network of networks” as adult sponsors get to know teenagers both individually and within their circle of friends.

3.  Create safe space. Both Park and Zach hold about half their youth meetings away from the church campus so that

Continue reading “5 Keys to Transformational Youth Ministry”

When Death Comes To Our Community

This is the sermon I am going to preach on Sunday, February 21, 2010.  It comes on the occasion of the death of one of our members tonight, Saturday, February 20.

When Pope John XXIII lay dying, the Pope’s physician is reported to have said, “Holy Father, you have asked me many times to tell you when the end was near so you could prepare.”  The Pope replied, “Yes.  Don’t feel badly, Doctor.  I understand. I am ready.”

With that the Pope’s secretary, Loris Capovilla collapsed at the Pope’s bedside weeping.

“Courage, my son.  I am a bishop, and I must die as a bishop, with simplicity but with majesty, and you must help me.  Go get the people together.”

His reply was, “Santo Padre, they are waiting.” — Accompany Them With Singing, Introduction.

Last night one of our own left us.  Earl Hedrick went home to be with God.  I had planned to preach today on angels as God’s ushers, bringing us at death and at the end of time into the presence of God.  And while that might be a subject of great interest to us at another time, I felt today I needed to speak to you as your pastor about death, and what happens when death comes to our community.

This is not Earl’s funeral or eulogy, but because his death came so close upon our gathering here today, and came as such a shock to each of us, I want to take a few minutes today to talk about death and how we as followers of Christ deal with the grief and loss that accompanies death.

Dying Is Part of Our Life’s Journey

We all know we are going to die someday, but the will to live that beats in our chest does all it can to push death away.  We have sought to remove death from our lives, our homes, even our churches so much that when death does come in unexpected and surprising ways, we are struck with its finality and force.

There was a time when death was seen as the shadow companion of life.  Walk through any old cemetery where the grave stones display dates that reach back a hundred or more years.  What strikes me each time I visit an old cemetery is the number of small

Continue reading “When Death Comes To Our Community”

The Five People A Pastor Needs In Church

With apologies to Mitch Albom, here’s my take on the five people a pastor needs in church.

  1. A friend. Because pastors are human beings, we need a social network of friends.  But some pastors continue to believe that a pastor can’t be friends with people in his or her congregation.  A pastor should not play favorites among church members, but that is far different than valuing the friendship of some members.  Friends are the ones who keep your kids, invite you out to eat, drop by unannounced, and care about what’s happening in your life.  Friends know the real you, and pastors need friends in church who know us in all of our humanity.
  2. A counselor. Pastors need friends, but they also need counselors.  Usually you only need one or two, but you need a wise, thoughtful person in the congregation who will give you an honest assessment of your ideas, vision, and goals.  The Bible itself presents the idea that there is “wisdom in many counselors.”
  3. A pray-er. Not a prayer, but a pray-er — someone who prays for you and the church.  Daily.  Regularly.  Fervently.  Paul encourages young Timothy to offer prayers for leaders, and church leaders need people who pray regularly for them.  The legendary story of Charles Spurgeon’s “power plant” — the prayer room at his church — needs to be realized in our churches today.  Pastors should be at the top of somebody’s prayer list.
  4. A critic. Of course, critics seem to be in abundant supply in many churches.  But pastors do need critics, too.  We need critics to offer the counterpoint to our ideas, vision, and dreams.  While praise is wonderful, we learn from criticism, especially when it is honest, helpful, and loving.
  5. A supporter. In every church I have served, I have enjoyed great support from wonderful people.  Supporters aren’t just fans of the pastor.  Supporters are genuinely enthusiastic about the pastor’s leadership, the direction of the church, Continue reading “The Five People A Pastor Needs In Church”

Remembering Why You Said Yes

This article was first published in Neue Quarterly, Vol. 4, Summer 2009.

Remembering Why You Said Yes
by Chuck Warnock

The phone rang at 3 A. M. one Saturday morning.  “Pauline is dying,” her niece said, “Can you come?”  I dressed quickly, told my wife I didn’t know when I would return, and headed out the door.   I drove to the nursing home ten miles away where the oldest member of our congregation lay dying.  At 105, Pauline had outlived her husband, her nearest relatives, her friends, and her neighbors.  Now her time had come, too.  I was Pauline’s pastor.  It was my duty to be there with her as she crossed from this life into the next.  But I knew it was more than just my job, it was my calling.

If you are a pastor, you probably have had a similar experience.  In a time of crisis, you know why you go.  You represent God’s presence, God’s comfort, and God’s grace to those passing through their own dark night of the soul.  Sitting in a hospital with anxious parents whose child is in surgery; or, standing with a widow as she identifies the body of her husband, you know you make a difference.  In those times it is not difficult to remember why we said “Yes” to God’s call to pastoral ministry.  Unfortunately, there are other times in a pastor’s life when the clarity of our call fades, discouragement clouds our memory, and we wonder “why did I ever want to be a pastor?”

I experienced a period of doubt and discouragement in 1990, and I forgot why I had become a pastor.  And when I forgot why I had become a pastor, the next question I asked myself was, “Why don’t you quit?”  And I did.  I resigned the church I started and left pastoral ministry.  I thought I had nothing more to say.  I thought my years of ministry hadn’t made a difference.  I was tired emotionally and spiritually, and I quit because I couldn’t remember why I had begun.  Fortunately, my story doesn’t end there.  In 2003, I stood in the pulpit for the first time in thirteen years.  I had remembered again why I said “Yes.”

The Myths of Ministry

Looking back on my own struggle with God’s call, I realized that three “myths of ministry” contributed to my difficulty.  This is not an exhaustive list, but these myths played a key role in my experience:

Continue reading “Remembering Why You Said Yes”

Entertaining Angels: Open to the Numinous

Entertaining Angels:  Open To The Numinous

2Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2 NIV

Where Were We?

Our return to worship today after two weeks out due to snow reminds me of those old serialized radio shows that were so popular back in the 1930s and 1940s.  Before we got our first TV, I remember sitting at the kitchen table listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio. As each new episode began, the voice-over to the action went something like this —

When we last saw our hero, he was trapped in a burning building with no way to escape.  Will he survive, or is this the end of the Lone Ranger?

Or something like that.  Anyway, the point was to bring the listener up-to-date on the action.  So, let me do the same today.

The last time we met, which was January 24, 2010, I had just begun a series of sermons on angels.  Here’s what we covered so far:

— On January 3, we started off with the first sermon titled, “Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?”

— On January 10, we looked a “Angels as the Servants of Christ.”

— Then, on January 17, after the earthquake devastated Haiti, I addressed that tragedy with a sermon titled, “Who Sinned? The Problem of Human Suffering.”

— On January, 24, we thought about “Angels as the Messengers and Armies of God.”

So, that’s where we’ve been.  We have filled in the gaps from Sundays on Wednesday nights as we shared our own stories of God’s supernatural intervention in our lives.  Interestingly, most of us had some kind of story, that either happened to us or someone close to us, of an encounter with angels.  Or, at least, that’s how we each interpreted those events.

So, today, we’re back, but I’ve had to do some rearranging of the topics I intended to cover because I want to finish this series before February 28, when we will have the privilege of hearing our Baptist association’s furloughing missionaries, Rev. and Mrs. Ed Ridge, for WMU Focus Sunday.  By then we’ll be in the season of Lent, and preparing for Holy Week and the resurrection of Christ on Easter.  Time, as they say, waits for no man.  Or even angels.

Which brings me to our topic today.  This series of sermons on angels is titled, “Entertaining Angels.”  Each week the subtitle reveals where we’re going for that Sunday, and today is no exception.

Today, we’re looking at Hebrews 13:2, from which I took the series title, and we’re thinking about being “Open to the Numinous.” What, you might ask, is “the numinous?”

Well, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “numinous” means —

Main Entry: nu·mi·nous
Pronunciation: \ˈnü-mə-nəs, ˈnyü-\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin numin-, numen numen
Date: 1647

1 : supernatural, mysterious
2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : holy
3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : spiritual

So, that’s what we’re thinking about today, and that was really one of the main reasons I wanted to do this series on angels — to get us to thinking about the fact that God is still active in our world, and that his messengers, God’s holy angels, are still ministering today just as they did before any human beings were around to encounter them.  That’s what the numinous is — an encounter with the divine, the holy.  Like the stories we told about our encounters with angels.

But too often we treat those “angel stories” as the exception, when in the Bible and in the Hebrew tradition that ranges back over 3500 years, encounters with God and God’s angels were expected, anticipated, and cherished.

Entertaining Angels Unawares

I like the old way the King James Version of our Bible translates the passage we read this morning —

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13:2 KJV

There’s a quaintness to the King James’ English that is in itself mystical:  “…some have entertained angels unawares.”

When Alan Jones, the former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, made a trip to Egypt several years ago, he visited the Coptic Monastery of St. Macarius the Egyptian.  Macarius was one of the legendary “Desert Fathers” — Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ who retreated to the desert to escape the decadence of urban life, and the lack of spiritual vitality in the Church of their day.  So, even after 1500 years, some things don’t change!

Jones said that when he arrived at the monastery, he was greeted by an old monk named Father Jeremiah.  Father Jeremiah’s long beard and friendly manner captivated Jones.  What struck Alan Jones the most was that here he was, an Episcopal priest of some considerable standing, visiting a Coptic monastery, and yet he was welcomed without a word of discussion or debate about the differences between the two traditions.

Father Jeremiah gave him a tour of the grounds, including the tombs of John the Baptist, and the Old Testament prophet Elisha.  Ancient tradition said that the two great prophets of God — one of the Old and one of the New Testament — were buried side-by-side.  Their remains, called relics, had been venerated for generations, and had been moved to Alexandria at one time.  But in 1976, the remains of both had been brought back and re-buried at the monastery.

After Father Jeremiah related that story, he paused for a moment.  He smiled and said,

“Of course, it does not matter whether you believe any of this or not.  All that matters here is brotherly love.”

Jones said that as his visit concluded, Father Jeremiah presented him with three gifts — a handful of flowers and herbs gathered from the monastery gardens, a meal to refresh and sustain him, and 3 vials of oil for healing.  All three gifts were presented without introduction or explanation, as though they could speak for themselves.

When Jones commented on the hospitality of the monastery, Father Jeremiah replied with a laugh —

“We always treat guests as angels, just in case!”

Our Ministry to Angels

And, that’s my point today.  When we think of angels, we usually think about what they do.  They deliver God’s messages to humankind.  They protect us.  They deliver us.  They watch over us.  They do battle for us.  They minister to us.

But what about our ministry to the angels?  Do we have one?  And, if so, what is it?  How do we go about ministering to angels?  And, how will we know when we have done it?

Well, our scripture today gives us some help.  The author of Hebrews is concluding his letter to the band of believers in chapter 13.  In the first verse he says —

1Keep on loving each other as brothers.

Then in the verses that follow verse 2, he says —

3Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

And right away, we’re reminded of the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus taught the disciples to love each other, so much so that he said to them, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

But, he also taught them to care for others.  In that important passage in Matthew 25, as the angels have come at the end of time to help Christ in the final judgment, Jesus commands the angels to separate the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are those who have heard the Good Shepherd, and the goats are those who have not.

And what did the sheep do that pleased Jesus?  You know this passage —

35′For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Paul echoes the words of Jesus in his last instructions to these Jewish Christians — love each other, entertain strangers, visit the prisoners, and care for the suffering.  And when you do those things, you might be entertaining angels, whether you know it or not.

Receiving Others as God’s Messengers

We most often think of angels making an appearance like the angels who appeared when Jesus was born.  Apparently their presence was so dazzling and glorious that the shepherds who were tending their flocks that night were terrified.  And so the angels said, “Fear not, for behold we bring you good tidings of great joy!”

And while there are other passages where the first words out of the mouths of angels are “Fear not”, there are also stories of angels appearing to people, but they look like ordinary men.  Three angels appear to Abraham and Sarah, telling them that Sarah will have a child.  Sarah laughed at that news because she was in her 90s and Abraham was close to 100.

Way back on January 3, when we began this look at angels, we said that angels are the messengers of God.  We need to be open to those who might be God’s messengers to us, who might teach us something we need to know about ourselves and about God’s love.

When we lived in Tennessee, we attended a large church whose membership consisted largely of professionals — doctors, lawyers, business executives, university professors, and research scientists.   But the church was a warm and welcoming congregation, and there was also an open door for those who were not career professionals.

One of those people was a man named Harrington.  Harrington was probably in his 50s, with grey hair and a short grey beard.  It was apparent that Harrington had some challenges.  His speech pattern was halting and words came with some difficulty.  Debbie and I had been asked to host the class for prospective church members, which met for 13-weeks in the church fellowship hall.  Harrington was one of our regulars.  If he wasn’t there for the entire session, he usually came in toward the end, and he would stick around while we were cleaning up to talk to me.

Frankly, Harrington made me a little nervous.  I wasn’t sure about him, and tried to keep my conversations with him as brief as possible.  I asked the pastor about Harrington, and was told that he had suffered some difficulty at birth, but that his family had been a wealthy and respected family in the Nashville area.  That put me somewhat at ease, but I still wondered about him.

One day, Harrington approached me at church with a pen and his notebook in hand.  He handed me both and said, “Write down your address.”  That was the sum total of his request, no explanation, no reason given.  All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind — Why does he want our address?  Is he going to come to our house?  How can I not do this?

But, in the 3-seconds it took me to think those thoughts, I couldn’t come up with any way to avoid fulfilling his request.  So, reluctantly and with great concern, I wrote our address in his book.  I noticed others had done the same, so I figured that Harrington had made the rounds of his church friends with the same request.  That was in November.

Nothing happened.  No Harrington appeared at our home uninvited, and I forgot about the experience.  About a week before Christmas, I went to get the mail, and there were several Christmas cards for us.  Not surprising, since Christmas was around the corner.

As we looked at the Christmas cards, there was one with no return address.  We opened the envelope, and the card to see who had sent it.  Inside, signed in a halting hand, were the words, “Merry Christmas, Harrington.”

And right then I felt like the worst person on earth.  Harrington wanted our address to send us a Christmas card.  I am sure it must have taken him weeks to prepare and mail the cards to all his friends at church.  What came so easily to us, came with great effort to Harrington.  Which made the card that much more special.

When we saw Harrington at church the next Sunday, we thanked him for his card.  Later, he invited us to have lunch with him at the restaurant where he worked.  Harrington became a good friend, one whose conversations I looked forward to.  Harrington was God’s angel, delivering a powerful message from God  — “I am one of God’s children, too.”

An Ancient Celtic Prayer

There is an ancient Celtic prayer that Debbie and I have read many times.  This version appears in the book, Celtic Daily Prayer, and it reads —

Christ, as a light

illumine and guide me.

Christ, as a shield

overshadow me.

Christ under me;

Christ over me;

Christ beside me

on my left and my right.

This day be within and without me,

lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.

Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;

in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.

This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.

The idea that Christ is present in “the mouth of each who speaks unto me” is the idea that God’s messengers, God’s angels, come to us unexpectedly at times.  And they may come without us being aware of who they are.

After Father Jeremiah had told Alan Jones that the monks at St. Macarius Monastery always treated guests like angels, “just in case,” Jones later wrote —

“Being willing to explore the possibility of entertaining angels seemed to me to be both compassionate and perceptive, because it challenges the believer to live in a constant state of expectancy, openness, and vulnerability.”  — Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, Alan Jones, pg. 14.

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Oh, and Harrington, well he’s still at it, delivering God’s messages. This past week in the church newsletter this announcement appeared —

YOU ARE INVITED –  Harrington would like to invite all church members, family, and friends to the church on this Wednesday.  Harrington will give a talk titled “My New Home,” about the assisted-living home, where he lives now.  Everyone is welcome!”