Tag: ministry

A New Subtitle: Churches as Communities of Reconciliation

The new subtitle of this blog is Churches as Communities of Reconciliation. Let me unpack this phrase one element at a time.

Let’s start with churches. This blog began with a focus on small congregations, but over the past seven years’ of writing, I have come to the conclusion that size is the least significant factor in church vitality. Rather, a church’s sense of mission — missional consciousness, to use the jargon — is a better gauge of church vitality than size. Churches with a clear sense of purpose, whether large or small, thrive and are vibrant members of their communities. And, just to be clear, my confidence is in churches, not other organizations, to embody and exhibit the Kingdom of God as a contrast society in contemporary culture. Those churches can be traditional, seeker-sensitive, neo-monastic, denominational, or any of the other flavors that churches come in today. The form is less important than the way in which local congregations live out their calling to be salt and light to their communities and the world.

Secondly, I’m interested in churches which are practicing reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). I’m convinced that the Bible is the story of God’s reconciling love beginning in the Garden of Eden and concluding with the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. The reconciling love of God finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul continues the theme of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Down through the ages, Christian churches, evangelical churches in particular, have emphasized reconciliation between God and humankind. However, there exists also the unmistakable idea that we cannot be reconciled to God — we cannot say we love God — without being reconciled to one another. Theologians have called these the cruciform (meaning “cross-shaped”) aspects of reconciliation. We are “vertically” reconciled to God, while being “horizontally” reconciled to those around us, even our enemies. If God has given us the ministry of reconciliation — and I believe along with Paul that God has — then reconciliation should be the signature ministry of churches.

I wrote my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the subject of The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. In my research and writing, I explored not only the theological and theoretical aspects of reconciliation, but the practical, applied aspects as well. Of course, I wasn’t the first to come to this awareness, and I discovered that scores of churches in the US (and, other places), are actively practicing reconciliation in their communities.

Finally, to put it all together, I am focusing on the result that churches practicing reconciliation are building peace communities. In reconciliation studies, much of the literature is theoretical. Authors focus on the theology of reconciliation, the multi-disciplinary nature of reconciliation, and stories of reconciliation in places like South Africa and Rwanda. However, I found very few resources that could describe what a ministry of reconciliation looked like on the ground in real life. To that end, I synthesized the best of the theoretical research to develop a list of criteria for what reconciliation looks like. I’ll list those in a later post, but my point is that for churches to be able to engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we have to know what one looks like, and what result we seek as agents of reconciliation.

The goal of churches which practice reconciliation is, in my opinion, to build peace communities. I don’t mean peaceful communities, although they certainly would be. Peace communities are those neighborhoods and areas included in a local church’s ministry influence, that have been transformed in measurable ways by the practice of reconciliation.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or 72) disciples, among other things he instructed them in the practice of peace: “ “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’  If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6 NIV). We have neglected this idea of speaking peace, finding the person of peace, and “staying in one place” to bring about transformation of an entire community. That’s what peace communities are — communities that have been transformed by the shalom of God into places where Kingdom ethics are lived out, hurts are healed, relationships are restored, and God’s children live in harmony. If that sounds like an improbably fantasy we must remind ourselves that Jesus said some pretty improbable things.

In future blog posts, I’ll tell the stories of churches that are practicing reconciliation and building peace communities in their own neighborhoods. I’ll also present resources, books, seminars, and organizations that can be helpful in your church’s quest to become a reconciling community. I’m convinced this is the church of the future — engaged, vital, and transformative — and I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

The Pastor as Artisan

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Over the centuries of church history, various metaphors have been used to describe the role of God’s chosen leaders. Some metaphors have lodged permanently in our collective consciousness, while others have not passed the test of time. I suggest that there is one more metaphor for the pastor’s role that might be a welcome addition to the others — the pastor as artisan.

Perhaps the oldest metaphor used to describe the pastoral leader is that of shepherd. The second metaphor used in the New Testament for church leaders is overseer. Both of those metaphors are enduring and widely used today.

Another metaphor that emerged in the early centuries of the church was that of pastor as the “physician of souls.” Sin was viewed as a disease and pastoral care was seen as the “cure of souls” with the priest as the administrator of that cure.

As the church growth movement took root in the 1980s, the popular metaphor of pastor as CEO was drawn from the corporate world. Successful churches, church growth advocates argued, concentrated authority in the pastor as CEO because this was the most effective means toward church growth. However, in retrospect the metaphor of pastor as CEO and the church growth movement have both proven to be inadequate for the complex task of shaping and leading twenty-first century congregations.

Of course, there are other pastoral metaphors in use as well. The popular triad of pastor as prophet, priest, and poet brings together several facets of pastoral ministry. From the sports world, the idea of the pastor as coach plays off popular sports imagery with the pastor as team strategist, and church staff and members as team players who execute the game plan.

To this wide-ranging mix of metaphors I would add one more — the pastor as artisan. At their height in the middle ages, artisans were skilled master craftsmen who produced goods that were beautiful and functional. These artisans included goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, hatters, tinsmiths, carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and so on. Master artisans took apprentices and trained them to become master craftsmen after apprenticeships lasting seven or more years. Artisans organized themselves into guilds which set standards and ensured that their particular skill and craft would endure.

There are six reasons I believe the artisan is an appropriate metaphor for pastors and their work.

1. Artisans focused on one product. They learned one trade which required them to learn how to select raw materials and how to craft those raw materials into a unique, finished product. Artisans lived in the vertical silo of their own trade. Silversmiths did not work in leather, cobblers did not make barrels, and carpenters did not branch out into stone work.

2. Artisans trained apprentices to continue their craft. Skills, insights, and trade secrets were passed from master artisan to his apprentices carefully. This hands-on training and mentoring assured the continuation of the traditions of each craft, but also allowed for advances and improvements as new tools and techniques were developed. Artisans brought on new trainees each year, assuring their workshops a continuing supply of understudies at different stages of learning.

3. Artisans were successful when their workshops produced both quality products and skilled apprentices. An artisan without an apprentice limited his future and the future of the trade in which he was engaged. Successful master artisans realized that their survival meant not only producing goods today, but continuing the trade for generations through the lives of apprentices they trained.

4. Artisans maintained important traditions while incorporating best practices as they became available. The purpose of the apprentice system was to pass on the skills and trade secrets developed over decades of skilled work techniques. These traditions became marks of pride, honor, and identification for each artisan guild. Guilds guaranteed that standards were followed, while also vetting newer practices. This process assured that the entire guild would continue to be well-thought of, and its products would be valued and purchased.

5. Artisans depended on other artisans for products they did not produce. The carriage maker, for instance, depended on the wheelwright for wheels. The wheelwright, in turn, depended on the blacksmith for the iron bands wrapped around the wooden wheel. Because artisans specialized, they depended on and supported each other’s work and products.

6. Artisans were themselves master craftsmen. While this might seem self-evident, they knew what it was like to be a novice, and then to progress to the more complex skills as their knowledge and craftsmanship developed. Master artisans knew the frustrations of apprenticeship, learned to endure the seven or more years their apprenticeship covered, and valued their training as they set up their own workshops as master artisans. There was no shortcut to becoming a master craftsman, and no absentee ownership of a skilled craft workshop. Artisans were hands-on masters, trained to train others while producing their own quality products.

In summary, the pastor as artisan is an apt metaphor and here’s why.

 Like artisans, pastors…

1. Focus on one product — proclaiming and practicing the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. Train others to do what they do, thereby ensuring continuity of Christian witness now and in the future.

3. Are most successful when they not only produce effective ministry results, but when they also work closely with others to do the same.

4. Value age-old traditions, such as doctrinal orthodoxy, while incorporating new expressions of the faith into their practice.

5. Depend on others, as members of the body of Christ, to provide those gifts they do not possess in order to function faithfully as the Church.

6. Have learned important lessons from skilled leaders who have gone before them, and have incorporated those lessons into their own mature practice of ministry.

Viewing pastors and other church leaders as artisans helps us to take a long-term approach to ministry. Apprenticeships that lasted seven years required patience, consistency, and perseverance from both master artisan and apprentice. However, by taking the long view , artisans created beautiful products and an enduring legacy. Pastors could learn from their example.

Picking Up The Mantle of Leadership

prophet-elijah-ascending-to-heaven-on-a-chariot-of-fireSunday I preached on the story of the prophet Elijah and his protege Elisha from 2 Kings 2:8-14. Elijah knew he was nearing the the end of his life, and asked Elisha what he could do for him before he departed. Elisha replied that he wanted a “double-portion” of Elijah’s spirit.

Of course, this is the Elijah who had defeated Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets of Baal, all 450 of them. This is the Elijah that had saved the widow of Zarephath and her son by assuring her that her flour and oil would not run out until God brought rain to end the drought. This is also the same Elijah who raised the widow’s son from the dead. So to ask for a “double-portion” of his spirit was to ask a lot.

In Elijah’s passing of the mantle of leadership to Elisha, there are four things we can learn:

1. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to want it.

2 Kings tells us there were 50 other prophets following Elijah, but Elisha was the only one to ask if he could inherit Elijah’s ministry. Of course, back in 1 Kings 19, God tells Elijah to select Elisha, and he does so by temporarily wrapping his mantle around Elisha’s shoulders. Elisha indicates that he wants this mantle of ministry by immediately ceasing to plow his fields, slaughtering his oxen, and building a sacrificial fire from the wooden plows and harnesses he is using. In short, Elisha wanted to pick up Elijah’s mantle.

2. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to wait for it.

We don’t know how much time elapses between Elisha’s selection by Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and Elisha’s inheritance of Elijah’s mantle in 2 Kings 8. But, however long it took, Elisha had to wait for the time God had appointed for him to assume his prophetic ministry. When Elisha asked for a “double-portion” of Elijah’s spirit, what he was really asking for was that he would be seen as the rightful heir to Elijah’s prophetic work, just like a first-born son would have inherited the material possessions of his father. An heir has to wait to succeed his father, and Elisha waited patiently for God’s timing.

3. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to witness the power of God.

When Elisha asks Elijah for a double-portion of his spirit, Elijah says, “If you see me when I’m taken from you, it will be yours–otherwise, it will not.” But paradoxically, Elijah tries three times to dissuade Elisha from following him. Each time, Elisha says, “I’m going to stay with you.” Unless Elisha sees the power of God, he can’t inherit the mantle of prophetic leadership. While others were intimidated by seeing the power of Israel’s evil kings, Ahab and his son, God’s prophets had to see and embrace the power of God in action. When Elisha sees the chariot and horses of fire, he cries out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horses of Israel!”

4. Once you have picked up the mantle of leadership, you have to wield it.

As Elijah is being carried into heaven, his mantle slips from his shoulders. Elisha picks it up, rolls it up, and strikes the waters of the river Jordan, just as Elijah had done not long before. As he does so, Elisha asks, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” By his action and his prayer, Elisha invokes the power and presence of God as he assumes the prophetic mantle. When Elisha strikes the waters of the Jordan River, the waters part just as they had for Elijah. Had Elisha not wielded the mantle of leadership, he would have never received confirmation that Elijah’s leadership had indeed passed to him.

Leadership succession isn’t always neat or simple. But church leaders can benefit from the lessons of Elisha’s succession to Elijah. By wanting to assume the leadership to which God has called them, by waiting until God’s timing is right, by witnessing the power of God in the transition, and by wielding the mantle of leadership once it has fallen to them, the transfer of leadership from one leader to another will follow an extraordinary biblical model.

Sermon: Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

Tomorrow, Sunday, June 2, 2013, our church will dedicate a new handicapped lift that we recently installed. The lift eliminates the need to climb 7 steps to get into our sanctuary from the educational building. Although we have a wheelchair ramp at the front doors of the church, those 7 stairs were the last barrier to making our church completely handicapped accessible. It’s interesting to me that the lectionary reading for today involves Solomon’s prayer that when “foreigners” come to the Temple, Solomon prays that God will hear them. Israel’s mission and ours is to make the presence of God accessible to everyone. I hope your Sunday is a wonderful! 

Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 NIV

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:

“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— 42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Solomon’s Prayer For The Temple

To say that this was a special day would have been a huge understatement. Solomon, king of Israel, stood in the most unique and exquisite building in his kingdom. It was a project that his father David had wanted to undertake. But despite the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart, God reserved the building of the Temple for David’s son, Solomon.

After years of planning and gathering materials — cedar from Lebanon, cypress, stone quarried and cut off site so the sound of iron tools would not be heard in the Temple area — and after seven years’ of actual construction, Solomon now stood before the house of God and before God’s people, Israel.

Facing the massive outdoor altar on which Solomon will later sacrifice 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen, Solomon offers a prayer for this building that he has built as God’s dwelling place on earth.

Acknowledging that no earthly building can contain all of God’s presence, Solomon nevertheless connects the earthly Temple to the heavenly throne of God. Solomon asks that when Israelites gather to pray there, that God will hear from his throne in heaven.

But then Solomon asks God for something unusual. After asking for God to hear the Israelites whenever they call on him in the Temple, Solomon then asks the same privilege for non-Israelites — for foreigners.

Solomon says that foreigners will hear of God’s great name — and they will he states — then Solomon asks God to hear the prayers of foreigners, too, and to whatever the foreigner asks so that all people will know that God is the one true God, and that they will also know that this Temple contains the very presence of that God.

In other words, this magnificent temple made of the best materials by the best artisans available, this temple that is overlaid with gold throughout, that gleams in the sunshine, that gives glory to the God of Israel — this temple is to be accessible to everyone, even foreigners.

Solomon’s prayer is a radical departure for his day and for national places of worship. Of course, it wasn’t unusual for nations to have their own gods, and most had several. What was unique about Israel though was that Israel only had one god. Usually nations were very protective of their gods. As nations went to battle, the nation who prevailed in battle was believed to have the stronger, more effective god. We see some of this reflected even in the Old Testament, where victories in battle are attributed to God, and defeats in battle are seen to be God’s punishment for an unfaithful people.

What we might expect Solomon to say is something like this — “Lord, you are our god. We serve you and we built this house for you. Now pay special attention to us, your special people. Favor us over everyone else. And, don’t pay any attention to the prayers of other people who aren’t like us.”

Instead, Solomon says just the opposite. Oh, of course, he does invoke God’s presence, blessing, and favor on Israel. But then he adds, “Lord, others will hear about you, and they’ll come to this place. When they do, and they pray to you, hear them, too.”

This is what made Israel different from all the nations around them. Not only did Israel have a god, but from the beginning when God called Abraham and promised to make him the father of a great nation, part of the promise was that Israel was going to be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations.

Unfortunately, by the first century when Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God, Israel has forgotten that their temple is to be open to all people. Of course, the Court of the Gentiles was still in the Temple, but this is where the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice had set up shop. By taking up so much space for their commercial enterprise, the Gentiles were being excluded from their space in the presence of God.

That’s why when Jesus drives the money changers and merchants from the temple, he quotes the Old Testament by saying that his Father’s house was to be called a house of prayer for all nations, but they had made it a den of thieves. Not only were the merchants stealing from their own people, they were denying access to the presence of God to all the foreigners, all the other nations.

Another House of Worship, But The Same Prayer

Nineteen hundred years after Jesus, on April 8, 1906, the Los Angeles Times, then called the Los Angeles Daily Times, carried an article describing a new church in an industrial section of Los Angeles. But this wasn’t the standard Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian church.

The report in the paper that day said “a new sect of fanatics was breaking loose.” This bizarre new religious sect had started with people “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” Furthermore, “Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.”

“If that didn’t grab the reader’s attention, the article continued by saying that, ‘Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.’ To top it all off, they claimed to have received the “gift of tongues,” and what’s more, “comprehend the babel.”’ (Courtesy: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/199904/026_azusa.cfm)

For three years the Asuza Street congregation held on as a mixed congregation of blacks and whites, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. But the persistent negative press, and the suspicions and prejudice of the citizens of Los Angeles eventually drove them to disband. Laws were enacted to prohibit mixed race worship, and blacks were excluded from white services not only in California but elsewhere as Jim Crow laws governed social interactions.

What Keeps People from the Presence of God?

Now over 3,000 years since Solomon prayed his prayer, we have to ask ourselves “Are we as committed to opening our houses of worship to the “foreigners” in our society? And who are the foreigners, anyway?

Of course, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Protestants were grappling with the issue of sending missionaries to take the Gospel to foreigners. William Carey, the shoe cobbler-turned-preacher became the father of the modern missions movement as Carey argued passionately that the Gospel should be taken to those in foreign lands.

Our own Southern Baptist Convention split over the oddly-paired issues of slavery and missions. And, when the SBC was formed, one of the first acts of business was to establish the Foreign Mission Board for the sending of missionaries to India, China, Africa, and other foreign lands.

But if we look at the story of Solomon and the Temple again, Solomon is praying that when foreigners hear about God, and when they come to the Temple itself, he prays that God would hear them, just as God does Israel.

In other words, Solomon’s prayer isn’t a prayer about sending missionaries, it’s a prayer about opening the presence of God to everyone. But, unfortunately, as we said earlier, Israel forgets this prayer.

But God doesn’t. And so when the birth of the Messiah is announced, it isn’t announced by angels to the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or even the chief priest. The religious leaders who guard access to the Temple and whose actions and public displays discourage others from the presence of God are not the ones to hear the announcement of the Messiah’s birth. Instead, angels appear to shepherds who are living in the fields with their flocks. Shepherds are not permitted into the Temple because they are ceremonially unclean. So, God shows up where they are.

When John the Baptist preaches and baptizes for repentance, John doesn’t preach in the court of the Temple, nor baptize in the numerous baptismal pools adjacent to it. No, John withdraws to the desert, to the Jordan River, which is rich in symbolism of the Exodus crossing into the land of promise under the leadership of Joshua, or Yeshua, which is what the new Messiah’s name is, too.

In the history of God’s people, when access to the presence of God has been denied to any and to all, then God moves out of the structures of religious buildings and ceremony, and meets people where they are with good news.

Breaking Down Barriers to the Presence of God

But what about us today? There is no more Temple. It was destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman army intent on stopping the persistent efforts of the Jews to break free from Rome. All that remains is the foundation, the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple. But did you see the other day that numbers of Orthodox Jewish men turned out to protest the presence of women in an area of the Wailing Wall that previously had been reserved for men? Even today, there are those who will intentionally keep others — because of their gender, their race, their belief, their dress, their nationality, and so on — from the presence of God.

Now we know that sounds terrible. We cannot justify those who prevent others from coming into the presence of God for whatever reason.

But we have to ask ourselves “Who are the foreigners in our midst, and what can we do to open our church and faith community to them?”

Recently an editor from a well-know Christian publication asked me to write a short article about how small churches can attract and minister to single adults. But here’s the thing: most people think of single adults as young, twenty-somethings who are trendy and cool. And every church wants to attract that group.

But single adults are also those who are older. Some are 70-somethings who are single because their mate of 40 or 50 years has died. Other single adults are intellectually or physically disabled, and need facilities that accommodate their disabilities. Some single adults are single parents, raising one or more children on their own, and they need a church that can provide nurture for their children.

That’s what I’m going to say in my article. Single adults come in more life situations than just young, 20-something, and trendy. If we open our eyes to the reasons people are single, and begin to make church a welcoming place for even one of those previously-excluded groups, then we are praying the prayer Solomon prayed at the Temple.

Our History of Breaking Down Barriers

In writing my dissertation, I discovered some interesting things about our church. We’ve been breaking down barriers to the presence of God here for a long time. Not that we’ve always gotten it completely right, or done everything we could, but we have done some things. Like Israel, we have a history, a heritage of breaking down barriers to the presence of God.

That history includes being instrumental in founding Hargrave Military Academy at a time in the life of this county and commonwealth when rural education was not readily available, and Christian education was even less so.

Our history includes starting Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church. While it’s only two miles or so from our church, apparently in the 1950s those two miles might as well have been 200. To plant a church in a community that for whatever reasons was not going to come to Chatham Baptist Church was a part of our making the presence of God accessible to all.

When we started the bus ministry, our church reached out to our entire community, to include members of other churches, and perhaps no church, in our fellowship circle.

When we built the new fellowship hall over 15 years ago, you decided to open its use to the community, to welcome others into this building and to open our doors to civic clubs, and other worthwhile organizations who shared our values, and contributed to the well-being of this community.

When we opened our doors to the Boys and Girls Club, and to the Chatham Arts Community Music School, we were inviting others into our space, and by extension into the presence of God.

When we built the playground, we were inviting families with children to come and join with us. We were sending the message that here your children are loved, valued, and protected. Here is a safe place for them to play and learn about God’s presence in their lives.

And, when we installed the lift several months ago, we were inviting all of those who had mobility issues, who could not readily climb stairs, to join us in this sanctuary for worship. Of course, most of us thought that we would have to get older before we needed it, but I was one of the first who got to use the lift when I came to church on that Easter Sunday after my hospital stay.

Our Challenge for the Future

But as much as we have done, we must continue to pray the prayer of Solomon for this place. We have to think about who else we might need to reach out to, and what other groups might feel that they do not have access to the presence of God here.

Over fifty-three years ago, the Cradock Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, founded what they call the Robin Class “as a special ministry to serve mentally-challenged young people and adults.  The Robins have their own Sunday School and church program on Sundays from 10 a.m. until Noon.  Their dedicated teachers provide an environment where the Robins can experience spiritual growth and Christian fellowship.  Transportation is provided for the class by a van purchased by donations from members and friends.  The Robins attend a special session of camp at Eagle Eyrie each fall.” (http://www.cradockbaptist.org/about-us/)

Other churches have done and are doing similar things. Opening the presence of God to others who may seem like “foreigners” to us is not easy. That’s why Israel so quickly and often forgot that was their mission. But it is also our mission. And with each step we take, with each door we open, with each barrier we break down, we come a little closer to making God’s presence accessible to all. That was Solomon’s prayer, and it should be ours as well.

Sermon: The Implications of Being Sent By Jesus

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching for the second Sunday of Eastertide. I trust your Sunday will be a wonderful day filled with hope that the resurrection brings, just as it brought hope and possibility to the first disciples. 

The Implications of Being Sent By Jesus

John 20:19-31 NIV

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Going for the Big Finish

Our granddaughters, Vivian and Maggie, are like other 12 and 9 year old girls. They are involved in a number of extra-curricular activities. Vivian took dance for several years, and the highlight of the dance year was the annual recital. But this wasn’t just any recital. The dance studio has dozens of students, which means lots of moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and so on who will want to see their daughter, or granddaughter, or niece perform.

To accommodate the large crowds, the dance instructor rented the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, for, not one, but two days of dance recitals. But for the little girls — Vivian was a preschooler then — the highlight of the dance recital was getting to wear the costume, or costumes, depending upon how many numbers they were in.

So, this is a big deal. And, like dutiful grandparents, we made 4-and-a-half hour trip one way to see Vivian on stage for all of about 3 minutes. That’s what grandparents do, and we did it a couple of times.

Well, by about the third or fourth year of dance lessons, Vivian’s interest in dance classes was waning. So before signing up for dance lessons for another year, Laurie, our daughter, and Vivian had a little chat.

Laurie asked Vivian if she wanted to take dance for another year. Vivian said, “Yes.” Then, Laurie said, “But that means you’ll have to go to dance lessons every week.”

Vivian replied, “Oh, I don’t want to go to the lessons. I just want to be in the recital.” Laurie informed Vivian that the only way to get to be in the recital (and wear the sparkly costumes) was to take dance lessons each week. Thereupon, Vivian’s dance career came to an end.

The Disciples Face a New Challenge

All of us have had those moments where we want the big finish without all the prerequisites that go before it. And followers of Jesus are no different. Let’s look for a few moments at the implications of being sent by Jesus.

First, of all, we have to realize that the disciples had not thought about their future without Jesus present to lead them. However they had imagined their lives turning out as Jesus followers, a life without him was not one of the scenarios they entertained.

So attached were they to Jesus that when they thought about his leaving them, as they do in John’s Gospel the 14th chapter, Jesus has to reassure them that where he is going, they are going to, and that there are rooms prepared for them in his Father’s house. (John 14:1-6 NIV)

But that doesn’t seem to satisfy at least one of them. Thomas  complains, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

So, when Jesus is crucified and buried, their world collapses. Now, on the first day of the week, the disciples have had time to see the empty tomb, and to discuss the implications of that for themselves. Of course in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord herself, but in John’s telling of the story, the disciples have gathered together behind locked doors because they are afraid of what the Jewish authorities will do to them next.

They must be imagining that the authorities, with the consent of Pilate, have raided the tomb of Jesus, and concealed his body so that his grave will not become a martyr’s site for Jesus’ followers. Or, they might be afraid that the authorities have stolen the body of Jesus in order to blame them, his followers, of doing the same thing and thereby trying to perpetrate a hoax that Jesus rose from the dead.

Whatever they are thinking, they are dealing with the implications of having been Jesus’ followers. And, I imagine that not a few of them are wondering how they got in the mess they found themselves in.

But suddenly, without announcement or warning, on the evening of that day that had seemed to go on forever, John simply says, “Jesus came and stood among them…”

He greets them with the words, “Peace be with you!” which was the standard greeting among Jews, the greeting that God’s peace would rest on the person or family to whom one was speaking.

Immediately he shows them his hands and side. This is no apparition, no ghost, no fog-machine scene where they can barely see Jesus. No, as proof that he is who they think he is, he shows them the nail wounds in his hands and the gaping spear wound in his side. Now, you and I can only speculate on what this looks like. Apparently these wounds were meant to verify that this really was Jesus, rather than further disturb the disciples, so the visible wounds had a reassuring, rather than revolting, role.

Then, Jesus says to them again, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

And there we have it. This is what they are going to be doing in their future which does not include the physical presence of Jesus. They are going to be sent into the world by Jesus, just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world.

We read these words so casually now, as if we are thinking, “Well, of course that’s what Jesus is doing, sending the disciples into the world. We all know that.”

But for the disciples this is a new revelation. Of course, Jesus has hinted at their mission. He’s even sent them out on trial runs of the sort capture in Luke 10, where 72 of Jesus’ followers go on a mission of ministry to do what Jesus did. They heal the sick, they cast out demons, they seek the person of peace — meaning one who is a conduit of God’s shalom — and when they return Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18 NIV).

But now, rather than going immediately where Jesus is going, Jesus is sending them on a mission to the world, in the same manner in which God the Father has sent him. In other words, just like Vivian learned, before you get to the big finish, there are some things that have to be done first.

So, what are the implications of being sent into the world by Jesus?

Equipped by the Spirit

The first implication of being sent my Jesus into the world is that Jesus isn’t sending them, or us, alone. No, as he promised he is sending the Holy Spirit to be his presence in our life.

Jesus promised the disciples, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16 NIV)

This Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit. Now this is not the first time we see the Holy Spirit. From creation onward, the Spirit of God has been present and at work. But this is the first time that the Spirit is promised to someone other than a king, or a priest, or a prophet. This time the Spirit is promised to be the ever-present companion of every follower of Jesus, just as Jesus was with the disciples in his earthly life.

Then, Jesus doesn’t just promise the Spirit, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Wow. That was unexpected by the disciples. While they’re still trying to digest the idea that the resurrected Jesus is standing before them, and that he is sending them, he does something he has never done before — he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Somehow in our misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit, we have thought that the Holy Spirit is optional, at least in our worship and doctrinal expression. So, when the charismatic movement came along, you were either in or out. You either decided that you wanted those expressions of the Holy Spirit or you didn’t. The same is true today. Pentecostals represent those who are led by the Spirit in worship, while the rest of us are led by our understanding of Scripture, or tradition, or doctrine.

But if we think that about the Holy Spirit we miss His presence and power. The Holy Spirit is our promised companion regardless of worship style or basis of authority. You might find it interesting that early in our founding years, Baptists were viewed as wild-eyed spiritual fanatics who neither respected tradition or reason, but held an unseemly commitment to letting the Spirit of God speak to them. Interesting how we’ve gotten tamer over the past 400 years!

But the point is, one of the implications of being sent by Jesus is that we’re not sent alone — the Holy Spirit is our ever-present companion.

An Unthinkable Ministry

But if you think the idea of having the Holy Spirit present as our companion is unsettling, just wait. Jesus also gave the disciples a ministry previously reserved for God alone. The act of forgiving sins. You remember the famous encounter Jesus had with the religious authorities of his day in Mark 2:1-12. Jesus is teaching in a house, and the crowd is so great that no one can press through. So, four friends who have brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, quickly climb up on the flat roof, remove the roof tiles in the spot above where Jesus is teaching, and lower their friend down right in front of Jesus.

Mark says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5 NIV)

Religious authorities are present in the crowd, and they are appalled. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they ask. Then Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take up your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:10-11 NIV)

The disciples must have recalled that incident as Jesus gave them authority to forgive sins. But, what does that mean for us today? Is that our ministry, or did it just belong to the disciples? Well, if the Holy Spirit is ours, then this ministry is ours also.

But, this ministry of forgiving sins is a mystery to us. We do not know exactly what it means. What it does not mean is that we are now to pass judgment on others who are not like us.

What I think it means is that we act like Jesus acted toward those who are sinful. While that would include all of us, in Jesus day there were the righteous Jews, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other religious figures, and then there were the sinners like the tax collectors, women of the street, and so on. Jesus ate with these sinners. Jesus went into their homes. Jesus pronounced as Zachaeus came to faith, “Today salvation is come to this house.”

Our ministry, with the leadership of the Holy Spirit, is to be Jesus to those for whom access to God has been denied, or discouraged. We open the way for them to find forgiveness by showing them the kindness of Jesus himself, the kindness wrapped in redemption and hope.

When I was in the hospital, a lady came in to clean our room every day. I’ll call her Pauline, which was not her name, but I want to protect her privacy. It was obvious Pauline had had a difficult life. You could see it in the stoop of her shoulders, and the shuffle of her feet. And it was written on her weary face.

At first, Pauline went about her business of emptying the trash, and then mopping the room with little to say. She would say to Debbie, “Come out so I can mop.”

For many people, Pauline was the anonymous housekeeper, one of the many faceless, nameless people to do menial labor that others do not want to do.

Debbie and I decided to make a friend of Pauline. We had heard one of the nurses calling her name, so each day when she came in, we were greeted her with the same friendliness and warmth of a welcomed guest. And each day, Pauline opened up a little more of herself to us. Pauline was there everyday except Sunday. When she returned on Monday, we told her we missed her the day before.

She asked if anyone had mopped our room, and we said no, they had only picked up the trash. With a sense of pride, she said, “They’re supposed to mop, but all they do is pick up trash.” We assured her that we had missed her careful attention to our room. By the time I was discharged, Pauline was actually laughing with us.

Okay, you say, “But where’s the forgiveness of sin in that?” I believe as we forgive each other the little moments of sullenness, the times of testiness, the words that wound, and the looks that kill, we free that person to be what God intended for them to be — His child, filled with his Spirit and joy.

Conclusion

Of course, there are other implications of being sent by Jesus than the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness. But those are two that are important. Sometimes we skip over those two implications and rush right on to preaching and teaching and all of the ways in which people hear the Gospel. Because after all, Jesus told Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

But in this Easter season, let’s not forget that the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of forgiveness are where Jesus started with the disciples.

Five Things I Learned in the Hospital

duke_univ_hospWith my almost 3-week hospital stay behind me, I realized there are several things I learned from the experience. Here are five of them:

1. People who are in the hospital are really sick.

You might think that would be obvious, but when I say sick, I mean really sick. With today’s cost-driven medical care, you’ve got to be really sick to be admitted, and really, really sick to stay for almost 3-weeks like I did. Recognizing the degree of a person’s illness should have a great deal to do with how we minister to those in the hospital.

2. Brief visits are good visits.

While I enjoyed seeing everyone who came to see me, when I was at my sickest the shorter the visit the more I appreciated it. There are several reasons for brief visits. First, the patient is really sick (see Item #1 above). Second, being really sick means your attention span, your strength, and your ability to carry on a conversation are all limited. Third, hospital patients often have to use the bathroom more frequently than others due to the nature of their illness and medications they might be receiving. Keeping your visit short avoids the embarrassment of their having to ask you to leave while they call for the nurse for assistance.

3. Privacy and Dignity Need to Be Preserved by Visitors.

I discovered that being in the hospital means that doctors and nurses ask you about bowel movements, urination, incontinence, and other personal body functions. Often they do this right in front of everyone in the room, assuming that its okay to ask any question with guests present. Visitors should help the patient preserve what little privacy and dignity they have left, by excusing themselves when the doctor enters the room, or the nurse comes in to check on the patient. By exhibiting sensitivity toward the patient’s privacy and dignity, guests will show respect for the patient.

4. Let Sleeping Patients Lie.

Believe it or not, hospital life is not conducive to sleep. Almost every night at 3 AM, a lab technician would come in to draw blood for lab tests. Of course, she had to turn on the overhead light, and I had to sit up for her to find an unused vein (they grew harder to find each day) from which to draw blood. So, if you come into a hospital room where the patient is asleep, write a note and then quietly leave. The patient will appreciate your visit and your thoughtfulness.

5. Offer specific ways you can help.

Offer specific ways you are able to help make the patient’s stay easier. While there we had people offer to take our dirty clothes home and wash them. Others brought us food, or drinks, and some offered to do so when we got home. Two men in our church installed a new shower head in our shower so I could shower seated. Others offered transportation, help with travel and parking expenses, and many assured us of their prayers. Saying, “I can’t do everything, but I can wash clothes. Can I take yours home and wash them and return them tomorrow,” is a great way of offering to do something specific.

Of course, I learned more than 5 things while in the hospital and maybe I’ll share some of those later. But for now, these are things that can enhance your hospital ministry whether you’re a pastor or concerned church member. I’m also interested in what you’ve learned from your experience being hospitalized. What things would you add to this list. Put them in the comments, and I’ll add them in a later post. Thanks, and it’s good to be home again!

An Unwelcomed and Unexpected Illness

It’s 11:12 PM on Friday night, March 8, 2013. I cannot sleep despite having taken several medications that are supposed to relieve the pain I’m having. Yesterday, after two weeks of agonizing symptoms and three trips to hospital emergency rooms, a neurologist diagnosed me with idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, a fancy way of saying I have unexplained pain, numbness, and weakness in my legs, arms, and other parts of my body.

During his examination, he determined that I no longer have reflexes in my legs and arms. You know the test: the doctor whacks you on the knee with a rubber hammer and your leg pops up involuntarily. Except mine doesn’t, not even slightly. I am now walking with the aid of either a cane or a walker because the bottoms of my feet are numb, and my legs give way without warning.

Needless to say, this is an unwelcomed and unexpected situation. I am an extremely healthy person. I lost 40 pounds last year eating a low-fat vegan diet, just like Bill Clinton does. My heart, which has been tested three different times over the past two weeks, was described by the cardiologist as “as good as it gets.” My blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar are all well within the optimum ranges.

In January of this year, I contracted a nasty virus and was sick for three weeks. I was so sick that my wonderful church family gave me the entire month off to recuperate. I had only been back to work three weeks when the first of my symptoms began to appear. On Monday I will have a MRI, and on Tuesday a nerve conductivity test where apparently you become a human pin cushion to measure the speed and conductivity of nerves throughout the body.

To be on this side of illness is a new experience for me. I now know why when I visit my members in the hospital, their arms are black-and-blue from the IV ports inserted in them. I am more able to empathize with the loss of dignity in times of illness as others talk about your bodily functions and as you lie half-naked on an uncomfortable gurney hoping you’re not putting on a show for those passing by.

The other part of this experience is to be on the receiving end of love and care demonstrated by my community and congregation. Members have brought food, sent flowers, loaned me a recliner and a walker, have prayed, visited, and expressed their concern over and over again. I have found that it is encouraging to have someone visit when you’re sick. I do feel supported, loved, and cared for by the people I have called my flock for almost 9 years.

Debbie and I do not know if this condition is permanent or temporary. In either event, we do know that God is walking with us down this road, whether the journey is long or brief. Most importantly, we feel God’s presence in the cards, calls, visits, food, flowers, and expressions of concern from our church family.

I’m learning some new things about the ways of God. Not that God caused this illness, or even would will it on me or anyone, but I am learning that in the midst of difficulty, God is present in Spirit and in the lives of the people in whose hearts he lives and reigns. I hope to be back soon with a regular schedule of sermons and thoughts on small church life, but for now I’m on my own journey to the cross and empty tomb, but I’m not on it alone.