Friday, November 27, 2009

The Church Without Walls or Divisions

One of the criticisms of the church I hear most often from those outside the church is thisL "Why would I want to belong to an organization that can't even get along with others who also claim to be Christians?" Good question; one not easily or comfortably answered.

The charge is true. Historically Christians have been some of the most contentious, hard to get along with people anywhere. There are some reasons for that of course. Some are valid reasons that are worth giving some thought to. For example, faith is a matter of a person's heart. It is intimate, passionate and very important. It deals with the inner most part of our being and so sometimes we have convictions that we feel strongly about and that we don't want to compromise. From the earliest days of the history of the Christian church, we read about discussions and controversy - some theological, some beased on personality difference. It is part of human nature, that when we feel strongly about something so close to our heart and our being, we are going to speak up for it and defend it.

The problem is that history has proven that, while the church has divided over some pretty important issues, most of the time, the dissension and division has been over less important or core tenets. For example, topics like carpet colors for a newly remodeled sanctuary or worship styles have divided many a church. One of the reasons we have so many different Christian denominations is because of debates over things not much more essential than these.

When the Ministerial Association in Enumclaw was struggling to decide on a Doctrinal Statement that we could all subscribe to, we were reminded of Augustine's gracious formula for getting along with other Christians: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity." Reduced to its true core essential body of teaching, the faith that the Christian church has held for centuries is best and most concisely spelled out in the Apostle's Creed. That then became the statement that would unify us as pastors and as churches on the Enumclaw Plateau.

When it came to other, less eseential matters like church government, ordination standards and worship styles, we decided to agree to disagree on them and not make them points of division. Instead, the major tenets of the Apostle's Creed became the thing that caused us to live in one accord and purpose.

For years (as long as my Enumclaw memory allows whic is 12 years) we have not only sought to live out that unity as pastors, but also encouraged our congregations to acknowledge and celebrate it as well. As Pastors, we look forward to the fellowship and support we get from hanging out together and sharing stories, concerns and joys. As congregations this has been expressed in different ways. One year, every Pastor in the fellowship agreed that we would all preach a series of sermons on the Apostle's Creed over a period of 8 weeks. Any of our members could have gone to any of the other churches in town and heard a message on the same topic on any given week. On National Day of Prayer (the first Thursday in may) we have gathered together on the lawn and porch of City Hall to corporately pray together for our nation, our community, our youth, our schools and for each other. We have come together for wonderful celebrations of unity at Thanksgiving, Pentecost and Easter. I have always felt those joint services were forerunners - appetizers if you will - for the experience we will have in heaven where people will come from east and west and north and south to sit at the table in Christ's Kingdom.

This past Sunday, I felt the grandest expression of that unity came when 8 of our member churches radically altered their schedules and traditions to participate in Faith in Action. High Church and Low Church, liturgical, reformed, charismatic and independent church all either cancelled their weekly services or radically shortened them so that God's people could come together and collaberate to serve our community in Christ's name.

Rough estimates suggest that over 500 believers from a wide variety of backgrounds, came together to feed the hungry, clear paths and trails, paint a tutoring center, write letters to soldiers and pray. For those of us from Calvary, Faith in Action has become an important part of who we are. We observed it three times last year. It was a great blessing - to those who were served and more importantly - to those who had given up their weekly church service to become the hands and feet of Christ in the community. We longed for other churches to participate with us, and so, this past Sunday's celebration was an incredible answer to prayer.

One of the catch phrases we have used in association with Faith in Action has been "Don't just go to the church!" As a pastor, I experienced the presence and power of God by working together with about 45 other Christians from other churches. We cleared leaves, fallen trees and other debris from a nature trail behind Westwood School. In many ways, this was a more profound expression of Christ's love than any church service could provide. And now, for months and years to come, students will have a safe clean trail through which they can wander - marveling all the way at the natural beauty and complexity of the world God created. All because a group of Christians set aside their own agendas, services, theological distinctives etc.

St. Francis of Assissi is attributed as having once said, "Preach a sermon everyday. If necessary, use words." All over the city, a powerful sermon was preached and words didn't have to be used. Jesus said "By this shall all people come to know me, that you (Jesus' followers) have love one for another.

In the Book of Acts (the history of the earliest church) we are told that Christians gained favor with both GOd and man because of the quality and character of their unity and love for each other and their care for the needs of others. (Acts 2 - 4)
Somehow, I can't help but feel that not only was God honored by that demonstrable show of unity in service, but that people in the community might sit up and take notice, and, just perhaps, give thought and praise to the Lord.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Christmas Coup

I needed an afternoon pick-me-up today so I stopped at Starbucks and plunked down my Gold Card without thinking. I had just ordered a Grande Quad Gingerbread Latte (If that doesn't get me going, I don't know what would). Using a gift card that automatically reloads by charging my VISA account is really a dangerous thing. It makes it seem like drinks from Starbucks magically appear without cost - until you look at the VISA bill of course. $5.73 for my afternoon indulgence. Yikes! Even with the 25% discount my Gold Card allows, that is still a lot for the extravagance of Gingerbread flavor, whipped cream, 4 shots of espresso and a slight, momentary burst of energy.

When I returned to my office I began working on details of a campaign we as a church are embarking on during Advent. It is called ADVENT CONSPIRACY. The whole point of this subversive plot is to recapture the true meaning of the Christmas event; namely the incarnation of God into human flesh. How radical can you get huh? After all, for the last month at least, businesses have been displaying Christmas decorations, playing Christmas music, and advertising the latest and greatest electronic toys, fashions and power tools that will make the perfect gift at Christmas. In some small way, we are hoping to take back Christmas from the rebels who stole it in the first place.

Our battle strategy is simple. We are asking each of our members and friends to consider redirecting the dollars that they normally spend on extravagant parties, excessive, highly caloric foods, and expensive gifts (that are often times unwanted and unused by the person receiving them). Where will they be redirected? Towards a gift and an act of compassion and love that will truly exemplify the true meaning of the sacrifical love that brought Jesus to earth in the first place.

If every member of our surruptitious cabal redirects even a small portion of the money they would otherwise spend on other things, we can pool those resources and provide safe drinking water for a community and for people in an underdeveloped country. We plan to team up with Food for the Hungry (a Phoenix-based world relief agency) to provide either a bore-hole well or a hi-tech water filter or both (or even several)for a village in Kenya.

Ever since seeing the joy of a community in Zambia over a simple well, I find myself thinking alot about how easily I take water for granted. It is reported that 4 children die every minute from diseases caused by unclean water (the H2O project). Over one billion people (1,000,000,000) lack access to clean drinking water. ( 2.5 billion are affected by lack of proper sanitation.

One of the tools we will use is to ask people to consider giving up (not entirely)some of the other beverages they normally drink and setting that same amount of money aisde towards this effort. For example, if the average person cut back on the number of sodas, sports drinks, coffee beverages and juice they drink every day for a month, they would feel a sense of solidarity with a large portion of the world's population. Not only that, they would have saved over $150.00 to give towards the completion of a well that will produce clean, safe water for hundreds - maybe thousands of people - for years to come.

That is a Christmas present, wouldn't you agree? That speaks to the heart of the Christmas message much more than the frantic rush for great sales on "Black Friday."
And that is just by drinking mostly, if not entirely, water instead of other beverages for the month.

So, I think I will start right now. I'm going to finish this rich, calorie-laden, artery-clogging, caffeine rich, over-priced coffee drink. Then I am going to cut back to only a cup or two of plain drip coffee each morning and drink water the rest of the day. I figure by Christmas day, I will save a lot - a whole lot - of money that can be used so others can live and have better health.

Judy and I have also determined that we are not going to buy each other gifts this year but use the same amount of money we normally spend to go towards this project. Instead, we plan on making gifts, or doing special things for each other as a way of saying "I love you" and "Merry Christmas."

Sounds a little subversive to our commercial, consumer driven culture doesn't it? You know, a lot of people are fighting to take Christ out of Christmas. Maybe we already have by giving in to the material and commercially driven focus it has become. To put Christ back in Christmas is much more than being able to call it Christmas in speech. Let's really do it right. Let's overthrow the citadel. Let's re-take what truly belongs to us - the message. "That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage." (Matthew 20:28 The Message)

Lord, help me be strong. Help me keep the needs of others in view this Christmas. Allow me to make a difference by "worshiping fully; spending less; giving more and loving your people."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Looking back

It hardly seems possible that 3 weeks ago we were in Lusaka Zambia. It's not like I have forgotten what an incredible experience it was. It's just that life has returned to such a busy, "normal" pace - whatever normal is.The first few days were spent trying to figure out what time zone I should observe (There is really strange TV on at 2:00 in the morning). The next few days were spent clearning off my desk, answering messages and trying to get my voice back.

It all culminated last week with a near 70 hour marathon full of meetings, appointments, services, calls and staff reviews. In some ways I didn't even have time to remember and reflect. Were it not for our team meeting where we shared pictures and recalled memories, Zambia would have been a long-distant memory,

The saving grace has been that the Lord has continued to thrust those memories and lessons learned back to the front of my heart and mind. First, I had emails from Chimwemwe, then Pastor Mpanga and Winnie. Then this weekend, we had a visit from missionary friends from South Africa. It afforded anoter opportunity to focus on the needs and people in Africa. Tuesday, Ken and Suzanne Popp from Village Steps sent pictures of the continuing progress of the work we started. Over the last few days, team mates have stopped in or called to talk about the trip and the people. Tomorrow, our team presents the program at our local Rotary Club.

Three weeks out and today, I decided I needed to take more time each day to pray for the people of Africa and to slow my life down just a bit. Today was a good day in that respect. When the power went out at the office, it was almost a sign for me to take a few minutes at a cool new coffee house in Buckley and a chance to blog a little. (By the way, Main Street Coffee has great Cappucinos).

Three weeks out and I have to remember that God is not finished with me yet. I continue to experience and learn more and more about the Lord and about myself. I am grateful for that. A verse in Philippians says, "the one who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus." (Phil. 1:6) So I am slowing down, trying to be more patient with myself and taking advantage of opportunities for relationships.

That same verse applies to what we began in Zambia. Though we only got a well dug, foundation trenches dug and a footing poured, God is still at work and is using others to complete the work we began. I guess not everything depends on me. That is a great realization. I guess I'll have another cappucino then try not to hurry off to the next event.