FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

The tiny taxi’s wheels crunched gravel and sand as we dodged yet another car-sized hole in the washed-out road through the Himalayan foothills. Rounding a bend our host said something in Nepalese to the driver and he whipped the little car sideways, backed up into a gravel patch and stopped. We were on this road to view Mount Everest, but it remained lost to us all day, shrouded in clouds.

We found instead evidence of the movement of God that is also shrouded to most western eyes.

“Here,” said our host in clipped English, pointing to a narrow, red, three-story house built into the side of the hill, “this is a Church, and this is the pastor.”

The proud pastor, whom I’ll call Sundar, led us down into the second-floor. “This is the worship center,” he said. “My family lives upstairs and we work downstairs.” We removed our shoes and followed him inside a 30’ X 15’ room with no chairs. “Fifty people at a time worship. The Church has 250,” he explained. “Fifty-eight are baptized believers.”

Two pictorial Bibles graced the yellow walls, the whole narrative of Scripture on three-by-four-foot banners filled with 5” X 7” images from the Garden of Eden to Revelation. The Lord’s Prayer, in Nepalese, was on the far wall, The Apostle’s Creed stood opposite. So, this is how they do it, I thought. This is like the early Church, before anybody had Bibles. They tell the stories and recite the Creed to cement the meaning of the stories in place, then follow the Lord in prayer. Remarkable!

More remarkable still was the faith of Pastor Sundar.

Sundar started the church about ten years ago in a rented house near the district’s Buddhist temple and police station. “The first year was OK,” he said, “no problem.” But by the end of the second year, with more and more people attending, the Buddhist monk got angry.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” said Sundar. “The Buddhist monk attacked me. He slapped me three times saying, ‘Why did you come here? What do you think you are doing?’ and he mocked me, and the Church, and Jesus.”

“I was angry,” said Sundar, “so I prayed: God, what am I to do? If I grab him and throw him down the mountain he will die. Then the authorities will arrest me. So, what do I do?”

Immediately, God spoke to his heart, “Sundar, this chance to suffer for me many people do not get. But you get this chance. There is no need for you to take revenge. I’ll take care of him.”

“I am an easily angered man, but all this happened inside my heart in an instant. So, I threw my hands up and said, ‘Lord, I give thanks!’ And the Buddhist monk walked away, still mocking and joking about Jesus, and opened his clothing and urinated in public.” (This is an intense form of mockery for them, like saying: “I relieve myself on your god!”)

The quarrel had attracted three policemen from the nearby station. One said nothing to the monk. The second said to Sundar, “Why are you arguing with the monk? He does good things for the community!” The third said to the monk, “This man Sundar brings new things, good things to our town. You should not quarrel with him.”

“Within three months,” said Sundar, “The man who said nothing was transferred out of the area. The man who opposed me was paralyzed in half his body. And the man who supported me was left here. God confirmed his word to me that day.”

Nepal is an officially secular, but predominantly Hindu nation with stiff laws against evangelism. It is also the birthplace of Buddha. I was amazed by the strength of Sundar’s faith and the vitality of his Church. Professor Phillip Jenkins, in his landmark work, The Next Christendom, explains what I was seeing: “By most accounts, membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs in to the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority.”[1]

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of men like Sundar leading new churches all over the global south. They are expecting to meet persecution of all kinds every day and trusting God in the middle of it. Are we?

[1] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, third edition, 2011, p. 9, Kindle version.

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

SAFE-GUARDING THE CHURCH

SAFE-GUARDING THE CHURCH

The basement fellowship hall of one of the largest churches in the county was packed with the most ecumenical gathering of local church leaders I’ve ever seen. The recent spate of mass-shootings obviously had everybody thinking about safety and local law-enforcement agencies along with the Commonwealth’s Attorney were hosting a church safety seminar. The presenters were excellent and reminded me of some lessons learned the hard way that are worth sharing.

Twenty-five years ago, I operated a fleet garage in Atlanta, Georgia. The garage was part of a large, downtown ministry that had an electronic security system monitored by an on-site, twenty-four-hour security staff. One zone of the system had been malfunctioning and, when it alarmed one night, the security staff by-passed it and ignored it. Thieves made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and a dump-truck.

Lesson: A security system that isn’t in place and operating all the time isn’t a security system. It is a false sense of security.

Forty years ago, our automotive tech class was taking a break outside the shop, standing around, shooting the breeze when up walks another student with a pine branch about the size of a baseball bat in his hand. He starts yelling at a guy not five feet from me about a girl they were both pursuing. Quick as a flash he swung that branch and I saw my friend’s head changed shape under the blow. Just as fast my friend was down, and the attacker was gone.

Lesson: From our point of view, violence is random and incredibly fast. We never know when it is coming our way. People assume that Jesus’ only response to violence was passivity. That is inaccurate as well as inadequate. Jesus resisted hypocritical teaching of religious leaders, as well as their usurious exploitation of worshipers in the temple, with aggressive action (John 2:15). When soldiers asked how to practice righteousness he did not tell them to lay down their arms and resign their commissions (Luke 3:14). Before his departure he recognized the need for armed defense against violent evil by urging his men to provide themselves with swords (Luke 22:36). Violent evil will be with us till Christ returns so we must be prepared.

Three months ago, we hosted a family discipleship seminar. Our presenter, Dr. Kevin Jones, traveled four hours to be with us. A couple dozen people gathered to hear his talk and not half-way through we had to evacuate the building for a tornado warning.

Last week, to the complete shock of the congregation, one of our young praise band members fainted—in the middle of a song—on stage, requiring immediate first-aid. A husband & wife team of nurses immediately took charge and took care of him, but it took a while for the rest of us to regain our equilibrium.

Lesson: We need a plan and a designated team to handle such emergencies.

Thankfully, a group of dedicated church-members have volunteered to serve as our church’s Safety Team. They have been developing plans and policies for various situations to keep all of us as safe as possible during worship services and other events.

When the team is ready, they will lead us through a few emergency preparedness drills. Should an emergency occur our job as church members will be to stay out of their way as they move toward the crisis and follow any directions they may have for us.

Does your church have a safety team?

GROWING UP IN GOD’S UNIVERSITY

The interview was disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most troubling thing is that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life. But she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her live as a true follower of Christ. I should not have been surprised.

In 2005, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith and colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton published The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, revealing that most teens adhered to a pseudo-religion Smith dubbed MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its tenets:

  • There is a God who created everything and watches over us.
  • That God wants people to be good as defined by most world religions.
  • The goal of life is happiness and feeling good about oneself.
  • We only need God when we have a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In other words, the moral part is superseded by the therapeutic. Purity of heart, Christlike sacrifice for others, repentance, forgiveness and the pursuit of righteousness and the rule of God in life[1] aren’t in the picture. Feeling good trumps everything.

Smith’s follow-up research published in 2011 showed nothing had improved. Though 40 percent of young believers said their moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or other religious feeling, it is unlikely that those beliefs were biblically consistent. And 61 percent “had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism.”[2]

Those teens are grown up now and most of America follows MTD.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be. The Church should be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.[3]

Healthy Churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some examples: What do you think about climate change?  How about a nuclear-armed Iran? What about health care? College debt? How about the Virginia Tax Code? And what about education? Helping the poor? Sex-ed in schools?

Simple answers elude us. How should a serious Christian respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think. That’s what it means to develop a Biblical Worldview. Christians truly educated in God’s university know how to ‘think Biblically’ on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. In that sense, a healthy church produces better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers and better citizens because it produces better thinkers.

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

Humanity is broken and hurting. Hear some comments from hurting people:

I’m 48 years old and my wife has just filed for divorce. I never planned for this. I never thought I would be alone and have to start all over this late in life. On top of that it may bankrupt me.

I was still in rehab, just recovering from a gran mall seizure brought on by spinal meningitis that could have killed me, when we learned that our daughter, contrary to everything we had taught her, had just “come out” as gay. We read the letter and sat down in front of her old bedroom door and wept broken and bitter tears.

My first husband beat me. The man I’m married to now doesn’t love me. I am fourth or fifth on his priority list. I’m so lonely and unhappy that I’m flying to the other side of the country to find a job and a new life. My life is adrift.

We only want to know one thing when we’re hurting. We aren’t interested in the weather. We don’t care about the stock market. And we sure don’t care about politics. We only want to know how to be healed.

Psalm 147, the second in a set of five that make up the last songs in the book, is a song about healing.

Verse two gives us the context saying, “He gathers the exiles of Israel.” The Psalm was written to help the people of God worship after their return from exile in Babylon. It was good to go home, but still a time of great brokenness and sadness. Their cities and towns had been destroyed, their property given to foreigners. Their spiritual, civic, and economic infrastructure was like Houston after Hurricane Harvey: a shambles.

The psalm shows us that God heals in four ways: “The Lord builds up; The Lord gathers; The Lord heals; The Lord binds up their wounds.” (V. 2-3).

First, he rebuilds what was broken down—the walls in Israel’s case. He gives them the tools and resources and leadership (under Nehemiah) to make their city secure once again, to keep out invaders, to give them stability.

God rebuilds our walls too. Brokenhearted people are often violated people. When we are sexually abused as children; when parents lose children; when we’ve invested years and fortunes in a career and suddenly lose it, our walls are broken down. We feel violated, less secure.

The healer of broken hearts helps us rebuild our walls. He brings together the tools, and the resources, and the leadership we need to make our city secure again, to give us stability in a shaky world.

Second, God gathers what was scattered. In Israel’s case it was the people, scattered about the Babylonian empire. Bit by bit and tribe by tribe, they made the pilgrimage back to the land of promise. God opened doors for them to leave. Cyrus the king issued a decree making money available. Property was returned. Travel was protected.

How does God heal us? He gathers what was scattered. Brokenhearted people are often lonely people, disconnected from healthy relationships with others. God brings us together for strength and encouragement. The New Testament is full of references to this. (See Acts 2:44-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).

God heals us when he gathers us to his people. When we become part of the living body of Christ, the Church, we cease to be scattered. We become connected to others who dispel our loneliness and welcome us into their lives based on our common relationship with Christ.

A challenge: do you isolate yourself? If so you are missing the healing God has for you. You may not like it at first, but it’s what you need, and God has it for you in his Church.

Third, God heals the brokenhearted with the brokenhearted. He heals the addicted with the formerly addicted; the divorced with the previously divorced; the grieving with the grieved, the hope and purpose from those who’ve come through on the other side of brokenness.

But there is a catch to all of this. Or maybe it’s better to say that the path to the healing power of God is counter-intuitive.

We are tempted in our brokenness to turn away from God, even to run. That’s the worst thing we can do. When the storm blows the hardest it is time to lean into him. The Psalmist shows us how.

Embrace humility in the pain. “Sing to him with thanksgiving,” it says (V. 4-7). Praising God when we hurt is a humbling thing, completely counter-intuitive. But that’s where the healing comes from. Lean into that wind. That’s what drives the fear and insecurity away, leaning into him with worship and praise, not running.

Finally, “put your hope in him.” (V. 8-11). Remember what Jesus said to Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus had died? “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” “Look to me Mary, look to me Martha. Put your hope solely in me.” It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

Many voices vie for our attention when we are brokenhearted, many people, many philosophies promise peace and healing. Only God can give us the order we need, the comprehensive understanding that leads to healing. Only God can give us himself.

REMOVING HISTORICAL GLOSS: Metaxas’ Enlightening Luther Biography

Johann Tetzel was being robbed. The Dominican friar and Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany was on his way from one very profitable preaching crusade to another when a German nobleman, one who had made a great point of asking whether all future sins could be forgiven if only the right indulgence was bought, cashed in on his prior purchase and relieved the preacher of his purse.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Yesterday, October 31, 2017, was the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which, according to the 2000 edition of LOOK magazine was the second, behind the invention of the printing press which enabled it, greatest event in the last one thousand years. The story of Tetzel and the robber baron, which is probably mythical, is one of many that Eric Metaxas covers in his excellent work, MARTIN LUTHER: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.

Although I am only halfway through the book, listening to the audible version, I am totally sold on Metaxas’s ability to make a complicated story not only accessible and informative, but entertaining.

Mailed Not Nailed

For example, everyone knows that a theologian and monk named Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by posting 95 theses opposing the sale of indulgences on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. (An indulgence supposedly draws on the merit of the good works of Christ and the saints to deliver a sinner from punishment on earth or in purgatory). But most do not know that Luther may or may not have personally nailed the document to the doors, the bulletin board of its day. It could have been a clerk that swung the hammer. What sets October 31st apart, according to Metaxas, is that is the day Luther mailed his theses to his presiding bishop, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, with a proposal to call a conference of theologians on the abusive sale of indulgences.

Gutenberg’s Internet

Metaxas also illuminates the fact that, in those early days of the printing press, Luther had no intention of igniting a revolution and no idea of the part he would play in it. He was simply a pastor / theologian and faithful Catholic trying to do his job and protect his parish from oppression and heresy. The 95 theses, written in Latin, would have been indecipherable to most Germans who passed the church doors. They were meant for a limited audience of theological scholars who would have had thoughtful discussions and sent their conclusions and recommendations off to higher authority for approval.

But the printing press was to the sixteenth century what the internet is today. Information transfer went from snail’s pace to light speed almost overnight. Further, with no copyright law in place, Luther could not prevent publishers from pushing his ideas far beyond the boundaries of Wittenberg and Mainz. He was soon embroiled in a battle that he had not planned and could not have anticipated. (He also never made a dime from his writings). Ultimately, Luther saw this series of unfortunate events as providential and embraced his calling as a reformer. But Metaxas removes the gloss of history and helps us see that Luther, like many of us, was a man of his times driven as much by circumstance as by conviction to take up the work which God had prepared in advance for him to do.

I’ve only brushed the surface of Metaxas’s latest, but I hope you will read it. It will give any Christian a greater comprehension of the treasures of grace we possess, the place in history we occupy, and perhaps help us see our calling as well as Luther saw his.

PRODUCING BETTER THINKERS

The discussion had been disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most disturbing thing was that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life, but she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her be good.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be.

The Apostle Paul said that in the Church we are to “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph 4:15). We have the Scriptures for, as he told Timothy, “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

The church is supposed to be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.

A healthy church is a place where the Christian’s life foundations are laid, where we learn how the Bible applies to everyday life. Healthy churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some issues believers should be able to think through and come to soundly biblical conclusions: How best to manage our finances? How are we to think about gun violence? What is the best way to help Puerto Rico recover? Should we stay in NAFTA? How about student loan debt? How should we lower the burden on college students? How can we discern between so-called fake news and the real thing?

The list of things we need to know how to think about is endless and simple answers elude us. How should serious-minded believers respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think biblically on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. That’s what it means to develop a biblical worldview. Healthy Christians develop a biblical worldview in God’s university, the local church, becoming in the process better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers, and better citizens.

I’m so grateful for the dedicated Sunday School teachers and small group leaders our church has benefited from over the years! The list is long, but each one has helped us “grow up in all things into Christ,” to think biblically about our world.

And what about you? Do you have the ability to teach? Have you ever tried? Could you take a rotation in Children’s Church, or as a small group Bible study, or Sunday School teacher?

Just like the young woman in my office that day, the church needs good teachers on all levels now more than ever. Ask God if he is calling you to lay the foundation for someone else’s future.