Monday, May 18, 2015

Words

The Apostle James was not one to mince words.  In the book attributed to him, we read:

 “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”  (James 3:9-10, NIV)

In a first century society built on oral communication, the one who proclaimed this message (probably orally before it was written down) knew how powerful words can be.  Contrary to the old adage--“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”—words do hurt.  Hurtful and malicious words degrade and demean people made in God’s image.  Words break the heart and the spirit.  They also can inflame passions that lead to violence. Words matter.

Although spoken words have great power, we have added another dimension in the 21st century—the words conveyed by social media.  Many of us fail to think before we put something in a text, and e-mail, a Tweet, or a Facebook comment. Sometimes we realize that we have been misunderstood or, more likely, we have been understood and offended someone.  Add to this the fact that once a word is launched into cyberspace it will live until the end of digital communication and the impact multiplies exponentially.

What would James have to say to us today about the words that we both speak and write?  A keen student of the Hebrew Bible, he might remind us of the prayer of Psalm 19:14 (NRSV):
 
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” 

Words still matter.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Target Keeps Moving

In a recent blog, Tom Ehrich commented on those who are concerned that Christianity is “in trouble.”  He wrote,   “In fact, I would argue that Christianity isn't in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. Denominations are in trouble. Institutions are in trouble. Professional church leaders are in trouble.”

I agree with him.  The Christian faith will survive and prosper but some of the churches, denominations, institutions and professionals who attempt to represent the faith will not.  A student in one of my seminary classes observed, “What I have learned in this class is that every church or Christian institution starts out as missional but losses it way over time and must be renewed.”

She nailed it. Churches and institutions are in need of continuous renewal.  Any organization can evolve new structures and strategies to meet opportunities and challenges without surrendering its core values.  A sure sign that a church, institution, or organization needs renewal is when survival becomes more important than mission.  Mission trumps survival every time.

My friend Mike Smith once observed that when something new was suggested in a church, people often said, “But Baptists don’t do that!”  He pointed out that if one really knew Baptists, he or she would realize that Baptists have done a lot of things in the past in order to further their mission.  They called women as pastors, encouraged lay people to become itinerant and bivocational preachers, held worship services at times when people could show up, created mission boards to share the Gospel, and created educational institutions to train ministers.  And they did all of this in the face of those who said, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

This is not an argument against institutions but an argument for change in the way that we do things.  A church or institution is created to accomplish a mission, but the way to do that must change because the target keeps moving.  In order to hit it, we must be on the move as well.




Monday, May 11, 2015

Take No Thought


Fifty years ago this month I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army.  I had some idea of what was coming in the next few months.  I would graduate from college that same weekend. Rita and I would be married the following month and then almost immediately we would leave for my first posting at Fort Lee, Virginia, for the Basic Officer Training Course.  All of those things happened more or less as expected, but we had little idea of what the future held beyond those days.


The years since have been immersed in raising a family, serving in various ministry roles, making and losing friends, living with both faith and uncertainty, experiencing tragedy, and celebrating loving relationships.  Some days I feel like Abraham!  God has given us three children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.  This is certainly not a “great nation” by biblical proportions but a significant group of offspring from my perspective!


I am grateful for many things, but I am especially thankful that on a sunny day in May 1965 I did not know everything the future held.  I could not have handled it.  The burden would have been too great.  Certainly that is the way that God intended for it to be.  


Two passages of scripture speak to this.  James, always practical and direct, writes:


Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:13-14, NIV)


James reminds us that life is a daily gift.  We don’t know what tomorrow, or even this afternoon, brings.  I can think of more than one time when my life could have ended suddenly, but I was given the chance for another day to live.  We should not assume too much. We are not entitled to life; it is a gift.


Jesus taught about the value (and challenge) of each day as well.  In Matthew’s Gospel, we read these words: 


But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.(Matthew 6:33-34, NIV)


Jesus puts our lives into the proper perspective.  He says that you should place yourself in the right relationship with God and not worry about anything else because you have no control over it anyway.  You are in God’s hands.  Many of the things we worry about may not come to pass and, if they do, we will deal with them when they happen.  This is not an invitation to procrastination but a command to avoid excessive anxiety about the things over which we have no control—and they are many!


Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (NIV).  Wisdom does not necessarily come just by living but in understanding what is happening in our lives as we live each day—celebrating blessings, learning from failures, being thankful for God’s presence each day.  As a believer, God gives me grace for the day and that is sufficient.  This is not fatalism but faith.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Talking about the Faith


How believers talk about the faith to unbelievers, those of faith who have differing interpretations of the faith, or those estranged from the faith has always been a challenge for the Christians.  Does one pursue persuasion and reason or attack and ridicule?

Unfortunately, the aggressive approach seems to win out more often in contemporary society.  Apologetics (defense of the faith) very easily becomes polemics (disputation about the faith) in the marketplace of ideas.

Much of this is motivated by fear.  We fear that which is different from ourselves.  We fear that which calls into question our established habits and norms.  We also may be afraid that we will be proven wrong or made to look foolish.

We see this when a “prayer breakfast” becomes an occasion to attack those who are different from ourselves.  A speaker finds it is much easier to stand on a platform and pontificate than to acknowledge the “other” as a real person who was created in the image of God and deserves dialogue rather than diatribe.

In Colossians, we read these words: "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." (4:5-6, NIV)

What a great word for helping "outsiders" become "insiders."  We are encouraged to exercise grace in our conversation.  We are not expected to deny our beliefs but to present them with clarity (“seasoned with salt”).  We are to enter into dialogue with everyone who desires a conversation. And this applies to those who are not of the faith.  How much more should we provide the same respect to those who share our commitment to Christ?

The believer is challenged to converse with others in the same way that Christ did—with love and compassion.   If we did this, perhaps more “outsiders” would become “insiders” and those of us who are “insiders” could learn to live with one another.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Reality of Change

Change is a word laden with negative connotations for many of us.  We often fear change, but change is a part of life.  We find a new job or calling, we move to a new town or house, we experience sickness, we have children and they grow up and move out (or move back in).  In life, nothing is static.  Change is inevitable.  Change is a sign of life.

The Bible recognizes this, for it abounds with metaphors related to change and growth.  When Jesus tells his disciples, “"I am the Vine, you are the branches,” (John 15:5), he is using a metaphor related to change.  A vine is a living thing—it changes and grows or it dies.

William Bridges wrote that it is not that people don’t like change; they just don’t like being changed.  Perhaps that is where the anxiety comes.  As a part of the environment in which we find ourselves, if things around us change then a healthy person finds a way to adjust and find stability. The alternative is to give into dysfunctional behavior such as anger or denial.

Although we can control things around us to some extent, there are often circumstances over which we have no control.  Learning to adapt to change doesn’t mean that we give up our identity, beliefs, or values, but it may mean that we must change our habits, lifestyles, or schedules in order to find balance. 

My experience with churches testifies to the difficulty that church members have with change.  Although we may see God as unchangeable, little else is.  We forget that buildings deteriorate, worship styles adapt, leaders come and go, and programs outlive their usefulness.

Perhaps the problem is that we are seeking stability in the wrong places—externally rather than internally.  Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.  (Matthew 24:35, NIV).  Change is inevitable—except for what is really important.