Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Twenty-Somethings and Reality

            A statistic that probably is being discussed more than any other right now in the Church is that the age group 18-29 years old is leaving in great numbers.  Depending upon the study (and many have been done!) the numbers run anywhere from 65%-80% will be gone from the Church by age 29.  As a former minister to college students, I can attest first hand to this reality.  This is a topic that well deserves a great deal of attention, and needs to be addressed from a variety of angles.  Here is just one angle I want to explore:  that of instilling a decidedly Christian worldview into the lives of college age persons through the sacraments. 

One of the great tasks of the church, and a vital pursuit for any believing college student, is to continually come in line with a Christian world and life view. Our postmodern and post-Christian society works against becoming spiritually formed according to biblical categories. The university, as important as it is, can be the vehicle of promoting a rival worldview to Christianity. More than one professor in my undergraduate experience told me that they enjoyed shocking freshman students into thinking in more secular terms and away from their "narrow" thinking about God and the church. Although that has been a few years ago, I continually speak with students who feel like they are swimming upstream of the prevailing attitudes on reality in our society and university culture. One of the most significant means that the church can help inform students and promote a Christian worldview is through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.

             Western society, and sometimes even the church, tends to hold to a cleavage between the spiritual and the material in an inherent dualism inherited from ancient Greek categories of thought. Yet, in the sacraments these two elements are firmly united. The good news of Jesus is not just proclaimed by stating propositions of truth, but, as Frank Senn has said in his book Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical the forgiveness of sins is declared "by sentences joined to a bath, the laying on of hands, and communal eating and drinking" (p.31). God is the creator of all things, both visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16). The incarnation of Jesus is where the invisible God became a visible human. There is no dichotomous reality here between the material and the spiritual, but an essential unity. Leonard VanderZee has said that this unity makes the sacraments "a place where God meets us and where the spiritual and physical come together for our wholeness and healing" (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, p.28). Now that the Lord Jesus has accomplished his great redemptive events of cross and resurrection, the sacraments serve as material signs to us of the now invisible Christ. John Calvin called this a "visible word" that declares God's saving work in Christ on behalf of every human being.

             There is certainly a profound place for didactic instruction in the church on a Christian worldview, and I would argue that it needs to take place. But this is insufficient. God himself has instituted baptism and the Lord's Supper as means of proclaiming forgiveness and declaring the unity of reality, and the great union we have with God because of Jesus. When we partake of this, we are doing much more than remembering; we are providing and re-enacting a view of the world that is in contradistinction from prevailing notions outside of Christendom. Here is where college students can find a place of seeing life from God's perspective.  Emphasizing the place of the sacraments in the life of the Church gives an alternate view of reality from that provided in many secular environments.  This, certainly, is not the last or only word on addressing the great slide of a whole generation of people out of the Church, but the Word proclaimed at the Table is a necessary element to help college students meaningfully connect with a Christian view of life and reality. 

So, what are some reasons you think people ages 18-29 are leaving the Church?  What are some ways that they might reconnect with their faith?  How might you build a meaningful relationship with a person in this age group?  Do you think the sacraments are important for spiritually forming people?  How about asking those in this age group who have left your church why they did so?

Friday, May 25, 2012

An Assault of Grace

          Getting a phone call at 4:00am is rarely good news. As a Pastor I have had my share of them over the years and it has always meant someone is in trouble. A few years ago a young man gave us one of those calls. Something was wrong with his girlfriend (I will call her "Jane"), she was upset and hostile and could not talk to him. My wife and I got out of bed and came right over. Upon arriving we found a beautiful college-age woman sitting in the driveway crying uncontrollably. Coming up to Jane, she had the stale stench of beer and could not stand or talk, but could only heave great sobs of distress. We helped Jane up, got her into our car, and took her to our house. There Jane began to sober up and began telling her story: she had been at party near campus and got pretty drunk. At midnight she decided to go home, but made the decision to walk by herself across campus to try and make it back to her place. What happened next Jane could only remember in bits and pieces, and is perhaps every young woman's nightmare....

          According to the American Association of University Women, somewhere between 20%-25% of college women are raped sometime during their college career; 65% of these attacks go unreported; and, alcohol is involved in 75% of the assaults.  The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault reports that 14% of women over 18 years of age are raped in their lifetime, and that over 17 million women nationwide have been victims of sexual assault.  Disturbingly, 11-15 year old children are the highest victimized age group.

          When a rape occurs, the victim should get to a safe place, resist taking a shower, get medical attention immediately, report the abuse, and receive counseling as soon as possible. Certainly, Jane made some bad decisions: excessive partying, having amorphous relationships (did no one try and stop Jane from leaving the party by herself?), and sexual license that was occurring at that party.

          How should we respond and help in such a situation? Jane is not the only victim I have worked with, and I wish I could tell you that all the cases I have seen have a happy ending. Unfortunately, I must say that I have seen far too many believers in Jesus only add to the hurt by pointing out the bad decisions made on the part of the victim, as if they were not a victim at all but brought the assault upon themselves. Even in situations completely out of the victim's control, guilt is sometimes applied by probing what the victim could have done differently....

          To put this in perspective, let me tell a hypothetical story. When my daughter was small she rarely walked, but ran everywhere she went. In public, I always had to hold her hand so she would not run off alone. As we walk down the sidewalk I tell her to hold my hand and not let go, but she pulls away and runs into the street, and is hit by a car. What will be my response? "Well, that's what you get for disobeying me!" No! Instead, I will have the reaction of much tears and doing everything I can to get her the help she needs, while all the time assuring her that I love her and will not leave her....

          The way to handle a sexual assault of any kind is to turn it around and offer an assault of grace. All ministry is grace, and the grace of God is the thing that heals. The way people change is not through pointing out their poor judgments or finding out what could have been done differently, but through the grace of extending mercy and help in time of need, no matter the circumstance. In the novel, Les Miserables, ex-convict Jean Valjean makes the decision of stealing from the priest who extended hospitality to him. When caught by the police and brought to the priest, the man of God responds in grace by saying that the items were a gift. What is more, the old priest chastises Jean for leaving in such a rush the night before that he forgot to take the two silver candlesticks. This act of mercy and kindness changes Jean's life forever, and in turn, changes an entire town.

          The cross of Christ is scandalous simply because of its radical nature of grace to all of us who are undeserving of it. So, if God can be gracious to people who are not even victims, how much more should we, as his followers, be about the kingdom business of extending vast resources of mercy and grace to genuine victims of abuse?

Are you prepared to respond to sexual abuse when it occurs?
--Have numbers in your cell phone of state and local counseling services, and of your local rape hotline.
--Local law enforcement is ready and equipped to handle abuse situations. The victim will most likely need help filing formal reports.
--Many colleges and county services also have a comprehensive referral list of services to help the victim.
--The police are ready to respond, even if the victim does not want to pursue criminal charges, through advising victims of their options and helping to create a safety plan for the future.
--Get to know all the services, agencies, and key people in your area.
--Teach and equip church congregations in the way of grace in ministry through using the Bible to comfort a victim with assurance that God is close to the broken-hearted. Resist playing arm-chair psychologist and instead demonstrate grace through your presence and reassuring words.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What's In a Name?

          My family and I have lived in several diverse neighborhoods over the past twenty five years.  In one of those neighborhoods I would often go into the backyard of my house and spend time praying.  One day as I was talking to God, I turned my thoughts toward the neighbors around me.  "Lord, I pray for my African neighbor, my geeky educated neighbor across the street, my agnostic lady neighbor, my lesbian neighbors down the way...."  As I was praying, I was gently interrupted by God.  "Why do you refer to your neighbors by race, gender, religion, and orientation... they are just your neighbors."

          One of the things that sets humans apart from the rest of creation is the ability to name.  When God created Adam, he brought all the animals before him to see what he would call them.  And Adam named each and every one of them.  He even named the first female Eve (which means "woman").  Then sin entered the world.  Ever since the Fall, people have had a knack for not only naming, but misnaming others.  The ability to name is a power unique to humans.  It can bring life or it can bring death, depending upon whether we name rightly or wrongly.

          What God called me on in the backyard was the reality that I insisted on giving names to people which set them apart from me.  My naming exposed my heart.  I saw the people around me not so much as human beings created in the image of God as much as I saw them as impersonal beings, as objects which needed something.  This happens in the church as much as anywhere.  We see a depressed person, a sick person, an ornery person; we see needy people and insecure people.  We look at the world around us and see children dying, sex-trafficking, and people without clean water.  And then our misnaming comes:  "Someone should do something for them."  In one succinct statement we have detached ourselves from others.  We keep people at arm's length through calling them the name "someone", and ensure our inaction through saying that "something" should be done.

          The only way to cease misnaming others is by moving in a deliberate relational direction into another's life.  Why is it that we call a group of people "those liberals" or "the ones on welfare" or "all those Hispanics"?  Because we don't know one person from the groups we name.  We have never taken the time or effort to establish a relationship with one of "those people."  So, we stay in our holy huddle and kick our names out, hoping that one of those people will not infect our community or influence the way we like to do things.

          Jesus died on the cross for people, all kinds of people.  In God's great mercy he gave us a new name and calls us children of God.  We are no longer strangers and aliens, but are adopted into the family of God with loads of brothers and sisters who are both alike and different from us.  And it is all good and right.

          Church ministries need to get beyond heaping adjectives before the names of people.  When we name people a certain way, we arrogantly believe we know what those people need.  But when we see people as people, we will take the time to move in their direction and get to know them.  We will seek to listen and let them describe their own needs and the needs of the people they interact with every day.  Then, we will minister to them out of the context of relationship and not out of the context of distance.  In the church we will listen to one another, take the time to ask questions, and help others based on our shared humanity.

          Try and become conscious of the labels and names you are inwardly assigning to people you see, especially those who are in situations of need.  Try changing the names you ascribe to them and see how it changes your perception of them.  Have you ever been wrongly named by another?  How did it affect you?  Who is someone you have wrongly labeled?  What do you think the impact of that naming has been?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Wedding Blessing

          My middle daughter, Charissa, recently became a new bride.  It was a joy and a privilege to both walk her down the aisle, and officiate the wedding.  It was, obviously, not just another wedding ceremony for me.  Because of this I did not want my words to be a typical kind of wedding message.  So, instead, I chose to give the new couple a marriage blessing.  In fact, the experience of focusing on a blessing rather than a standard kind of marriage message has helped me rethink how to go about doing weddings in general.

            Giving a blessing is a very important part of Holy Scripture; you can find it running through the entirety of the Bible.  In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he placed a man and a woman together in the garden.  Everything was perfect.  There was a free and unhindered relationship with God and with each other.  But paradise was lost when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, believing that God was somehow holding out on them by telling them not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The world was plunged into sin, and a relational separation happened between humans and God.  The effects of that act of disobedience were terrible, and eventually led to a flood overtaking the entire world.  It seemed perhaps all was lost forever.  But God, who is rich in mercy, whose very nature is described as love, took the initiative in reclaiming that severed relationship.  What he did was to choose Abraham as a person to bless, and to, in turn, be a blessing.  We read in the book of Genesis these words from God to Abraham:

            “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

            The rest of Scripture details an unfolding drama of redemption in which God, by sheer grace, goes out of his way to reconcile himself with his estranged creatures.  Those efforts culminated in Jesus Christ coming to this earth, living a holy life, suffering and dying a cruel death on cross, rising from the dead, and ascending to heaven so that we can experience forgiveness from our broken and twisted way of doing things and reconnect with God.  One of the New Testament writers has said:  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

            I was overwhelmed by how many people I met whom my daughter Charissa and her new husband Alex have been a blessing to already in their young lives – people who had been spiritually lost and are now lovers of Jesus.  It has all been possible because God in Christ first blessed them.

            Just as God blessed Abraham because he wanted to love his created beings, I had the opportunity to bless a new couple just because I love them.  As I read the blessing to them, I watched the power of loving words touch Charissa and Alex.  We also have the chance to speak words of blessing into the lives of people every day – words of affirmation and love, words of hope and a special future, words of goodness and grace.  In a world where sarcasm, words that tear down, and a neglect of gracious words exists in families and even churches all around us, we can take the initiative to speak into the lives of others in a way that can truly transform people from the inside-out.

             Here is a portion of the blessing I gave, and perhaps you will think of incorporating words of blessing into your ministry as well:

            May the LORD bless you and keep you.  May the LORD make his face to shine upon you.  May God answer you on those days when life crashes around you.  May the Name of Jesus put you out of harm’s reach.  May God continually send reinforcements from heaven, and give you fresh strength from the Holy Spirit.  May your marriage together be a living offering to God, holy and pleasing to him.  May God give you the desires of your heart, and make all your plans succeed.  When you overcome the hardships of life, your parents plan to raise the roof, and lead the celebration.  May the LORD grant all your requests.  May the LORD bless your marriage, and help you keep the vows you have made together.

          In your church, whom are those who need to experience a blessing through a hug?  Who needs to hear words of affirmation?  Who feels hopeless and needs to hear you give them words of a special future?  How can you communicate that you are committed to helping others be successful in the Christian life?

          May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with us all.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Warfare Prayer, Part 2

          Being assailed with negative thoughts eventually leads to discouragement, and discouragement leads to inaction.  In this second half of Victor Matthew's warfare prayer, it is clear that the antidote to most of the obstacles and problems that we face is through a vigorous prayer life and that biblical prayer is itself an action.  Like the Hulk, we must smash the strongholds of Satan that are formed against us and our churches.    Let this prayer be prayed often, and let its truth seep into the marrow of your spirit:

          Heavenly Father, by faith and in dependence upon You I put off the old person and stand into all the victory of the crucifixion where the Lord Jesus Christ provided cleansing from the sinful nature.  I put on the new person and stand into all the victory of the resurrection and the provision He has made for me to live above sin.

            Today I put off the old nature with its selfishness and I put on the new nature with its love.  I put off the old nature with its fear and I put on the new nature with its courage.  I put off the old nature with all its deceitful lusts and I put on the new nature with its righteousness, purity and honesty.

            In every way I stand into the victory of Christ’s ascension and glorification, in which everything was made subject to Him.  I claim my place in Christ as victorious with Him over all the enemies of my soul.  Holy Spirit, I pray that you would fill me.  Come into my life, break down every idol and cast out every enemy of my soul.

            I am thankful, Heavenly Father, for the expression of Your will for my daily life as You have shown me in Your Word.  I, therefore, claim all the will of God for my life today.  I am thankful that You have blessed me with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  I am thankful that You have given me new life into a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  I am thankful that You have made provision for me so that today I can live filled in the Holy Spirit with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.  I recognize and affirm that this is Your will for me and so I reject and resist all the attempts of Satan and his demons to rob me of the will of God.  I refuse today to believe my feelings and I hold up the shield of faith against all the accusations, distortions, and insinuations that Satan would put into my mind.  I claim the will of God for my life today.

            In the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ I completely surrender myself to You, Heavenly Father, as a living sacrifice.  I choose not to be conformed to this world.  I choose to be transformed by the renewing of my mind.  I pray that You would show me Your will and help me to walk in Your ways today.

            I am thankful, Heavenly Father, the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world, but have divine power to demolish strongholds, arguments, and every pretention that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.  I take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  Therefore, in my own life today I tear down the strongholds of Satan and smash the plans of Satan that have been formed against me.  I demolish the strongholds of Satan against my mind, and I surrender my mind to You, Holy Spirit.  I affirm, Heavenly Father, You have not given me a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline.  I break and smash the strongholds of Satan formed against my emotions today.  I give my will to You.  I choose to make right decisions of faith.  I smash the strongholds of Satan formed against my body today.  I give my body to You and recognize that I am Your temple.  I rejoice in Your mercy and grace.

            Heavenly Father, I pray now and through this day You would strengthen and enlighten me.  Show me the ways Satan is hindering, tempting, lying and distorting the truth in my life.  Help me to be the kind of person that would please You.  Help me to be aggressive in prayer and faith.  Help me to think rightly, and actively practice Your Word.  Help me to give You Your rightful place in my life.

            I cover myself with the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and pray that You, Holy Spirit, would bring all the work of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and all Your work of Pentecost into my life today.  I deliberately surrender myself to You, God.  I refuse to be discouraged.  You are the God of all hope.  You have proven Your power by resurrecting Jesus from the dead, so I claim this victory over all satanic forces in my life.  I pray in the Name and through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ with thanksgiving.  Amen.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Warfare Prayer

          This week, as every week, I anticipated coming to my pastor's study on Tuesday morning intent on crafting a draft of the upcoming Sunday sermon.  Preaching my way through the Gospel of Matthew, the text for this Sunday is one of those healing narratives in which Jesus confronts and rebukes a demonized person.  I was feeling pretty good, and was ready to get the day going.  However, just as I was ready to go to the church building, I was suddenly overcome with nausea and an extreme mental fog.  As I sat down to gather myself, irrational fears and thoughts began to pummel my brain.  "If you preach on that story, they won't be happy with you." "How can you even think of preparing a sermon on faith when you are so unfaithful!?"  "You don't make a difference in this church; why even go to work?"

          If this had been the first time I ever had such an encounter, I may have totally freaked out.  But it was not the first time, and probably won't be the last.  I immediately texted my wife and said, "preaching on a demon-possession on Sunday - let's cover ourselves in prayer."  We both knew we were in for a strange week.  Demons are not just something for Christ's time and place, but are a very real presence in this day and age.

          My favorite theology professor in seminary, the late Victor Matthews, taught me as much about the demonic realm as anyone.  Decades ago he wrote and published in tract form the "warfare prayer."  In those times when I realize I'm in a spiritual battle, the warfare prayer is my companion throughout the day.  I have edited and updated it for my own purposes, and for the people I counsel.  It is solid theology put into prayer form.  I offer you the first half of it here, and the rest in a later blog.  Use it often in order to remain aggressive in faith and prayer.  I recommend praying it out loud with some flavor:

             Heavenly Father, I bow in worship and praise before You.  I cover myself with the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ as my protection.  I surrender myself completely in every area of my life to You.  I take a stand against all the work of Satan that would hinder me in my prayer life.  I address myself only to the True and Living God and refuse any involvement of Satan in my prayer.

            Satan, I command you, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to leave my presence with all of your demons.  I bring the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ between us.

           Heavenly Father, I worship You and give You praise.  I recognize that You are worthy to receive all glory and honor and praise.  I renew my allegiance to You and pray that the Holy Spirit would enable me in this time of prayer.  I am thankful, Heavenly Father, that You have loved me from eternity past and that You sent the Lord Jesus Christ into the world to die as my substitute.  I am thankful that the Lord Jesus Christ came as my representative and that through Him You have completely forgiven me; You have adopted me into Your family; You have assumed all responsibility for me; You have given me eternal life; You have given me the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ so that I am now justified.  I am thankful that in Christ You have made me complete, and that You have offered Yourself to me to be my daily help and strength.
          Heavenly Father, open my eyes that I might see how great You are and how complete Your provision is for this day.  I am thankful that the victory the Lord Jesus Christ won for me on the cross and in His resurrection has been given to me and that I am seated with the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven.  I take my place with Him and recognize by faith that all wicked spirits and Satan himself are under my feet.  I declare that Satan and his demons are subject to me in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
          I am thankful for the armor You have provided.  I put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the sandals of peace and the helmet of salvation.  I lift up the shield of faith against all the fiery arrows of the enemy; and I take in my hand the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.  I choose to use Your Word against all the forces of evil in my life.  I put on this armor and live and  pray in complete dependence upon You, Holy Spirit.
         I am grateful, Heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus Christ disarmed all power and authorities, triumphing over them by the cross.  I claim all victory for my life today.  I reject all the insinuations, accusations, and temptations of Satan.  I affirm that the Word of God is true and I choose to live today in the light of God’s Word.  Heavenly Father, I choose to live in obedience to You and in fellowship with You.  Open my eyes and show me the areas of my life that do not please You.  Work in me to cleanse me from all ground that would give Satan a foothold against me.  I do in every way stand into all that it means to be Your adopted child and I welcome all the ministry of the Holy Spirit in my life today.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tasks vs. Results

          I'll be the first to say that administration is not my gift.  So, wading out into the ocean of organizational theory might be a bit like a pastoral walking-the-plank for me.  But, on the other hand, I have found myself time and again in leadership situations where significant organizational change is needed.  Maybe God has a sense of humor, or maybe he just wants to use somebody who recognizes he isn't going to get anything done on the organizational level without a lot of divine intervention.  Because of this, I like the KISS approach to organizing church (Keep It Simple Stupid).  My KISS method is to stick with a results-oriented organization as opposed to a task-oriented organization.

          In a task-oriented system, everything lives or dies with the to do list.  The focus is accomplishing a few core functions.  For a Pastor, it might mean preparing sermons, visiting shut-ins, and attending meetings.  For an Elder it could mean serving communion, and listening to complaints from cranky congregants.  A Deacon might focus on simply counting money and making sure the building and grounds are in good order.  Joe Pew-Sitter, in this system, feels good that he attends the worship service every Sunday and puts something in the offering plate.  The problem?  People are unlikely to see a need for change and a transformation of the heart because these few tasks are just what we do.  It is spiritual cruise-control, driving the car of mediocrity.  Meetings and church services, then, tend to be ends in themselves (frustrating and boring!) because the meeting itself is just something that gets scratched off the to do list.  Churches that have a hard time making decisions are probably stuck in the task-oriented mode, because there is no over-arching framework from which to decide anything.  So, people entrench themselves in positions based in personal preferences.  It's the world of heated conversations and worship wars.  If motivation and morale is dependent on people getting their way, no one is likely to be happy.  The great need for a task-oriented church is a big picture vision that seeks results.

          The results-oriented organization focuses on achieving some desired outcomes.  Tasks or functions are never ends in themselves, but will continually change in order to accomplish the results we want.  This is a church oriented around mission.  Jesus came to this earth to accomplish the salvation of the world.  He was on a mission - a mission of love that was intent on extending grace to lost sinners.  In this setting, decision-making becomes exciting since a group of people come up with ideas and tasks that will bring about loving people and reaching them with the grace we have received from God.  Personal preferences take a back seat to the great needs of the community.  There is freedom to experiment and imagine together, instead of guilt for not getting that thing crossed off the to do list.

          I am really a person who likes to create lists and feels good when I can scratch everything off of it at the end of the day.  But I make sure that those things are means to an end, and not the end itself.  By orienting my ministry around mission (God's, not mine) I am able to create tasks and functions that contribute to seeing the kingdom of God break into the church and the world.  So, here is the KISS questions for every  church leadership team:  What result(s) would you like to see in your church?  What kind of tasks will help you get the results you want?

          Jesus is building his church, and the gates of hell will not overtake it.  We can participate and change and grow and live and learn without fear of screwing the church up and making it more complicated than what it is because Jesus is the One building it.  All we need is a bit of grace with each other to step out by faith and make a difference.  May it be so.