Re-post: What Really Grows the Church?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will take care of itself. A local church is a complex body and there are a score of other tasks that must be done to meet a basic standard for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and number.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors. The growing church must also have lay workers who share the spiritual burden for pastoral ministry and outreach with the pastor.

It does not even mean that preaching must be brilliant for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must meet only three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the primary spiritual nourishment and guidance of the congregation flows from the pulpit to the people, their Bible study classes, family prayer times and evangelistic outreach. If the pulpit lacks authenticity in content, clarity or spiritual genuineness, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings blurring, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water with food coloring to attract them.   I’m told that if the mixture is instead made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst but gradually will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories to nourish.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of listeners; it must nourish believers and challenge the unawakened. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep need for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well- formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but obedience to the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek such prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first-century pastors who were assigned to oversee young congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul write to them?

“Command and teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11). “…the overseer must be…able to teach (3:2)” “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired for us today.

We may fail on occasion to meet the scriptural standards of the pulpit, but God is merciful. If our commitments are clear he will forgive and keep our hearts warm to our calling. And he will help us keep the pastoral passion alive, enabling messages that are true, genuine, and delivered in the energy of the Spirit.

So, as a pastor long retired I encourage an oncoming generation of pastors to manage the stresses, pressures, and diverse responsibilities that are part of the pastoral task, and in it all and above all else, keep the passion of the pulpit alive.

Photo credit: Adam Selwood (via flickr.com)

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The Picture on Our Dresser and the Memories It Awakens

On the dresser in our bedroom stands the only professional picture Kathleen and I have from our wedding 71 years ago this coming December 20. In this black and white photo, we stand before the photographer’s backdrop, Kathleen’s gloved hand firmly clasping my arm. Often, when I’m in the bedroom I pick the picture up and ponder it with gratitude and amazement.

Imagine: two 21-year-olds launching a lifetime enterprise on shoestring resources but strong in their love for each other and confident God would lead them. At that time, easy divorce, living together unmarried and same-sex marriage, had not yet complicated the matrimonial landscape.

Our special day was in no way lavish. If in color the picture would show Kathleen in a brown satin dress, half-calf in length, with a corsage of eight talisman roses. I wear a dark blue suit with a white boutonniere at the lapel.

The wedding was in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the home of Muriel, Kathleen’s sister. For the simple ceremony we stood under an arch that Mel, my best man, had tacked together from lathe I purchased at the lumberyard. The arch was brightened by colored streamers.

The simple ceremony was followed by a chicken dinner for the twelve who were present. Afterwards there was some merriment and teasing over the whereabouts of our suitcases. We had hidden them the day before in a locker at the railroad station. (Kathleen’s younger sister coaxed my best man to deliver up our secret and the key.) After we retrieved our sabotaged luggage from the locker we started for Toronto.

The 70 miles to Toronto was to be followed by a two-day train ride to Saskatchewan where I would introduce my bride to my parents, my younger sister and my older brother and his wife.

Unknown to us, however, additional family — two older sisters, their husbands and children — had decided to make the trip from British Columbia by car to meet the bride. This created a housefull. The number almost overwhelmed Kathleen but after a few minutes of family decorum mingled with ill-concealed curiosity, warm welcomes and affirmations were extended.

Imagine: a “honeymoon” composed of a two-day train ride there and back, plus a bride’s first introduction to a family, and this all set in a week of bone-chilling winter weather. But Kathleen and I had each other; we were together in a thrilling new bond. The Bible says, we were “one flesh,” a new unit in society. As I gaze at the photograph the whole event comes flooding back.

It was universally thought back then that marriage would mean children and of that we were aware. But in those winter days that thought was remote because we were enthralled with our union pledged to be ours for keeps. That was as it should be.

Ten days before our first anniversary we welcomed our first child, Carolyn. Then in time came Donald and Robert and John David. During John David’s first year we learned bit by bit from a gentle pediatrician that our baby had serious brain damage, likely from oxygen deficiency during a long delivery. He would need institutional care.

There followed three stressful years for the family and especially for Kathleen whose motherly commitment to be sure John David got loving care was boundless to the point of exhaustion. Even feeding him three times a day was an ordeal. By his third birthday we surrendered him to the care of an institution suited to his needs, and we grieved.

Our other three children grew up and married. Then, in time, seven of their children grew up and six of them married. And by this coming spring, the grandchildren in turn will be at different stages of raising 12 great grandchildren.

Including children gained by marriage as well as by birth the two 21-year-olds pictured alone on our dresser will have become a small branch of humanity numbering 32 — three teachers, two editors, two engineers, two doctors, a pastor, a nurse practitioner, financial researcher, advertising clerk, financial consultant, nurse, artist, computer specialist, and social worker — each adding their own tone to the mix making family events colorful and pleasant.

I put this snapshot together hoping that it will come to the attention of some young man today who feels badgered by the pervasive anti-male and anti-marriage sentiments afloat in our culture. He may feel badgered even to the point of avoiding serious female companionship with a possible future in mind and in doing so he may be limiting the enrichment of his own destiny.

Consider a Christian perspective. Masculinity is much more than a social construct. It and fatherhood are gifts from God. As the Bible says, God created them “male and female.” We believe the gift is given to be directed, nourished and mastered and — if God wills — to be invested in a marriage and family filled with imagination and hope.

Photo credit: Ted Rabbitts (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: When Love Is Not Returned

Is there any pain that stings more sharply than the pain of unrequited love? Is there any emotional experience more gut-wrenching, relentless, and unrelieved? Even in the dark of a sleepless night hot tears flow. The impulse is to scream to muted walls. It is pain without relief.

Unrequited love is love that is due -– but withheld.

A mother devotes two decades to doing every selfless thing a mother’s heart is moved to do –- endure labor in giving birth, feed, bathe, launder soiled clothes, soothe fevered forehead, instruct, correct, teach life-lessons, and all this, year after year, right into young adulthood.

But the kind of reciprocal love all this should engender in the growing child either does not seem to form or quickly disappears. With the coming of adulthood, the relationship becomes merely formal, devoid of warmth, coldly proper. Mother-love goes unrequited.

Or, a wife serves her husband out of a great reservoir of covenanted love. She is there for him, tries within her limits to meet his needs, washes his clothes, makes his meals, even blesses him with children. But without explanation he walks out and she is left with a searing sense of loneliness and betrayal. Inexplicably, her heart continues to love him, but her love goes unrequited.

Pictures like these formed as Kathleen and I read from Micah 6 and 7 this morning. The Old Testament is in one sense the the story of unrequited love on a grand scale.

By miracles, the Lord had shown the ancestors of this people covenant love in times of severe hardship in the wilderness. And over and over again he had reminded them of his gracious blessings poured upon them. He shepherded, disciplined, comforted, protected -– all for loving reasons.

Then comes Micah 6 carrying that grand Old Testament declaration of what the Lord wanted: “He has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you?/ To act justly and to love mercy/ and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

But these were precisely Israel’s failures. She had not acted justly, cheating and extorting as opportunities presented themselves. She had not loved mercy, leaving poor neighbors to struggle in their destitution. And her people had long since ceased worshiping God in true humility of heart.

They had been reminded often, but this generation refused to remember. They were now settled long after wilderness wanderings and many had become wealthy. They should have remembered with reciprocal love, but they did not. Instead, they had gone their own way, leaving their Lord’s love unrequited.

The result of this neglectful amnesia was that the community of the Lord’s chosen had become a place of moral degeneration. Their society had lost almost all social cohesion (Micah 7: 4-6). Even blood relations were severed: “For a son dishonors his father,/ a daughter rises up against her mother … a man’s enemies are the members of his own household” (Micah 7:6).

This kind of social breakdown is still with us. I saw a woman weeping bitter tears after a church service. I approached her. “My three children have divorced me,” she said through her tears. Christmas was approaching but there would be no Christmas greetings or gifts for her, only a punishing silence, an experience of unrequited love.

Not many come as far as midlife without experiencing in some fashion this kind of unanswered love. It is devastating. How can it be endured? How do we stave off bitterness?

Our model is Jesus. “He came unto his own but his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). Can we imagine his pain? After three years of faithful ministry to his disciples, it was said of them, “Then everyone deserted him and fled” (Mk 14:50). What was his response to such unrequited love? He committed his soul and its suffering to a loving and faithful father and carried on.

Photo credit: THOR (via flickr.com)

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A Few Words From My Wife, Kathleen (By Invitation)

When I married Don, I knew that he was heading toward some form of ministry as a life vocation, but I didn’t know for sure the specific form it would take. I knew only that he was a ministerial student and would have several years of education to finish.

I also knew from the start that I should support him in whatever work he felt called to do. That was the way most wives felt back in the forties of the last century.

I was a primary school teacher when we were married and he was a student and staff member at Lorne Park College west of Toronto, Ontario. After we lived there three-and-a-half years, we moved on to Greenville College in Illinois with our two-year-old daughter, Carolyn, so Don could finish his final two years of college. From there, we moved to attend Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, for another three years of education.

By then it was clear that the focus of his ministry was to be the pastorate. In fact, for his three years of seminary he was assigned to be pastor of the Free Methodist church in Lexington, nearby, and that’s when I got my first taste of what it meant to stand with him in that sort of ministry.

Besides caring for the three little children we had by then and taking as much of the burden of the household as I could to free him to study, I made myself available to teach Sunday School and often entertained seminary students on Sundays so they could canvass the community in the afternoon with my husband.

When we went to our second church, the Free Methodist church in New Westminster, British Columbia, I discovered what standing by my pastor husband really meant. He led the church in a growth spurt that meant new prospects most every Sunday, new programs to meet the needs of a growing congregation, and lots of social entertaining in our parsonage to get to know newcomers and otherwise promote fellowship and community.

One aspect of our experience stands out in my mind. We both worked hard at our assignment and my husband did lots of evening calling to follow up on new prospects and care for other pastoral duties. This usually involved two or three nights a week. During these times, I was at home alone with our four little children.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have time together. He was home for the noon and evening meals most days. We had simple, inexpensive, but good tenting vacations together with the children. We certainly were in touch with each other in the social life of the church.

But one night when my husband was out calling and I had put the children to bed and the house was quiet, I found myself wondering, “What is this all about anyway? I don’t like being alone so much in the evenings. There’s got to be more to life than this.” Television hadn’t yet arrived at our house.

After musing about this for some time I suddenly said to myself, “When I free my husband to be out doing the Lord’s work like this, I am really a part of that call he’s making. It is my ministry too.” That set my heart at rest. I never after that had the same feeling of personal deprivation about releasing him to work in the harvest field of the Lord.

And such mutual service has enriched our nearly 71 years together. The latter of them since our retirement have been progressively less public but still committed to service as opportunities have come.

Recently, after going through a file of thank you notes gathered across the years, I felt grateful to God for the privilege of ministering in this way.

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Using “Amen!” in the Practice of Our Faith

Jesus often introduced his eternal truths with the the Greek word for “Amen.” That may surprise you, because the word is buried in his frequent formula, “Verily, verily I say to you.” Or, as the NIV puts it, “Very truly.”

“Amen” is a word used to underline a certainty. Even today, you might notice this underlining effect when someone at the office says, “I’ll say Amen to that” — another way of saying, “Yes! I heartily agree!”

I write about this word because it is much-used in the Bible and I believe it deserves more exercise than we give it. At a time when Christian convictions seem to lack vigor, it is a word to be used resolutely.

There are 52 Amens in the Synoptic Gospels and 25 in the Gospel according to John. However, even when used as doubled (verily, verily … or truly, truly), the emphasis in the original is not clearly evident.

In John’s Gospel especially, Jesus uses “Amen, Amen” repeatedly to introduce the truths he spoke to his hearers. He wanted it to be understood that absolute truth was always his issue.

Amen is also used in the Old Testament. When the children of Israel were about to complete their long trek through the wilderness to the promised land Moses notified them of a twelve-part pledge they would be required to make when they were well into the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 27).

The 12 tribes would be given a series of evils they must avoid at all times and they were to reply in agreement to each prohibition with a hearty “Amen.”

For example, here is the first prohibition and the response:

Cursed is anyone who makes an idol — a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands — and sets it up in secret.

Then all the people shall say, “Amen.”

Amen is a word for pledging formally and emphatically. The people of Israel would be tempted to follow the strange, even grotesque Canaanite gods. Their Amen said thunderously and in unison was to be their pledge to reject the false gods around them and worship only Jehovah.

If by that time the numbers of Israel had reached two million, an affirming and resounding Amen would echo between the mountains. By the end, they would raise a solid Amen to affirm each of the 12 evils.

The advancing of secularism in our times sets before us also idols that are detestable and we too should pledge to resist them as the Israelites were called to do.

To respond, we should utter a robust Amen to the following: the Scriptures we read, the creeds we affirm, the hymns we sing, the sermons we hear, the prayers we offer. When we hear statements such as, I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, a limp okay — a kind of verbal nod — is not enough. The Apostles’ Creed deserves a hearty Amen in both heart and voice.

The Apostle Paul seizes the word Amen and connects it firmly with the Gospel of Christ. He writes to the Corinthians: For no matter how many promises God has made they are “yes” in Christ. And so through him the Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Christ is the “Yes” to every promise God has ever made. Think of the reach of that certainty. Will we respond with a firm Amen, thus glorifying Christ through whom all grace is given? Amen and Amen!

Photo credit: Erich Ferdinand (via flickr.com)

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The Tale of Two Houses

Here’s the story Jesus told about two houses (Matthew 7:15-21). As both the adopted son of a carpenter (Joseph) and one who was referred to as a carpenter in his own right, he knew about building (Mark 6:3).

Here’s the story as I imagine it.

There were two men each of whom decided to build a house. The first man had a sandy property a few hundred feet from a beautiful body of water. A little sweeping and leveling, he thought, and he could lay down heavy beams as a perimeter foundation and very shortly start framing up the house.

The second man saw his task as more complicated. His plot was similar, but he apparently didn’t trust the sand as a foundation. Instead he dug until he came to the rock below. That took several days but it gave a firmer grounding for his project.

By the time this man’s foundation was firmly anchored to the rock, the first man had his walls erected, roof installed, and windows and doors in place. He would be moving in, it appeared, while his neighbor was still working in the hot sun to frame up his walls.

Eventually both houses were completed. They were strikingly similar to all appearances. The extra digging done by the second builder may have been a waste of time. The sun was shining brightly on both.

As the season advanced, however, nature began to test both houses: heavy rains pelted the roofs, a blustery hurricane tore at the walls, and rising water softened and washed away the sand. The first house collapsed, while the second house remained firm.

This story concludes Jesus’ timeless Sermon on the Mount, which is sometimes called the Manifesto of the Kingdom of God — the kingdom he came to establish. As such we must ask what Jesus intended by the story.

First, consider a sampling of the orders he issues in this manifesto: his followers by their good deeds are to shine as lights in a fallen world’s darkness (7:14-16); they are to honor the sanctity of marriage by faithfulness even at high cost (5:17-32); to be private about their charitable giving to the needy (6:1-4); to practice simplicity when they pray (6:5-9); and, to beware of false prophets (7:15-21).

Consider now the issue raised by Jesus’ story of the two builders. What must one do to survive the storms of life? What’s this about digging down to the rock? Is the story a call to love the King of this kingdom? Strangely, it is not a call to love. Then, is the expected response to affirm in writing his teachings? Strangely it is not a call to affirm his teachings. It is not even a call to have faith in what he was saying though all three responses are vital in living life well.

The expectation Jesus himself identifies is this: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock (7:24). Our Lord’s call is a call for radical obedience. It’s the obedience a king has a right to expect from his subjects.

His point is that his followers who practice radical obedience to these teachings will have endurance to survive the worst storms of this life and find protection when facing the final judgment.

Photo credit: iRubén (via flickr.com)

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We Can Become Wise and Avoid Folly

Whereas the Gospel points us toward the life to come, the Proverbs instruct us about the life we are now living. These sayings were addressed especially to young men who stood on the threshold of adulthood because success in this life matters to God. The sayings have 3000 years of history on them so they are time-tested.

The issue of wisdom for God’s people is so important that his holy word contains five books that are called wisdom literature plus numerous references elsewhere to wisdom for life in both Testaments. Most popular among the five books is the Proverbs, many of them attributed to King Solomon.

The collection of proverbs was not unique to Israel. Surrounding nations had proverbs too. But the Hebrew proverbs are different in that they are grounded in “the fear of the Lord.” We regard the Old Testament as divinely inspired so these proverbs are sacred scriptures for the church of all ages.

As such, we do not view the wisdom of the proverbs as merely man-made; through human agency they are given to those who fear God. To fear God means more than to respect God in a general sense or to be terrified of God in a time of crisis. John W. Wevers writes that fearing God “is a technical term for those who live a godly life.” Wisdom calls us to embrace godly living.

The Book of Proverbs begins with an urgent seven-verse entreaty that ends with the summary statement: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

How can such pointed insights as are found in the Proverbs be made to stick? Not by lectures or lengthy exhortations or even drama.

A proverb is instead a short and memorable sentence to tell us something important about living the wise and ordered life and avoiding folly. They express simple truths in simple words. For example, practice makes perfect.

Our English language is rich in proverbs. Some we know well: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Actions speak louder than words. Beggars can’t be choosers. Birds of a feather flock together; and on and on.

Solomon’s proverbs are a bit different in that they are written in the form of Hebrew poetry in which a thought is presented and then repeated in different words that agree, or add to, or state a contrast, completing the thought. For example: The prospect of the righteous is joy, / but the hope of the wicked comes to nothing (Proverbs 10:28).

Solomon’s first proverb after his introductory entreaty is: Listen my son to your father’s instruction / and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. He adds, They are a garland to grace your head / and a chain to adorn your neck (Proverbs 1:8,9). In other words, listening to parents, with respect, will add beauty to your life.

If Solomon were alive in our conflicted and even chaotic society, he might start by saying: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12). Even to the present there is a connection between domestic order in society and civic stability.

Solomon’s second proverb begins, My son, if sinful men entice you do not give in to them (Proverbs 1:10). Few decisions have greater bearing on a young person’s future than the companions chosen in the early years. This advice is so important that it is followed by a brief essay telling what entreaties to be aware of and the consequences of ignoring them (Proverbs 1:11-19).

A teenager I befriended half a century ago wrote to me from the penitentiary a few months back. I had been a father figure to him when his own father abandoned his  large family. David explained that his bad end had originated from bad choices and wrong companions with whom he went astray after his time in the armed forces. To all of us, wisdom says: Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm (Proverbs 13:20).

And so the 31 chapters of Proverbs move from one counsel to the next always in the form of a proverb: The Lord detests dishonest scales, / but accurate weights find favor with him (Proverbs 11:1). Or, Laziness brings on deep sleep, / and the shiftless go hungry. (Proverbs 19:15) Or, Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid (Proverbs 12:1).

It is worth repeating that we treat these proverbs as God’s holy word. To the young of today living centuries after they were written, they continue to point the way to wisdom and to caution against folly. They say, Listen for I have trustworthy things to say; / I open my lips to speak what is right (Proverbs 8:6). To all of us they cry out: Seek wisdom and live.

Photo credit: Janes Gallerie (via flickr.com)

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