"Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (Job 28:29)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Violence Driving Us to Christ...

GREAT UPHEAVAL broke out in headlines this week with Muslim terrorist assault made on a publication office in Paris, France. In the traveling fray which followed, reports are that a total of seventeen persons were killed and others were wounded. Persons not even associated with the editorial staff of the notoriously satirical publication were harmed or killed. The world has been shocked. Many prayers have been spoken. And now… as expressed on US news outlets, new fears arise in the face of growing violence created by such demented forces.
 Amid this desolation, many voices express fear… not only for publishing venues that have offered cartoons and articles about religious subjects, but  also rises for various religious entities including synagogues and churches around the world. At the same time, moderate and peaceful Muslims cringe at the possibilities of hate-filled backlash. World-wide religious war has therefore commenced, whether or not any government or its representatives foolishly deny its presence and importance. These include foolhardy leaders of our own land.
 As we ponder the future, we are called to look at the past to see where we are and where we shall be going. “How did we get this way? What is the source for all this hate?” Many blame religious powers. We know that religion error has caused many past atrocities. History teaches us that these struggles have come from all faith traditions. I ask, “Does this mean all religious faiths are harmful?” Some sociologists have argued as such. We learn that strife occurs as religious and secular powers reach for domination, and I fear that even Christianity has suffered such sin. We must ask, “Where did this start? How far back does this penchant go?”
 The historical roots for our present hatreds go clear back in history to that high and shrouded mountain where it is described that Abraham, as a friend of God, answered sacrificial instructions. The event occurred in scripture after the jealousy of Sarah had sent his first son Ismael away. It is in the story concerning Abraham’s taking of his second son, Isaac to be a sacrifice. He led him up the appointed mountain...

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
                                                                                                   (Genesis 22:6-12)

 In the Hebrew mindset then, the prophetic future was pardoned as God, seeing that Abraham trusted him with his present and his future, then substituted a goat for the life of Isaac. Thus in the Hebrew scripture great inheritance belonged to Isaac, the ancestor of the Israeli nation. An animal sacrifice system was thus continued.
 However, we also hear that the Muslim faith, which recalls the same event, offers also that this latter privilege rightly belongs not to Isaac, but to Ishmael… given that he was Abraham’s first born son. They contend that the Israeli mountaintop experience recorded is moot since the rightful inheritor Ishmael had not been banished, but was really the one taken to the mountain.
 Therefore, the differing interpretations of this religious record set up an enmity between the Hebrew and Muslim faiths. The deep chasm has persisted between these two great belief systems and thus we inherit a near timeless dilemma. Strong adherents to being the “chosen” people wrestle violently and militarily, even in today’s time.
 As time passed in history, however, we Christians believe that God offered his own “Chosen One”. You see, each of these two religious systems performed various prayers, blood offerings and lifestyles to justify their sinful participants before God. Their traditional practices have changed little over past centuries, though try as they might… their purity of sacrifice cannot be found as everlasting for them. Both participants have offered much, including the lives of other human beings and their own as martyrs… to please the Creator. Therefore these zealous and jealous offerings track through history from way back. But you see… for both Hebrews and Muslims, the tendency for violence precedes even the faith history of Abraham. In Genesis we find the telling story of Cain and Able. The two brothers, as children of Adam and Eve, built up sin offerings before God, Able offered the carcasses of animals burnt on an altar of stones. Cain offered the produce of the land. Without explanation, God accepted the blood offering of Able and did not find Cain’s offering as pleasing. In rage Cain then murdered Able. But you can see, from this we can see that so deep is the offense of human sin and pride that only the blood of life poured out can rightly satisfy divine and perfect judgment. Therefore blood offering for offenses became self-perpetuating in the lives of God’s children. We see both the scripturally attested “Wars of YHWH” and the campaigns of Mohammed give evidence of the ongoing chasm between mankind and God. Therein we find the faith walk of both Hebrew and Muslim cultures trapped in historic violence.
 Then entered the Christians into the flow of history. Jesus lived, taught, healed, and died to pay the penalty of human sin. Being offered up on a cross to be the sin offering made for all who would believe in him…Jesus freed us from the penalty of sin. Only the "perfect" sacrifice would satisfy God, therefore God offered his own. Thus as Christians, we need not make necessary the expression of self-justifying violence. Jesus, the Risen Christ, the Prince of Peace, reconciles with God those who are baptized in his name. Jesus restores their relationship to God the Father, who is the Creator of all. However, I fear that the centuries since the crucifixion and Resurrection reveal that the church of Christ can also possess a penchant for violence. The church, though called forward in peace, has too often made war with entities from both within and without its sanctuaries. True are the words that Saint Paul noted… “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death”.
 Therefore, given this checkered history, let us within the Christian church not rain judgment and eternal condemnation upon either Hebrew or Muslim, without truthfully looking in the mirror. Let us only be thankful that we have received grace upon grace through forgiveness made available in Christ Jesus.
 But know this! It is in the very receiving of this grace-filled guarantee that we Christians are set free to work for good amid this sinful and turbulent world. And though forceful resistance of arms against evil powers in this modern society may be needed from us at times, we are also called to work hard in order to keep the peaceful precepts of God’s immutable Law.
 Remember, the keeping of the Law is not that we may fulfill the Law or structure a new, grand society! Minions such as Adolf Hitler tried the latter. The commandments… the Law… expressed by any faith system… simply condemns us. The Law rightly stated drives us to know our need for salvation. It is through the Law and our hard striving toward its fulfillment that we show all humanity our collective need for salvation. Let it be known, we sinners cannot meet the perfect Law! The Law thus drives us to seek salvation in Jesus, as provided by God, the Father Almighty.
 We might ask in prayer then, “Since Christ is the answer, when shall all this striving and death end?” The answer is found in our scriptural Christian inheritance, The witness of John comes to us from the book of Revelation. He told us truly. God related to us through his lowly servant as he strengthened the church that labored beneath the powers of ancient Rome. John said that we shall see eternal heavenly peace only when evil powers are defeated at the last by Jesus Christ. We read…

“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.” (Revelation 5:11-14)

 The key lay in the words, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…” Though we certainly know that this book and its contents are yet debated, as to when all things shall unfold… we are called by the Holy Spirit to agree that our ultimate answer to this present violence lay not in bullets, bombs or clandestine monitoring of evil powers. Instead, since these finite human efforts shall only work to curb horrid events temporarily. we shall find absolute truth only in knowing that when the last trumpet sounds we shall be rescued from the powers of sin, death and the Satanic by our Lord Jesus Christ alone.
 Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, I exhort you to not blanch from facing evil in this world. Let us work tirelessly within the present turmoil to protect the threatened, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and free those who are imprisoned and harmed by sin and evil. Let us thus be witnesses to the love of God made available through Jesus Christ. Most of all, let us keep our eyes on the cross, looking prayerfully and witnessing for the coming day of our Lord. In this way we shall find ourselves working in league with the angels and heavenly hosts on that final day. So it is written, and so it will be.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Taxing Times?

 JUST A FEW more miles, a bit over the hill, just around the corner… and Christmas will be here. These words echo around my mind. I remember my father saying them while driving his 1940 Mopar sedan all too slowly along a country road just before Christmas. The time was just after World War II had ended. I sat fidgeting in the back seat, bouncing around in the old car as we wound along a road that ran next to the rapids of a cold mountain creek. I anxiously waited to see my favorite little-bitty country house. We all felt a need to see things that did not change. Times were still difficult though war was over, for my father said another war was about to start. Troubled yet was the world it seems… and still very bumpy was the road. 

 The place to which we motored was a small, two-bedroom home. The farm had located in a valley of the mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. My great-grandparents, Burton and Belle, had lived there for as long as I could remember at the time. A pine tree stood tall in front of the little house. Its branches sheltered the place and marked the driveway. From a quarter mile away I could see it. So I could tell when we’d almost arrived.
 Indeed the trip taxed my sparse, youthful patience. I had always looked forward to the journey that our family habitually made before Christmas. We were returning to the home place. Even now, as the scene is nested in the memory of my elder years, I clearly see that trek as we rambled. The journey reminds me of the long tax enrollment road demanded of Joseph and Mary as they went toward Bethlehem…

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  (Luke 2:1-7)

 Long ago when the stable was sought by the blessed couple, they went to a small place, an ancient place, a place set apart and thus made holy… a place that the prophets had said waited for burdened people. Once they'd arrived, according to blessed Luke, Mary gave birth. Our Lord’s young mother then laid him in a manger… a simple feeding-trough for the animals. The manger’s symbolism reaches forward in time to altars in our present day. We gather before our God, to receive the body and blood of Christ as divine gift that was, and yet still is given for us.
 Though many years have past, I clearly recall going to see my great-grandparents. They were early 90s in age. They had great difficulty moving around. Taxing times and pains of passing years had taken toll, so they could no longer keep pace. The world had moved all too quickly past their youth. When they met and delivered their first child, slow but not always gentle beasts of burden would carry them to church. Great G’ma Belle would teach Sunday School there.
 “Too fast are the cars now.” she often said. Too fast was the world it seemed then... and now. Even faster we tread today with our cell phones, international flights, and cyber-terrorism across the globe... so fast that I must work hard to remember that a patriarch and matriarch once sat quietly in state long ago, waiting in the warm alongside a kitchen coal stove. They waited for me, and for the other children of the family who would brighten their day.
 Young Mary had heard the voice of an angel. She came to Bethlehem and laid her pregnant body to rest. She groaned and gave birth to the One who would rescue many who are heavily taxed. As the road of sin pushed down, blessed Emmanuel would lift them up. He would save many who would come to believe.
 You see, Jesus Christ was born to pay the tax. He had come to set sinners free. No Caesar, no Devil, no demons, rutted roads, dusty trails, or violent waters… could stop the love of God. Jesus, the Son of Almighty God... was born of a virgin and laid in a manger. God had come to save us. He would brighten the day.
 Since that wonderful night so long ago, by the power of Holy Spirit our Lord has taught us to hate sin and love the sinner. By his example, he has taught us to how to pay the tax for others and set the burdened free. Jesus taught us that our eternal Father knows what giving is all about. You see, I know this to be true… for since that blessed, holy night… because of that giving love… church steeples yet rise where tall pines grow.

  At this Christmas then, I remember that my earthly father worked diligently as I sat in Great G’ma’s kitchen. I would sit content as a coddled child and eat wonderful, warmed apple pie. While I ate, my father would bring coal up from the basement in a bucket. Next, he would perform his labor of love.
 Dad would shake down the ashes in the stove. He would then take the spent, hot ashes from the firebox and spread them down the snowy driveway, melting ice and giving traction so the other visitors could more easily arrive. Afterward, washing coal dust off himself using cold, hand-pumped water just like a newborn being baptized in a cold marble font… he would turn and say “Brrrr!” He would grin. Then my father would smile and his eyes would twinkle a bit, and say gently to everyone… as I now say to you… “Merry Christmas”.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Church Key Evangelism...

A MAJOR challenge exists for the small modern Christian church as we are yet mandated by Jesus Christ to proclaim the gospel message. The gospel, simply stated, is that though a sinful people, we have been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. This faith has been and still is… a gift from God, a gift provided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was given to the tiny gathering of apostles during a Pentecost festival held nearly two millennia ago. However, the same eternal Spirit of God hovered over the church so that it grew worldwide. That same Spirit is close around me as I write this article about small church ministry. Through the Spirit, God whispers wisdom from scripture into my ear as I type, and guides my Enter key.
 What presses upon me is that each week in our little mission church, I normally end the Sunday worship experience by saying, “Let us go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!” This being said, we go… and to some degree we serve… but the echo fades as the week rolls on. The realization again reappears for us and most Christians in this American society, that serving the Lord does not center upon proclaiming the gospel so that the church grows. This is true at least in many small towns and rural areas..
 The realization hits many churches that we are not growing. Excuses loom. For example, I live in a rather busy, small town that is filled with a lot of nice people. Our congregation is a tiny mission outpost that gathers some very active and busy people. But we haven’t gathered new persons to worship with us in more than a year. As I think about this, I tend to explain this stagnation away by a theory of relativity… in desperation we look for anyone to just gather in sameness for the next Sunday AM… and bring a relative once in a while. Overall, it often seems that a demon has taken a scatter gun to Christian witness in our town. Christian community is getting smaller and smaller. Therefore, I count us as blessed last year when our congregation held its population steady… while some churches linger closer to closure.
 But that is deceptive excuse. Our small church, which shares the building with another faith family from another denomination, is now losing a large number of persons. These folks, an active family, are slated to leave our town for work in a faraway place. In the midst of this foreboding coming upon us, my mind is guided to a scriptural word picture. I am reminded of old Simeon as he waited in prayer for the salvation of Israel... 

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
 And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said.., “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-26).

Looking for the salvation of Christian expression in our community, therefore, while I know that the Spirit is present in our church… I feel like Simeon in my waiting that the gospel voice be surely heard in the public square. If our congregation does not do the task of evangelism in the public square, it and other churches will rightly fail.

Beer Can Crushing?
Sociologically speaking, I see that our Christian denominations and traditional church structures are slowly failing across the nation. In recent decades many faith expressions have suffered crushing statistics. Worship has become sparsely attended, and this decline falls more so as faithful elder members die. This fact is especially accelerated for any size church or denomination that suffers inner turmoil while standing firmly against certain modern trends. Churches that have condemned such practices as alternate marital lifestyles and abortion seem to be hardest hit. A bright spot that I have noted locally, however, is that “fundamentalist” churches have been given to turn to “entertainment theology”. This down-home talent helps to maintain, and even grow their existence and outreach. But in my view, care must be taken. A demonic trade can be present. Some of these venues do wonderful outreach, but only mention salvation through Christ as an afterthought. This tactic is excused so to envelop the newbie attendee with personal human relationships, and hopefully, eventually… promote a “relationship with Christ”.
 While this bait and switch does gather persons to the gospel message to some degree, the entertainment shell game does not fit my own pastoral skill set. For me, I see that this entertainment trend can be a hindrance, especially if the music, etc… draws more importance for the disciple than the sermon and holy meal. I ask, “Do we really need to soft pedal sainthood to a supporting role behind the bass guitar?”
 But if we do not favor this method, how do we cease the slide toward becoming extinct? Have orthodox faith expressions fallen so far from mainline favor that our congregations shall be whited sepulchers sitting alongside a rural road like a decorative, recycled milk can? By observation we can see that modern lifestyles lure many of our faithful away from the church, and hinder others from joining us. These lifestyles promote a believer’s casual interaction or sporadic attendance within the faith community.
 Living in a small town and rural society then, I see where the church is often replaced by other realms. School activities draw persons into a liberal secular life that becomes prominent for young families This is such that public schools now schedule sporting events on Sunday mornings without excuse or afterthought about the faithful who would usually attend church. Indeed demons do shell games as subtle diversions occur within political arenas, labor unions, fraternal organizations and businesses. Any church community that holds dearly to traditional biblical standards for human relationships quickly becomes archaic to a family having youth whose biggest Sunday challenge is how to get everyone to football or band practice. The parents often feel justified to take this busy path, hoping to dissuade young family members from getting involved with alcoholic and drug subcultures. Thus we in the church see that Sunday School may suffer second string to softball.
 Social issues such as heterosexual marriage, abortion and tolerance for all religions rise to lure faithful parishioners so strongly that whole traditional denominations are tumbling. The locks on the church doors have been picked by the demonic so that the churches accommodate liberal, progressive theologies just to keep membership rolls from lessening. By doing so, a supple, whited sepulcher stays financially in place though emptied of its faith-filled life. As this occurs, too many ministers find themselves relegated to doing feckless “social ministry” projects. These often cast aside feeding poor widows and children or caring for the ill and dying; replacing these worthy ministries as “spiritual guides” preen in the public square. These cling to car seats in marches supporting gay pride or speak in labor union drives to raise minimum wage… all the while the nave in the church sits emptied.
 This modern atomization of our Christian small town population is being fought by some, but this has been somewhat focused upon keying in on outreach to the wider world. For me it happened in the form of Facebook pages and blogs. I claim that they do have their place. I must defend and claim some success for such as this blog… and a bible study that I write. But, while these efforts stand good for evangelical message declaration to those in the greater audience, they do not accomplish much to support the local mission of a small church. I often think the activity is too much a distraction, as we continue on the local path to dissolution.
 In our small town, therefore, we march along with social changes from active factories to cottage industry… and from family farms to part-time gardening. We lumber less and our trucks send chips out of town. We’ve gone from large church families to scattered individuals as children move away for college and employment futures. We see these souls occasionally in the coffee shop communicating with distant family via cellphone, modem and other gadgets. The results? Family and community activities dwindle. The distance between family members and community ties grows, Too often, many isolated people find themselves mired in lowered morality, higher divorce rates, children aborted, parents spurned… and a greater rise of suburban and urban isolationism. This feeds our growing national suicide rates. The extremes of this social movement drives the headline news across a society that knows deeply even through driven-ness, drugs and booze… things are falling apart.

The Gospel Key!
Thus I make no excuse for turning to scriptural source for cure. Faith history reveals to us a path forward for the small town church. We need only remember that our Lord Jesus was not born into the access of a metropolitan government or temple cult, but was of lowly birth in a small community. He grew, was tutored, and came of age nurtured by a small religious group that valued one another’s company. I offer that this pattern, once prevalent in the great expanse of the Roman Empire during the first century, is what God graciously used to give spiritual power and foundation to the early church. I contend that this is the pattern yet called for at this stage of our collective American history. I believe that the Christian church in small towns and rural settings must regain this vision of our calling to worship and proclaim the gospel by accepting our social atomization.
What does this mean? Simply put… use “smallness” deliberately. Cast away your keys to mighty fortress walls and focus on the building the kingdom of many small satellite communities. How small? As small as God wills! Remember that Jesus said…

“For where two of three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
                                                                                       (Matthew 18:20)

 Yes, certainly adjustments will be made to the community of believers. House churches need be started and these may flourish in either small towns or rural crossroads! The locksmith minister will simply carry lighter key rings. The faithful cleric may travel farther to do community visits to more than one church. The image of the circuit rider may loom large again. Let us not worship our empty church buildings… instead worship God! In this future day, we shall choose to walk in the ways of our predecessors. Amid twelve disciples, like a gathered small group of onlookers… we may meet on any Sunday morning. We may find that we can also gather on any Monday, Tuesday, or any day of the week within our Lord’s making. We can gather in meeting houses, libraries, funeral homes, and barns. Remember that Jesus said…

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:18-20)

In this way, by following our Lord’s instructions to the letter, we already possess the key to the medicine chest for the church. We have in hand the balm which cures the busy, yet lonely hearts that flail desperately as they try to swim through this often overactive and sinful current. Consider this! As our scripture stated, Jesus “strictly charged” the disciples gathered on that former day to tell no one that he was the Christ. But the secret got out somehow through the Spirit. Thus know that as a pastor I think we should show him to others through our hopeful behavior as his disciples. In that way, we pray that the hidden keys to the kingdom that we each possess… shall be mysteriously revealed. In this way, doors shall be opened… and our Lord shall be found.