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

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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Just War Revisited...

IN RECENT searching, I uncovered dialog about a topic that loomed very large recently in the public media and social network maze. Recent atrocities have been performed by terrorist organizations and evil powers in the world. Highly publicized photos and videos rapidly radiate from these events. These are visual records of such horror that public minds and hearts tremble. The media stuns many of us in our Christian faith walk; we who know our Lord as the “Prince of Peace.” and indeed know the wishes of the intermediary between ourselves and our Creator's judgment. Therefore, caught in the midst of this turmoil to be sure… the church needs to know its position about warfare. We, as presenting the scriptural and historical mindset of God to the societies of the world… are often asked to give answer. Where should God’s people stand in the midst of this evil mess?
 The dialog I found online wrestled concisely with the issue that we call “just war”. The discussion wrapped around the topic on whether it is permissible for a Christian to participate in war. Can we participate to the point of taking the lives of other persons? The conversation occurred in 1932, as the Japanese had invaded China. The Japanese forces were imposing evidential atrocities, as exemplified by the picture of a wailing Chinese child sitting in a bombed city. Thus it was important that two theologians, brothers in the flesh and Christian faith, argued the merits of a Christian action possible as answer.
 Reading the statements of each here, therefore, consider that though the modern evils done by Muslim terrorists today are just as horrid, they are not new. Such murderous barbarisms have been going on since the days of Cain and Abel. Think of it! War has certainly been a near constant companion in the lives of this nation in decades since WW1, and WW2, the Korean Conflict, and the Viet Nam war, and the population of this nation winces from recent war pains to the point of withdrawal from the turbulent world stage. Given this reaction then, please read the guidance that these two theologians offered to us. First we receive a pacifistic argument from H. Richard Niebuhr…

"The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good; it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. ... It is not the inactivity of the noncombatant, for it knows that there are no noncombatants, that everyone is involved, that China is being crucified ... by our sins and those of the whole world. It is not the inactivity of the merciless, for works of mercy must be performed though they are only palliates to ease present pain while the process of healing depends on deeper, more actual and urgent forces." (H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale University)

 With observational reading, I reacted to the historical classification of this as expressing the mindset of “radical” Christianity. In today’s world a pacifistic theological outlook is not so radical, nor too difficult to find. Indeed my observations recall that within the liberal, socialist theologies that emerged in the ‘60s, this tendency toward pacifism found its way deep into the life of both church and world. This change occurred as we wrestled with such things as the Viet Nam conflict and our domestic answers to racism. Pacifist activities were promoted by many religious figures, by respected and beloved persons such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As this occurred, Far Eastern pacifist philosophies entered from such as Hinduism and Buddism, expressed even into such as the musical scene. This trend influenced the church and society as a member of the Beatles memorably sung “My Sweet Lord”, a song not dedicated to our Lord Jesus, but a pacifistic Far-Eastern diety.
 In the midst of this milieu, the “Jesus Movement” began to whole-heartedly embrace the term of Christ as the “Prince of Peace”, but erroneously wrapped his words around worldly teachings and the example of such people as Gandhi. In answer to the turmoil of Viet Nam and the Cambodian war, and to relieve human strife... many of these proponents went on hunger strikes... or sometimes demonstrated in the extreme by setting themselves on fire. Their pacifist inaction, therefore, became an action expressed in violence that went inward rather than outward. However, the resultant movement did not stay internal.The marchers and followers of peaceful resistance often created a temper which boiled over into confrontation with authorities, and such strife as the Kent State riots resulted.
 Therefore considering this active inactivity, consider the counterpoint. Speaking against this position of pacifist theology, Richard’s brother countered with the Christian recognition that we are sinners who live in a sinful world. (see St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 3, verse 23). However, as sinners we Christians are redeemed by the cross of Christ. We are called then to work as sinners and saints in the world. Thus we read…

"Love may qualify the social struggle of history but it will never abolish it, and those who make the attempt to bring society under the dominion of perfect love will die on the cross. And those who behold the cross are quite right in seeing it as a revelation of the divine, of what man ought to be cannot be, at least not so long as he is enmeshed in the processes of history." (Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary, NY)

 Therefore, Reinhold took what I perceive as a rather Lutheran position. By saying we shall "never abolish it... he echoed a sentiment expressed by Martin Luther during the turmoils of the Reformation era. To abbreviate Luther's Reformation-era position, it was simply stated that when all socially acceptable human endeavors are ended and nothing righteous seems to work… “sin boldly, but believe more boldly still.” We thus found Luther being asked to take sides during civil strife against rebels within the German state of his day. There was a loss of life involved then, as is now. Therefore living in a fallen world, Reinhold Niebuhr stated..,

 "Christians cannot act as if the reign of God has already been established, and must sometimes use force to protect the innocent."

 We today find that the period following the Viet Nam-Era gave opportunity toward enlisting the church into socialist revolution. This theme was often expressed by such as the theological writings from South American sources, notably the Cone Brothers, priests of the Catholic church. These were joined by other liberation theologians who enlisted God as the moving force behind positive, but not necessarily peaceful change… giving credence to even using revolution from Marxist and socialist political world views.
 Today it seems that our present political scene yet contains leanings that follow these liberation theologians. But now they are wrapped carefully within some flounderings from social Darwinism. Adapted from the Hitler-esque Nazi thought world, this last sociological addition entertains the idea that if all religious differences can be socialized, equalized, homogenized and negated, we shall evolve until we have little trouble getting along. With this being done, we thus evolve toward a better world and shall soon arrive at a “perfect” place. As a Christian minister, I find this last trend in thought particularly offensive. It called me to especially dig into the words of scripture, wherein Jesus said…

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
 He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life my sake will find it.    
                                                                                                             (Matthew 10:34-39)

 Thus it is that we in the church must carry our cross through a sinful world, for we yet must persist in waging war against Satanic powers. What is happening in the world is not just terrorism for the sake of overcoming another political realm which has provided a better economy and life. We are in the midst of a great religious war. We thus must carefully weigh sinful thoughts of war. I believe that our Lord, who died upon the cross and has raised again… wants that we might live knowing that we are saved by grace through faith given to us by God, and not by what we may decide. This being so, let us in prayerfully thankfulness strive to find the best decision humanly possible for all concerned... even if it’s the hard way forward. Jesus Christ, our Lord, would have us do no less.