Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting both pieces right

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you... (1 Peter 3:15, NRSV)

My cousin works for Big Sisters in Boston. One of her co-workers posted an entry on their blog site (view it here) about how it is very popular to build girls' schools in Africa. The blog asks an interesting question: why not here?

It's a valid point. We'll send our money halfway around the world to help people (who have legitimate needs) while ignoring the needs of people we likely see when we go to the mall, or have a cup of coffee downtown. It's fashionable to be interested in "making a difference" in the lives of those who live in third world countries, while ignoring those who live across town.

This is why I'm so glad that my congregation participates at Highland Park Elementary School, impacting the lives of children right here in Roanoke. We tutor children, provide food for those who are hungry, and give moral support to a great faculty and staff. We've learned that there are mission needs less than 5 minutes away from where we worship.

But, fasten your seatbelt, because we're about to go a different direction!

One of the potential pitfalls that Christ-followers need to watch out for is the idea that if we have helped our neighbor, then we have fulfilled the mandates of a relationship with God. Just serve the poor, feed the hungry, tutor a child, and you've done enough.

Trouble is, you don't need a church to do that. You don't even need to acknowledge God to do that. Anyone can do that.

It's the peril of serving in ways that are culturally popular. We can do our acts of service to those who have legitmate needs, yet never give witness that we do these things because we follow Jesus Christ. And, we do even more because we follow Jesus Christ. We delight in worship. We are committed to prayer. We believe that the Holy Spirit is working through us, transforming our sinful nature, making us "saints," holy in God's sight.

The bottom line is that authentic Christianity seeks to get both pieces right. We are in relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord and in relationship with the world around us. We seek to spread the Kingdom of God outside the walls of the church into the neighborhood around us, testifying in word and in deed the character of the God we serve, and God's invitation to a relationship with Him.

O Jesus, save us for heaven's sake. And for earth's sake, make us worth saving. Amen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Minimum Turnaround Investment

The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions....And the LORD said to Samuel: "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle" (1 Samuel 3:1, 11).

Yesterday's (11/15/09) worship service in our congregation addressed the topic "Hearing God's call." This topic became an opportunity for me to share with the congregation how I believe God is calling Central into the future.

(On another note, some may wonder if I have "heard God's voice." If you mean "hear" in the same sense that I audibly hear your voice when we speak, then no, I have not "heard God's voice." But, if you mean "do you have a strong sense that what I said is what God desires we do, then yes, I have "heard God" and will stake everything on it.)

My sermon application had three points...

First, we are a declining, downtown congregation. I've had the opportunity to study downtown congregations like ours, and they have similar stories, regardless of city or denominational affiliation. Downtown used to be the place of activity in the city. Lots of people went to church, and they went to downtown churches. The churches thrived.

But then the suburbs came along, and activity (residents and businesses) moved out there. The founding members of the church continued to drive downtown to church, but eventually their children did not. That left most of us with aging, declining congregations, in large buildings we neither fully utilize nor maintain.

With the movement to the suburbs, the downtown began to deterioriate. Crime, drugs, prostitutiton and homelessness became the norm for downtown life. For those who lived in the suburbs but continued to worship downtown, the people who now lived near the church were to be avoided, even feared. They were not "our neighbor" (see Matthew 22:37-39). Downtown was not "safe," so we drove to church, and entered the relative safety of our rather fortress-like structures.

Central's story is similar. But this leads to point 2...

I am not afraid of this, and you should not be either!!! Why not? See the scripture at the top of the blog. At a moment in Israel's history where the voice of God was rare, God spoke! And what God said "would make the ears of everyone who hears it tingle." (What a marvelous thing! By the way, what are your ears doing right now?) Churches do turn around. They turn around by getting excited about the poeple with whom they worship, and the ways they interact with the community around them. Everyone has their own story, but it can be done.

How? I'm glad you asked, because this gets us to point 3...

The way forward for our congregation involves three things: commitment to regular worship, commitment to our Sunday School class, and involvement in the Sunday School class outreach project. That is, as I see it, our "minimum turnaround investment."
  • Come to worship, give praise to God and hear how much God loves you.
  • Come to Sunday School (or some other small group which may be created), and be in relationship with a smaller segment of the congregation. Pray for one another, receive care, laugh with us, and study God's word together.
  • Participate in outreach and witness. Help us "seek the peace and prosperity of the city" where we live (Jeremiah 29:7). Come with us to Highland Park Elementary School, the Roanoke Rescue Mission, or share your offerings for Second Harvest Food Bank. Allow God to stretch you as we reach outside the walls of our church with a message of salvation, justice, and hope.

My sermon, and this blog entry, have no conclusion. The conclusion will be told by our accepting (or rejecting, ignorning, or avoiding) this challenge.

Only one thing remains...Who is with me?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Today's Prayer

Dear Jesus, save us, for Heaven's sake. And for earth's sake, make us worth saving.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Responding to God's Call

Don't be fish vomit (Jonah 2:10)

Last night, I had the privilege of attending the ordination services for my friend, Dava Hensley. Sister Dava has an interesting story of coming back into relationship with Jesus Christ, and then responding to the call to be pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Roanoke.

How many of us would move from the town we've lived our entire lives and move several hours away? (When you're just out of school, maybe. But when you're in your 50's?) How many of us would take a 50% reduction in pay because we were convinced it was God's plan for our life?

Sister Dava did both of these things, and last night I had the chance to worship with her congregation and pray for her as she is ordained to the ministry.

God is good to us, indeed. But that doesn't mean that God will always ask us to do things that are easy or things we are comfortable with. We can trust, that in the midst of God's call, God's goodness will be experienced in ways we could never imagine. But we must go with God.

Beginning this Wednesday evening at 6:30, our congregation will study the Old Testament book of Jonah. It is a marvelous---and challenging---story of how God calls unlikely people to do important things.

Is God calling you? Have you responded?