Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Day with a Perfect Stranger

Last year I read a short book by David Gregory entitled, DINNER WITH A PERFECT STRANGER. It was a very engaging story (a short, easy read) about a businessman who received an invitation to have dinner with Jesus of Nazareth at an Italian restaurant. Interesting that Jesus ordered wine. Does that catch your interest?

I liked the book so well I've given away more than a dozen copies -- especially to those who might be seeking God and truth but struggle with some of the classic (and very difficult) objections to the Christian faith or have been exposed to offensive caricatures of Christianity.

Don't be fooled if the idea sounds a bit cheesy. The book will surprise you.

Tonight I finished reading A DAY WITH A PERFECT STRANGER. It's a continuation of the original story, but this time the wife of the man who had dinner with Jesus has a remarkable conversation with "Jay" while crossing the country on an airplane.

If someone "hates religion," they just might enjoy spending a day with this perfect stranger.

I recommend it...for a fresh reminder of what it means to enter into a relationship with God and as a unoffensive gift to share with someone who might be seeking more than they know.
White Privilege

The Justice and Mercy series we're doing at church (see is part of an ongoing journey God has been taking me on. I feel like I'm slowly waking from a long Rip Van Winkle slumber with regard to issues of poverty and racism.

I must've heard the expression, "white privilege" before, but until fairly recently, had little comprehension of how much a part of my life it has been and is.

WHITE PRIVILEGE is an invisible package of unearned assets which I cash in every day of my life, giving me a significant, lifetime advantage over many of those whose skin-color is different than mine.

This web site gives some helpful discussion and illustration on the theme:

My friend Pastor Terry Williams from Unquenchable Fire Ministries, a really great inner city, diverse church in Muskegon, handed me a video to watch this week: WORDS BY HEART, about a young black girl in a rural town at the turn of the century. I'm pretty sure it never won any cinematic awards, but it is a helpful, though gentle portrayal of privilege and racism. Children could watch it and benefit.

Pastor T also recommended I watch the just-released-on-DVD movie staring Hilary Swank entitled FREEDOM WRITERS. It's based on the true story of Erin Gruwell, a first year teacher who believed in her students. Gloria and I watched it tonight. Wow! What a powerful portrayal of the jungle that exists in many cities and schools today, and the amazing difference one person can make. Get it!

Monday, April 23, 2007

When the excitement is gone

Thinking about the contrast between the spirit of the worship gatherings we experienced in Mexico and many in the United States, I wonder if some of the difference is that we are no longer overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for God's mercy, grace, and love.

Living under the addictive opiate of Disneyland (the USA), we too often forget what it meant/means to be "lost." Hence, our sense of wonder at being "found" is diminished.

If I am not filled with wonder at God's salvation, "worship" too easily becomes diminished into an "entertain me" mentality in which I evaluate the various elements of the service based on my preferences and how I feel about what is happening.

Similarly, an awareness of the presence of God, burns away any idea that "it's about me."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mexico with Pastor Tony Gomez

In our recent trip to Mexico, Gloria and I were impressed with the vibrancy of the believers. Their church gatherings could not have been farther from a duty-driven or "business-as-usual" atmosphere.

In one poverty-filled village on a Saturday about 250 believers of all ages came together (most walked some distance to be there) for fellowship and worship. This was a monthly gathering of village churches. The location rotates between the churches each month.

The people's enthusiasm for praising God and responding to preaching was contagious even though I could only understand a smattering of words.

We arrived about 11 a.m. to find a packed church auditorium (a very simple block building with hard wooden benches) and a worship service which had already been underway for some length of time. I was the third preacher. The first two were native pastors who, of course, spoke in Spanish (about 40 minutes each). Though I couldn't understand very many words, their passion and warm connection with the audience were inspiring to sense.

Before, between, and after the two sermons there was lots of great congregational singing, choirs, randalla bands, and a missionary presentation (a church planting ministry with the native Indians in the mountains), etc.

We took a half-hour break for lunch (Wow! Delicious! It was as authentic as the Christianity), and then the the singing, special music, etc. resumed.

It was my turn to preach (Pastor Tony Gomez was my wonderful interpreter). The congregation responded with the kind of enthusiasm that shouts their love for the teaching of God's Word.

When I finished preaching about 5 p.m. (about 6 hours after we arrived) we had to leave in order to get back to Torreon for an evening meeting. As we left, the service was going strong with no sign of an approaching conclusion.

Imagine a service in the USA that went more than 6 hours! Who would stay? Rather than the kind of unabated, enthusiastic participation I witnessed, in the USA a pastor could expect a continuing exodus of those whose priorities had no room for 6 hours of meeting with God and His church. There would be the "devil to pay" if we trapped people in that kind of marathon.

Perhaps we have completely lost touch with what it means to worship. If I am subconsciously saying, "God, I've come to worship You today, but I can only spare 60-90 minutes and then I really have to be about other parts of my life," I wonder if genuine worship is even possible. It seems like worship involves giving myself totally to God -- everything, including my time and schedule--surrendering to His agenda, not demanding mine.

I understand that we must be incarnational to the culture in which we live. Ours is obsessively time conscious.

But then, time is the currency with which I purchase my real values.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I dreamed last night that our church was located near a large university campus and that I needed to come up with a sermon title targeting the incoming students.

I thought of "Fitting God Into Your Class Schedule," but then realized that God is not be to be "fit" into anything. He FILLS EVERYTHING.

Herein lies a good deal of my problem. I want to fit God into my life -- making Him another important element along with the others I have selected for myself. God will not be "fit" into anything. Either He fills it or He does not fit at all.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Why do we meet?

Believers are called together by God (church = the ἐκκλησία).

But why do we meet?

I'm playing with this . . . We meet in community with other Christ followers in order to encounter God and His truth in ways that are transformational.

What do you think?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Trends in the American Church

Recently I read a paper (“Measuring What Matters Most”) by IgniteUS, Inc., with thought provoking statistics. They were introduced as follows: “The following are issues that are endemic in the church in America. We must be humble, diligent, courageous, and wise as we seek to bring corrective theological solutions to this profile. Think carefully and systematically through these facts - - prayer is essential.”

1. Only 3% of the churches in America (386,000) are growing by conversion growth; people being redeemed, baptized, and becoming growing disciples in that local church.

2. Around the globe, Christianity is the fastest growing religion. There are approximately 4,000 churches begun per week around the world.

3. In America we close 70+ churches per week.

4. In any local church, 47% of the people are highly resistant to change. 17% are devoted to peace, don’t make any waves. They always side with those who oppose change. The collective result is we face a 64% opposition force in almost every church in introducing change.

5. Recent studies indicate that at least 19,000 churches are split or scarred by major conflict each year.

6. The average pastoral tenure is about 4.3 years. The most effective ministry occurs between years 5.4 and 14.3 of a pastor’s tenure.

7. Less than 1 in 10 regular attendees of Christian Churches give 10% (3% in 2003) or more of their income to the Lord through the church.

8. People say they believe in truth, yet, 2 out of 3 adults and 4 out of 5 teenagers say that truth is relative, there is no absolute truth.

9. The number of ‘regular attendees’ in local churches that are absent on any given Sunday continues to increase. 10 years ago it was 2 in 10. It is now 3 in 10, soon to be 4 in 10. This means that if you have 500 regular members, on any given Sunday you will have 30-40% of them absent. This is a clear reflection of values when the absence is discretionary, that is, they choose to not attend in deference to another activity.

10. There is a famine of hearing of the Words of the Lord (Amos 8:11) . . . People say that they believe in the Scriptures as the Word of God, but, when their shepherd seeks to make application to daily living and conduct, he is castigated, rebuffed, or worse, fired. Culture, not Scripture, shapes many aspects of the church in America.

Wow! Some of those I can affirm from my own experience. Some are like a knife in my heart, exposing the apathy and indifference of which I am part.

“Lord, teach us to love the faithless as You do. Give hands and feet to Jesus’ love by energizing our bodies by Your Spirit. Break our hearts for those who need to experience Jesus’ mission through us – the redemption of sinners and the relief of suffering. Forgive us for our idolatrous commitment to our own comfort and our sinful resistance to sacrificing our preferences in order to be incarnational to this broken and diverse culture. Amen.”
What about liturgy?

In the words of, “A liturgy comprises a prescribed ceremony, according to the traditions of a particular group or event.”

Actually the English word “liturgy” comes from the Greek λειτουργία which refers to service rendered for a god (or, for God).

Many denominations follow a prescribed litury in their weekly worship services. Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics would be among those whose worship orders are ancient and familiar to their regular congregants.

Even within the “free” church where spontinaeity or at least lack of prescribed or traditional liturgy has often been a high value, liturgy nevertheless exists. Often a rather predictable “order of service” is followed without deviation week after week: song, prayer, song, song, announcements and offering, song, special number, sermon. The order may not be found in The Book of Common Prayer, but its elements may be more rigidly adhered to than a Lutheran collect during Advent.

How sad that I have too often viewed the traditions of other groups as unbiblical or inferior either because they were unfamiliar, because I was ignorant of their origin or purpose, or because I unnecessarily associated them with some group with whom I differed.

I am very embarrassed that for many years of my ministry I did not encourage the use of “the Lord’s Prayer” in our worship services, because some suspect “liturgical” church regularly “chanted” it’s syllables. "Vain repetition" was my horribly judgmental analysis. I rejected the use of that glorious prayer because of its suspicious association. This in spite of the fact that it’s words are inspired Scripture given by the Lord Jesus for the use of His followers (Matthew 6).

Recently, I have been enriched by keeping The Book of Common Prayer by my bedside to read before I fell asleep. The depth of many of its ancient prayers has challenged the shallowness of many of mine. Praying them as my own has strengthened my prayer life, much like praying the Biblical prayers of David or Paul.

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in thy will, and walk in thy ways, to the glory of thy Name. Amen.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor thy Name. Amen.”