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The Church in Decline. Will we treat the problem, instead of the symptoms?


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The church, is always in the midst of a storm… but safe in Him

Discussion Thought of the Day:
26 Then Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who plants seed in the ground. 27 Night and day, whether the person is asleep or awake, the seed still grows, but the person does not know how it grows. 28 By itself the earth produces grain. First the plant grows, then the head, and then all the grain in the head. 29 When the grain is ready, the farmer cuts it, because this is the harvest time.”  Mark 4:26-29 NCV

182         What compassion you feel for them!… You would like to cry out to them that they are wasting their time… Why are they so blind, and why can’t they perceive what you—a miserable creature—have seen? Why don’t they go for the best? Pray and mortify yourself. Then you have the duty to wake them up, one by one, explaining to them—also one by one—that they, like you, can find a divine way, without leaving the place they occupy in society.

Perhaps a better way for us to grasp the meaning of theosis and deification is to use the word relationship. However, the word relationship may not be strong enough to express the Eastern grasp of participation in Jesus and through him a participation in the very communal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that theosis and deification imply. In Eastern thought, the goal of the Christian is to so commune with God that he or she is made more and more in the image of Christlikeness, fulfilling God’s purposes for humanity in God’s creation.

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, former missionaries noticed trends in the church and wondered why the church in America was static and beginning to decline, while on the mission field it began to grow.

Such studies developed into the field of church growth, which my alma mater required all ministry students to major in, as well as their field (preaching, youth ministry, worship ministry, Christian Ed)  An entire industry has been created, with experts and consultants that will come and analyze your church and provide nice neat programmed solutions that may result in growth in numbers, in budget, etc.

Another industry has grown up that counters the church growth movement.  Usually, it calls for more precision in doctrine, a more historic approach, looking back to the glory days of the church when everyone came and the pews and coffers were filled.

The battles between these groups have led to denominations being devoured in conflict, which drives more people away, burns out more pastors.

But what if the answer is found, not in treating the symptom of decline, but what causes the decline?  What if our studies and the raging wars around what to do with the data, are part of the problem.

What if the issue isn’t “church growth” but simply being aware of the presence of God in our lives?  Whether it was Roland Allen or Donald McGavran,  or C Peter Wagner or John Wimber , whether it is Paul Boland’s theories on revitalizing the church, Webber’s Ancient-Future thoughts, there is a focus on prayer, on communion with God.  The call to prayer, the call to awareness of the relationship, the theosis, the intimate contact between a God who comes to us.  It’s there, in all of their works, the essential component, yet so forgotten in most implementations.  Overlooked because there is no way to measure the results, no way to quantify in a timely matter the success of such things.  Overlooked because it cannot be measured against a creedal or confessional statement.  Maybe it is overlooked because we ourselves aren’t actively living a life walking with God?

Let’s admit that Jesus is right – we don’t know how the kingdom of God grows, so why are we focusing our energy on that?  What would happen instead if we spent the time and effort walking with God, exploring the height and depth, the breadth and width of His love?  What effect would that have on our worship?  Our preaching?  Our teaching?  Our lives lived, with the Holy Spirit, in our communities?

What effect does the glory of God have on us, who should have experienced it? We see it in the eyes of those given the first Bible in their language, the crowds that rejoice in mass baptisms, the barely trained evangelists and pastors in the third world who cry fro training because their churches are growing faster than they can manage.

Without programs, often without full Bibles, sometimes not being even able to read.  Yet full of the awareness of God’s love, something happens.  They make Him known.  People come to know God, and know He loves them, they are so joyous over walking with Him, they share this with those who are blind, but will see, with those lost, but are found.  Without the studies, without the consultants, without the experts in growth, these churches are growing – simply because they know Jesus!

God chooses to commune with us!  God is here, not distant!  He loves us!  We have been found by divinity, and He wants us to enter HIs glory!  Here it is, givet this to your people, help them to see

AMEN!

 

Escriva, Josemaria. Furrow (Kindle Locations 974-978). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

The Question is Not Relationship or Religion. A Plea for Communion with Christ.


Altar with communionDevotional Thought of the Day
21  For God in his wisdom made it impossible for people to know him by means of their own wisdom. Instead, by means of the so-called “foolish” message we preach, God decided to save those who believe. 22  Jews want miracles for proof, and Greeks look for wisdom. 23  As for us, we proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles; 24  but for those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, this message is Christ, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25  For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 (TEV)
The same line of thought can be detected in Newman’s own comment on man’s basic relationship to truth. Men are all too inclined—the great philosopher of religion opines—to wait placidly for proofs of the reality of revelation, to seek them out as if they were in the position of judge, not suppliant. “They have decided to put the Almighty to the proof—with controlled passion, a total freedom from bias, and a clear head.” But the individual who thus makes himself lord of the truth deceives himself, for truth shuns the arrogant and reveals itself only to those who approach it in an attitude of reverence, of respectful humility.[i]

The relationship of spirituality to God’s story has a long history in Christian thought. This relationship has been affirmed, challenged, distorted, lost, and regained in various epochs of history. Today spirituality is separated from God’s story. In his crucial work, Spirituality and Theology, Philip Sheldrake points out that “contemporary spiritual writing is open to the accusation that it amounts to little more than uncritical devotion quite detached from the major themes of Christian faith.”2 In order to understand this separation, I will comment briefly in this chapter on (1) how God’s story was affirmed in the ancient Christian church and (2) how the story was lost through Platonic dualism and in late medieval mysticism. In chapter 3 I will address how ancient spirituality was regained with some moderation by the Reformers and how Christian spirituality was lost again in the modern shifts toward intellectual and experiential spiritualities together. We will look at these points in Western history where the stone skims the water and through this history gain a perspective on the crisis of spirituality in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (treated in chapters 4 and 5).[ii]

Gandhi has been credited with saying that he loved Christ and His teachings, and if he found a real Christian he would become one. The modern version is those he say they love Christ but hate the religion his followers created. They want a relationship with God, but like too many theologians, they want it on their own terms.  As if man is equal to God as if man gets to judge God, and force God to modify the covenant he created for our benefit.

The religious respond to this, not with understanding, but often with contempt.   Or with the condescension of thinking that we have to logically work to correct their sinful narcissism.

Both Robert Webber and Pope Benedict this morning warn us about this, noting that far too often we have done the same as those we question.  Our theology and philosophy is used to put God into a box, to prove His existence, and to prove our perception of His plan.  The Pope warns of this with the quote, “They have decided to put the Almighty to the proof—with controlled passion, a total freedom from bias, and a clear head.”   As if man could do this!  Webber mentions the same concept as he promises to track the history of the divorce of spirituality (the divine embrace) from God’s story.

We’ve been so eager to know about God, we chased after that without knowing Him.

And those who are critical of us, they pick up on this ironic tragedy.

What they see is either a scholastic approach to religion devoid of the relationship or an experience of God devoid of living with Him as our Lord, our Master.  In both cases we set aside scripture, or have it subtly twisted in our minds, and we get to judge whether it is binding or not, whether it is “clear and logical” or not.

So what is the solution?  How do we ensure our humility, and stop playing as if we have to “prove” God’s logic, while at the same time submitting to its wisdom?

I would suggest it is communion, what Webber calls “spirituality” or the “divine embrace”.  It is what Pope Benedict calls approaching God with an attitude of reverence, of respectful humility.  It is Moses at the burning bush, hearing God and taking his shoes off, or Peter getting out of the boat.  It is David, realizing he was the man in the parable, and grieving over his own sin, it is the man formerly possession by demons, sent home to tell what God did for Him, or the blind man testifying to the religious leaders.

In that moment, when we realize we are in God’s presence and realizing that He is cleansing us, healing us, declaring we are His holy and just people.  When both experience and knowledge are subject to God, and when our pride is overwhelmed by His love. When we stop trying to be observers and judges, and settle for being with our Father, and hearing Him.

This is the moment we need, the awareness of being in His presence, and of His work in our life.  It is found as water is poured over us, as we are given His Body and Blood, and know His peace, for it is found in His promise, that He is with us, and will never abandon us.

We are welcome in His presence, we are welcome to hear Him testify of His love for us, and count on His faithfulness.  AMEN!
[i] Ratzinger, Joseph. Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. Ed. Irene Grassl. Trans. Mary Frances McCarthy and Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. Print.

2 Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology, vii. Sheldrake is one of a few contemporary authors who understand spirituality as an ancient applied theology. I fully recommend this book and Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History: Questions of Interpretation and Method, rev. ed. (1991; repr., Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

[ii] Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

Tell Me The Story….Write on My Heart Every Word


Devotional Thought of the Day
34  Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. 35  This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”   Matthew 13:34-35 (NLT)

After a brief pause, Jack said, “Explain yourself. I’m willing to hear you out.”
“Okay,” I said, “but to explain myself I have to tell you a story.” I sensed a puzzlement on his part, so I quickly added, “All spiritualities are based on a story. You have to know the story of a particular religion to understand its spirituality.”
This statement aroused the curiosity of everyone. “Tell the story,” said Jack. “Maybe I don’t know the story; as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Christianity told as a story.”
“Okay,” I responded, “but I have to tell you I can’t prove the story.”1
“I like that! I don’t like it when religious people try to prove their faith. Just the fact that you say that we shouldn’t try to prove the story with history and science makes me want to listen.”

899      The children of God are present and give witness in the world to draw others, not to be drawn by them. They should spread their own atmosphere, the atmosphere of Christ, not let themselves be won over by a different atmosphere.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in preaching is that it is very different from teaching, very different from teaching, very different from giving a lecture.  

The goal isn’t merely to impart knowledge and information, but to draw someone into a relationship, to draw someone into the story, to reveal to them that they have a part, a role, and are wanted.  (This is true not only about the sermon but about any time we bear witness to Jesus, that we share His love with others) 

This is profoundly different than the way I was taught in the early days, in classes like Expository Preaching and Homiletics.  I have written similarly before on apologetics, that the idea is not to win a case, to convince someone to judge Christianity right based on the proof I present.  

We simply need to tell the story, to tell it so well the people are drawn into their place in the story, 

This is why the post-modern sermon needs to be transparent, that the messenger be willing to tell his portion of the story transparently, the brokenness, the sin and shame (though not in great detail) the hopelessness that exists when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and His continual drawing us back, and the peace that comes when we see Him again.  For if they know God can help us, then we are writing on their hearts the word of the story, the “God so loved (me)”, the “body broken/blood shed for (me).  

I would assert that teaching the Bible without making the connection to the listener is not preaching, it is not bearing witness to Jesus.  It is simply giving people, overloaded with facts, more facts to deal with intellectually.  It appeals to their baser instinct, that they are the judge of reality.  But they aren’t the judges, they are not just interested observers.  So why preach to them if they were.  Telling them the story involves them, it helps reveal to them that they aren’t observers and judges, but part of the story. 

This takes the objective truth of salvation and helps it become subjective as well.  It takes the historical information stored in our minds and makes it meaningful to our heart and soul.

This is the mystery that has been revealed, that which has been hidden from the beginning of the world.  The mystery of God and His people, the people He makes His own, the mystery of how you and I, broken by our sin and the sin of the world, are picked up, healed, brought home.

That is preaching, that is bearing witness to God’s love, that is giving people what God wants them to comprehend.

Tell me the story, write on my heart every word, tell me the story of Jesus (and us), greatest that every was heard.

AMEN!

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

Escriva, Josemaria. The Forge (Kindle Locations 3181-3182). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Do We Teach Them What They Need to Know About Jesus?


Featured imageDevotional Thought of the Day:

36  “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” 37  Jesus replied, ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:36-39 (NLT)

3 After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ. (1)  

“Biblical worship is rooted in an event that is to be lived, not proven. The purpose of worship is not to prove the Christ it celebrates, but to bring the worshipper so tune with God’s reconciliation through Christ that His death and resurrection becomes a lived experience.”  (2) 

““As long as I have strength to breathe, I will continue to preach that it is vitally necessary that we be souls of prayer at all times, at every opportunity, and in the most varied of circumstances, because God never abandons us” (no. 247). That was his one and only concern: to pray and to encourage others to do likewise. That was why he brought about in the midst of the world a wonderful “mobilization of people,” as he liked to call it, “who are ready to commit themselves to live Christian lives,” by developing their filial relationship with God our Father. We are many who have learned, from this thoroughly priestly priest, “the great secret of God’s mercy, that we are children of God.”  (3)
The quote in blue, from the 24th Article of the Augsburg Confession, is among my favorite quotes from all religious writing.  When I teach Worship/Liturgy, Caregiving, or even Preaching, it becomes the 1 statement that MUST be understood, the foundational statement of the course.

As I look at what is being taught and written about; as I consider my own education for the ministry; how I was taught to preach, teach and lead worship, I realize I have to ask the question,

Are we teaching them what they really need to know about Jesus?

I think one of the ways we can measure that is found in the scripture verse above in red.  

Are they learning to love God with all they are, and to love their neighbor? (without asking, “are they really my neighbor?

I have to ask, is that the result every aspect of our church services, from the sacraments, the sermons, the singing, the liturgy, and prayers?  Is it what results from our  Bible studies, the counseling sessions and even the meetings of boards and teams?  Do our people love God more, grow in their adoration of Him?  Will they share in the lives of those around them?  Will they weep with them, laugh with them, share food and life with both those who know Christ, and those who need to know Him?

Can we hold that up as the standard?  Does how our people love reflect on whether we’ve told them what they need to know about Jesus?

Webber makes another point worth considering, that reveals a sobering answer to this,

“Liberals turned worship into a time for ethical reflection on the love of God, while conservatives concentrated on an intellection defense of the Gospel. In both cases church leaders gave into to secularism and allowed it to define worship.” (4)

Far too often, we forget what changes people, what creates the love of both God and neighbor.  It isn’t just found in nurturing the intellect, or making logical appeals for what is good, ethical and beneficial.  This only provides a narrow stimulation, that of the mind.  Our teaching, our preaching our worship, has to go deeper.  It has to cause, as Webber says, ou words must guide them in living through the death and resurrection of Christ.

It is there, in the presence of God, dwelling in Christ, abiding in Him, that we discover what true love is.  That we, the very children of God, live our lives intimately communicating with God.  A relationship that goes beyond anything we know, for this relationship reveals the transcendent life of a Christ, what Paul talks about in Colossians.

1  Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2  Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3  For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4  And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. Colossians 3:1-4 (NLT)

This is what it means to give them what they need to know about Christ, to know His presence, His love, His mercy!  To see Him so clearly that the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts of stone into hearts that beat with the love of God, and then can love others.

Whether our people grow in love of God, and their neighbors is how we judge whether our preaching, our administration of the sacraments, our worship, and our very  ministry give people what they need to know about Christ.

Lord Have Mercy on Us, even this mercy of revealing to us what we need to know of Christ.  AMEN!.

(1)  Tappert, T. G. (Ed.). (1959). The Book of Concord the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (p. 59). Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press.

(2) Webber, Robert:  Worship is a Verb  Peabody Mass, Hendrickson Publishing

(3) Escriva, Josemaria (2010-11-02). Friends of God (Kindle Locations 136-140). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

(4)Webber, Robert:  Worship is a Verb  Peabody Mass, Hendrickson Publishing

A Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer


Why is Prayer Answered?

Luke 11:1-13

 

In Jesus Name

 

As you are overwhelmed by the mercy and love of Jesus Christ, in you may there develop an unquenchable desire to commune and communicate with our Father, with Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit!

 

We can’t understand if… if we don’t understand why…

 

Of all the times I have taught about prayer in sermons, in Bible Studies, in classes, on retreats and in conversations over meals, I have never taken the approach I will in this sermon.

For that, I ask your forgiveness.

For I think that the question the sermon title asks and answers is the only question that really needs to be answered. This question can confidently be answered; one, without cliché’s or well-meaning stock answers that avoid the responsibility of saying, “I do not know.”  This question, why are our prayers answered…silences many of the other questions.

This question causes us to see His heart… we need to grasp how much He loves us, how much He is our Father…and how much at relationship is the reason our prayers are answered.

Or our prayers are simply rote and in vain…as empty as praying to some gold lacquered statue.

So let’s answer the question – why are our prayers answered?

The Burden of Life – Melancthon

Instead of just a prayer sheet this week – I included two short excerpts about prayer. The first is by someone that Luther was a father figure for, the deacon Phillip Melancthon.  Asked why we should pray when we don’t want to… he responded with 9 reasons.  Look at number II. 

II. The great and manifold need by which we are burdened in this penitentiary of the world, and which we cannot sufficiently understand or comprehend by thinking, must less guard against or avert by our effort, should properly move us to pray even all by itself.

In simpler language – we need to pray because this life isn’t easy, and it can overwhelm us all to easily.   Whether it is the challenge of our sin and the struggle to overcome temptation, or the effects of others sin, or the brokenness of the world and even the church, prayer is what will make the difference, what helps us get through the day.

Melancthon is right – we are burdened in this world, and there are times where prayer is barely able to be said, never mind can we grasp what we are saying.  This isn’t something new, it isn’t something we are the first generations to encounter this.  Remember what St Paul said to the early believers in Rome/

26  Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. 27  He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our (pregnant) condition, and keeps us present before God. 28  That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. Romans 8:26-28 (MSG)

It is often in such desperate times we remember to pray… yet would we pray sooner if we understood why prayer is answered? 


The Blessing of Presence

If we pray only in such oppressive times, we do because we hope someone will hear us. Maybe we realize it can’t hurt, or we vaguely remember a promise that God has made.  Melancthon mentions this as well,.

 
IV. Very sweet divine promises draw and incite us, namely that God the Father embraces us with such great love in Christ His Son, that He regards it as pleasing and acceptable if we approach and address Him with our prayers, and He has promised to incline His ears and hear us.

I love this point – and how clearly it is seen in the Lord’s prayer, as God promises to take care of our physical needs (like providing bread) and spiritual needs – helping us with knowing we are forgiven, helping us forgive, dealing with temptation and protecting us from evil.

I love the verses that follow the prayer – those that cause us to think of how we love our kids and our grandkids.  They compare the Creator of the Universe to us – to help us realize our love for them is but a small example of His love for us.  If we want the best things – imagine the “best things” that He has planned and created for us!

But if reason number IV, is true, then look at number V.

V. Likewise, that our mediator, Christ, has bound Himself with the firm promise that He would be present when we pray (Mt 18:20) and as our advocate and High Priest Himself bring our supplications to the Father, and intercede for us, and ask the Father together with us.

Remember Matthew 18:20 (TEV) 20  For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.”

Jesus has promised to be here – where we pray, the Father has promised to answer our prayers.  Not because of some incantation or form, or because we are holier than the people praying down the street, or on the other side of the world.

He answers our prayers because He loves us, because He is here, because we are His.

So Let Prayer Arise from within

On the prayer list, along with the quote from Melancthon, is a description of a type of prayer and devotion that is indeed ancient.  It is called Lectio Divina.  The quote is from one of Chris’ mentors.  The man who is the reason he is the Rev. Dr. Chris Gillette.  It’s a great way of doing devotions – one Luther used as well.  Look at the part I underlined:

Let the word touch your heart (prayer, Oratio). In Oratio, the Word of God goes deeper into the self and becomes the prayer of the heart. In this prayer, open your heart so that his light may enter. The goal is like that of St. Augustine, who cried, “O God, our hearts are made for thee, and they shall be restless until they rest in thee.” There emerges within the heart a holy desire, a longing for the text, the Word of God, to be concretized in reality.

Enter into contemplation (Contemplatio). Contemplatio shifts praying the Scripture into a new language (silence). This silence does not ask us to do anything, it is a call to being. Thomas Merton says, “The best way to pray is: Stop. Let prayer pray within you, whether you know it or not.17

This concept is especially true, as we work through the Lord’s prayer, or even the Old Testament account where Abraham learned to pray for those who were lost.  As we know these words, they well up within us, they become part of our life, because God makes them live in us, even as He quickens life in us.

The words ingrain is us these promises – they cause us to desire to pray even more.  They bring the words to life in us, when nothing else brings comfort – a message from God.  When thought through… they cause us to realize this important thing..

Why does God answer our prayers…

Because He is our father… because He loves us… because He is with us….

Use His name, not in vain my brothers and sisters…but as He encourages us to, to talk to Him –  to know Him as our Father… to know His love and mercy…for us.

AMEN!

English: Lectio Divina Português: Leitura Oran...

English: Lectio Divina Português: Leitura Orante ou Lectio Divina Latina: Lectio Divina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


17 Thomas Merton, Seeds, ed. Robert Inchausti (Boston: Shambhala, 2002).

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