Church is a family not an event

Church is not an event we go to but a family we belong to. Church should not be seen as simply a place you go to when you want to receive some religious goods and services. That kind of view of church leads to an emphasis on the quality of the production but not on the quality of the relationships.

God created us in such a way that we need to be connected to others. We need to be part of a family. Many biological families are broken and full of conflict. But even in healthy biological families, there is a need for something more. People need to be in a family where Christ is the Head and the unity is not based on similar DNA. They need to be in the family of God where unity is based on faith in what Jesus has done.

“God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6). To the many lonely in the world the church extends a welcome and an invitation to be part of the family of God. This is to be a family different than any other, with a different kind of love and a different depth of commitment to one another.

When church is viewed as an event the emphasis is on the production, the presentation and “the show.” When church is seen as family the emphasis is on the people: How are they doing? Are they being built up? Are they being encouraged? When church is an event, if the product being offered doesn’t suit your tastes, you go shopping somewhere else. When church is family there is hopefully more patience and understanding.

“… be patient with everyone” (I Thessalonians 5:14). A family is a place where patience is sometimes tested and always needed. In a biological family you need to have patience with the little ones who are just learning to walk and talk. Patience is needed with the family member who is ill or disabled, or up in years and facing physical and mental challenges. It’s similar in God’s family. Some members might be just starting to walk with God. We need people to be patient with us as we stumble and fall at times. Some need patience as they wrestle with an illness of the soul. We are all disabled in some way. We all have patience-testing limitations.

When I’ve gone through trials and challenges in my life, I didn’t need an event to go to as much as I needed a church family to come alongside me and rejoice as I rejoice and mourn as I mourn (Romans 12:15). Sometimes I get tired of going to events. But I always need and I always give thanks that I get to be a part of the family of God.

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Encouragement from surprising places

Sometimes God gives encouragement in surprising ways. Teachers can come from unexpected places.

The University of Oregon drama department might not be a place you would expect you could go to and find strength and encouragement in your faith in the Lord. But it happened to me.

It was a little over 20 years ago when I was living in Eugene. The U of O drama department put on a production of the play “Shadowlands.” The play tells the story of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis and his relationship with the woman who became his wife, Joy Davidman. When he was 57 Lewis married Davidman. Only four years after their marriage Joy died of cancer. The play tells the story of Lewis and Davidman falling in love, her battle with cancer, and Lewis’ battle with grief after her death. It is honest about his pain and sorrow, and also tells of how God helped him in dealing with his pain.

My sister, mother and brother had died the year before I saw the play. I could relate to Lewis’ struggle with sorrow. Some of his questions about why and about God’s purposes were questions I was wrestling with also. The play didn’t attempt to give simplistic answers to difficult questions. I was encouraged by the reminder that it is okay to hurt and mourn. I was encouraged too by the story of a man who God comforted.

God comforted me as I watched the play. After the play, as I was heading to my car, I found myself crying and thanking God for giving me the encouragement I needed that night. The U of O drama department maybe was just trying to put on a good play and didn’t have the goal of strengthening the faith of someone like me. But God used them in a powerful way.

During this new year comfort and encouragement may come to you from surprising places. God may use people you’re not expecting to teach you from His Word and point you to Jesus.

Jesus came from a surprising place. When Nathanael, who became a disciple of Christ, first heard what town Jesus came from he said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). He didn’t think the Messiah would come out of a place like Nazareth. God’s Holy Spirit continues to take up residence in and do significant work in surprising places. God has used people who maybe seemed kind of gruff to encourage me. He has used ones with little formal education, who never stood in front of a classroom, to teach me a lot about walking with Jesus. It’s good for us to be open to being surprised by the ways God might encourage us and the ones God might use to teach us in the new year.

Overcoming Christmas fears

The Christmas story usually isn’t thought of as a scary story. And yet in the Gospels, a phrase that is repeated over and over is: “Do not be afraid.” It was one of the first things an angel told Zechariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. They got scared when all of a sudden an angel appeared. You’d probably be scared too if a big strong creature who was clearly not of this world came out of nowhere and started talking to you.

People getting scared when God comes near has been going on since Adam and Eve. After they sinned, when they heard God coming they tried to hide from Him out of fear. The sinful, fallen human race has been fearful ever since. Our guilty conscience gets scared in the presence of holiness. It is right for a person to be fearful in the presence of God if their sin has not been dealt with. It is dangerous foolishness to be unforgiven but not fearful before the holy, almighty God.

“Do not be afraid” is a good news declaration that God has come to put an end to the problem that produces all the fear. After telling Joseph to not be afraid the angel let him know the reason why. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus went to the cross and paid the penalty in full for all of our sins. He satisfied the demands of the law. Because of the cross, the fear of judgment hangs over our head no more. We have been set free from the fear of facing what we deserve.

Jesus has come to change our attitude toward the news that God is here. By faith in Christ, God is no longer the Judge who scares us. Instead we can now know Him as the loving Father who cares for us. When we are trusting in Jesus we are not fearful about God coming near. The good news that Jesus is Immanuel – “God with us” – brings peace. The Lord of lords loves us and is with us. We don’t face the challenges of life alone. The One who has conquered sin and death is willing to go through life with us.

The world is constantly trying to scare us and make us prisoners of fear. Many people are slaves to anxiety and worry. The world tells us to be afraid of who and what is coming. We don’t need to fear what might come because we know Who has come. The Son of God has come to set us free from the prison of fear. “Do not be afraid.” The Prince of Peace has come.

A humble leader

His mother taught him not to brag about himself. President George H.W. Bush took his mother’s lesson to heart. After his recent passing, friends and people who worked for him talked about his humility, his gentleness and his kindness.

After the Berlin Wall came down aides wanted Bush to go to Berlin and celebrate winning the Cold War. Some thought it would be good to go and let the Soviets know, “We beat you.” Most politicians would have relished the opportunity to declare victory and show superiority. Bush said no. He wasn’t interested in showing off and soaking up applause from crowds.

After the Gulf War victory a parade was held in New York City. Bush was encouraged to go but he said the moment belonged to the troops. He wanted them to get the applause and praise. Other times in his administration Bush used the pronoun “I” when talking about mistakes that were made. He used the pronoun “we” when talking about accomplishments. He shared praise but not blame.

During a press conference while president, Bush called the reporter Susan Page “Ann.” His mistake was pointed out to him later and the next day Page received a handwritten note from the president, apologizing for calling her by the wrong name and asking for her forgiveness. What a contrast from politicians who call reporters names like “stupid” and “loser” and other names that are not fit to repeat.

Bush may have occasionally forgotten a reporter’s name or called them by the wrong name, but people who worked at the White House told about how he took the time and made the effort to learn the names of the people who worked there, including the cleaning staff and those providing security. No matter their job, they were people of significance who have a name.

We often don’t look for humility when it comes to choosing leaders, but we should. The truly great leaders in history – Abraham Lincoln for example – showed remarkable humility that had been learned through trials and failures. Lincoln’s humility was demonstrated by his ability to laugh at himself. Bush did that as well. Dana Carvey got a lot of laughs on Saturday Night Live for his impressions of Bush. Instead of attacking him, President Bush invited Carvey to the White House and they became friends.medium_2018-12-02-ca885d986b

Humility is a fundamental Christian virtue. If God has done a work in a life, than some growth in humility should be evident. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. … God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 3:13, 4:6, 10).

In his 1988 campaign for president, Bush said he hoped for “a kinder and gentler nation.” Some mocked that expression then and recently it was mocked again. But I still hope and pray for more kindness and gentleness, especially among those who call themselves followers of Jesus. He gave the greatest example of kindness and gentleness when He hung on the cross and gave His life for us. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). We strive to be kinder and gentler because we have received such gracious kindness and gentleness from Jesus.

 

Content whatever the circumstances

Saturday mornings during Sept. and Oct. are busy at the soccer complex in our area. Ten fields of nicely mowed grass are full all morning with kids of various ages playing. Soccer balls are everywhere. The number of kids on each team is limited so that everybody can get a chance to play. It’s a quite different situation than the soccer game I watched when I was in South Africa.

Once a week some missionaries bring a couple soccer balls to an area in the community where they serve. It’s a field of dirt with more gravel than grass. There were two goals but neither goal had any netting. There was only one field so there was only one game. Whatever kids showed up were welcome to play. The day I was there each team had 25 kids. Even though they were running on and falling on dirt and gravel, none of the kids had shin pads or the other protective gear American kids so often have. The two 25-member teams played for about an hour and then the missionaries got them together in a circle and shared Jesus with them and prayed with them. Most of the kids went away with a smile on their face. It was maybe one of the highlights of their week.

I wonder how many U.S. kids and parents would be smiling if they were told they were going to play on dirt and gravel with 25 kids on a team. Unfortunately, even though they get to play in conditions considered luxurious by many in the world, some aren’t smiling much. Some playing on grass are joyful and content, and some aren’t; just like some playing on dirt have joy and contentment and some don’t. Whether a person is joyful, peaceful and content is not determined by whether you get to play on nice grass fields or on dirt. It is not determined by how much money is in your bank account or how big your house is or how nice a car you drive.

The apostle Paul said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:11-12). Whatever the circumstances, whether in plenty or in need, whether playing soccer on nice grass or rough dirt, contentment can be found. It is not determined by our circumstances. True contentment comes from knowing God and His goodness and grace.

Thankfulness is key to contentment. Whether we are enjoying the best conditions or dealing with tough challenges, we can find something to complain about and also reason to be thankful. The question is: what are we looking for and what are we focused on? “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). Times were hard for the prophet Habakkuk, but he knew the love of God. He focused on God’s good promises, and in those promises he found joy and contentment.

Sometimes we’re playing on grass and sometimes on dirt. Sometimes things are going along pretty well and other times life can be really hard. But through it all we can keep rejoicing and be at peace because God is good and His love endures forever.

 

The possible and the impossible

fullsizeoutput_db3After about a six-hour journey we arrived at Darkhan, a city in northern Mongolia. A church of the Mongolian Evangelical Lutheran Church worships there in a building that used to be the barracks and offices of soldiers of the Soviet Union army back in the days when the communists of the U.S.S.R. dominated Mongolia. It would have seemed impossible back then to think a church would be praising the Lord in that building but now that is the case. In rooms where Soviet soldiers used to hang out, children are hearing the good news of Jesus while surrounded by beautiful art work, as seen in the picture above.

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We got to meet some of the people of the church. Some years ago one of them was facing challenges that seemed impossible to overcome. He had gone to Russia looking for work but couldn’t find any. He was homeless and the weather was turning dangerously cold. He wanted to return home to Mongolia but there didn’t seem to be any way. Some months before somebody had tried to share the good news of Jesus with him but he had no interest. Now in his desperation he cried out to God for help. Through a variety of miraculous events, God worked things out for him to get back to Mongolia. Eventually he came to the Lord and is now a very inventive, talented man who, with his wife, helps manage a factory that makes high-end felt slippers that are sold in Norway. The factory is in a building next to the church and is a fruit of the ministry of the Norwegian Lutheran Mission.

It’s impossible to imagine how a family that had a 6-year-old son die could find any comfort. A family in the church in Ulan Bator suffered that kind of tragic loss recently. The funeral for their little boy took place one of the days we were in Mongolia. We visited their home with the pastor and a number of family members and spent time in prayer for them. The family was at the worship service on Sunday. At their home and at the worship service it was encouraging to see the congregation come around the grieving family to offer comfort and support.

The mom shared briefly during the testimony portion of the worship service. She was crying and much of the congregation was crying as well. They were living out the Bible’s call to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). It also seemed like, when the mom was sharing about the pain of losing her son, some of the other moms in the congregation held their little ones a little bit closer. Tragedies like this can remind us that life is fragile and precious and a treasure to cherish.

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A long bus ride and an unreached town

IMG_0705We visited a 29-year-old man in his apartment that also serves as the meeting place of a congregation he is serving. His mother lives there as well and his sister lives nearby. The mother is also involved in trying to share the good news of Jesus with their community here in Mongolia. She recently finished two years of training at the Lutheran church’s Bible school. They have a small apartment but a big heart for Jesus and their community.  They shared about some of the different ways they’re involved in trying to develop relationships and reach people, including things like a book club and playing basketball.

The day after we met with him, the young church leader was going to ride a bus for 13 hours to another community in Mongolia that doesn’t have any church. He and the church body are looking to see if relationships can be developed that can lead to the good news of Jesus being shared in that community and eventually a new congregation begun there. The young man makes that 13-hours-one-way bus ride once a month. Pray for him and these two Mongolian communities he enthusiastically and joyfully serves.