Monday, December 15, 2014
But think about it for a moment. All of history is viewed from the present backwards. In other words, we start with the time line today and we move to the left. Today is Dec. 15, and yesterday was Dec. 14. History is about standing in the middle of today, looking back and seeing the events that occurred yesterday.
If we were to look at the recent history of the events that have occurred in Camarillo (major mudslides after torrential rainstorms), we might write history this way; "There were these huge rains that hit Southern California. The rains caused billions of loose rocks to fall on houses at the base of Camarillo Springs. No residents were killed or injured, but the clean-up efforts will take months if not years." Thankfully that was the historical narrative from Camarillo this past week. However, in the middle of the rains, in the middle of the mudslides, no-one knew how big it would be, or whether there would be fatalities or injuries.
By the way, thank you so much for your constant flow of prayers and support for the entire community. We really appreciate them!
And so it is with all of the major events of the history of the world. We view history backwards:
* We view the history of the US Civil war as a clash between North and South. The North eventually prevailed. But no one at the time knew if the North would win or the South would win.
* We view the history of World War II as a clash between Germany and Japan and Europe and the United States. The West won, but no one actually knew at the time whether that would be the case.
* We view the history of the Plague as a medical epidemic that claimed the lives of millions of Europeans in the Dark Ages. The Plague was eventually marginalized, and almost eradicated, but no one knew at the time whether this pestilence might, in fact, be the end of humanity. History is viewed backwards.
* Christianity is often viewed the same way. Backwards. Most Christians view the life of Jesus from the standpoint of the cross. Jesus came into the world, lived, worked, healed did miracles, and then was killed on a cross, and then on the third day, he rose again from the dead.
However, it can be an interesting reversal, for a brief moment, to view history not as a backwards reflection, but as a forward reflection. In order to do this, one needs to try to put themselves into the shoes and the context and the lives of the people who were living at the time. To look at the life of Jesus forwards, then, doesn't put the main emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, but on the birth. Wveryone living before the birth of Jesus, who lived in the Abrahamic faith and culture viewed the birth of Jesus not as a preamble to the crucification, but from one great and hopeful vantage point. Jesus was what was possible. Jesus, it might be said, would be:
The Little Child That Could
For the prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Ezekiel) who looked forward, thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, the Messiah was, the little child that could bring salvation into the world.
For the Israelites who lived in slavery and bondage in Egypt, Babylon and Persia, the Messiah was the little child that could bring freedom from bondage
For the Jewish people who lived under the oppression of the Roman government and it's extremely heavy taxation and oppressive rule, the Messiah was the little child that could right the wrongs of injustice and heavy taxation
For the shepherds, who were at the bottom of the social structure (essentially "untouchables" as the continental Indians would call them), the Messiah was the little child that could help them out with their impossible tough lives.
For the Persian Magi, who trekked 3,000 miles across the desert sands to find a child that was predicted in the stars of the sky, the Messiah was the little child that could bring meaning into their otherwise meaningless lives.
And so the list goes on.
So, here's my assignment for you for this week. Try to think about the birth of Jesus as a forward event, rather than a backward one. Pretend that you are living in the first century in Judah. Your life is tough. You basically live without hope. Now, place your current life into the context of that world. What are your current struggles and woes? And now, imagine that you have just been told, by an angel of the Lord, Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today in the town of David (Jerusalem) a Savior (helper) has been born to you; he is the Messiah (The Little Child That Could) [Luke 2:10-11].
And now ask yourself this. What can this little child do for you this Christmas? Is Jesus, for you…
The Little Child That Could?
All For Now,
Monday, December 8, 2014
The image is also clearly imprinted on my mind of some of the religious establishment of the church, elders, deacons, ushers, choir directors (what have you), saying out loud, "That's wrong for the pastor to give out gifts on Sunday morning to kids. The kids should be there for the Gospel and not to get a gift. Church shouldn't be about getting something tangible, it should be about getting something Spiritual." When I would tell Dad about these comments from elders, Dad would say, "I know that some of the kids come on Sunday for a toy. But I also know that along the way, they might hear the Good News of God. And without the toy, there is no way they would ever be in church, or hear the good news of Jesus."
I have remembered this good advice for these many long years. And this simple dictum has morphed into a full blown theological approach that I have followed for the past 15 years of ministry. The approach is what I have called:
The premise behind this approach is that most people today, in a consumeristic society, will not come to church unless, in their own minds, they can get something tangible, substantial, concrete, a toy, a gift. And that while a gift is not the reason a church exists, or God came to die on a cross, quite frankly, it is a small price to pay for the potential of winning a person's soul for eternity. In short, you give a person Opportunity, and you will have a chance at Evangelism
I believe that Opportunity Evangelism was at the very heart of Jesus' ministry. When Jesus invited the brothers who were fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John, to; "leave their nets and follow me, I will make you fishers of men," I believe this was an example of:
The truth is that fishing was a very tough industry in the first century. A fishing family could work for months on end, and sometimes, not catch any fish or earn much money. But, here's something you may not realize. Following a very popular rabbi, or teacher, or leader (being a disciple) could sometimes be a good means of living. You would never become wealthy following a rabbi, but you could pay the bills. We know for a fact that the disciples did have money from several Biblical sources. When the disciples see the 5,000 people coming who will need to be fed, they say, "Should we pay for their meals, or do you have some other idea?" The very fact that the disciples suggest that they COULD pay for the meals, suggests that they had means. And of course, we all know that Judas was - the money keeper. Now, were some of the disciples following Jesus for the money, or for the Good News of Jesus? Who knows? Who Cares. The point is that they were there, listening to the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Every Christmas, for years, we have hosted a huge Christmas Eve outreach celebration for the entire community. This is a chance to bring friends, who would not otherwise attend church, to the service. Every year, we give out a gift to whoever comes. This year will be no exception. Every person that attends will get a battery-powered flickering votive candle. It won't cost very much (maybe 10 cents a piece) but it will be a way for people to be able to take the "light of Christ" - a candle - SAFELY - back home with them. Now, do people come to Christmas Eve for the gift, or for the Good News? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that they are there!
Each week I do a Bible study at the Old Town Tavern in Camarillo. Each week, I order around 5 appetizers for the table to be able to munch on during the lesson. Are people there for the appetizers or the Bible study? Who knows, who cares? The point is that they are there, listening to the Gospel.
Occasionally, there will be server who helps with the table that is in a tough financial situation. We always leave a good tip. One of those servers attended church a week or so ago. Were they there for the tip or for the Good News? Who knows? Who cares. The point is that they were there!
We are in our 7th week of our new church development - Mission Street Church. Things are going very well. It is such an exciting journey. People are coming to Christ. The Holy Spirit is present. Now, on a given Sunday, I would say that around 12 people who attend are being paid a small amount for their help with setting up services, music leadership, children's ministries, sound crew, theater management, lighting and what have you. I know for a fact that many of these people are slowly but surely inching their hearts, every day, closer to God. Now, are they there for the money or for the Good News? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that they are….
You get the picture.
Now, full disclaimer, of course there is a moment when Opportunity Evangelism which is good, can devolve into The Prosperity Gospel, which is not good. Slowly but surely good Christian leaders must morph beginning followers off of tangible earthly assets and move them towards longer term Spiritual ones. But not in the beginning!
This Christmas, look for ways of giving opportunity to those who don't have it. Leave a great tip, give a present, offer assistance. Then see how open they may be to the Good News of Jesus. You might just be surprised!
All For Now,
Monday, December 1, 2014
Here is the story...
In the 1940's in Germany and Eastern Europe, as Jews were being rounded up by the millions to be sent away to concentration camps like Nuremberg and Auschwitz, there was general panic among the Jewish community. Total terror found it's way into the small neighborhoods of Poland, Romania, and Lithuania. Many sought "Visas of Transfer" to countries that were more sympathetic to the Jewish cause and plight.
One of those Jewish men was an Ashkenazi Jew by the name of Joseph Shimpken. Knowing that his life and his family's lives were being held in the balance of fate, he went from embassy to embassy in Lithuania looking for a transfer. Much to his despair, all of the "Visas of Transfer" had already been issued by the countries that gave refuge to Jews during the Holocaust. There was no room left for Joseph or his family. They were doomed.
In a last moment of desperation, Joseph knocked on the door of the Japanese embassy in Lithuania. Joseph knew that it was a complete fools errand to get a Visa from the Japanese government, since at that very moment, the German and Japanese governments had signed a pact of alignment and mutual interest. But he figured that it was at least worth a try - his last try before being shipped to a camp.
The man at the desk was a kindly Japanese Vice-Consul by the name of Chiune Sugihara (aka - "Sempo"). Sempo heard Joseph's story about the need for a Visa, but shook his head in denial, knowing what the answer from the Emperor's government would be. But then, Sempo said, "Let me try. But first, how many Jews need asylum?" Joseph thought for a moment, scratched his head and then said, "At least 6,000!?!?" Sempo said, "I'll see what I can do. Sempo made the perfunctory call to Japan and received the expected answer - "No!"
At that moment, something changed inside of Sempo. His heart for the Jewish people, or any people who were facing such great adversity was great. That night, Sempo began writing Visas. In those days, Visas had to be written by hand. They weren't computer generated back then, like they are today. Each Visa required intricate detail and minute attention to process. Sempo wrote 100 Visas that night. The next night he wrote 100 more. Sempo issued these Visas to Joseph and many of his friends and family who came looking for them. Joseph was beyond appreciation and delight at the receipt of these Visas.
When the Japanese government heard about Sempo and his illegal Visas, they were outraged. They ordered that Sempo be arrested and brought home under "States Arrest" immediately. Sempo continued with the Visas. Every day and every night he wrote more of them. In a flurry of paperwork and Japanese caligraphic handwriting, Sempo wrote more and more. When he was on his train, bound home, under arrest by the Germans, he wrote more Visas. Visas were literally being written and thrown out the window as the train whizzed past the small East German towns. Jews would pick them up from the rail-road tracks like - Manna from Heaven.
No one knows exactly how many Visas Sempo wrote for the Jewish people. Best estimates are that in a two week period he wrote 6,000 Visas by hand. When he got back to Japan, Sempo was dishonored, and demoted and arrested. He and his family spent 21 months in an Eastern Soviet Camp. When he got out of the camp he spent the rest of his life as a dishonored member of the Japanese society. He was reviled. He died in a pauper's grave in Japan.
The Simon Weisenthal Center, a group that tracks Jewish movements since World War II, estimates that because of Sempo, there are around 40,000 Jews alive today. Today, in Tokyo, there is actually a large Jewish population. Joseph Shimpken's family is among them. They all thank Sempo for their survival and existence.
Not long ago, the Japanese government reversed it's decision about Sempo, returning him to a place of honor in the society. He is now being hailed by many as a national hero. Sempo will be remembered through the ages as a courageous servant.
Jesus said, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last" (Matt. 20:16). He also said, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13)
Sempo put himself last, and now he is first. Sempo laid down his life for his friends.
God Bless You Sempo! God Bless You!!
All For Now,
Monday, November 24, 2014
I usually brush my teeth regularly, but on the days leading up to my appointment, I began to brush them a lot more. Like three times a day. I flossed extra. I made sure I was eating healthy snacks. I reduced my sugar intake greatly. I bought extra tooth polisher, and tooth whitener. I even fluoridated my teeth on my own. I did a whole lot of things leading up to my dental visit that I would not normally do, because I was nervous about the prognosis and the outcome from the dentist.
The thought occurred to me that many people, who have not attended church in a while, view visiting a church, with the same kind of nervous preparation. People who haven't attended church for a while will often do extra prayers before they attend, read up on their Bible, get their outfits in better shape, work extra hard on presenting their entire family in a best possible light.
People who haven't attended church in a while are often nervous about what the encounter will be like. Will the pastor tell me I need to do more work in my personal Christian "whitening" practices? Will I get beat up in the sermon, for not eating the right spiritual foods? Will the prayer time feel like a spiritual root canal? Will I be given a lecture about how I need to floss my soul more regularly? Will my visit to church be painful? Will it be unpleasant? Will it cost me a lot of money, since there may be a lot more spiritual surgical work that needs to be done?
And so, many, many people decide that they would rather just do without church, or God, or spirituality because they are worried about…
The Weekly Church Checkup
The truth is that some churches are a lot like a dental practice in the pain and guilt that they inflict on people who haven't visited in a while. I will never forget one church that I attended on occasion while I was a college student in Minnesota. When school first began, I went to church every week, but as the semester progressed, my attendance became much more fleeting. One morning I woke up, after a bit of a "crazy" (I was a college student after all) Saturday night. I told myself that I just needed God, and I needed church that day. What I could not face would be the phalanx of church people who would give me on the way in.
Sure enough, I was greeted at the door by a prying dental hygienist of an usher. "Well, well, well," she said, "we haven't seen you in while! Where have you been all this semester?" "Busy," I said. "You look like you might have been out last night. Kind of a crazy night, hugh?" "Not really, thanks for the bulletin. I'd like to sit in the back." "Those seats are all taken, there's a few in the front row," she said. As she guided me down the isle to my seat right beneath the pastor (not so different than being in a dental chair), I felt the glares of those who had perfect spiritual hygiene. As I sat down, she whispered, "We have a new program for college kids like you, who haven't attended church in a while, would you like information?" "Not really," I said. "Well, here's a brochure on how to keep your spiritual heart free from decay." I left wishing I hadn't come at all.
Church shouldn't be a weekly checkup, but a weekly affirmation of God's love in our lives.
Mission Street is striving to be that church. Our two main mottos are:
Come As You Are, and
No Perfect People Allowed
All For Now,
Monday, November 17, 2014
What has been on my mind is that in many ways, we can think of this central dictum in it's opposite form. Just as the "Word became Flesh" with Jesus, so, when Jesus ascended into heaven again, in a very real sense;
The Flesh Became Word
What this means is that when the Spoken Word (The Bible) is uttered, God is brought to life. When The Bible is preached correctly, with meaning, and truth and grace and hope, there is, in a sense, a living Christ among us.
The Flesh Became Word
I learned from my preaching professor at Fuller Seminary this past summer, Dr. Will Willemon, that the word Theology - literally translated "Theo - Logoi, literally translates as "God Speaks". I used to think that theology simply meant the study of God, but it really means, "The words of God," "The voice of God", "The utterances of God." It can also mean "Speaking about God." When we speak about God, we bring life to God, and we are theological.
The Reformers, Jean Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox and others firmly believed in this central maxim.
The Flesh Became Word'
They believed in it so fully that it compelled Luther to advocate the mass production of the Bible in people's own languages, and dialects. Luther believed that the Word should be in the hands of the people. Knox knew that without public education, the "Word of God" would be misinterpreted, misunderstood, misappropriated. So, he wanted people of all economic backgrounds to be able to read for themselves - the Word. Knox wanted the Flesh of God made into Words in the very hands of all people. Calvin placed the reading of the Word in the very center of church - from a central lectern. This is why, today, in most churches, the sermon is still the central part of the worship service.
This basic truth gave new meaning to my preaching and speaking on Sunday mornings, when I discovered it. To be honest, I still have a hard time fully believing it. Taken to it's extreme, it means that whenever a pastor speaks in a worship setting about God, correctly, lovingly, truthfully, it is equivalent to God speaking Himself. That when sermon is preached, it isn't just a good point that is made, a thoughtful reflection that is offered, a helpful concept that is shared, but rather that there is some sort of Godly conveyance taking place.
The Flesh Became Word
This basic notion also has profound implications for all of us. Whenever we share hopeful things, truthful thoughts, graceful kind words to others, we are also participating in the Flesh Becoming Word. Whenever we share the truthful, loving, story of Jesus in our own lives (not someone else's story, but our own), we quite literally bring Christ back into the world through the utterances that come from our lips. And, the opposite is also the case. We also have the potential and the possibility of speaking Words that aren't Godly. Words that cut down, make small, hurt, inflict, belittle, and curse, eradicate the power of God from the world. Hurtful words have the impact of removing the Flesh of Christ from the World.
Let's Bring Christ Back into the World this Week through our Words. And then we will be able to see for ourselves that:
The Flesh Became Word
All For Now,
Monday, November 10, 2014
For example, I have thought, for some time now, that someone needs to write a book entitled; "Distances and Times in the Bible". Though the title of the book may not be a best seller (you can work on that), the content seems important to me. We often underestimate the amount of time it took, and the distances traveled in the Bible. For example, when the Bible says, "Jesus then went from Galilee to Judea" it doesn't give the impact of the distance traveled by Jesus and the disciples. The trip from Galilee to Judea is a good two to three day journey over rocky, arid, and mountainous land. Jesus and the disciples must have been totally winded after those journeys. No wonder the Pharisees were so annoying to deal with at the end of a long journey.
Another book I don't have time to write (but maybe I will someday) is the main focus of this blogpost:
The full title could be, Flex: How God Works Best in the Lives of Flexible People
A lot of energy and time has been spent on the best way for Christ followers to prepare their hearts to receive God's grace, mercy, and fruit. Many authors have pondered the exact posture that the human heart must assume in order to be most useful to God. The bookshelves filled with books on, "Listening to God's Voice", "Deep Contemplative Prayer," "Having a Holy Heart" are numerous. My big new idea is that, while all of these factors are important, they are not the most important thing. And here it is. Flexibility is the key! God works best in flexible hearts.
By and large the disciples were highly flexible people. Anyone who has gone on a fishing trip knows that the key to being a good fisherman has:
Flexibility. Some days you may catch a fish or two, some days you will not. Some days the morning will begin with sunshine on the water, and then storm clouds will begin to form and the torrential rains will begin to fall. Some days your fishing lines and nets will work perfectly, and then, all of a sudden, they will catch a snag, or a hole will emerge in the net, and you have to spend the whole day mending the nets. I believe that Jesus knew this as he was walking around the lake of Galilee and when he said to Peter and Andrew and James and John: "Come and Follow Me! I will make you fishers of men!" The fact that the disciples left their fishing professions right there and then, shows just how much they were able to:
Some of the most powerful stories of conversion in the Bible are really stories about flexibility. Take the story of Zacchaeus for example. Here was a very wealthy and corrupt man who had more money and power and wealth than any person could ever hope for. But then he met Jesus, and was moved to the core to;
To become flexible in his heart. Zaccheaus gave back 4 times the amount he had stollen through the years, and he followed Jesus. The other rich young ruler in the Bible, who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God, and was unable to be flexible, to give back his money.
There is a reason that Jesus was so drawn to the ministry contributions of women in the Bible (Mary Magdalene, Salome, Mary and Martha). I believe it is because, basically, when it boils down to it, women are more flexible than men. Of course, women in general are much more physiologically flexible than men. But I believe they are also more spiritually flexible as well. While I don't have the scientific data to back up this basic point on this Monday morning, one example of this is that women tend to live longer than men after their spouses pass away. If a wife passes away first, the chance that a husband will live on much longer is around 20%. On the other hand if a husband passes away first, the chances of her living long after her husband are well about 50%. Women are more flexible after periods of change and loss in their lives. Somehow, they are more able to pivot, to mold, to alter, to change to:
Having just started a new church development here in Camarillo three weeks ago, I can say without hesitation that flexibility is the key to success in a new church. On any given Sunday, the speakers won't work, the security guards are being persnickety, the computer system is down, the offering plates aren't in the place they should be, a key leadership person gets sick, or what have you. The successful new church is able to:
On second thoughts, maybe I should be more flexible and write this book after all:-)
All For Now,
Monday, November 3, 2014
One time when I told him that I was afraid of heights - that I had the tendency to feel a little dizzy and scared (I suffered from vertigo) when I stood at the top of a very high mountain, or a very tall building, he had great advice. Ranald said; "The difference between not feeling scared when standing on top of very high places (buildings, mountains) and feeling scared, is whether or not you have climbed them yourself or not. If you climb a mountain yourself, you will never feel scared when you get to the top of it. If you climb the stairs of a very high building, you will not feel dizzy on top. If, on the other hand, you take a helicopter ride to the top of a mountain, or you take an elevator to the top of a building, you will often feel frightened of the height at the top."
This advice, on it's face, may seem crazy. But try it, I have found it to be true.
When I was in college, I had a summer job at an oil refinery. One of my very dangerous tasks that summer was to climb the ladder of a very tall smoke stack (like 500 feet tall), and to reach out at the top and paint orange protective paint on the pipes that suspended high above the earth. Given that I have always been afraid of heights, I was petrified of this task. But once again, Ranald's advice proved to be true. When I climbed the stack, rung by rung on the ladder, and got to the top, I was less afraid than if I had been dropped on the top of the stack by a crane.
In both cases, what I think Ranald was alluding to was the basic notion that when humans invest themselves deeply in the ascent of high places, they somehow know intuitively how to get to the top, and how to get to the bottom.
Uncle Ranald's advice has proven true not just for mountain climbing or building scaling, and smoke stack scrambling, but also for life in general. I have always been a little suspicious of people who rise in life to quickly. Politicians, business leaders, executives, even pastors who go from the ground floor, if you will, to the top too quickly can often find themselves in a perilous place of leadership. Not having had the arduous task of putting one step in front of the other to get to the top, leaves the leader actually not appreciating the amount of work and effort it took to build the business or political empire.
Former Congressman John Dingle of Michigan once offered a few thoughts about our current President - Barack Obama (don't worry, this is not a political blogpost, but let me offer this illustration to make a larger point). He said, Obama just rose too quickly too soon in his political life. Having served only 2 years in the Senate, before he ran for President, he didn't ever really learn the difficult and intricate process of governing. Had he waited a few more years to run, and to learn (to climb, if you will, the mountain of politics, rather than be dropped on the top so quickly) he would have been a much more effective President.
Yesterday morning was our second Sunday for Mission Street. It was a wonderful worship service! Really special. People were so fed by the worship music, prayers, message, etc. Our attendance was 60 (which, by the way is 20 more than I was hoping for). As the leaders were assisting with worship, we were all aware of the climb we were all making in starting a new church. It's one step after the other. It's one bend in the road, and view point after the other. It's a beautiful journey. And because we are climbing the mountain ourselves, we won't find that we are dizzy, or afraid of the view, when the summit is reached.
The climb is the journey. The climb is essential. Being on top is not what is important. How you get there is. The journey is important.
All For Now,