Is Your Congregation Struggling to Survive?

Crucifixion Picture

Many congregations are moving through challenging times these days.

Immediately after World War II, the “builders” got to work; and church buildings, some of them quite large, popped up everywhere. Many church buildings were filled to capacity in the 1950’s and some congregations even needed to put chairs in the aisles on special occasions. But, as we moved into the 1960’s and 1970’s, things began to change. People became suspicious of institutions of every kind. But, even in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many church buildings were still almost full because the “builders” kept coming to worship and were incredibly faithful in both their attendance and financial support.

But things continued to change. The “builders” began to age and even die. Congregations began to see worship attendance falling and budget deficits rising. And congregations began to respond to that change in two different ways: (1) Some congregations turned inward and chopped away at their ministry to save money, and (2) Other congregations turned to God in prayer, sought spiritual renewal, and searched for new and exciting ways to engage in mission and ministry.

In the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, we meet two very different men.

One of the men hanging on a cross beside Jesus cried out in desperation saying: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” This was a cry for survival. Maybe the man on the cross was asking for one more day to make amends with those he had hurt. Maybe he wanted to live for another month, another year, or even another decade. But, what we do know is that this man’s desperate plea for survival wasn’t answered. He didn’t get what he wanted; and, perhaps, he even died in sad desperation. But, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Didn’t Jesus once say that those who try to save their own lives are going to lose them? (Matthew 16:25)

But, the other man who was hanging on the cross beside Jesus did something very different. He began by confessing that he had gotten himself into a pickle; and that, in some ways, he was only reaping what he had sowed. And then, in a moment of faith, he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Here, we have a man of faith. This man, who cried out to Jesus in the same desperate situation said, “Jesus, please take me wherever You want to take me.” He entrusted everything to Jesus alone. And, in that moment of faith, he heard a promise: “I will remember you,” Jesus says, “and you will be with me in Paradise.” And those words shouldn’t surprise us either. Didn’t Jesus tells us that those who give up their life for His sake and who trust in Him alone are going to find it? (Matthew 10:39) Didn’t Jesus also tell us that He was going to build the Church and that even the gates of Hell would not prevail against it? (Matthew 16:17-19)

Moses once told the people of Israel: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15) And the story of Jesus’ crucifixion does the very same thing.

Congregations that turn inward and try to “survive” by chopping away at their ministries to save money are choosing a perilous path that often leads to death. Congregations that seek renewal through prayer and daily devotion and that entrust their futures to Jesus, in difficult times, often find new life and exciting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others because renewal often brings a deeper sense of God’s guiding hand in life and in the ministry of the Church.

Jesus has clearly told us that He has something special planned for us, and that He’s going to carry us into better days and into a future that’s going to be far better than any of us can imagine in our wildest dreams.

And that leaves us, our congregations, and even the whole Church with a question that needs to be answered: Do we want to fight to survive for another year or even another decade, or do we want to follow Jesus into a future where our ministry will continue to grow and thrive even in challenging times? The choice is ours.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

The Church’s GPS

Smartphone Pic

One of the features that I use most often on my Smartphone is the GPS.

When I click the GoogleMaps application on my Smartphone, satellites that are flying far overhead can connect with my cellphone and provide my current location. I can choose my destination by typing an address onto the screen, or I can simply type the name of a distant city. And then, through the “magic” of technology, GoogleMaps plots my journey; provides an approximate arrival time; directs me around traffic jams; and even provides a picture of my destination, so that I don’t knock on the door of the wrong house.

Many pastors and congregational leaders are searching for the church’s path forward in quickly changing times. We realize that our society is moving through a time of dramatic change and transition. We can sense that dramatic shifts are occurring in people’s lives as we hear more and more about the “Nones” and the “Dones.” And we wish we could find the magic pill. We wish that we could somehow re-create an idealized past; but, deep inside, we all know that that’s not going to work. And so, we need to look forward. And, we also need to listen to God’s voice because the Church has been built upon the life-giving message of Christ crucified and risen for 2,000 years, and because the Risen Christ has promised to sustain the Church and lead it into the future.

So, what does our life of worship and prayer have to do with a GPS?

• First, a GPS reminds us that we can never travel from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be” until we know “where we are right now.” We begin worship services at Christ’s Lutheran Church, each week, by joining in a time of confession and forgiveness because we need to remember “where we are right now.” Times of confession call us to look deep inside; and, sometimes, call us to look at parts of our lives that we don’t like to see. Times of open confession call us to gaze into a mirror, and to see ourselves both honestly and authentically. And that’s important because some of the things that we see in the mirror can stand in the way when we want to serve God. And the pronouncement of God’s forgiveness frees us and liberates us, so that we can move in a new direction. Worship and prayer can open our eyes to “where we are right now” – and that’s where every journey begins.

• Second, a GPS reminds us that we can never travel from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be” until we know “where we need to be.” And worship and prayer can help us to see that, too. God opens our eyes and speaks to our hearts in worship and prayer – helping us to see the “gap” between where things are right now and where God wants them to be. As we “dream and dreams of God” in our worship and prayer, God gives us visions of the future that God wants to create for our lives and our ministry. God points us toward “where we need to be.” We might think that we can simply decide “where we need to be” by sitting at a table and by creating long-term strategies without God’s help. But, no matter how creative our strategies become, they’ll never lead us to “where we need to be” until we gather around God’s Word, spend time in worship and prayer, and ask God to lead us and help us to do what He wants us to do.

• Third, a GPS reminds us that, as we’re traveling from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be,” there are many different paths – and some of them may be far better than others. The book of Acts contains a wonderful story where the Holy Spirit opens and closes doors as St. Paul was traveling (Acts 16:6-10). We need to understand that God does the same thing today. When we spend time in worship and prayer, God works. God inspires. God leads. God opens door that we can’t open by ourselves with His mighty hands. And God chooses the best route forward. When we know “where we are right now” and “where we need to be,” we must remain in worship and in prayer – trusting that God will open doors and even close doors that will lead us down paths filled with unnecessary obstacles.

• Lastly, a GPS reminds us that, as we’re traveling from “where we are right now” to “where we need to be,” God will provide pictures of our destination. The Bible tells us: “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). As we worship and pray, God paints a picture for us. Can we see Christ’s Lutheran Church as a vibrant congregation that’s both multi-generational and multi-cultural? Can we picture Christ’s Lutheran Church as a place where people use the first five minutes after each worship services to engage and to speak with visitors, instead of just flying toward the doors? Can we picture Christ’s Lutheran Church as a place that devotes itself to listening to people and to building entire ministries around what God has told us to do to meet the needs of people who are living just beyond the walls of our building? Can we picture Christ’s Lutheran Church as a place that continues to lift-up the fact that ALL of God’s people are created to be ministers – and that one of the most important things that we can do as a church is to help people to fulfill their own ministry by equipping and empowering them by providing the tools and training and connections that they need to find?

When I click the GoogleMaps application on my Smartphone, satellites that are flying far overhead can connect with my cellphone and provide my current location. I can choose my destination by typing an address onto the screen, or I can simply type the name of a distant city. And then, through the “magic” of technology, GoogleMaps plots my journey; provides an approximate arrival time; directs me around traffic jams; and even provides a picture of my destination, so that I don’t knock on the door of the wrong house.

Can we look at our life of worship and prayer as something that does the same thing?

The Mission Interpreter

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How are choices and decisions you make each day connected to your journey of faith?

You live in a complex Age where change surrounds you. You probably feel overwhelmed by a constant stream of news and information that summons your attention by sending the invasive pop, ding, or silent vibration that invades every part of your daily life. You most likely believe in God, but you may have decided that you don’t want to be affiliated with a local church, synagogue, mosque or temple. And yet, you still want to make some sort of difference in the world. You still want to believe that God is somehow working in your life and in the lives of the people that you love. Perhaps, what you need are stories that remind you that God’s at work in our lives and in the world, and mental morsels to challenge you to think about the relationship between your daily living and faith?

I believe that there’s always a next step for us to take in our journey of faith, and I am dedicated to working with people who want to take the next step forward in their journey of faith with confidence and courage. And, that’s why I’ve added a link to the menu on this site that takes you to my newest blog entitled: “The Mission Interpreter”.

This is a place where you’ll discover ways that God’s people are making a difference in the world, right now. This is a place where the leaders of churches and synagogues and mosques and temples will be challenged to reflect and to grow. This is a place where you will be challenged to think about the relationship between daily living and the kinds of choices and commitments you make each day. This is a place where you’ll be challenged to explore the ways that choices and decisions you make are connected to your journey of faith and to your relationship with God.

You can receive updates every time new material is added to “The Mission Interpreter” by following the blog itself as a regular user of WordPress – or you can provide an email address where links to new material can be send. I hope you’ll also share information about this new blog with your friends, so that they can, also, be encouraged by the fact that people of faith continue to do life-changing things in our quickly-changing world.

To get started, why not take a moment to investigate “The Mission Interpreter” and to read one of the newest, thought-provoking posts: “Stewardship, Stoles, and Suicide” – a piece that tells the tragic story of a pastor who recently committed suicide and that offers some ideas that can help congregations to support and encourage pastors who struggle with issues of sadness, discouragement, depression and anxiety – just like so many other folks do in the Church. You can, also, find several inspiring stories that point to the power of prayer and that lift-up the good that God’s people do when they join hands and work as a team. You’ll even find a thought-provoking piece that challenges Church leaders to remember the importance of storytelling as they prepare to make financial appeals.

I hope that “The Mission Interpreter” will provide something helpful for everyone who visits the site. You’ll notice that there’s, also, a CONTACT ME link on the site. Please let me know if you; the congregation, synagogue, mosque or temple that you attend; or a group of people that you know are joining hands to do something that points others to the God who continues to call us to express our faith in a way that touches and changes lives.

Does God Still Give Us “Signs”?

looking for a sign

John 6:24-35

Several months ago, I saw a “sign.”

Now, before you get all excited, the sky didn’t open-up and I didn’t hear a big, booming voice from Heaven. The “sign” that I saw had nothing to do with watching someone feed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish. The “sign,” in fact, was just a large, tattered billboard that read: “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it!

In this week’s message, “Does God Still Give Us ‘Signs’?”, I want to challenge you to think about the things that first pointed you toward Jesus. We sometimes see Jesus’ power to strengthen and heal when we find ourselves praying for people that we love. Jesus can melt the harsh bitterness that fills our hearts after we’ve been hurt or disappointed. God can show us the next step forward when we don’t know what to do. Sometimes, WE can even be a “sign” of Jesus’ presence in the lives of other people.

The writer of John’s Gospel begins an interesting story in John 6:24-35.

Jesus has just finished feeding more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish. Jesus has gone off to Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and the home of about 1,500 people. And when the people hear that Jesus is in Capernaum, they gather because they want to see Him. And Jesus tells them: “You haven’t come here to see me because you saw ‘signs.’ You came here because you had your bellies filled with bread and fish.” And, even after Jesus tells the people that what He has just done is the “work of God,” the people who have gathered around Him start to demand another sign.
So, let me ask you a question: “How have YOU come to know Jesus?”

I first learned about Jesus in a Sunday School class where Mrs. Pfeifer showed-up every Sunday morning to teach me about Jesus. I also learned about Jesus as an ordinary man, named Kenneth Ruckert, pointed me to “signs” that proclaimed the fact that Jesus even loves confused teenagers. I’ve learned about Jesus while serving as a camp counselor at Camp Lutherlyn, and as I’ve journeyed through life with people who were suffering and even dying – people who pointed me toward the “signs” of God’s presence in the world when life isn’t perfect. I’ve come to know Jesus because people, throughout all of my life, have invested their time and energy in me. And, because of that, I’ve seen a lot of “signs.” Didn’t St. Paul once write that faith always comes from outside of us (Romans 10:17)?
And that’s why your investment in the ministry of the Church is so important.

I may have never heard about Jesus if Mrs. Pfeifer hadn’t volunteered to teach Sunday School every Sunday morning, and if other people hadn’t donated the money that she needed to buy the books that she used. I may have never become a pastor if the faithful members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Falls, PA hadn’t financially supported the ministry of Pastor Joel Nafuma – the man who helped me to pull the pieces together when God first began to call me into ordained ministry. When we faithfully invest our time and energy and money in Christian ministry, we can be people who create “signs” that point people to Jesus. In fact, when we invest in the ministry of a local congregation (or in the ministry of the Church in a broader way), we can open windows to Heaven and point people toward Jesus – the “Bread of Life” – who comes into the world to nourish us, to sustain us, to forgive us, and to lift us up both strengthened and renewed.
“If you’re looking for a sign, this is it!”

Perhaps, God is using these words to challenge you to think about the ways that God can use YOU to do the types of ministry that open the windows of Heaven for other people? Perhaps, God is using these words to remind you that the time, energy and money that YOU invest in the ministry of a local congregation (and in the Church as a whole) has the power to help other people to discover the “Bread of Life.” Perhaps, God is using these words to remind you that, as YOU join hands with other Christians in ministry, God can use whatever you offer to change people’s lives and alter their destinies?

Remember the Beauty of Your Dreams

big things

Have you ever tried to water-ski?

Many years ago, I found myself bobbing up and down in the Ohio River. I had already tried to pull myself out of the water and stand on my feet many times. My stomach was churning because I had swallowed what must have been a gallon of water while being dragged behind a boat. And, as everybody watched, I reached for the rope that floated beside me, heard the rev of the engine, saw the slack in the rope disappear, and then…. I disappeared beneath the water again, was dragged several hundred feet, and finally let go of the rope. That was it. I climbed into the boat – and never tried to water ski again.

Picture the disciples sitting beside Jesus. They were already exhausted. They had crossed over the sea to escape from the busyness of their daily routines. But, the people saw what they were doing and were waiting for them on the other side of the sea. And Jesus cared about the people, and He taught – and taught – and taught – and taught. And, before Jesus’ disciples realized what what happening, stomachs began to growl and people needed to eat. But the disciples could only find find loaves of bread and two little fish – and what’s that when you’re sitting in a crowd of more than 5,000 hungry people?

I’m sure that we all get tired and that we all have times when we don’t think that we have anything left to give. We, sometimes, find it hard to say “No” when we’re asked to do things – even though our calendars are already full. Many churches are struggling with an ever-shrinking pool of volunteers and with rising deficits. We have hopes and dreams that have been placed in our hearts by God. We want to do great and marvelous things. But, we’ve all faced times when we think (or even know) that there’s not enough to go around, right? We want to do great things, but find nothing more than five loaves of bread and two little fish to get the job done.

And so, we need to make a decision. We can chisel our dreams into something less, or we can lift the situation before God and ask for God’s help. We can cut things back a bit, stop reaching toward God-inspired dreams, and simply quit – or we can remember that God’s placed those hopes and dreams in our hearts, and that God will supply what we need to do what God wants us to do. And that’s important for us to understand.

In this week’s message, “Remember the Beauty of Your Dreams”, we’re reminded that faith challenges us to look past obstacles and challenges, and to work together to fulfill God’s plans for our lives and ministries. We are, often, the very people who ultimately decide what we can and cannot do because we are people who decide what we “will” or “will not” do in response to God’s call. We’ve all needed to face the little voice deep inside that says, “You can’t do that!” But, even as that voice continues to echo in our ears, Jesus continues to call us to feed the multitude – even when we’re not sure that we can do it.

But just think about how our lives and ministries could be transformed if we just go so excited and fired-up about what God wants us to do that we simply did it? How would our lives and ministries be changed if we simply trusted that God would provide us with the resources and volunteers that we need to do the things that God’s calling us to do?

Randy Pausch, the author of a book entitled Last Lecture, challenges us to live our lives with passion and commitment. He reminds us that we only have one chance to live and that we need to do the things that matter the most to us. And Randy also reminds us that brick walls often arise to test us and to help us to see how badly we want the thing that we dream about. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Remember the Beauty of Your Dreams.” And, this week, I’m challenging you to do that.

What hopes and dreams has God placed into your heart? What ways is God calling you to put your fingerprints on the world? Is there something that you believe God wants you to do before you die? What’s keeping you from simply doing it, right now?

Seize the day! God has a great, big, wonderful plan for both you and for the ministry of Christ’s Church. Lift your five loaves of bread and two little fish before God and ask God to bless them and multiply them today. You might be surprised by what God can do!

 

Together in the Same Boat

jesus boat

One of the oldest images of the Church is a boat.

Many congregations gather in a worship space that is shaped like an upside-down boat. The place where the congregation sits during worship services is called the “Nave” – a word that has its origins in the Latin word “Navis” meaning: Ship. You might even say that Christians are “all in the same boat,” and that Jesus is carrying us from wherever we are in life right now to wherever God wants us to be – as we continue to gather as God’s people and participate in the ministry of the Church.

The Sacred Story tells us that the disciples of Jesus traveled in a boat; and so, every time we hear stories about the disciples in a boat, we need to think about the Church. And as we do that, we can learn many important lessons about faithful living and ministry that apply to our lives and to our ministries even now.

How are things going in your boat these days? Have you noticed that the days of putting extra chairs in the aisle during worship services are pretty much gone, and that the news is filled with more and more stories about unfolding chaos in the Church? People – in the 21st-Century – tend to view attending a worship service as one of the many equally valid options in a sea of other activities on an average weekend. Most Christian congregations and Jewish synagogues have seen a nearly 50% drop in worship attendance – in just the last ten years. It appears that the boat is sailing through a pretty rough storm right now, and that water is splashing over the gunwales as waves crash all around us.

“Together in the Same Boat” is a message that’s been created to help us to make sense of that and to help us to hear what Jesus might be saying to the Church these days. Perhaps, we need to listen to Jesus as He says, “Let’s go over to the other side”? Perhaps, we need to realize that the Church needs to change as people change? Perhaps, we need to realize that, while the message of Christ crucified and risen doesn’t change, the we way that we communicate that message to people needs to continually change? And that change is going to require faith.  “Going over to the other side” can be very scary; and, maybe, it’s OK for us to admit that we’re experiencing some angst and fear these days? As we travel to an unknown future – trust and faith and daily prayer are more necessary than ever!

But, as people of faith, we don’t need to be discouraged and overwhelmed. In fact, the Sacred Story reminds us of four truths that we must keep in mind as we journey together into the future:

  1. The Sacred Story reminds us that “we’re all in the same boat” – and that, even as we travel into uncharted waters, we have each other as faithful companions.
  2. The Sacred Story reminds us that, as Jesus calls us to “go over to the other side of the Sea,” He hops into the boat with us. Jesus is here – and we’re not alone.
  3. The Sacred Story reminds us that, as we move forward, we need to celebrate the fact that the ministry that we’ve done in the past is still good and worthwhile. Our movement toward the future isn’t meant to invalidate what we’ve done in the past, or to say that it was, somehow, “wrong.”
  4. The Sacred Story reminds us that, even though what lies ahead is still unknown, the “other side of the Sea” is a place where Jesus is going to help us to do great and wonderful things – and the future before us is going to be both God-filled and good.

And so, always remember that we’re “Together in the Same Boat” as we journey into the future with Jesus by our side and with the Holy Spirit as the wind in our sails. And, also remember that the destination that lies before us is going to be a place that will be filled with new challenged and blessings, new storms and times of peace, new blessings from God and new life to be shared by God’s people.

 

Johnny Grapevine

vineyard worker

My wife sometimes calls me: “Johnny Grapevine.”

I remember the days when my Dad and I would walk through the woods staring up into the treetops. My Dad would point-out the different kinds of trees.  We would speak about the wide variety of trees that can be found in Pennsylvania; and we’d, sometimes, even do a leaf-rubbing. But, every once in a while, my Dad would point-out a wild grapevine that had climbed up a tree and that had begun to choke the life out of everything around it. And, with no delay, he’d pull-out his great, big bow saw and start cutting the grapevine off at the ground, And after he was finished, we’d just walk away – leaving the grapevine to wither in the treetops. I still do that. Hence, my wife calls me: “Johnny Grapevine.”

Jesus once described Himself as a grapevine, and He described God as the owner of the vineyard who walks through the world examining grape branches. When God sees a branch that’s bearing fruit, God trims it back a bit; so that, more of the vine’s juices can flow into the growing fruit. And, when God discovers branches that aren’t bearing any fruit, God saws and hacks and trims until those branches are removed. And, when the branches are removed from the Vine, they simply shrivel and die – just like the branches did when my Dad and I cut them off at the roots in the woods of Pennsylvania.

The Sacred Story is one that reminds us that our connection to the Vine is crucial.

Life-giving juices flow through us when we’re connected to the Vine (Jesus); and, when that happens, we’re able to bear fruit that we could never bear without God’s help. God’s Spirit continues to lead us and guide us and empower us when we’re connected to the Vine; and we, sometimes, discover a great source of strength that we never knew we had – when we need it most. The Vine (Jesus) gives its life-giving juices to many branches at the same time (reminding us that God never asks us to bear all of the fruit of the Vine by ourselves) and that’s important for us to remember, as the Church, as we continue to join hands with each other in ministry in an Age where it isn’t always easy to find help and the volunteers we need. When we’re connected to the Vine, God calls us to live-into our God-given strengths and abilities; and, sometimes, that means we need to set some things aside – always remembering that the “new wine” God is bringing into the world is always going to be made from the fruit that’s been harvested from many different branches that, ultimately, share one thing in common – their life-giving connection to the Vine.

So, let me ask you a question….

How’s your life going these days? I suspect that we all have times when we wonder if there’s enough of us to go around.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in life when we weren’t sure if we had anything left to give; and then, something big popped-up and demanded our immediate attention and action. How do you find the strength and energy that you need to continue? Where do you find the strength to keep going when it seems that you have nothing left to give?

In this week’s message, “Johnny Grapevine”, we explore the importance of faith. We talk about the importance of reading our Bibles each day and of setting aside time to pray. We talk about living together as God’s people and about drawing upon the life-giving juices of the Vine in a world where God’s told us that it’s “not good” for us to be alone.

God has blessed you with the gift of life. God has blessed you with skills and talents that you can use to help your family and friends, your church, your community and even the world to become a better place for us all.  And that’s why it’s important for us to remain connected to the Vine (which is Jesus Himself).  We don’t always have “inner strength” to do what God’s calling us to do. We all face times in life when it seems that there’s just not enough of us to go around. We need connection. We need Christ’s life-giving juices. We need God’s Spirit living and moving and breathing in our lives.

God gives us strength. God fills us with life-giving energy. And God continues to help us to do thing that we simply can’t do by ourselves – as God enlivens us with the Holy Spirit and sends us into the world empowered to do God’s work.

 

God’s Vision and Mission for the Church

vision pic

Many pastors and congregations struggle to define their vision and mission.

We sense that our ministries need to be about more than ourselves, and our own hopes and dreams. We know that congregations are not little social clubs where members “pay their dues” and then have a right to extract their benefits. But, who in the congregation is qualified to decide what’s best? The pastor? A Church Council? The Mission and Strategic Planning Task Force? Maybe, it should all be left-up to a bishop? The Church of the Risen Christ existed for thousands of years before any of us were born, and it will continue to exist long after all of us are gone. We need to remember that.

What if we began to consider the fact that specific congregations aren’t supposed to have their own vision and mission? What would happen if we began to consider the fact that God’s Vision and Mission has a Church? Hmm….

We set aside one Sunday each year and we call it: “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Sheep are rather awkward creatures who are stubborn and unpredictable. Sheep are demanding and independent. Jesus once said that people are like sheep. We tend to drift apart, and probably know little about what’s happening in each other’s lives. We’ve learned to just divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups. We use our Smartphones (that can very easily access the collective wisdom of humanity) to argue and debate with people that we’ve never even met. And, as we’ve done that, we’ve lost a sense of compassion and love for each other. We’ve lost part of the very essence of human community.

In this week’s message, “God’s Vision and Mission for the Church”, we remember that Jesus – the Good Shepherd – has come into the world to draw us together, and to shape and form us into “communities of compassion” – “churches.” Jesus comes into the world to draw people together; and to create places where people can care about each other, support each other, and love. Jesus comes into the world to create places where sheep come together, and learn the importance of holding each other in their hearts and in their prayers. The Sacred Story reminds us that Jesus comes into the world to create something that we need more than anything else in the world – a place where we can come to be welcomed and embraced, to be heard and to be cared-for, to worship and to pray, and to be equipped and empowered for life and ministry in a quickly changing world.

What if we began to consider the fact that specific congregations aren’t supposed to have their own vision and mission? What would happen if we began to consider the fact that God’s Vision and Mission has a Church…?

Perhaps, we need to remember that a “flock of sheep” wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a shepherd who was constantly working behind the scenes to hold it together? Perhaps, we need to consider the fact that ministry isn’t about trying to build something that’s going to last upon our own shifting ideas and dreams? The Good Shepherd calls us to live-into God’s great dreams for our lives and our futures. The Good Shepherd calls us to notice the sharp distinctions between what’s happening in our world and what God has planned for Creation – and then, to do something about it. God’s great vision and mission in one that continues to call people together and to create “communities of compassion” – in a world where people are becoming more and more isolated in an electronic world of shallow connections, more and more unfulfilled in a world of constant running and hectic schedules, more and more alone in a world where people tend to just move-on in life with or without us, and more and more detached from the God who comes into the world to be a part of our lives.

The Sacred Story tells us the story of a God who’s come into the world to show us that we deserve to be loved and to be embraced – to be heard and to be cared-for. The Sacred Story continues to remind us that God’s using us, in one way or another, to fulfill God’s great plans and dreams for Creation. And that’s why, on the bottom line, we need to see that it’s not our job to create and develop our own vision and mission for our churches. Our deepest calling is to immerse ourselves in Scripture (the Sacred Story); to pray; and to ask the Good Shepherd to open our eyes, guide us in the right direction, and help us to better understand how we can live-into God’s vision and mission for our “life together” as the Church.

Hearing God’s Word and Sharing the Lord’s Supper

Word Sacrament

Life’s taught me that discipleship is not for the faint-of-heart.

I was taught that faith is primarily a source of comfort, stability and peace in life when I was a little boy. I was taught that people should come to worship because the church is a place where people have their “gas tanks” filled, and where people come to be energized and to be inspired by the pastor. But, after living almost thirty years as a pastor, I can say that I’ve learned that living my life as a follower of Jesus is about much, much more.

It’s not easy to spend time with people who are dying, or to speak words of hope and new life while standing beside a hole in the ground. It’s not easy to listen to a pain-filled story; and, then, take a woman who’s being abused at home to a place where someone from the Blackburn Center will pick her up and take her to a safe place. It’s not easy to continually search for new ways to help parents raise faith-filled children when many of those same parents won’t even bring their kids to worship. It’s not easy to publicly speak-out against racism and bigotry, to openly speak about caring for the poor and homeless, and to just as openly address hot political issues when people just stop coming to worship and stop supporting important ministries when they disagree with what’s being said in the pulpit.

Right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and right after He spent time alone in the Wilderness, Jesus began to preach and heal people and gather disciples. We read that Jesus once fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish. And Peter was watching everything! The Bible tells us that Peter even got to the point where He believed that Jesus is the Messiah.

But, right after Peter told everyone around him that he believed that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus began to speak about suffering, and being rejected, and being killed, and being lift-up to new life. And when Peter had heard enough, he shouted, “No, no, no, no, no! That’s not how things are going to be!” And Jesus called him “Satan” – and told him to get out of the way! And then, Jesus spoke haunting words: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will save it.”

And that brings us to the second of the Faith Practices that we’re going to lift-up during our Lenten Journey (to learn more about the first Faith Practice, click here).

The Bible tells us that God’s Word is the “sword of the Spirit” that cuts us to the heart – bringing words of comfort and peace, but also bringing powerful words that convict us and challenge us to do what God wants us to do. The “sword of the Spirit” is something that God uses to bring peace and to stir-up faith within us, but the “sword of the Spirit” is also a powerful word that continues to challenge us to “take-up our Cross”; and to allow “old ways” to die, so that “new ways” can be born.

In “Hearing God’s Word and Sharing the Supper”, we are reminded that our faith can be a source of strength and stability, but it can also be something that drives us to do things that are uncomfortable. When we stop biting our tongues and begin to speak-out about the things that we believe, we can experience rejection and unexpected consequences. When we stop biting our tongues and stop hiding what we believe, we can gain an even deeper sense of what God’s calling us to do – but, when we take that chance, we need to realize that we might become unpopular and even be rejected. That’s why the second of our Faith Practices is so important!

God’s Word comforts and challenges us, and the Lord’s Supper brings us the gift of God’s presence and forgiveness. The “sword of the Spirit” continues to guide and direct us, and the Lord’s Supper continues to strengthen and empower us.

Churches and ministries that want to grow and flourish need to be grounded in God’s Word and to be strengthened by the Lord’s Supper. Churches and ministries that want to grow and flourish must continue to seek God’s guidance in the teachings of the Bible and in prayer, and they must also continue to seek the strengthening presence of God at the Table where Christ has promised to be. Churches and ministries can’t be built on things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “wish dreams” (human-created ideas and dreams). In this week’s message, we are called to remember that churches and ministries are built and endure when God’s people spend time reading God’s Word and in prayer, and when God’s people continue to gather around the altar to be fed and nourished.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the sake of Christ will save it.” May God continue to guide us as we make sense of what these words mean to us in changing times, and may God continue to comfort and challenge us to “live well” with each other as we gather around God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper.

 

Pointing Others Toward Jesus

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Do you find it difficult to share your faith with other people?

We’ve been raised in a culture where we’ve been told that we should avoid talking about religion and politics. Many of us have been encouraged to believe that faith is a personal thing, and that our relationship with Christ is about “Jesus and me.” We find it difficult to pray in front of other people. We, sometimes, find it hard to talk about our faith with our spouse and our children. But what would happen if we began to focus upon the fact that a close, intimate and living relationship with Jesus is a precious gift?

Peter and James and John went up a mountain one day; and, when they got to the top of the mountain huffing and puffing and trying to catch their breath, something happened. The lights came on. Jesus began to glow. Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere. And, even though that experience must have been incredible, Peter and James and John didn’t realize how important that experience would be.

In a few short weeks, Jesus would be riding through the streets of Jerusalem as people shouted, “Hosanna!” A few days after that, Jesus would be arrested. And Jesus would be dragged away. Jesus would be put on trial.  Jesus would be nailed to a cross and die. And Peter and James and John would be so stunned that they’d lock themselves in a room to keep the rest of the world out.

In this week’s message, “Pointing Others Toward Jesus”, we explore one of the hardest truths we’ll ever face. We love our children and our grandchildren. We all have friends that we’d walk across a bed of hot coals to help. But, no matter how much we love our children and grandchildren, and no matter how much we care about our friends, there are going to be times when we’re not going to be able to be where we want to be.

Our children and grandchildren grow-up and move away. Friends can unexpectedly lose their jobs, or lose their homes in a fire, or lose their kids in a custody battle. Our parents and other people that we know can travel through times of lonely depression and can be given horrible news during an appointment with their doctor. I’ve journeyed with a lot of good people who have lost their spouse – or even their child – many years after their Mom and Dad were gone.

And, in those critical moments in life, I’ve seen people find great strength and courage by remembering their encounters with Jesus. People who travel through difficult times in life can find the courage and strength they need to meet the days ahead by going back in time – to moments when something lit the “candle of faith” in the center of their lives.

You have a story to share. The story of your life and your faith can help others to see that Jesus is alive and at work in their lives, too. The story you share can point others toward Jesus, and can be a source of great strength and stability in times when you’re not able to be where you want to be.

Tell your story. Plant seeds in the lives of others. Realize that you have a beautiful song that nobody else is able to sing.

Sharing your faith doesn’t have to be scary. Sharing your faith can be as simple as taking a few moments to tell someone how God was with you during a particular moment in your life. The gift of an intimate relationship with Jesus is a precious thing, and you can offer that precious gift to someone that you know and love today.