Fellowship as a gift

Thanks to my friend and fellow minister, Thomas Kuhn (RUF – Nebraska) for pointing me to this quote:

“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of the Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

As our congregation gathers for the first time since March to celebrate the Lord’s Supper this coming Sunday, this quote has helped my heart swell with gratitude for our Lord, the foundational host of our fellowship.  But given the risks inherent in gathering, there will be a good number of members who will absent themselves (as prudence would advise).  Their absence makes me yearn for the day when all the body of Christ can gather… when the fellowship can be complete.  But is that not the reality of how God’s grace works?  God’s grace makes us grateful for what we already have and yearn for more of what God’s grace has to offer.  If you are among those who are remaining absent for whatever reason, you are the “more” that the fellowship desires.  We will celebrate until you get here.  And it will be better when you do…when you deem the time is right.

Prayers Beyond the Sick List

We have little visitor’s cards in the backs of our pews at church just like every other church that has pews.  They aren’t anything special – just a place for us to help collect some contact info from folks who visit so that we can follow up with them.  On the back side of these visitor’s cards is a side where people can write a prayer request, drop the card in the offering plate, and have the elders pray for what is written later that week.  People write on these cards what is on their hearts.  Little children ask for prayer for a sick teacher or sibling.  Someone has a major surgery coming up.  Someone else is recovering surgery.  Someone has a loved one who is fighting cancer or battling some kind of intractable pain.  There are lots of hurting people out there, and their hurts and pains and struggles show up on these cards.  But recently I’ve been getting a congregation member who is asking for prayer for a different kind of battle.  And it has upset my prayers in the best possible way.  Here is this saint’s three most recent prayer requests (shared with permission):

Prayer requests

What a humbling thing to have a congregation member asking for focused prayer that gives thanks for the fact that “the grave and death are conquered“, prayer for “those who feel without hope” and “those lost in substance abuse“, and prayer “for the fulfillment of His promises.”  What a privilege to be joining with this dear woman at the throne of grace for such things.

Yes, of course, we should always be praying for these things.  But how many times does our “should” and “do” look very different?  Someone once told me that we often speak of “making something a priority”, but at the end of the day, a priority is what we actually do.  So the content of the prayers we actually pray reveal what we have prioritized.  It reveals what we deem important.  If I lose my job, you can bet I’ll be fervent in prayer for the Lord to provide a new one.  If I lose my health, God is going to be hearing from me about restoring me to health.  Health, provision, safety, good relationships… these are important to us, so that’s where we camp out in our prayers.

But every once in a while, something rises to the surface that causes us to lift our heads and see the broader world that holy scripture lays before us to be used as content in our prayers.  For me, that something happens when this dear congregation member writes a prayer request card.  And if there’s at least one saint at Pilgrim Presbyterian Church in the small town of Martinsburg, West Virginia praying this way, how many other saints are out there in your churches, casting these cares upon the throne of grace? How many other saints are out there asking for others to join with them in giving thanks for the resurrection of Jesus?  How many fervent petitioners are laying siege to the gates of hell that the captives to depair and addiction might be released?  How many other Christians in our churches are pleading with the Father to fulfill His promise to cause the earth to be “…filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2.14)”?

How many of you when reading this feel like me when I get one of those prayer request cards?  Kind of makes you want to get in on this kind of praying, doesn’t it?

Liturgics for Tragedy

I wrote the post “Mass Shootings and Bad Disciples” back in Feb 2018 after a mass shooting, and its words feel like exactly what this patient needs in the wake of the tragedies at Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.  But if I believe that worship is the center of life… if I believe the Triune God draws closest to his redeemed people in the gathered worship on the Lord’s Day, what can we do in that context to help shape our lives outside of that?  I’m still asking myself that question.  But I thought starting imperfectly is better than not starting until the perfect way reveals itself.  So here is our congregation’s confession of sin and call for God to act that we will be using this coming Sunday.  May it drive us all to both prayer and action.

Confession of Sin and Plea for God’s Action[1]

Leader: O God of battles, we see the seeds of hate and malice that are native to our own hearts.

People: O LORD of hosts have mercy on us.  Forgive us for the murder in our hearts and protect us from our desire for revenge, when vengeance belongs to You.

Leader: We see how evil suspicions and hateful speech pour out from our mouths, our computers, and our phones.

People: O LORD of hosts have mercy on us.  Forgive us for harming the name of our neighbor, using our words in hurtful and untimely ways, and calling it “speaking the truth”.

Leader: We are grieved by our indifference toward injustice, oppression, and lack of concern for our neighbor’s good.

People: O LORD of hosts have mercy on us.  Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, to make no peace with oppression, and to use our freedoms in the maintenance of justice among men and nations.

Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted.

Leader: Why does the wicked renounce God and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?

People: But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands;

Leader: to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless.

People: Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.

[1] Sources used – 1) A New Directory for the Public Worship of God (Free Church of Scotland, 1898); 2) Westminster Larger Catechism #145; 3) Book of Common Prayer (Oxford Univ Press, New York: 1928); 4) Psalm 10.12-15 (ESV).


Paul Hahn… I’m sorry.

I like church-planting.  At least I like the idea of church-planting.  I liked the idea so much that I tried to get me and church-planting together.  But, as it turns out, church-planting doesn’t like me.  Oh well.  Church-planting is probably right.  It probably would’ve never worked out between us.  I’m glad church-planting gave it to me straight.

I love small towns.  I grew up in one.  I can close my eyes and envision the precise places where they keep their suspicion of new things.  I can walk you down the street and show you all the places where resistance to change lives.  You can try to pull a fast one on small towns but you better look out.  They have long memories.  You can try to dazzle small towns with slick new ideas, but small towns will just rock back in their rocking chairs, listen closely to you, and then quietly go on about their business as if you didn’t say a word.  But this is part of why I love them.

I also love small churches.  I grew up in one of those, too.  Small churches can be a lot like small towns.  Long memories. Resistant to change.  Suspicious of new things.  These things, of course, aren’t necessarily vices.  Not all changes are for the better.  So resistance to change can, for a small church, be almost like having an immune system.  But just as an over-active immune system can be very dangerous to the human body, so an over-active resistance to change can have a heart-hardening effect on a small church.

Here is where my dilemma presented itself.  If I’m a small-town boy at heart, and a small town already has a small church from my denomination in it, how do I both become a new part of a small town/small church and become an effective leader toward healthy change?  According to the small town/small church doctrine, if I’m the new kid on the block, I’m automatically suspicious.  And if I try to lead folks toward something new, there’s resistance to the change.  And, if you’ve ever been in a small church and asked some of your leaders questions about possibly changing a particular aspect of ministry, you know you’ll get a rehearsal of church history.  The re-telling of small church history most often sounds a little like, “Well, the reason we do this in this way is because, you see, when Pastor McGillicuddy was here back in the mid-80’s and was busing kids in from the county…”

In God’s providence, he placed me in a small church in a small town.  So… what do I do now?  It’s like I was asking myself, “Well, now that I’m here, now what?”  Being unafraid of declaring my own incompetence, I started asking questions.  I started asking questions of other small town pastors (even from other denominations{gasp}), started listening to what they are doing, and where they see Jesus moving in their own spheres of ministry.  I picked up a book that seemed to be getting some good press from not a few of them.  (It’s really good so far.)  But most recently, I got invited to a regional conference put on by my denomination’s home missions agency, Mission to North America (MNA).  And, like the good small town boy I am, I was immediately suspicious of this new thing.  After all, the conference was about more than just church-planting.  It was a conference for both church-planting AND church renewal, and MNA has been all about some church-planting for as long as I have been a minister.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that MNA has been a champion of church-planting and been the connector of so many other missional partnerships for things like prison ministry, ministering to families with special needs children, ESL ministry, Disaster Response, etc.  But what about the small church?  Where do we turn to find assessments and resources for church renewal in our small town setting?  How do they help me answer the question, “Now what?”

This conference was that.  But it was more than that.  The conference was wiser than just delivering a list of professional church renewal tactics.  It understood that church renewal needs to get at even more basic things like, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.”  So one of its focuses was on renewing the pastor.  The leaders of the breakout sessions didn’t assume that they knew all the concerns and questions we small town pastors were dragging into the sessions, so they asked good questions to START the sessions.

There is still lots of room for improvement, but at the end of the weekend, I felt obligated to approach Paul Hahn, national coordinator for MNA, and apologize for my suspicion, which I did.  But I’ll double-down on my apology here.  Paul, if you’re reading this, thank you for your committee’s work to come alongside small town pastors like me.  Please forgive our suspicion of the new.  It’s in the air we breathe around here.  We may feel like we’re just running around in circles.  But y’all are doing good work and it feels like there’s someone out there now hollering, “This way!”



The Lonely Mountain and the Lonely

There is a heart-warming scene in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit near the end of the book where Thorin Oakenshield lies dying from wounds he received during the Battle of the Five Armies.  As he dies, Thorin shares his last words with Bilbo, a simple hobbit who had proved to be a faithful companion and friend to Thorin through some very difficult times.  And his last words had nothing to do with how Bilbo had helped the company escape from capture by three trolls, or from a cadre of giant spiders, or from being locked in an elvish dungeon.  Thorin commended Bilbo for his love of hearth and home:

Thorin and his company of dwarves had grown weary of their exile from their homeland, having been driven out of the Lonely Mountain by the terrible power of the dragon Smaug.  And the dwarves longed for their home and for the inheritance of wealth that had been stolen from them, an inheritance that they wanted to regain.  But somewhere along the way, somewhere in their travels, the value of the wealth the dwarves sought to regain overtook the value they placed on regaining their home.  And only here at the end of his life did Thorin’s fading eyes regain their sight.  It wasn’t gold and jewels and the vast comforts that the Lonely Mountain afforded that held life-sustaining value.  It was family and friends sharing life around a common table, however slim the fare might be, that was the true treasure worth pursuing.

Many of us, if you can allow me to extend the Hobbit analogy, have retaken the Lonely Mountain and have failed to see that the comforts we have are always best when shared with others.  We like to think we value “…food and cheer and song…” as much as the next person, but we rub elbows with people at work, in our community, in our churches, and even next door who are lonely… strangers to the warmth of our tables and our companionship.  And a dear lady in the church I serve reminded me of this when I asked for prayer requests one time.  She simply said, “We need to watch out for the lonely.”  That was a few weeks ago and her words have been my constant companion.  Those words make me wonder: who do I see on a regular basis that may wrestle with loneliness?  Who might see the craziness that gathers around our family table as a taste of medicine for what ails them?  Who would feel warmly remembered by receiving a hand-written note from me, an impromptu phone call, or an invite to grab a cup of coffee some evening?  Where do I see the lonely and how can I participate in bringing them Bilbo’s “…food and cheer and song…”?

And then I remember that it is the LORD himself who points us in this direction.  The 68th Psalm speaks to us along these lines (emphasis mine):

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
     is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
     he leads out the prisoners with singing… (Psalm 68.5-6 NIV)

The LORD is the original champion of “…food and cheer and song…”  For what else are His redeemed children called to do but to gather each week to feed at His table, to remember the glad news of life conquering death, and to sing our hearts out alongside people of all walks of life?  And while the LORD trains us to love and value “…food and cheer and song…,” the back doors of our church sanctuaries can be a cold reminder for those that wrestle with loneliness that they are departing fellowship to re-enter isolation.  So maybe – just maybe – we can begin to do as my dear sister asked a few weeks ago: to watch out for the lonely.  And once we see them, how do we invite them into the food and the cheer and the songs of our lives?  We may be the kings and queens of our own Lonely Mountain, but do we have the heart of a simple hobbit from Bag End?  Are we willing to reflect God’s good work of setting the lonely in families and leading in song those who have been set free?

Baptismal Prayer of a Father

Yesterday, I had the privilege of baptizing another covenant child, and as I have done on many occasion, gave the child’s father an opportunity to pray for his son after the waters of baptism and the Triune name were applied.  The prayer that I post below is the prayer that father prayed (with names removed).  Even now his prayer for his son moves me to tears.

Father, I thank you for the opportunity to witness, firsthand, your kingdom moving forward. For we believe, in faith, that you have marked [our son] as one of your people, a part of your Church. I know we have yet to see the faith in his life, but we are trusting in you to take his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh. I pray that his faith would not be one born out of crisis, but that his trust in you for salvation would be like the air that he breathes… that long before he can express it, your saving grace would work in his life.  We look forward to the day he can put into words the great work you have done in him.

Father, I thank you that children are truly one of life’s greatest blessings, not life-accessories for selfish adults, not burdens to be endured by exhausted parents, but blessings in the purest sense.  For they are blessings that can, in turn, be a blessing to a dark and dying world.  So, to that end, I pray for [our son’s] physical health, that you would keep sickness and injury from him so that he may care for the sick and the dying. I pray for his strength, that you would make his body continue to grow strong so that he may be a defender of the weak and the abused. I pray that you would continue to fill his life with those who love and care for him, so that he may be an advocate for the unloved and the forgotten.

Lord, your word tells us that to whom much is given, much is required, and, as parents, we have been so richly blessed. So, I ask that you enable us to be the mother and father that your word calls us to be – that we would not neglect to teach our children your word, to discipline them according to your law, and to love them as you have loved us.  Also, as I have just asked you to bless [our son] with great blessings, so I trust that you will use him in mighty way to advance your kingdom – that everywhere he goes the darkness would run and hide for fear of your bright light that shines through him.

We are trusting in you to do all these things. I pray them all in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Extraordinary in the Ordinary (Sabbatical Thoughts 1.0)

Today, as the family stays home from church and missing the fellowship of the saints, I am reflecting on our experience last Sunday.  Last Sunday was the first Sunday of my sabbatical where I have no ministry responsibilities, and my family and I chose to worship at North Lexington Baptist Church here in town.  We arrived and found what could probably be found in so many small town Christian churches, a warm and inviting congregation trying to leverage their gifts and talents with limited means in order to enact and enhance the worship of the Triune God.  There was nothing splashy yet nothing seemed half-hearted either.  There was the older gentleman who, once finding out where our home church was, thanked me with what appeared to be deep earnestness for our church’s monetary gift to NLBC in support of their program that gives food away to the less fortunate of our community every Tuesday.  Then there was the lady who is my waitress every Friday morning when I meet a few guys for breakfast.  She knows we are a group of Christian men (playfully calls us all a “bunch of heathen”), and so we both give and receive prayer requests with her.  Seeing her worship in her home church environment with that same twinkle in her eye was a real gift because it helped remind me that she’s the same woman on Friday mornings as she is on Sunday mornings.  No pretense.  No facades.  Just another Christian woman presenting her body as a living sacrifice and seeking the smile of the Father in Christ.

And then the pastor of NLBC declared the Word of God from 1 Corinthians 1 to the congregation.  It was during his preaching that my tears kept trying to get away from me.  Again, there was no great showmanship.  There were no new and deeper insights into the preached passage.  But here was a man, called by Christ through His Church, to break the bread of life each week so that the flock could be fed.  And feed us he did.  There, in the middle of our worship, Christ was meeting His saints by the power of His Spirit through the Word. We were encouraged, warned, reminded, rebuked, promised… and I had nothing to do with any of this.  The closest thing to control I had was the steering wheel in our mini-van on the way to the church.  This was pure receiving.  Pure gift.

This event has exploded in my mind this past week multiple times, not because of any outwardly extraordinary elements we found there but because the fact that Holy Spirit attends the ordinary means of grace is extraordinary indeed.  In one sense, people are quite ordinary.  But people filled with the Holy Spirit who are drawn together in fellowship across church traditions through participation in worship become extraordinary.  In one sense, human speech is ordinary.  But human speech uttered in a sermon grounded in the inspired Word, delivered to repentant people is extraordinary.  But such is the pattern of a God who raises the dead and who invites broken vessels to be His extraordinary power clothed in the ordinary.
(awesome photo taken by Josiah Sink and shamelessly poached from his FB page)

The Church, the Poor, and Planned Parenthood

Yesterday, I received this story from a lady associated with the 40 Days for Life-Winston Salem prayer vigil currently underway outside the Winston Salem Planned Parenthood clinic.  I have received permission to share this story and have left it unedited with the exception of changing the names of those mentioned and inserting links to those organizations specifically mentioned.

A young couple with another lady parked in the top lot and walked down the steps while I was praying but they came back up pretty quickly chattering pretty loud and I hollered across the street to see if they would like some help.  They didn’t hesitate-they all came right over.  It seems that “Jim” & “Sally” are homeless and their friend named “Maggie” brought them for a pregnancy test.  I don’t know where Maggie came from-she said she was trying to help them-maybe from a church.  Anyway, they live in a tent in the woods and Sally thought she was pregnant and PP wanted to charge this homeless couple for a pregnancy test so they left.  I gave them the list of pregnancy centers with directions to Salem PCC & Birth Right and also a pamphlet for Room at the Inn.  Jim said “if you can get her off the street that’s great, I’ll stay if you can help her.”  They were very grateful and drove right off to go to the pregnancy care centers and Maggie took my cell phone number.  I assured them of our prayers and told her to call if there is anything else we can do, that  we have a large network of folks willing to help.  Please pray for them!  As they drove off, I was praying the mystery of the Rosary of the Nativity of Our Lord from the Holy Scripture and I thought how they could relate.  They went for help at a place that is supposed to be an advocate for poor or low income women and families (or so they say), and they were turned away-there was no room for them at the non-profit, taxpayer funded “Inn” of Planned Parenthood without $$$$$!  Thankfully I had a pamphlet for Room at the Inn of the Triad who takes them in for free and is run on Christian charity-as well as the pregnancy centers.  Again, please keep Jim and Sally in your prayers and their unborn child if she is indeed pregnant.  Pray that Jim finds work-he said he was looking-pray that Sally gets the real healthcare she needs.

This story helps reveal two things:

  1. The Church’s pro-life stance is full-orbed.  She cares for not simply the unborn children but the pregnant mothers as well, regardless of their socio-economic status or religious affiliation (notice that the lady telling the story didn’t check to make sure the homeless couple were Christians before offering her help).
  2. The idea that PP somehow cares about serving poor women in under-privileged circumstances is a sham.

Gay Pride… Christian Shame, part 3

In part 1 of this brief series, we have examined how the LGBT symbol of the rainbow flag is a sign of their community’s pride in their identity, whereas the primary symbol of the Christian community is a symbol of shame, depicting the death of Jesus, the necessary sacrifice given because of who Christians know themselves to be. In part 2, we learn that the Christian community also has the rainbow sign in its repertoire of symbols. And while the rainbow of Noah’s day was symbol of God’s faithfulness to keep His promises, it was also a symbol that God is a God of war who lays aside his war-bow in the sky to remind us of why the flood judgment had to fall. The rainbow reminds the Christian of his humble position of being saved by grace and that the judgment of God is inescapable except aboard the one vessel that has absorbed the wrath of God.rainbow eye

So in this final installment, we will look furthering the reality that God is not some soft, toothless, grandpa-in-the-sky and how it is reinforced when we look at the two places in the Bible where the rainbow appears again. Continue reading