Where were You on August 29, 2005?

Within American history, there have been several events that qualify as “conscientious altering.” Among these one might list the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Great Wars (I and II), the assassination of Kennedy, 9-11, and, I would class with these, Hurricane Katrina.

Of this level of event, you can ask people, “Do you remember where you were that day?” and they can tell you exactly where they were. While I’m too young to remember Kennedy’s assassination, I remember the impression the event left on my parents and grandparents. They would tell stories about where they were at the exact moment they heard the news.

I remember 9-11 vividly. I was in New Orleans, more precisely, I was getting ready to take Rachel to school. We were watching the morning news and watched, along with millions of other viewers, as the first place crashed into the World Trade Center. The scenes are forever sketched on my mind.

For me, Katrina was much more personal. I knew people who were forever affected by the storm. I was in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada when Katrina struck but my family, but because of our ties to New Orleans, we helplessly watched CNN for a month because it felt like it was happening to us, too. We gasped as reporters showed us places we knew. Now that we are back in this area, I understand what people mean when they say things have changed—alot.

Katrina and aftermath had an enormous impact on the life of the Tammany Oaks Church of Christ. On August 28, 2005, the building where we now worship was to be formally dedicated to God’s purpose. The church numbered over 200 in regular attendance; things looked up. That is a far cry to where the church finds itself today, but that dogged determinism remains and though the times have been hard, we are still here. And that signals hope.

It is not unusual for someone who has survived a terrible car accident to believe they are still here because God has a mission for them. I wonder if that is the same attitude we should take. God has preserved us to this day, thus, he must have a purpose for us. We are here; we have survived.

Long ago, when the Judeans were forcefully exiled to Babylon, they experienced an event as soul-shaking as our Katrina. When they finally returned home, they thought it would never be the same. They looked at the once magnificant Temple which now seemed only a shell of its former self.  When they thought that things could never be as good as they once were. God announced through his prophet Haggai:

‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.” (Haggai 2:8–9 NIV)

Perhaps that is what God has in mind for us, too. In Christ, we have to believe that the best days are yet to come.

Copied from Tammany Oaks Church of Christ Bulletin, 29 August, 2010.

Help the Lost Children

In yesterday’s sermon I told a story from my daughter’s childhood—it is always good to check with your spouse or kids before using them in an illustration, but Rachel signed off on this one years ago.

When Rachel was about two, maybe three, we moved to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I was serving as the part-time outreach minister for a church just off the campus of UNC. Pat was seeking whatever work she could find as a teacher. We had just enough to survive so we found ourselves often window-shopping in the malls. On one particular occasion, the mall was hosting a sports card show. Since my wife loves sports, it did not take long for her to lose herself in the moment. Because of her excitement, I was soon there, too.

However, in a short period of time, Rachel slipped away from us. She was gone. We panicked and began a frenzied search for her, enlisting along the way any that would help us. During moments like this, time seems to stop and last forever. To this day, I can’t really tell you how long it took for us to find Rachel. Anxiety had seized us so that we were immobilized. Worse case scenarios began to fill our heads.

Time snapped back to normal when our daughter’s laughter came filtering down across the mall hallway. You can always distinguish your child’s laughter in much the same way that you can hear her in a room full of children. It was a joy to hear her laughter, but we were amazed to see her walking between two women. These strangers had found her and were seeking to help her. I never knew the strangers’ name; I wish I had. On that day they were some of the most important people to have entered our lives. They reunited our lost child with her parents.

Later, as I have reflected on this event, I’ve begun to see it as a parable for the church. In the same way these women restored our daughter to us, so it is God’s mission for the church to bring lost children back to their Father.

Do I Have a Witness?

Several times in his letters, Paul will give a personal reflection or testimony (as he does in Ephesians 3:1-13). There are several aims for why Paul would use a personal testimony.

First, it bridges the gap between Paul and his readers. In effect, Paul not only invites the readers to participate in his story but his story also serves as an exemplar of how God’s story frames our individual stories. Simply, God did this in my life; he can also do it in yours.

Second, by showing that God is actively involved in his life, it become more real. This is not just theory (though, in the Ephesians reading there is plenty of that). What God has done is actualized in the life of a real person such a Paul.

Finally, Paul will use testimony to give context to what might be an embarrassment in Paul’s story (see Eph 3:13). Paul is in prison; he is suffering. This does not square well with resurrection power that Paul had so confidently announced earlier (see Eph 1:19-20; 2:4-6).

When the chips are down is where the “theory,” or more accurately the “theology” part comes in. God has already acted; what that means is not yet fully clear. In this text, Paul believes that what God put into motion in the past was becoming a reality in Paul’s ministry.

Those formerly excluded from God’s people are now invited in. The big story in Paul’s testimony is that God was using him to announce that non-Jews (Gentiles) are now co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in God’s promise (Eph. 3:6).

Paul has a testimony because his ministry is to announce this move of God. Paul understands that through him God is setting something big in motion—the implication of which were not yet visible.

This “not yet” part of God’s plan is bigger than we usually think or teach. It involves not just history (see “ages” in Eph 3:9) but future ages (see Eph 2:7). What God is up to is cosmic, universal and eternal—not just personal and individual.

Yet, God has called the church, the people of God, to be the instrument through whom God will announce his wisdom (Eph 3:10). This not merely evangelism, either, since the ones hearing the announcement from the church are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” or angelic and demonic forces at work in our world. This is where our story ties with Paul.

We are that church and we have, as the text says, access to God. Thus we can walk in boldness and confidence through faith in him even when the circumstances around us suggest otherwise.

When we do this, we too have a testimony.

Can I have a witness?

God’s Partners in God’s Mission

While I am certain that we should see ourselves as working for God, I’m amazed and humbled by apostle Paul’s insistence that we work with God, more as a partner than an employee or even a slave. In one place, Paul will assert that he is among “God’s fellow workers” and that those benefiting from his and other’s ministry are “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3.9).

In another place, Paul will talk about how his ministry is not based on his competency but on a kind of competency that comes from God (2 Cor. 3.5). Even more, Paul will root Christian ministry in sharing or participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus any suffering we might experience in ministry is like Christ’s own giving of his life for the sake of others (see 2 Cor. 4.7-12).

Therefore, in partnership with God, Christian ministry is a participation in the mission of God. God’s mission is nothing short of inviting people into a relationship with God that will shape them into a distinct people who live their lives for the sake of others.

Another way to frame God’s mission is that God seeks all people to become re-connected with or reconciled to him. God then recreates us in the image of Jesus to become agents of reconciliation and healing. This is based not on our competency—since even we needed help to become reconciled.

However, once reunited with God, we are initiated into God’s own project of healing the world. Paul calls us “Christ ’s ambassadors.” This is fitting language as we now belong to God’s kingdom but we have been called to serve as God’s delegates to bring Good News to the world.

Churches, then, should function something like embassies. Churches are God’s embassies in a foreign land to support the interests of God’s kingdom. However, an embassy also functions to help foreigners find out more about the embassy’s country and even help people who would like to enter that country to find out how to do that.

As representatives of God’s kingdom, therefore, we speak for our King. As Paul said, we implore on Christ’s behalf—as though God were making his appeal through us. Our appeal or petition is that people would become reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5.20) and that is truly the mission of God

The Mission of God

The Bible is the grand narrative of the mission of God. From beginning to end, God is on a mission to reclaim his creature and even the creative order. We might summarize this mission as: God’s mission is to form a distinct people to live His Life for the sake of the world.

In the Old Testament, God sought to form a “distinct” people from the descendants of Abraham. After promising to form a people from Abraham’s descendants, God will rescue them from Egypt under the leadership of Moses to lead them to the promised land where they are to live a God-kind of life, but not just for their own good but so that the nations around might catch a glimpse of who the true God really is. The Old Testament story is really a sad story, a tragedy even. The nation of Israel never really joins God on His mission, even though God sent prophet after prophet to point the way.

However, God did not give up. He sent his Son to show people how to participate in God’s mission. Jesus gathered around himself disciples who would take up the mission of God after he had ascended to Heaven and sent the Spirit of God to empower them and to guide them. Jesus constituted a distinct people on Pentecost known today as the church. Those who belong to Jesus have accepted the call to join God in his mission.

One constant theme in this story is the notion of sending: God sent Abraham to Canaan, God sent Moses to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, God sent prophets to redirect the nation of Israel, and God sent his Son. His Son, in turn, sent the Holy Spirit to the community of believers gathered at Pentecost. Jesus then sent his disciples to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the outermost reaches of the world. Now it’s our turn accept God’s call to send us.

No Room for Family

Christian people speak often of family values, the sanctity of marriage and the horrors of broken families. We definitely care a great deal about family, as we should, and the Bible has much to say about family. For instance, Jesus himself taught that God’s ideal for marriage was a man and woman in life-long partnership and that a marriage should only dissolve when a spouse has chosen another’s bed. Moreover, several New Testament writers speak of the commitment a husband and wife should have for one another, and that children and parents should treat one another with appropriate respect. Yet, Jesus placed marriage (and family!) second to following him. Accordingly, marriage and family are important, but they are not our most important commitments as Christians.

One only has to spend a few moments in western Canada to find that family is important in the Churches of Christ; one soon finds out that family is often the glue holding our congregations together. Shortly after moving to Canada, I learned how interconnected church and family were. When we introduce ourselves here, we immediately follow with which family is ours. Because of this, ministers and elders in western Canada also need to be part family counselors. In addition, families are the earthen vessels that pass the gospel from one generation to another. Family ties are one of the strengths of the church in Canada—however, it may also be a serious weakness in participating in God’s mission.

Sociologist Reginald Bibby has done some serious cultural analysis of the state of “Christianity” in Canada. In Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), he addresses the place of family in the life of Canadian churches. “For all the talk about evangelism,” says Bibby, “groups of all kinds were failing to demonstrate much success in recruiting people outside their own boundaries. Most were growing by adding people who were primarily their own—children and geographically mobile members” (p. 24).

In another place, Bibby asserts that churches in Canada generally grow in two ways: birth and marriage. That is, either we give birth to future members or our children marry people who then also become members. In his earlier work, Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (1993), he observes that churches in Canada were often “family shrines.” In these churches a few families hold all of decision-making posts, both formal (elders, deacons) and informal (highly respected members). Regarding a congregation he once attended he states, “For all the external signs of engaging in outreach, I increasingly had a great difficulty being convinced that people in my small church really wanted things to change. New people would have upset the organizational applecart” (269).

Some of what Bibby observes rings true for us as well. It is entirely possible that we have so much biological family around us that we do not feel the need to invite new people into our church family. Even if folks try us, they might not find the welcome they seek. I often ask church leaders in workshops I hold, “Whom does your church exclude?” The first response is usually that their congregation is very friendly and welcoming. I quiz deeper, “Would the handicapped find a welcome here?” Most of our older buildings are not up-to-date and so we usually have to admit that a wheelchair-bound visitor would find it difficult to move around. We could ask the same about the blind and the deaf, although most of congregation would probably adapt if they had a member with such needs.

But let’s look even deeper. As the morning service adjourns, do we have room at our families’ tables for those who are not physical family? Do people have to know the same people as you know to be welcomed? Do people have to have attended the same (unnamed) school to be part of the circle? If a visitor really wanted to become a member, could they find a clear way in? If they had leadership potential and desire, could they learn what it would take to be a Sunday school teacher, deacon, or elder in your congregation? Before answering these questions, think about how successful your congregation has been in the past ten years at bringing in new people and assimilating them into the common life of the church. (If this concerns you, see Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978]).

While Bibby’s research may help us take a hard look at ourselves, we depend ultimately on the teachings of Jesus to place family, church and discipleship in proper perspective. One time, Jesus’ family came to take him away because they believed he was crazy. When his family, which included Mary and his brothers, approached where he was teaching, they sent word to see him. To this Jesus asked the messenger, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking around at the rag-tag crowd listening eagerly to his message, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.32-35). To feel the sting of this, imagine your son or a significant family member saying something like this about you. Jesus gave preference to his seeking-God’s-will family over his physical family.

However, Jesus has more to say regarding family. Luke records Jesus teaching, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26-27; cf. Matt 10.37-38).

This topic is of personal importance to me. My mother and father were strangers to the people of God. I am a Christian today because a Christian woman invited me to a Vacation Bible School when I was seven years old. I had no physical family in the church and the physical family I had was not able to teach me God’s ways. I was a stranger and the church took me in and gave me a place to belong. Consequently, I have always looked to the church to be my family wherever I have lived. I understood that when I accepted the call to follow Jesus that my present family—my wife, my daughter, and any extended family I have—all come second to my loyalty to Jesus.

This topic has become important to me for another reason. I now live in this country and I want our churches to grow and to prosper in every way. We all know that we are not growing and I have come to suspect that in some degree we are the problem. The protection and nearness of our families may give us the false illusion that we are doing well, yet all the while church after church is on the verge of closure; as many as four have closed in Saskatchewan since I arrived here in 2003. As these churches die, they often find themselves being mostly members of a single-family group. I know several such families and they are my heroes for keeping the doors open, but they know that if revival is to occur, it must involve those who are not biological family.

I do not write this as a final word, or even as a word of judgment, but as a place to begin a very difficult conversation. I recognize I could be butchering a sacred cow here, but we must be willing to lay this one on the altar if we are serious about following Jesus. I may have overstated my case a bit here or there, but maybe not. Is it possible we are not inviting people into the family of God because we have “enough” family on earth?

Adapted from my May 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same title.