Friday, February 22, 2013

What happened to sin?

“To admit to being no more and no less than an ordinary sinner is not comforting, it does not shine with the glamour of despondency; above all, it does nothing to foster my self-esteem.  It is easiest to reject the whole concept as negative and old-fashioned.

I am a sinner, and the Presbyterian Church offers me a weekly chance to come clean, and to pray, along with others, what is termed a prayer of confession.  But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word ‘sin’ that in church we end up confessing nothing except our highly developed capacity for denial.  

One week, for example, the confession began, ‘Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives You want us to have,’ which seems less a prayer than a memo from one professional to another.  At times, I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, ‘Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?’  It would be refreshing to answer, simply, ‘I have sinned.’

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p.165) 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What to look for in a church

Beauty and the Beast. This is how I would describe this section of Christine Pohl’s book: Living into Community.The church is magnificent when the people of God live life the way God intends; but how ugly we become when God's people are deformed by unchristian ways of behaving. If I were church shopping (something I do not advocate) I would look for these behaviors to help me find a church home. 
4 godly practices 
In families, communities, and congregations that are vibrant and sturdy, we notice certain patterns in relationships. We see folks making and keeping promises, living and speaking truthfully, expressing gratitude, and offering hospitality. Some aspect of each of these practices is evident in almost every group of people whose connections or interactions with one another are more than temporary.
Strengthening these practices won't necessarily mark us as unusual or exemplary. Unless circumstances make a particular practice very costly to us, these practices are the ordinary, taken-for-granted dynamics of good relationships. We don't usually make a big deal over keeping a promise or telling the truth unless there's a problem associated with it.
In general, practices are most powerful when they are not noticed, when they are simply an expression of who we are and what we do, a way of being in the world and relating to one another that seems "natural." But, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer assume that these practices are affirmed consistently in the wider society, nor can we assume that Christians always recognize their importance.
Each of the practices is important to the biblical story and to expectations about the ways in which the people of God should live. Each is also at the heart of God's character and activity: we worship a God who is faithful and true, gracious and welcoming. Theologians and philosophers have often written about the importance of promise-keeping, truth-telling, gratitude, and hospitality, though rarely in terms of their roles in sustaining community.
The glue that binds 
These four practices do not address every aspect of community life, but they do hold together and intersect in surprising ways. If we consider one particular practice, the necessity of other practices becomes apparent very quickly. When communities offer hospitality to strangers, they soon discover the importance of truthfulness, gratitude, and fidelity. Speaking truthfully is difficult and often risky in the absence of commitment or fidelity to one another. Gratitude without truthfulness looks a lot like a manipulative form of flattery.
Practices that harm community
Certain attitudes and actions shatter community life rather than sustain it, and make life together unhappy and sometimes dangerous. When we engage in betrayal, deception, grumbling, envy, or exclusion, we violate connections between us. While we might describe these as practices, they are better understood as deformations of one of the four practices. For example, betrayal depends on and perverts a larger commitment to promising, just as deception and lying are parasitic on some notion of truthfulness.
In addition to the damage they do to relationships, these deformations also affect our capacity to engage in other practices well. Small deceptions and habitual grumbling make the practice of hospitality troublesome for hosts and guests. Even something as ordinary as complaining can become a way of life that eats away at the bonds that hold a community together. Deformations threaten to undermine every practice and every community.
Christine D. Pohl. Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us

Monday, February 18, 2013

Why I believe in the church and why you should too

The best testimony to the truth of the gospel is the quality of our life together. Jesus risked his reputation and the credibility of his story by tying them to how his followers live and care for one another in community (John 17:20-23).
If we could cut through our complacency or despair, we might be shocked at what is really at stake here. The character of our shared life - as congregations, communities, and families - has the power to draw people to the kingdom or to push them away. How we live together is the most persuasive sermon we'll ever get to preach.
The beauty of loving communities does not replace the importance of the verbal proclamation of the gospel, but Jesus explicitly linked the truth of his life and message to our life together. The Word who became flesh and lived among us - full of grace and truth - expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth. And so, for two thousand years, Jesus' followers have been forming communities built and sustained by love, though often also fractured by sin and corruption.
The desire to be part of communities that are vibrant, caring, and faithful keeps us working at the task of building and repairing congregations. When folks enjoy being together, share celebrations, and walk through hard times with grace and love, the beauty of their shared life is deeply compelling. Human beings were made for living in community, and it is in community that we flourish and become most fully human.
Unfortunately, experiences of moral failure, group meltdowns, personal pettiness, and partisan harshness in congregations and communities make us wonder if our efforts in building community are worth the trouble. We often invest great hope in our Christian communities, and when there are serious ruptures, it feels as if part of the kingdom has been trampled.
How is it that people who want closer relationships and deeper experiences of shared life sometimes find themselves in terribly difficult situations - sorting out betrayals, broken commitments, and creeping cynicism?[i]

[i]Christine D. Pohl. Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us

Sunday, February 17, 2013

We all need this!

The word "courage" has somewhat of an identity crisis today. Some think of courage as the absence of fear. Actually, courage is persevering in spite of fear. Some of the most courageous men and women have prevailed in spite of weakness, sickness, and persecution. 

After two millennia, the beautiful Jewish woman Esther is still remembered for courageously stepping forward to preserve the Jewish nation. When alerted to Haman's evil plan to annihilate the Jews, Esther asked her cousin Mordecai to mobilize the prayer team as she endangered her life to approach the king without his summons. In Esther's moment of crisis, she wisely spent three days in prayer and fasting--before making her request to the king (Esther 4: 13-16).
If you're experiencing a situation where you need courage to make a decision, don't rush ahead. The more crucial the decision or project, the more critical the groundwork. Make preparation through prayer, asking others to support you. It is then that God will reinforce your courage and give you strength to proceed.
Cowardice asks the question: "Is it safe?" Consensus asks the question: "Is it popular?" Courage asks the question: "Is it right?" Rod Rogers

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thomas à Kempis and fasting

Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Friday, February 15, 2013

Unoticed by others but known by God

The following story reminds me of a beautiful text from Hebrews 6:10: For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.

There’s a well‐known story of a missionary couple who after decades of faithful service overseas, were returning back to the States.

They happened to be on the same ship to New York as President Theodore Roosevelt, who was returning from a big game hunt in Africa. As the ship pulled into the dock, huge crowds, the press, and a brass band were gathered to welcome him home. 

The old missionary couple, health broken and spent in their service for Christ, walked off the ship and through the crowd, unmet and unknown. As they walked, a tear trickled down the husband’s cheek.

“What’s wrong?” his wife asked.

“My whole life I’ve given to serving Christ. We’ve spent ourselves for Jesus and nobody is here to greet us on our return home. 

His dear wife thought for a minute and said softly, "That's because we're not home yet, dear."[1]

[1] From sermon Fasting as Missions by Dr. Michael Oh

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Coca-Cola for every person in the world

Several years ago, CocaCola shared their wellpublicized goal to place "a Coke in the hand of every person on the earth by the year 2000." It created quite a bit of stir.

Their most recent business plan has the goal of having a cold Coke within one mile of every person on earth by the year 2020.”

These are quite bold and ambitious plans – but I’d say don’t count them out.

 Coca Cola has changed the world in many ways. They are a more globally recognized product and icon than I dare say Christianity.

The yearly revenue is $29 billion; they have $43 billion in assets. They have more than 90,000 employees around the world.

So is the church then a small little kid who should be intimidated by this big bully drinking a coke?

 No the church is the big bully that is intimidated by the little kid drinking a coke.

American Evangelical Christians earn more than $2.5 trillion per year. Almost 100 times more than Cocacola.

US Evangelical’s hold upwards of $5 trillion in assets and that’s NOT including the value of their homes!

80% of the world’s evangelical wealth is in North America!!!

Oh GOD help us to be good stewards of such WEALTH!!![1]


[1] From sermon: Fasting as Missions by Dr. Michael Oh

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Shaped by love

Shane Claiborne, who spent a summer in the slums of Calcutta with Mother Teresa, wrote the following about one of his experiences there:

People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Sometimes it's like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery—like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget—her feet. Her feet were deformed. Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But I wasn't going to ask, of course. "Hey Mother, what's wrong with your feet?"

One day a sister said to us, "Have you noticed her feet?" We nodded, curious. She said: "Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet." Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet.

This is the kind of fasting that creates the divine longing for justice, where our feet become deformed by a love that places our neighbors above ourselves.

Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Zondervan, 2006), p.167-168;

Friday, February 8, 2013

The integrity gap in the American Church

Reading this quote highlights the gap faced by the church in America between what is desired and professed and what is finally done!
Most Christians belong to churches that teach tithing—the giving of 10 percent of one’s income. Most American Christians also profess to want to see the gospel preached in the world, the hungry fed, the church strengthened, and the poor raised to enjoy lives of dignity and hope—all tasks that normally require money.
And yet, despite all of this, American Christians give away relatively little money to religious and other purposes. A sizeable number of Christians give no money, literally nothing. Most of the rest of American Christians give little sums of money. Only a small percent of American Christians give money generously, in proportion to what their churches call them to give. All of the evidence, we will see, points to the same conclusion: when it comes to sharing their money, most contemporary American Christians are remarkably ungenerous.
Smith, Christian; Snell, Patricia; Emerson, Michael O (2008-09-29). Passing the Plate:Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money. Oxford University Press.

Why do you think the church is so ungenerous?


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Taking Families for Prison Visits

Have you ever wondered about ways to put your faith into action--action that makes a difference in the world? Well, I am happy to share the following story written by Sonia Evanstad, a longtime member of First Pres. and committed follower of Jesus. Her story of Prison Ministry gives us a way to put our faith into action. Be sure to take action when you reach the end of her note
Since the mid '90s our Prison Ministry has been transporting families to visit loved ones in prison. In the beginning, church members picked up family members and drove them to the prisons and then back home.
Today we use the church bus. Prison Ministry bus drivers are licensed as commercial drivers as are all members who drive the church bus. Our ministry is a collaboration with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois  (LSSI) which maintains a ministry with women in prison and their families.
As prison policy changes, so does our mission. For a number of years we went every other month to the Federal prison at Pekin (and in the off months to the Illinois prison at Dwight). Then women at Pekin were moved to two prisons downstate, well out of range for a day's journey. We now are going once a month to Dwight; but those trips are likely numbered. The state plans to close that facility and may move women incarcerated there to the prison at Lincoln. Though this is farther away than Dwight, Prison Ministry hopes to continue serving families by taking them to Lincoln.
You may wonder what a trip on the church bus to one of the prisons is like. Ahead of time LSSI informs families of the availability of the First Pres bus to take them to visit their relatives. LSSI then provides us with of list of family members we will take. On the day of the trip, someone from the agency is available by phone to check should a family not show up or, occasionally, to OK our taking a family that shows up but is not on the list. 
We take donuts and children's books and a volunteer distributes these and good cheer to all passengers. The trip begins in the church lot. We head via the Edens/Kennedy/Dan Ryan expressways to the shopping center at 87th St. and the Dan Ryan, where we meet the families. After loading, we head for whichever prison is scheduled. We drop off the families, making certain it is possible for them to see their relatives that day (and, occasionally, it is not). Then we do two things while the families visit: find a spot for lunch and head for the local library—a great place to nap, browse, knit, and read. After the visiting time, we pickup families and head back to 87th and the Dan Ryan where we drop folks off and head back to Evanston.
In all, it's a tender experience. Through the years bus drivers and volunteers have become acquainted with regular riders and have been privileged to celebrate with them their last trip to visit a loved one soon to be released. Our knitting group celebrated one such occasion, presenting the woman with a prayer shawl, sending her love from all of us at First Pres. 
The next trip is to Dwight on March 23. It's an opportunity to act in remembrance of the words of Our Lord—do this to the least of mine and you do this also to me. If you think God might be calling you to this ministry, contact Peter Steffen or (312) 961-4176.