Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving for what we have—and what we will have

One of my most memorable experiences in ministry happened a few years ago when I was visiting one of our members in a care facility in midtown Omaha.

While there, I learned that the pastor of the church I attended in high school was also a resident there. His name is Rev. Paul Andre, and he had served at that church for over a dozen years, through many ministry ups and downs (which I can relate to, all these years later!)

Paul was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, it was advanced, and yet he seemed to be in good spirits and was glad to see me. We visited briefly, and finally I asked Paul if he had a favorite scripture he would like me to read.

Without hesitation he said, “Isaiah 35”. That seemed like an odd choice; it wasn’t a passage I could immediately call to mind. But I found it in the Bible he had there, and as I read it aloud for both of us, I understood why it meant so much to him in his present circumstances.

Take a few moments to read it; I think you’ll understand as well:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
     the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, 
     and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
     the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord
     the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
     and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
     “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
     He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
     He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
     and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
     and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
     and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
     and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
     the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
     and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
     but it shall be for God’s people;
     no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
     but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, 
     and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain joy and gladness,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

By the time I finished reading, I was holding back tears. Paul knew the reality of his situation; this nursing home would be his last earthly dwelling place.

But Paul knew a greater reality—a future hope: the Good News, the promise of Isaiah 35 and many similar Biblical texts, that The Day is coming when

“the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
     and come to Zion with singing,
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain joy and gladness,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

If you’re finding it difficult to be thankful during this holiday season because your life today isn’t everything you’d hoped for—well, you’re not alone. Grief, sorrow, loss—these find all of us sooner or later.

But God gives us much grace—and a reason to give thanks even when life becomes hard and heavy. God points ahead to what we will someday have, his gift of eternal life; the healing of our hearts and the healing of the nations.

The person who believes this and rests in this hope by faith is able to give thanks. Thanksgiving for new life in Christ right now, and for what you will receive on that Day when the amazing images of Isaiah 35 become your inheritance and your experience.

I went to Pastor Paul’s funeral a few weeks later. It was held in that church he had served so tirelessly and faithfully all those years. Because of his faith—trusting in a God who is ever faithful—it was a joyful celebration and remembrance of his life serving God’s people.

And I left after the lunch in the church basement, smiling inside because I knew that Isaiah 35 had become Paul’s new reality. He had joined “the redeemed” who “come to Zion” (God’s eternal presence) with singing, finally obtaining the “joy and gladness” of Isaiah’s beautiful song!

May you know God’s goodness this Thanksgiving season, no matter what your circumstances,

Stay Connected

Pastor Mike

Friday, September 9, 2011

STEADFAST VALUES … in a drifting world …

This weekend is the anniversary of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

The events of that day live on so vividly in our memories that it’s hard to believe we are at the ten year anniversary of the worst attack ever to take place on American soil.

A number of memorial events are taking place this weekend in memory of those who died and to honor those who sacrificed much on that day, serving bravely during the crisis. Our government and the news media are warning about elevated dangers of attacks on this anniversary date of what we have all come to know as “9-11”.

Our world is still dangerous.

As I said, we all have vivid memories of what happened on that day, and we remember how we spent that day and the days following, as our world and nation were forever changed. And yet how easy it was for us as a nation to drift away from the reality of what happened on that day, and the need to not forget, but to remember and keep alert to the constant dangers of terrorism.

This is an excellent reminder of the tendency we have to drift in our personal lives, forgetting that the world is full of dangers and temptations that would lead us away from those things we say we believe in and value most: loyalty, respect, honesty, integrity, kindness, faith and love. It doesn’t take long for our lives to be overcome with other values; selfishness, greed, pleasure, ingratitude, crass consumerism, false pride and narcissism.

Drift is NATURAL…it is human nature.

It’s what happens when we’re out in our boat on the culture’s river; the current will naturally move us along, and if we’re not keeping our eyes on important landmarks, we’ve soon drifted far from where we know we should be. We naturally drift into dangerous waters.

This Sunday I’m going to be talking about VALUES.

We’re going to remember “9-11” and the values that have made this nation great. But we also need to check ourselves for drift … drift in those values that we say are most important, and yet the world around us keeps distracting us and causing us to “forget”.

What does God have to say about VALUES and DRIFT?

We will look to God’s Word to honestly assess where we’re at, and to discern what it will take to pass on those foundational values to our children and grandchildren. Their future depends on how well they hold steadfast the values and beliefs that we all claim are most important.

I hope you will be there this Sunday. To remember and to honor.
And to revive – and recommit to – those values we hold most dear.

See you Sunday at 9:00 or 10:44 worship.

Stay Connected,

Pastor Mike

Friday, June 10, 2011

Personal Spirituality or Organized Religion?

I'm a big Al Kooper fan. Who's Al Kooper? He's just the guy who defined Bob Dylan's sound on the song "Like a Rolling Stone” with his signature Hammond organ riff (he also plays guitar and other instruments). He's also the guy who founded Blood, Sweat and Tears (but left the group after their first album, "Child Is Father to the Man”).

Al also played many concerts and recording projects with Michael Bloomfield, whose guitar playing influenced a generation of up and coming guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, you-name-’em. Okay, enough bio info…I’m a BIG Al Kooper fan...can you tell?

Al wrote a song that expresses his own take on faith, spirituality and religion, "Living In My Own Religion." I think it reflects the attitude of many people today concerning "organized religion". Here are some of the lyrics:

I wish that I could put into words
How much you mean to me
And I wish that I could tell you
How much you have helped me
To live my life so unselfishly, Lord
My parents raised me up
To always live inside your shadow
But I must admit there were times
Some times when I would stray

But now I'm living in my own religion
And it's there that I shall always stay…

My friends may call me up on Sunday morning, saying:
“Come along with us to church & we will pray...”
No no you see I'm already in my House of Worship
And it is there I believe I'll always stay
So take me as I am
With my love of God intact
And I will serve you Lord
Til I've sung my last song
I will praise you every morning
And I will thank you God each night
And though some may scorn me
We both know just where I belong
My house will always be my church
You know my temple is my mind
And I will worship You while others misunderstand

Cause I'm living in my own religion
That's what I'm doin' now ... etc.

Living In My Own Religion by Al Kooper. Lyrics ©2001 Rekooped Music (BMI). All rights reserved.

I can't fault Al for having his own personal faith, which he describes with sincerity and beauty in the song. He expresses a true longing for and passion for God. Many people today resonate with this, they hunger for this.

His faith is genuine. But as much as I respect that, I have to also observe, he's not describing Christianity (and to be fair to Mr. Kooper, he never claims to be). Every one is entitled to their own religious views, but too many today think this is compatible with Christian faith. It isn't.

Christianity is very different from a private, personal spirituality. The practice of Christian faith, being a disciple or follower of Jesus Christ - requires group participation; it's not a solo project. Jesus never intended for anyone to live cut off from community; the church is called 'the body of Christ' throughout the New Testament. So we start with connection to Jesus as our "head". Jesus calls the church to fulfill the mission first commissioned to another community, Israel, God's people in the Old Testament (or old covenant).

Here's a statement from the old (pre-1968) Methodist Service of Christian Baptism that clearly defines the importance of the church:

The church is of God,
and will be preserved to the end of time,
for the conduct of worship
and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments,
for the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline,
the edification of believers
and the conversion of the world.
All, of every age and station,
stand in need of the means of grace
which the church alone supplies.

Christianity is not a solo performance. The only way we can fully engage and connect with God is to engage and connect with other human beings. Just as we are born physically into families, which nurture and shape us, we are born spiritually into a family to be nurtured and shaped into followers of Jesus Christ.

As the above paragraph from the Service of Baptism says, nurture and growth happen as we engage with God's "means of grace" - worship, God's Word and Sacraments, fellowship and spiritual disciplines. These are disciplines we practice both individually and corporately - and God's grace is experienced in meaningful ways through both private and public disciplines. 

Here's another important biblical principle: Al doesn’t just need the church; the church needs Al, and his gifts (and every person’s gifts)! God, the Holy Spirit gives each believer gifts to serve the body of Christ. When we don’t get connected, we miss the opportunity to use our gifts to serve the mission of Christ through his chosen “instrument”, the church. We miss the blessing and growth that comes from serving, and others miss the blessing of our serving them with our gifts.

Solo instrumental music is beautiful, so is a solo vocal performance. But the performance becomes so much more powerful when we add other instruments, or a whole choir of voices. In a worship music setting, when we observe the group interaction, it’s much more likely that God will receive the glory than when we’re focused on an individual soloist's performance.

That's why I always end these blogs with the phrase, "stay connected". Connection is Christian faith in action through interaction. 

I hope to see you this Sunday in worship (unless you're a member of another church, then be there this Sunday!). God's grace will meet you in that corporate setting, to connect you with God and others. Your life as a disciple of Jesus will advance and become more significant and meaningful because you worshiped with others.

Because this isn't just your or my own spirituality, "my own religion" as Al sings. It's the faith that has been proclaimed, nurtured and passed down through the ages by the church, the body of Christ, encouraging and serving every generation in his name!

Stay connected,

Pastor Mike

Friday, May 6, 2011

Training for the Mission Like a Navy Seal

Most Americans are very proud of our Navy Seals, who this past Sunday were able to locate and kill Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in America for the past 10 years. It ends a decade of searching for the man who perpetrated so much evil on our nation on September 11, 2001, and also before and after that date, both here in the United States and against our citizens around the world. 

So we salute the courage and commitment of the Navy Seals who went on this mission, along with all of our military men and women who put their lives on the line in service to our country and liberty around the world. Many of them - along with others working behind the scenes and even some civilians - have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives to protect our people and our freedom. We honor and uphold them with our ongoing support and prayers.

With the successful elimination of bin Laden, we've seen the importance of the right training and equipment for a vital mission. These soldiers trained and sharpened their skills because they would be facing an enemy who would use any means to resist them and indeed, kill them. If captured, these Navy Seals knew that they would very likely be subjected to torture and eventually death at the hands of terrorists who have taken innocent life all around the world. They are dealing with people who are evil. They have to be prepared - they have to be trained and equipped in order to survive and win.

The Church is in a similar battle against evil. Jesus gave us a mission to accomplish, a battle to fight, if you will. He said to go into the world and make disciples - make followers of Jesus Christ - and the process of making disciples involves baptizing them, but also teaching them; training and equipping them to also go out and be one of God's 'soldiers' on the front lines of battle.

The battle is against evil. It is spiritual evil, but it is made manifest in our daily, physical lives. It It is experienced as selfishness, greed, hunger for power, sexual abuse, lying, and stealing. It is in self-destructive behavior like worry, fear, self-pity, alcoholism and drug abuse.

Jesus called us to share the good news that he can defeat evil within us and in our world when we follow him and obey his commandment of love. Jesus makes it possible to fulfill the the Old Testament covenant ideal: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:28, New Revised Standard Version). 

The Church has become squeamish about military metaphors in recent times. But it wasn't that long ago that the church worshiped with songs like "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "Soldiers of Christ, Arise" (both of these are still in our hymnal).

The sad fact is that today, the Church is failing to accomplish the mission for which Jesus called and conscripted us. We fail to understand that, while we have new freedom in Christ, we are under his authority as our Commander-in-Chief; he has commissioned us to train and equip for the mission.

How do I know we're failing? Here's one disturbing statistic: while 80% of the American public claims to be Christian, and affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, only about 20% are in worship on any given Sunday. Someone recently said, "Christianity is dying in the West in the shadow of church steeples." 

George Barna, head of The Barna Research Group, is one of the most respected analysts of our culture today. In his 2010 research, he identified six "Megathemes" related to Christian faith and our culture. I want to briefly mention three of them:

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans - especially young adults. For instance, Barna Group studies in 2010 showed that while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Other examples include the finding that few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their life or to be integrated into every aspect of their existence.

2. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ.

3. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people. Christians have bought into this propaganda, and fail to see how much we could continue to influence our culture for good.

Barna's research confirms what many pastors are seeing: their church is failing to fulfill the mission. In many churches, our ministries and budgets aren't focused on making disciples at all.

Pastors are sidetracked by all kinds of busy work and fruitless activity - nothing more than entertainment designed to draw a crowd on Sunday, or therapuetic pats on the head to help ineffective Christians feel good about their broken lives so absent of anything recognizable as Christian discipline.

The apostle Paul saw the spiritual leader's ministry very differently. Paul wrote:
"Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ." (Ephesians 4:11-13, New Living Translation)

Today, we Christians are so focused on God's grace that we've gotten lazy - we think that because God is loving and gracious, we can slide through life. But we have failed to understand that God's grace is useless if it is not appropriated. That is, we must cooperate with God's grace, working with grace in order for it to change us and make us like Jesus Christ.

God's grace "equips" us through worship, Bible study, accountability, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. Unless we engage in this kind of training and equipping on a regular basis, God's grace is useless.  Please read that last sentence again. Like military training, spiritual training and effectiveness takes discipline: effort, time, attention, and priority.

My concern as I look around our church is that there are many persons I know are Christians; I don't doubt their faith in Christ. But they are not committed to getting trained and equipped for the mission of the church. And they aren't equipping the next generation - their children - to live a victorious, mature and fruitful Christian life. In many cases, they are literally pushing their children away from faith, by making other activities a higher priority in their children's lives!

I know this because of irregular worship attendance patterns. I know this because their children are at sports training on Sunday mornings more often than they're here for spiritual training in Sunday School.

I know because I'm watching Christians in my church struggle in their marriages, deal with alcohol abuse, have financial problems, and just "live" with a lack of the joy of Christ on their faces. Instead I see worry, criticism, anger and a sense of being overwhelmed by their daily circumstances. Is this all we as Christians have to offer to a lost world?

Until we the Church -  the body of Christ - begin to put God's grace to work in our lives - through serious Christian disciplines like weekly worship, passionate prayer, serious study and sacrificial stewardship - we will not experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. We will not bear the fruit for the gospel due to the Holy Spirit working through us.

God's work simply will not get done;
evil will continue to win - in us and around us.

I pray that you will sense God's conviction as appropriate in your own life, and you will repent and make the necessary changes in your life in order to become " a soldier of the Cross":

Am I a soldier of the cross,
a follower of the Lamb,
and shall I fear to own his cause,
or blush to speak his name?

Must I be carried to the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
while others fight to win the prize,
and sail through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
to help me on to God?

Sure I must fight, if I would reign;
increase my courage, Lord.
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by your Word.

By God's grace, for your sake and for your children's sake, please...get connected, start training, and

Stay connected,

Pastor Mike

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The 21st Century Woman: Trying to Have It All

I have two questions for the ladies out there:

One: How many plates do you have up in the air right now?
Two: How full is your plate? Any room left for “dessert”?
(IOW, for the things you really like and enjoy?)

I guess what I'm really asking is this: Is your life crazy right now? Do you wish life could be simpler?

My wife, Kathy Jo, subscribes to a magazine entitled Real Simple. The subtitle is Life Made Easier. But I find it ironic that a magazine entitled Real Simple has, in the most recent issue, 256 pages! (An issue from several months ago had only 172 pages.) Shouldn’t a magazine called Real Simple only be about 10 or 12 pages?!

Isn’t this a perfect reflection of our culture today…and what most women are dealing with? (I would be willing to bet that at least 90% of the readers and subscribers to Real Simple are women.) And what the magazine claims as it’s purpose or goal—to help you simplify your life—seems to get lost in it’s size and scope…it would take you all month just to read the whole thing!

And when I opened one issue, what I saw in the first 15 pages were pictures of perfect women – hawking make-up products, fitness items, fancy cars, jewelry and other stuff – these gorgeous women would put the average woman right under the laundry pile; she will never look as sexy these airbrushed models; she is never going to be shaped like these skinny minnies!

What a downer!

What this magazine tries to say in around 200+ pages every month, the gospel writer Luke edits down to one paragraph; five verses, eight sentences! That’s it. All you really need to know to live simply, yet significantly. You'll find this advice for simple living in Luke 10:38-42. It's the account of Jesus going to visit two sisters, Martha and Mary:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”
But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (from the New Living Translation)

Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is just sitting around (with the men, can you imagine?!) and Martha wants her to help in the kitchen! Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the “better portion.” Because Mary’s focusing on Jesus, she has been set free from the anxiety and worry that has Martha so troubled.

Martha is worried about food portions;
Mary is worried about soul food portions.

Martha is caught up in the game that we get caught up in: someone important is coming to her home, and she’s trying to impress them. We are so concerned about what others think of us – we will go to great lengths to impress people.

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, former president of Asbury College, makes a great observation about our concern to impress others:

“Many of us have a fetish about appearance. I am not talking about clothing and external appearance, although that can be part of it. I am talking about wanting to impress other people all the time, refusing to lose in front of other people, choosing not to accept even second best … What insufferable bondage it is for us and for those we love when we have to look good at every social engagement and in every situation.”
—from This Day With the Master

You've got to cut Martha some slack, though. Because Martha was right to question Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet – women in that culture didn’t become disciples and study scripture – they served the men! Martha was trying to comply with the conventions of her day - she was trying to meet what she assumed were everyone else's expectations of her as a woman. What expectations, what stereotypes today are binding you, squeezing you into a mold that isn’t from God? Note what the apostle Paul says about this in Romans 12.2:

"Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." (from the New Living Translation)

Jesus gives Mary (and Martha!) permission to break out of the old stereotypes and expectations - the world's behaviors and customs - in order to receive something better, something that truly fills the inner life. Martha is in the conventional role – it is Mary who is not being a “productive member of society” according to their criteria. But it is Martha’s anxiety and worry that are keeping her from enjoying the fact that Jesus is right there, he is available to her for a relationship and for spiritual nurture.

So imagine something with me: think of your life as a plate (we always talk about our plate being full, so you understand the metaphor)…your plate starts out empty; you can put anything on it that you want...or you can let others load it up for you as well…

When you’re putting those “portions” on your “plate” – ask yourself:
• Is your plate too full?
• Is all this stuff on your plate healthy?
• Is all this stuff going to give you “indigestion”?
• What would happen if you left some of this food on your plate—or dumped it down the garbage disposal? Would the world end?
• What are you putting on your family’s or friends’ plates?

• Have you left any room on your plate for Jesus, the “better portion”?

Jesus promises that there is a better way to live than constantly overloading your life’s “plate” with more and more! Are you ready to leave behind the old behaviors and customs - the stereotypes and expectations other have for you? Are you ready to sit at Jesus' feet and learn a new way of living - are you ready for the "better portion" - some real soul food - on your plate?

Stay Connected,

Pastor Mike

Friday, April 22, 2011

How Good is Good Enough?

“That’s good enough for government work.”

We’ve all heard that line – you’ve probably said it a few times!
It’s a very telling line … “good enough for government work…”
it means good enough to get by,
good enough to slide through,
good enough to get us out of here so we can go eat lunch,
or clock out for the weekend. TGIF! Let’s go!

It’s the phrase you might use when you’re doing volunteer work, and so you justify cutting corners … it doesn’t have to be perfect. Or you’re donating some of the materials and some of your time, so what do people expect?

So, when is “good enough” … not good enough?

When it’s your transmission that’s being rebuilt…
When it’s your business that’s being represented…
When it’s your son or daughter’s education…
When it’s your mom that’s going in for surgery…
…do I see a pattern here?

Sometimes it makes sense to cut corners, but other times—when it happens to us—we feel like we’re been cheated, we feel like we aren’t respected, or we aren’t valued, because someone only did “good enough” by us.

Jesus never settled for “good enough.” Jesus came into a world that was satisfied with good enough, and Jesus said, “That’s not good enough; this is not what my Father intended when He created the world.”

God is not happy with marriages that are average,
or with governments that are self-serving,
or with a business that doesn’t value its employees' labors—
or with employees that blow things off when the boss isn’t looking.

None of this is “good enough”.

Jesus came to show us a better way—God’s way.  Jesus went all the way to the Cross, because that was the only way to give us God’s best—
- full forgiveness,
- new life,
- an inheritance as God’s adopted children,
- in a New Heaven and a New Earth
- for all eternity.
Not because we deserve it, but because God’s love is never satisfied with “good enough.”

I’m so glad he values us more than that.

I invite you to come to Easter worship this Sunday, and learn more about the life that God offers; I think you will be blown away by the extent of His passion for you, and the price he was willing to pay to give you His best.

He values you that much—only His best was good enough for you.

Stay Connected,

Pastor Mike

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Do We Observe Ash Wednesday?

I thought Ash Wednesday and Lent were Catholic/Orthodox observances?
Do other churches recognize/observe these?
Are they scriptural?
What is ‘Ash Wednesday’ anyway?

I will try to give some information that will help you understand why we observe the season of Lent, and along with it, Ash Wednesday.

Let’s start with the last question first: What is Ash Wednesday?

In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs 46 days (40 days not counting Sundays) before Easter. Ash Wednesday falls on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter.

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are often from the Palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. These ashes are mixed with oil or water (in some churches the oil and water have spiritual significance as well); this paste is then used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the people.

This is called the "imposition of ashes." This act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one's head to signify repentance before God (as related in many texts in the Bible). The priest or minister says one of the following when applying the ashes:
       “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
       “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

Are Ash Wednesday and Lent scriptural?

To answer this, we also need to know what the season of Lent is about. The word, “Lent” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word for ‘spring’ (lencten) which may refer to the lengthening of days at that time of year. As mentioned above, Lent is the season before Easter, and by the 4th century A.D. it was established as 40 days to reflect the 40 days Moses spend on Mount Sinai (receiving the Ten Commandments) and the 40 days that Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness before he began his ministry.

Lent is a season of fasting, praying and self-reflection to prepare for the celebration of Easter. When God redeems us in Christ, one of his goals is the transformation of our lives…this is certainly a scriptural theme and goal! God pours his grace and power into our lives to make our lives meaningful and fruitful.

But this also requires something from us; we must respond to grace with discipline and focus. New habits don’t happen without effort. Lent is an opportunity to cooperate with God’s grace as we discipline ourselves, with the result being changed lives that make a positive difference in our place in the world. We can truly celebrate Easter because our lives are a living witness to the power of God to change the world; we have experienced resurrection, even here and now!

 Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God:
       I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
       but now my eye sees you;
       therefore I despise myself,
       and repent in dust and ashes.

The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way (Jer. 6:26):
       O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes…

The prophet Daniel pleaded for God this way (Daniel 9:3):
       I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer,
       with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.

Lent also reflects and mirrors the 40-day period of preparation by Jesus for his ministry, which he prepared for in the desert through fasting and prayer. During this time he was tempted (see Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13). While not specifically instituted in the Bible, the 40-day period of repentance is also analogous to the 40 days during which Moses repented and fasted in response to the making of the golden calf.

So Lent can be a positive experience of spiritual growth and maturity for us. And Ash Wednesday is the kick-off of our Lenten “discipline”. On Ash Wednesday we gather and remember our finite nature (“you are dust and to dust you shall return”), but also our potential for transformation as disciples of Christ (“repent, and believe the good news”).

We also gather together for worship on Ash Wednesday to remind us that we are part of a body, a family, a community of faith. This goes against the grain of our selfish, individualistic culture, which tells us to go it alone, compete with those around us (rather than cooperate), and work our way to the front of the line or the top of the hill (instead of serving others as Christ served). In every way we will have to discipline ourselves and struggle against the old nature and the messages of our culture.

Gathering for worship on Ash Wednesday is a powerful symbol of all these truths, and a means of God pouring out his grace to us as we confess our sins and sinfulness, and seek to live a new life that is possible through God’s grace and power at work in us.

I look forward to seeing you next Wednesday (March 9) at 7:00 p.m. to begin our Lenten discipline together. And I hope you will add to the effectiveness of that discipline by joining us in our Lenten Study each Sunday, “24 Hours that Changed the World.” There are classes every Sunday during Lent at 7:45 a.m., 9:00 a..m., and 10:30 a.m.

Make this Lenten season 40 days that will definitely change your life and your world!

Stay connected,

Pastor Mike

Friday, February 18, 2011

Men in the Church: Living Proof of Living Faith?

A hot topic over the past few years has been the feminization of the Church, or the feminization of Christianity in general. Many books have been written addressing the topic (like Leon Podles' book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity).

Many other books have been written about Christian men and for Christian men to stir them to become more actively involved in their faith and their church. One of the most popular a couple years ago was John Eldridge's book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul. (We did used this book in one of our men's groups a couple years ago.) Like anything popular, the book has come under some criticism, in this case for supposedly being based more on our culture's ideas of manhood than on a scriptural understanding of manhood (aka, based on looking at "what would Jesus do?"). See here for an example of some valid (I think) criticism of Eldridge's ideas.

That kind of criticism does raise an important question: What is "Christian masculinity"? Is it having a cigar and/or drinking a beer while you're at your men's Bible study?  Should Christian men "watch their language," or is that just a sissified idea, and 'real men' express themselves? Should all men be 'tough' - matching our culture's image of masculine, or are there other important qualities that a man should have? Are you more 'manly' if you're interested in sports or fishing than if you're interested in art or music?

How do men differ from women in the ways they relate to God in their spiritual lives? Should men get emotional, or should they "buck up" and contain their emotions? Should men balk at singing "love songs to Jesus" in worship, songs with lyrics such as these:

Draw me close to you, never let me go
I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I'm your friend,
You are my desire, no one else will do
No one else can take your place,
to feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find a way, bring me back to you.

You're all I want, you're all I've ever needed,
You're all I want, help me know you are near.

Are men avoiding worship because churches have feminized the music and removed everything that would challenge men's thinking and acting? Some critics, like David Murrow of Church for Men ( say 'Yes' - the church has lost it's ability to reach men because of some of these factors. Others would say Murrow and his crowd go to far - even revising worship style and elements (like the music, sermons, baptism and communion) just so they will appeal more to men. (And which men?) 

Obviously the church is struggling with this issue: western Christian churches have the lowest percentage of male participation of the Church around the world, and lower levels of participation than other faiths (particularly Judaism and Islam) in western nations. 

Are the men active in leadership in your church? Do some things need to change to get the men involved? Does the church need to be more 'masculine'? Or do men just need to take more responsibility for their own (and their families') spiritual lives?

What do you think?

I look forward to your comments.

Stay connnected,

Pastor Mike