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Icon_second_comingWhy is Christmas so overblown?

Maybe it’s because we’ve given up on the Second Coming of Christ.

I hadn’t thought about that before yesterday, but as I was looking at all the references to the Second Coming in the New Testament (some 57 of them) I was reminded of those funeral services I’ve been to where people want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased rather than “mourn the death.” They want to focus on the positive, that is, and so they focus on all the happy memories of a well-lived life.

That’s not a bad thing to do, but we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that death is not the end of life, but in so many ways only the beginning. The old preachers had a way of pointing us forward—toward that hope—and not only back.

I think the old preachers used to do that with the Second Coming, too (and I mean the really old preachers, like Paul, and Peter, and some of those others whose writings ended up in the New Testament). Some of them were so excited about the return of Christ that they didn’t spend much time “celebrating his life.”

They just kept watching the skies.

But that was 2,000 years ago, when it was a little easier to believe that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Now we are almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s been too long.  Surely, if he were coming, he would have come by now.  And so, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, we look back to the first one, and celebrate it as if it were all we would ever have.

Have we given up on Jesus?  Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!)?  Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other?  Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?

I preached at First African Baptist Church yesterday and ended with a true story about a P.O.W. who came home after seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp to find his wife waiting for him.  Although friends and relatives had suggested that he might never come back, and that she probably ought to move on with her life, she had never given up.  He had told her he would come home and she believed him.

She was there waiting for him when he got off the plane.

He said later that she wasn’t the same girl he married; she was no longer a blushing teenage bride.  In the time he had been away she had become a strong, confident, capable woman.

She’d had to.

New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann used to say that this period between Christ’s ascension and his return is “the Church’s time.”  It’s our time to fulfill the commission Christ gave us, and to do everything in our power to bring heaven to earth.  But Jesus himself said he was going to come back some day.  When he does I hope he will find what that prisoner of war found:

1. That his bride has waited for him, and,
2. That she has become strong, confident, and capable.

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cutting room floorMy friend Don Flowers has a blog called “Didn’t Make the Sermon.”  I love the title, and I would guess that every other preacher does, too.  We know there are plenty of things we think about putting into the sermon that we eventually leave out, often with good reason.  And we all remember those times we left something in that should have been left out.

I went back and forth on this introduction to yesterday’s sermon, but eventually left it out, reasoning that it was more about last week’s sermon than this one.  Still, there was something there that I liked–the idea of the church as a place of unconditional love and acceptance.  So, I’ve rescued this intro from the cutting room floor and posted it here for what it’s worth:

We are still on the road with Jesus, walking with him on the way to Jerusalem, watching everything he does, listening to everything he says. Last week he was talking to the scribes and Pharisees about what you do when you lose something precious, like a sheep, or a coin, or a son. Jesus implied that you drop everything to look for it; you don’t stop looking for it until you find it; and when you find it you rejoice. It made me think about those who are wandering away from the fold of the church in America these days, and what we are doing about it. A lot of them are young people who simply don’t find church compelling any more. They’re not afraid they’ll go to hell when they die. They don’t know why they should show up and listen to someone tell them how to live. But some of them are leaving because they’re afraid that if we knew everything about them we wouldn’t want them to come. They don’t think of the church as a place of unconditional love and acceptance; they think of it as a place where people will judge them for who they are and how they live. It made me think we need to find a way to let them know that this place is not that kind of place, that we need to do a better job of seeking, finding, and rejoicing.

I wonder what would happen if we put a big sign on the front steps of the church that read: “This is a place of unconditional love and acceptance.”  Would it bring in the wrong crowd?  Or would it bring in the right one?

And who gets to decide which is which?

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Rachel Held EvansYesterday I posted an article by Rachel Held Evans about why Millennials are leaving the church. Today I thought I would follow up with her views on why Millennials need the church, just to provide some balance. Enjoy, and feel free to comment.  I’m going canoeing.

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN

(CNN) – For a time, I counted myself among the spiritual but not religious, Christian but not churchgoing crowd.

Like many millennials, I left church because I didn’t always see the compassion of Jesus there, and because my questions about faith and science, the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism were met with shallow answers or hostility.

At first I reveled in my newfound Sunday routine of sleeping in, sipping my coffee and yelling at Republicans who appeared on ”Meet the Press.”

But eventually I returned, because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us. Here’s why:

Baptism

As former Methodist bishop Will Willimon has often said, “you cannot very well baptize yourself.”

In a culture that stresses individualism, the church satisfies the human need for community, for shared history and experiences.

And in a world where technology enables millennials to connect only with those who are like-minded, baptism drags us — sometimes kicking and screaming as infants — into the large, dysfunctional and beautiful family of the church.

Confession

“Sin” is not a popular word these days, perhaps because it is so often invoked in the context of judgment and condemnation.

But like all people, millennials need reminding now and then that the hate and violence we observe in the world is also present within ourselves.

We can be too idealistic, too convinced we can change the world from our iPads.

The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride.

Healing

While the flawed people who make up the church can certainly inflict pain on each other and sometimes on the world, we also engage in the important work of healing.

At their best, local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless.

Millennials who have been hurt by the church may later find healing in it.

Leadership

Like a lot of millennials, I am deeply skeptical of authority — probably to a fault.

But when I interact with people from my church who have a few years and a lot of maturity on me, I am reminded of how cool it is to have a free, built-in mentoring and accountability program just down the street.

We can learn a lot from the faithful who have gone before us, and the church is where we find them.

Communion

One of the few things the modern church has in common with the ancient one is its celebration of the sacred meal— the Eucharist.

There is simply not the space here, nor in many volumes of theology for that matter, to unpack the significance of remembering Jesus through eating bread and drinking wine. But when I left the church, it was Communion I craved the most.

Churches may disagree on exactly how Christ is present in these sacred meals, but we agree that Christ is present. And millennials, too, long for that presence.

There are some days when the promise of Communion is the only thing that rouses me from bed on Sunday morning. I want a taste of that mystery.

Confirmation

Many churches practice a rite of initiation, sometimes called confirmation.

Theologian Lauren Winner, in her book “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” quotes a friend who said: “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

The church, at its best, provides a safe place in which to wrestle with this story we call the Gospel.

Union with Christ

Those who follow Jesus long for the day when their communion with him becomes complete, and Jesus promises this will happen through the church.

The apostle Paul compared this union to a marriage. Jesus describes it as a banquet.

No matter what the latest stats or studies say, Christians believe the future of the church is secure and not even “the gates of hell” will prevail against it.

As much as I may struggle to fit in sometimes, as much as I doubt, question and fight for reforms, I am a part of this church, through good times and bad, for better or worse.

The astute reader will notice that each of these points corresponds loosely with a sacrament—baptism, confession, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, communion, confirmation and marriage.

Some would say there are many others. We could speak of the sacrament of the Word or the washing of feet.

But even where they are not formally observed, these sacraments are present in some form in nearly every group of people who gather together in the name of Jesus.

They connect us to our faith through things we can eat, touch, smell and feel. And they connect us with one another.

They remind us, as writer and Episcopal priest Sara Miles put it, that “You can’t be a Christian by yourself.”

This is why I haven’t given up on the church, and I suspect why it hasn’t given up on me.

————————————————————–
Rachel Held Evans is the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to her.

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Alma SnowaI love Alma Snowa.

Alma was one of the first women to be elected as a deacon at First Baptist Church back in 1976, along with Ginny Sanders and Betty Allen (pictured at right). I hope you will read the whole story when you get a chance, because it’s fascinating, but it’s not what I want to talk about this morning.

I want to talk about Alma.

Alma lives at Lakewood Manor, a Baptist retirement community in Richmond’s west end. When I came to First Baptist five years ago, I heard that we had sixty-two members who lived at Lakewood Manor. Alma was one of those, and one I have come to know well since then. It’s Alma who makes arrangements for the annual “Lakewood Luncheon,” when the church staff is invited to come out and have lunch with our members who live there. That gives her a good reason to be in touch with me: to ask about available dates early on and later to firm up the details. But one of the things I love about Alma is that she doesn’t need a good reason to be in touch with me. Sometimes she just writes to tell me what’s on her mind or in her heart.

She did that last week.

She wanted to talk to me about KOH2RVA and her participation in it. Before I share her email with you I probably need to tell you that Alma’s physical ability has become increasingly limited in the time that I’ve known her. If anybody had an excuse not to “get off the bus and onto the mission field” Alma had one. She might have written to tell me that, but she didn’t. She wrote to tell me this:

Dear Jim:

It is hard to realize that the year long bus trip is almost over, however, the things accomplished will be lasting. Sometime I wonder if I ever got off the bus or if I have spent the entire year sitting on the back seat praying. My physical participation is limited, but it has been a very meaningful experience. I have spent so much more time in prayer for others, I have prayer walked our halls and one of my efforts has been to seek out persons who just needed someone to talk with.

Thanks for letting us all share the experience.

Love and prayers to my pastor,

Alma

The thought of Alma sitting on the back of the mission bus, praying, moved me almost to tears. It reminded me that you don’t have to be physically active to help bring in the Kingdom: you can be spiritually active. In my devotional reading for this morning were these words from Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Some things never without thinking; some things never without working; some things never without praying! Prayer is one of the three forms of man’s cooperation with God.” What Harry was saying in his wonderful old-fashioned way is that you don’t bring in the Kingdom only by thinking about it and working for it, you also have to pray for it.

Maybe that’s what Alma and a host of other saints are teaching us: that when your hands can no longer hold a hammer they can still be folded in prayer.

Thanks, Alma.

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overflowing-cupI like to go to church
I like to go to church.
I like the happy songs we sing,
I like to go to church.

I don’t know when I learned that song but I was humming it as I walked home from church yesterday. It had been a good morning in worship, with an emphasis on prayer that pervaded the entire service and made me want to say, “Amen!”

And speaking of prayer…

Since I started talking about the missional church at First Baptist five years ago there has been some discussion about where that mission takes place—inside or outside the building. Sometimes the people who are on mission inside the building—teaching Sunday school, working with children’s choirs, serving Wednesday night supper—complain that all the attention is being focused on the mission outside the building—helping the homeless, building Habitat houses, and tutoring in the elementary schools.

Well of course it’s not either/or, it’s both/and, but in an effort to get us thinking outside the walls of the church and get us working in the community I have necessarily drawn attention to that part of our mission, and the church has responded enthusiastically, so enthusiastically that in my less faithful moments I begin to wonder if there will be anybody left inside the building to sing the hymns or teach Sunday school.

So, here’s the prayer I’m praying these days:

Lord, I want you to fill up the pews of this church until they are overflowing with people who love you and love to sing your praises.

I want you to fill up the offering plates until they are overflowing with gifts given back to you in tearful gratitude.

I want you to fill up the classrooms with disciples who are eager to learn, leaning forward in their seats, open Bibles on their laps.

I want you to fill up the hallways with people who greet each other with hugs and laughter, where every Sunday feels like a family reunion.

I want you to fill their hearts with love, fill their souls with faith, fill their minds with truth, and fill their lives with every good thing you have to give until it overflows this building and spills out onto the streets of this city and into every surrounding suburb.

I want you to pour yourself out through your people until your Kingdom comes, and your will is done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.

Now, that’s the kind of prayer that gets at the “both/and” problem, and gets at it in a Kingdom way.  There is no lack of abundance in God’s kingdom.  We don’t have to choose between being on mission inside the building or outside.

We can do both.

Amen?

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