Philippians 2:1-11

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Street Scene in Kenya

Street Scene in Kenya

I recently read a blog post by Ed Stetzer describing the challenges he faced as he “led a church of 35 senior adults during a brief stint teaching at a seminary.” They had expressed a desire to reach younger people and he set about helping them to do that. He writes:

They wanted to love their neighbors and engage the community around them. And that all-white congregation got out from behind their church walls and began effectively reaching their multi-cultural, lower-middle to poor working-class neighborhood.

The church grew from 35 to 175 under his leadership. He describes the end of his experience this way:

On my last day at the church, Harold, the over 80-year-old deacon chairman poked me in the chest, and said, “Preacher, I still don’t like the music. And the kids are breaking everything.”

And he was right. The more activity you have in a church, the more likely things are going to be broken.

Any disconnected church that seeks to reengage with their community will find the experience to be messy. There may be mud on the carpet, smudges on the walls, dirty bathrooms, or broken vases.

The way of church life to which your people had grown accustomed will suddenly change.

So there we were, Harold with his finger in my chest and me looking at him trying to figure out this confrontation. Still making eye contact, he teared up and said, “I still don’t like the music, and the kids are breaking everything, but it was worth it all.”

Perhaps this will help me the next time I am confronted with the confused and distressed elderly woman who recently cornered me about the goings-on at her church. It seems that they had opened their church building up to an ethnic ministry and the challenges and disappointments significantly out-weighed the benefits or successes they were experiencing in the process. She was hurt and angry at how the church had (not) been cared for, and how the group that was using the building had no respect for them.

Sadly, this seemed also to prove to be a launching pad for yet another diatribe against some more unusual manifestations of Lutheran churches which, seeking to reach new people, looked nothing like what she had experienced over the years. She said, “You used to be able to go to any Lutheran Church and it was the same order of worship, same Biblical texts, and same overall experience. It was part of the Lutheran experience that she had come to expect.

Churches that seek to reach into changing neighborhoods, or new demographics will often not look like the churches that have not been reaching those people and neighborhoods. Somehow we might expect that to be the case. But most of us – myself included – want to see things change for the better as we define it. And this is not true only of Lutheran people; the same would be true of any long-time denominationally-loyal people.

I am actually looking forward to a conversation with this woman who seems to seek me out when our social engagements lead us together. I think I’ll tell her this story, and then perhaps even challenge her with this thought. How difficult was it for Jesus to redeem us? What price did he put on our salvation? How far did he go? He calls us to follow him, not to bring him inside our churches to protect our sensibilities or even our church property.

OK, maybe that would be too challenging. Perhaps I’ll just start by telling the story of Harold and ask her if perhaps his attitude is worth having.

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

Painted Church ceiling near Schulenburg, Texas

Painted Church ceiling near Schulenburg, Texas

When I first encountered the words his explanation to the third article of the Apostles Creed in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, I was deeply touched. It is enough that God sent his Son to die for the sins of the world. But that would not be all that God would do. He would send his Holy Spirit to us so that we may “believe in Jesus Christ…and come to him” in faith. We could never do that on our own. The Bible teaches that clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “…no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the Holy Spirit.” How gracious is our God!

Yet there is another aspect of the work of God’s Holy Spirit. We are emboldened to witness to Christ and spread his word also by the work of the Holy Spirit. I have overlooked this for some time – since it is such a blessing that the Holy Spirit brings us to faith, by which we are saved. But it is truly the work of the Holy Spirit to embolden our witness as well.

Jesus tells his disciples that they would testify about him once he sends the Holy Spirit. And so it goes…after a period of 50 days following Jesus’ resurrection, the Holy Spirit is poured out, and the witness to the Good News of Jesus is unleashed. While the apostles were singularly involved in this promise, we too need the Holy Spirit if we are to witness to Jesus Christ.

Thank God that he has called me to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit! Thank God also that the Holy Spirit has moved others to share the Good news with us today. Might you be one in whom the Holy Spirit works to testify to Jesus and through whom others are brought to faith? What a blessing that would be!

Matthew 6:10

Your kingdom come,

Matthew 9:37-38

[Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Chartres Cathedral Stained Glass Window

Chartres Cathedral Stained Glass Window

In USA Today opinion piece, Ed Stelzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, offers a careful analysis of a recently-released Pew Research survey, saying:

A new Pew Research Center survey found the Christian share of the American population declined almost 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014. Drawing from this point, many continued their breathless claims that the Christian sky is falling.

He notes, however, that

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.

The editorial is worth the read. Ed Stelzer is one of the bright lights on the Christian horizon of church research and assessment. And even though he does not say so in this piece, I suspect that he would agree with me that this is no time for complacency. Whatever else may be true about the growth or decline of the Christian church in America, we still face the impending encroachment of more and more secular thinking, the relentless onslaught of moral confusion and anti-religious bias. And frankly, the reports of this nature don’t paint the fullest picture.

I urgently desire the people gather for worship. We continue to see growth in worship attendance at St. John. Peoples’ lives are being changed. We’re actually beginning to see people who were truly outside the Christian faith begin to embrace the Christian walk, and repent and believe the Good News about Jesus. Adult baptisms are occurring with more frequency than they used to. But we have a long way to go. And there is a bigger story.

Just last week Diane and I drove around looking a new houses, and new developments in northwest Harris County. I was stunned to see as many new developments, and to learn about the existence of fully-built out developments of which I was not aware – all within 10 miles of our church. To some extent, we should be seeing growth just be having our doors open and a friendly face or two welcoming people when they come. That’s just on the basis of the number of people moving into our area alone.

I’m not convinced, however, that we’re keeping up. I believe that the rumors of the demise of the Christian church are greatly exaggerated. I also believe, however, that Jesus’ prayer example and command are more urgently needed now than ever before.

Lord of the living harvest, send laborers into your harvest fields. If those laborers include me, give me courage and boldness to go…whether around the world or around the block. Let your reign come into my heart, O God, and allow me the privilege of manifesting your reign in my world today. In Jesus’ name; Amen.

Ed Stetzer is the executive director of LifeWay Research. His article may be found at http://www.USATODAY.com: http://usat.ly/1bPdNDh

We came across this (now slightly edited) version of a Mother’s Day prayer. Written by a non-mom, it speaks volumes about how easy it is to overlook the various kinds of women who were in worship today. The full article may be found here. We pray that all women would be blessed by at least one of these prayers.  

  • To those who gave birth this year to their first child—we celebrate with you
  • To those who are in the trenches with little ones every day and wear the badge of food stains – we appreciate you
  • To those who experienced loss through miscarriage, failed adoptions, or running away—we mourn with you
  • To those who walk the hard path of infertility, fraught with pokes, prods, tears, and disappointment – we walk with you. Forgive us when we say foolish things. We don’t mean to make this harder than it is.
  • To those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual momsith you
  • To those who have disappowe celebrate with you
  • To those who have disappowe celebrate with you
  • To those who have disappointment, heartache, and distance with your children – we sit with you
  • To those who lost their mothers this year – we grieve with you
  • To those who experienced abuse at the hands of your own mother – we pray for God’s healing grace
  • To those who lived through driving tests, medical tests, and the overall testing of motherhood – we are better for having you in our midst
  • To those who will have emptier nests in the upcoming year – we grieve and rejoice with you
  • To those who placed children up for adoption — we commend you for your selflessness and remember how you hold that child in your heart
  • To those who took the wrong path and live with the guilt of that tragic choice — we forgive you and pray that God will heal your heart
  • And to those who are pregnant with new life, both expected and surprising –we anticipate with you
  • This Mother’s Day, we walk with you. Mothering is not for the faint of heart. We have real warriors in our midst. We remember you.

John 15:7-17

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

20150502-7868

Love is a feeling you feel you’re gonna get when you feel like you’re gonna feel like you’ve never felt before.” That little bit of wisdom accurately describes what many people consider love to be: a feeling. But Jesus speaks of something that is far more than a feeling. His teaching here is about abiding in God’s love, loving one another, bearing fruit, and praying with confidence. These practices are not driven by feelings, but by intentional acts of the will, and a spiritual connection to the true vine (cf. John 15:1). They are also connected to Jesus’ commands (cf. v. 7).

Jesus’ intent (v. 7) is that his followers would see love for one another as the true north of their moral, spiritual, ethical, and religious compass. His intent is not to build a new religious expression or a different mode of worship. The love that Jesus describes is sacrificial to the point of death. His love moved him toward these men who had no inclination toward him. His love allowed their relationship to move from followers, to acquaintances, to friends. His love compelled them to love one another, to bear fruit, and to experience joy.

If we are to embrace Jesus’ teachings fully we will be led to an intentional attitude of compassion, care, sacrifice, and a God-honoring lifestyle that is not driven by feelings, but by the incredible love of God in which we abide. We will offer ourselves to one another as far, and deep, and wide, and long, as necessary with motives as high as heaven is above the earth.

I want to keep that in mind today – no matter how I might feel. How about you?

Acts 3:1-10

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

This sandwich was  provided by a homeless relief ministry in downtown Houston.

This sandwich was part of a meal provided by a homeless relief ministry in downtown Houston.

There is a homeless man who frequents an intersection near our home. He has a bicycle, a beard, and a happy demeanor. I have given him money on more than one occasion. I’ve even asked him his name, and had a more significant conversation with him. It seems he wants to live outdoors. “I get sick every time I try to live in a house,” he told me. More recently I learned that he doesn’t need money; he apparently uses any money he is given for liquor. I was told that by a person who works with homeless people, providing food, clothing, and toiletries to them – including “Clarence”.

Clarence needs something I don’t have, and that troubles me. In fact, moreover, he needs something he seems unwilling to embrace, and that troubles me even more: why would anyone want to live a homeless lifestyle? Why is his way of life so appealing to him? Not only does he not want to live in doors (for health reasons, he claims), but why, also does he want to live by taking hand-outs from the local homeless ministry and passers-by at the intersection?

More important, what do I have that he really needs? Peter had the authority and power of Jesus Christ to heal the lame beggar at the entrance to the temple. He had the ability to look him in the eye and request that the man do the same to him. Through that his life was radically changed. Jesus was honored, and people were amazed.

We’ve seen all too many things to be amazed anymore. We’ve seen too many homeless people to engage them one-on-one. We have too much money to say we don’t have silver and gold. What we don’t seem to have is the time and energy to enter into their lives and make a difference. I’m wondering today about what I do have. I’m reflecting today about what how I might purposefully invest myself into Clarence’s life. If I am to do this, I will need better margins in my own life, more patience to see what I actually have that Clarence truly needs, and the courage and boldness that comes from the Holy Spirit’s work in my heart and life.

Job 29:1-5a

And Job again took up his discourse, and said:

“Oh, that I were as in the months of old,
    as in the days when God watched over me,
when his lamp shone upon my head,
    and by his light I walked through darkness,
as I was in my prime,
    when the friendship of God was upon my tent,
when the Almighty was yet with me,

I'm not certain why I like this photo, but it seems to say something about the glory of man. (Rome, 2014)

I’m not certain why I like this photo, but it seems to say something about the glory of man. (Rome, 2014)

Job’s description of the glory days is instructive: he helped the poor, stood up for the cause of the oppressed, cared for the widows, actively relieving the distress of the lame, weak and needy (see the rest of the chapter below). As I read this (even though I know the whole story) my heart goes out to Job. He yearns for the ability to be a blessing – though in his pain and trials he is unable to do so.

Job’s problem, we will learn, is that he and God just wasn’t enough. To be favored to be a son of God is high favor. To know God and be known by him is a rich blessing. But that is seldom enough for us. A closer look at Job’s lament reveals a sinister delight that arises from a corrupted heart. He was seen by others in his goodness and acts of righteousness. People honored him. Young men rose when he came in the room. Old men gave him their attention. He cut a wide swath and was known, publicly recognized, and honored because of all the good he did.

This is where I must confess my Job-likeness. All too deeply I want to be recognized, honored, known, and appreciated. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is true. Sometimes I am so crippled by that desire that I must retreat into the inner sanctum of God’s grace and mercy, in repentance and humility before him, praying for God’s help and salvation.

Truth is: life is not all about me, or Job, or you, dear reader. Somehow we must all reorient our understanding of our own identity, purpose, needs, and calling. Jesus himself taught this:

[Jesus says,] “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-6)

Job will learn this lesson in the stunning un-doing conversation with God himself (cf. Job 38:1-40:2). I need to learn that as well, and embrace the deeply freeing truth that it is enough to be known, loved, redeemed, forgiven and saved by God is enough: God and me is enough. Perhaps I will also learn that the glory days are not past, but before us.

Job 29:5b-25

    when my children were all around me,
when my steps were washed with butter,
    and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!
When I went out to the gate of the city,
    when I prepared my seat in the square,
the young men saw me and withdrew,
    and the aged rose and stood;
the princes refrained from talking
    and laid their hand on their mouth;
10 the voice of the nobles was hushed,
    and their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth.
11 When the ear heard, it called me blessed,
    and when the eye saw, it approved,
12 because I delivered the poor who cried for help,
    and the fatherless who had none to help him.
13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me,
    and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
    my justice was like a robe and a turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind
    and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy,
    and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.
17 I broke the fangs of the unrighteous
    and made him drop his prey from his teeth.
18 Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest,
    and I shall multiply my days as the sand,
19 my roots spread out to the waters,
    with the dew all night on my branches,
20 my glory fresh with me,
    and my bow ever new in my hand.’

21 “Men listened to me and waited
    and kept silence for my counsel.
22 After I spoke they did not speak again,
    and my word dropped upon them.
23 They waited for me as for the rain,
    and they opened their mouths as for the spring rain.
24 I smiled on them when they had no confidence,
    and the light of my face they did not cast down.
25 I chose their way and sat as chief,
    and I lived like a king among his troops,
    like one who comforts mourners.

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