Monday, January 28, 2008

Discipleship: 'Hearts and Minds'

1 Peter 3:13-15a

One of the great places to visit here is the Tower of London. I loved that tour. It had royalty, treachery, executions, wealth, diplomacy and superstition. It’s England’s story all in one place. I’ve been there a handful of times now, and I’m thinking it might be time to go back.

When you’re inside the walls, the Yeomen Warders are the tour guides. You can hear them all over the grounds—big booming voices that call people to order and show them around that amazing place. The Warders have to meet strict requirements to get those jobs. They’re all retired sergeants—the rank that really runs the army—and they have to have served for at least 22 years of impeccable active duty. They’re mostly men, but last year the first woman was appointed—she joined the army at 16 and served all over the world. Her name is Moira Cameron, in case you find yourself in a pub quiz later on.

When the Warders tell the stories of England and the Tower, they do it as insiders—as people who live lives that are devoted to this nation and its Queen—as people who have trained and traveled and served and fought for their country. Some bear the wounds of their service, and tell those stories as they walk groups of tourists around the Tower grounds.

The stories of the warders—the stories of their loyalty and service—are wrapped up and intertwined with the story of the Tower. They tell the stories, but they lived some of them as well. That’s what makes their presentations so powerful, so moving, so real.

1 Pet 3:13-15a

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Purpose of this letter is to encourage a church in time of trial. One author said that the letter was written to comfort people who were ‘no longer acceptable to their cultural world.’ That’s sounds a little familiar, isn’t it? There are all kinds of reasons why Christians might not feel welcome in this culture—some deserved and some not—and so we should see this letter as a source of comfort.

Our text starts with a challenge: ‘Do not fear what they fear.’ This is a crafty way of saying ‘don’t believe what they say about you—don’t believe your own bad press.' People fear the Christian faith because they don’t understand it—because we haven’t communicated it clearly enough or well enough. But don’t join in, Peter is saying here—You have a calling on your life and a job to do.

There are two main themes in this letter:

First, God is revealed in the ministry of Christ. What we learn about Christ has a direct bearing on what we understand about God in his fullness.

Second, our conduct is the mark of our faith. How we live communicates a lot about what we believe.

Talking about conduct here—how the original readers behaved in their communities—was important for a church suffering persecution. The way they conducted themselves in society back then could mean the difference between life and death. Their lives needed to be impeccable some that they could be witnesses to the faith.

That conduct, the behavior and lifestyle that is transformed along the journey of faith, is what we call the life of discipleship.

So what are we called to do? What does it mean to be a disciple—a follower—of Christ? Brian Draper is an author here in England who writes on issues related to faith and ministry. Up until last year he worked near here at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. In an essay on discipleship he wrote this:

“Following Christ is not about becoming like the stereotypical Christian—it’s about starting to explore and inhabit the words of Jesus, who said that he had come so that we might have life, and life to the full. The moment we cease being curious, the moment we stop journeying along the way, we start diminishing, not growing. Discipleship is not about being told what to do, but about being shown how to live. It’s not about developing a neat program which formulates all the right answers, but about recognizing that every step along the way of life is crucial, that our lives matter to God as a whole, not just on the whole.”

Discipleship is about our Hearts and Minds. Think back on the text.

‘In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.’

Part of the life of discipleship is surrendering to the belief that Jesus Christ is who he says he is—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; the Prince of Peace; the Lord and Master of, well, everything. We make that decision every day—in small ways and huge ways—as we make our way on the journey of faith.

But there’s something practical and human about this command, too. It acknowledges that there are all kinds of things that compete for our attention—jobs, families, health, money, sex, world peace—all kind of things jockey for position in our hearts. They do their best to edge out the others in tapping into our energy—into our souls. The call here is to set apart Christ—to give him the most important place among the many things that are important to us. It’s about keeping our priorities straight.

Keeping our priorities in order these days isn’t easy. Last week most major papers here in the UK had Heath Ledger’s tragic death on the front page. But in the Guardian, on the same day, there was a story describing how more than 20,000 children are dying each month in Congo because of the civil war there. The problem was that the story about Congolese children was on page 19. Next time someone tells you that Christians have a strange way of understanding the world, tell them that story. There’s plenty of strangeness to go around.

But it’s not just about our hearts—there’s a cognitive side too, to this life of faith.

‘Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have.’

This is another practical word from our passage. It’s about knowing what we’re talking about so we can help other people along in their own journeys of discovery and faith.

One of my seminary friends became a pharmaceutical salesman after graduation. He was newly married and had a child on the way, and he found that he was good at the work. When his company was ready to release a new drug onto the market, he would get a set of notebooks that he had to read and commit to memory. He had to be able to describe the need for the drug in the first place, the science and testing that prepared it for sale, and why it was better than the other similar drugs on the market.

Frankly, he studied more for his meetings with doctors than he ever did in seminary, and he explained why. In those meetings where a healthcare provider was deciding whether or not to buy what he was presenting, it was critical that he was knowledgeable and confident of the material he was sharing. Anything less would reflect badly on the medicine he was trying to sell.

Now we’re not selling anything here, but we are telling a story that matters—a story that offers healing that matters more than what any drug can do. The call on our lives is to be prepared to talk about what we believe—about what we struggle with. ‘Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have.’

Knowing some of those answers takes work—I’d be lying in the worst way if I said that wasn’t the case. Here at this church we want to provide ways where each person here can be challenged to read and study and wrestle and get a deeper understanding of this Christian faith. We don’t ever have to work to be loved by God, but there is a lot of work required to be able to share the story of that love with other people.

Like the yeomen warders at the Tower: God calls us to live lives that are guided by training and loyalty and and action...Christ-like hearts and minds.

So what do we do? Two suggestions:

Be intentional about making Jesus Lord of all things. Make a conscious decision to follow Christ in your regular daily tasks. Tell your kids about what Christ has done. See your story wrapped up in the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Be equally intentional about learning to share that story with others. This is where the minister stands up here and says that we need to know more of what it says in our Bibles. Not just to check one of our to-do items off the list, but so that we can have a better understanding—and give better answers—about why we have the hope that we have.

The first time I went to the Tower almost 20 years ago I was fascinated by the history and the stories of what had taken place inside those walls. But one of the things I remember most was the Yeomen Warder who led my tour. At one point when he was telling his story he pulled up his sleeves and showed us the scars from a wound he’d received in battle. The little chapel where we were standing was silent—this big, strong man was telling us about this awful thing that happened to him during his time of service, and he had tears in his eyes.

Being a disciple is like that. The life of faith isn’t easy or simple. But the call is know who we are and whose we are, and to share that story—even when it means showing our scars—with anyone who asks.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One Disciple's Soundtrack

(The following continues an occasional series of reflections on the music that has influenced my life as a Christian. From time to time a song pops back into my head, and I want to try and capture why that song was important to me then, and maybe even now.)

So Keith Green hit me again.

Ian and I were listening to music on our way to school together today. We don’t do it every day—yesterday we did multiplication tables and talked about the weekend—but often it’s one of the fun things we do together in the morning. I have a splitter on my iPod, which means we’re both listening to the same thing. It’s one way I’ve retained something of our life in California—Ian and I used to listen to a lot of music together in the car.

Today we started with the Killers, who recently released an acoustic version of their song ‘Sam’s Town’, and it’s great. We followed that with Rob Thomas singing ‘Little Wonders’ from the ‘Meet the Robinsons’ soundtrack. It’s Ian’s favorite song right now, which means we listen to it every day. I usually try to include a few Christian songs into each morning playlist—some of those have become Ian’s choices as well, like Larry Norman singing about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, or the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Burbank Band singing ‘Big House’.

So today I noticed an old Keith Green song on my player and I punched it in. Ian liked it because there is some good piano playing and words he can understand. It’s those words that got to me. While Ian looked out the bus window at the cranes on the construction sites along Euston Road, I was blinking back tears in the seat next to him.

To obey is better than sacrifice
I don't need your money
I want your life
And I hear you say that I'm coming back soon
But you act like I'll never return

Well. I remember listening to that song back in the 80s with more than a little smugness, I mean, he wasn’t talking to me...then. Now I hear it with different ears—ears attached to a family and a mortgage and a retirement plan...and a congregation. Back then the idea of Christ’s return was more present, more real to me than it is now—it had more of an impact on my life and decisions and behavior. I still believe it—not just as a part of the Christian creed (‘ we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”’), but from my own reading of Scripture on God’s plan for the world. But what difference does it make in my life?

And Mr. Green was just getting started.

To obey is better than sacrifice
I want more than Sunday and Wednesday nights
'Cause if you can't come to Me every day
Then don't bother coming at all

This one is both easier and harder for me. I am fully bought-in on the idea that Sunday-only faith is killing the church. That when our brothers and sisters aren’t challenged to incorporate their faith into their work and families and recreation and sex and spending and...whatever, that we haven’t done our job to help them live and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. But here’s the catch—for me anyway, as the pastor of a church:

Would I ever have the courage to say this to my congregation?

I’m trying to picture what it would be like to lay down the challenge of being whole disciples in such a stark way. I believe it—I believe that the call on each of our lives is to remember who we are and whose we are every single minute of every day. But would I say to the people of my church in London that if they aren’t doing that they should stay away? Probably not, and that’s OK, but I want to figure out how to reclaim and teach that intensity—that sense of urgency—in my preaching and teaching and conversation and life.

To obey is better than sacrifice
I want hearts of fire
Not your prayers of ice
And I'm coming quickly
To give back to you
According to what you have done

In my high school and college days, when faith was still so new, it was easy to connect with the image of ‘hearts of fire’. I read my Bible daily, I prayed about almost everything, and I constantly felt God present with me. That sense of warmth was the way I came to define the life of faith, and it was great. So what do we do when our prayers and worship seem cold—like ice, even? What would it be like to feel that flame again, just for a moment? I like the reminder here that the life of faith should give off a little heat, rather than triggering a frost warning.

But this last verse also reminded me of what I didn’t like about Keith Green. He was long on challenge and conviction, but a little short on grace. I believe strongly that we’re called to be doers of the word and not just lazy, overfed hearers of it, but there has to be grace for the gap between those two ends of the spectrum. Green was always a little too focused on the ‘if-you-do/pray/live-this, then-this-other-thing-will-happen’ understanding of the Christian faith. His call to action and discipleship was right on the money as far as I can tell, but his grasp of it as a transaction was muddled, or worse, shame-based.

Critique aside, though, this is still one of the best ever wake-up calls to the organized church. That it was largely unheeded 30 years ago is certainly one of the reasons that the Emergent Church movement is so important and necessary today, but that’s a discussion for another time.

For now, I’m enjoying these walks down my musical memory lane, and surprised at how much the neighborhood has changed.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Worship: ‘ you tell me about me.’

Col 1:15-20

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning
and the firstborn from among the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

This passage, tucked into Paul’s letter to a struggling church, is an early Christian song of worship.

The Colossians were a church in crisis. It wasn’t like the Corinthians we talked about last week—where the Christian church was competing with other faiths—as much as they were divided among themselves about how to gather and worship and serve as a church. Paul begins his letter, after all the greetings and blessings, with a reminder of who Jesus Christ is.

A good friend of mine, on occasion, talks a lot about himself. Maybe we’re friends because we have that in common, I don’t know. Every once in a while, when he notices that he’s gone on for a while, he makes a joke out of it by saying: ‘Enough about me, now you tell me about me.’

That’s what our text does. God tells us a lot about himself in both nature and Scripture, but every once in a while it’s our turn to do the talking. Our text calls us to sing and pray and preach and reflect on who God is, on what he’s done, and on what that means for our understanding of him. The call to worship is God saying: ‘Enough about me, now you tell me about me.’

But what do we say? In communication between people, especially in couples, what we say is overshadowed sometimes by how we say it. Does that sound familiar? Heard that before? Married guys know this well: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’

In worship we had another element to that communication blend: we talk about why we say and sing what we do. Any reflection on worship has to look at what we say, at how we say it, and ultimately at why we say what we do.

In the New Testament the word that is most often translated as ‘worship’ is the same word that can be translated as ‘service’. If you get a handful of English translations of the Bible, and check the first few verses of Romans 12, sometimes it will say ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, for this is your spiritual act of worship.’ But there are some translations that render the same passage as ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, for this is your spiritual act of service.’

That’s so important. Worship and service are linked—in many ways they’re interchangeable in the New Testament. The point here is that service and worship are not about us, they’re all about God.

In John Frame’s excellent book on worship music he writes:

“Because God is who he is, worship must be God-centered. We worship God because he supremely deserves it, and because he desires it. We go to worship to please him, not ourselves. In that sense worship is vertical, focused on God. We should not go to worship to be entertained, or to increase our self-esteem, but to honor our God who made and redeemed us.”

Is that how we understand worship here?

True worship should be:

1. An authentic expression of our belief
2. An equally authentic expression of our doubt or struggle
3. Nurturing to mature believers
4. Accessible to people who are visiting or exploring the Christian faith for the first time

True worship should accomplish four main things in our lives:

1. Teach us the discipline of focusing on God and not ourselves
2. Offer a sense of hope that God loves us and will keep his promises
3. Help us to see the needs of the world as our own
4. Draw us into service in God’s name

But still, none of that is very easy to do in our ‘please-yourself-first’ kind of culture.

Nothing will divide a church more quickly than tinkering with the worship style. The ‘Worship Wars’ are tearing churches apart in the States and even over here. One side tends to value preserving the traditions of the church, while the other claims to be closer to the heart of God. In my home church they’re arguing about how much to use the organ in worship—as if the answer to that question will mean anything about the ministry of that congregation.

One of the ironies of the worship wars is that they people fighting it are completely focused on themselves. True worship draws us out of ourselves and into service—into showing others what God’s love looks like and feels like.

Mark Labberton, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, wrote this:

“Vigorous biblical worship should stop, or at least redirect, our endless consumerism, as our free and faithful choice to spend less in order to give away more. Our community reputation, as Scripture suggests, should be that the church comprises those who pursue justice for the oppressed because that is what it means to be Christ's body in the world. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that it's enough to feel drawn to the heart of God without our lives showing the heart of God.”

Would that really make a noticeable difference?

We talk a lot in church leadership about the hardest group to reach—the hardest group to draw into the organized church. Do you know what it is? The hardest demographic for churches to reach is the 25-40 age group—mostly professionals at the early and middle stages of their careers and family lives. There are all kinds of reasons why that’s true, but they’re not important right now. What’s important here is that there are two churches that I know of who are growing exponentially with people in those age groups—churches that are busting at the seams with single people and young married couples and mid-career professionals.

Here’s what’s important about these two churches: they’ve understood the relationship between their service of worship and their service to the community. Mars Hill in Michigan is led by Rob Bell and a team of ministers and lay leaders who have been able to reach out to people who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years. Their worship is style is blend of readings and hymns and newer songs—sometimes arranged into medleys that tell the story of God’s love for us in a new way. It’s an exciting, unpredictable and challenging form of blended worship.

The other church is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. New York City—probably the only American city I can think of that can compete with London in cynicism and secularism, and yet they’re packed with people in that 25-40 age group—the age group that every church planter said would never attend church in New York. Redeemer is more likely to have a full orchestra leading worship than a band, and at least two of their services are jazz-oriented. They sing a little of everything, but even that’s not the point.

Mars Hill and Redeemer Church in New York draw people in by serving the community around them in God’s name. It’s not the show—whether it’s a band or an orchestra, a worship team or a professional choir. None of those are what make the worship experience at these two churches so effective. What makes these churches work so well is that they see their worship as an extension of what they do with the other six and a half days of the week.

What makes their worship dynamic is that it lives and breathes as a response to what God is doing in the lives of the people who are doing the worshipping. Both churches are active in working with the poor, in funding missions work around the world, in offering necessary services to the people in their communities. Both churches preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is relevant and accessible and not watered-down at all. On that level it’s really not about music style at all.

Church music by itself doesn’t determine the life of a church. Church music and the practice of worship in a church are the fruit of what’s happening in the lives of individuals, in small groups and in the entire gathered community of faith.

When we can consistently engage in worship here that is lively, passionate and authentic, it’ll be because the spiritual life at this church is lively, passionate and authentic. If we can’t come together to join in a worship experience like that, no revolution in music is going to fix it.

We spend a lot of time teaching our children and reminding ourselves that substance matters more than style: Beauty is only skin-deep; It’s what’s on the inside that matters, not the outside.

Worship functions within the same set of values. It’s not the music style that matters: we could have the London Symphony or U2 leading worship—it’s still what’s on the inside that matters. Tony and Kate and I are in the midst of an ongoing discussion about our vision for worship in this church, and it’s great. We all come from different decades and training and cultural backgrounds. Southern California and Kansas might have less in common than Los Angeles and London, and we all bring those experiences into our discussion.

Here’s what’s not happening. We’re not arguing about what to do on Sunday mornings. I’m not secretly trying to install a rock band up here to lead our singing, and Tony isn’t trying to get me to use the Latin Psalter as our only hymnal. Either one of those would be crazy for this church as it is today.

Where Tony, Kate and I agree without question can be summed up in one sentence:

The worship experience at this church should reflect and energize the spiritual life and mission of this congregation.

In order to faithfully accomplish that objective, we’ve set a pretty aggressive goal for ourselves of introducing up to 20 new songs into our worship rotation in 2008. Some will be new and some may be older songs that have fallen off the map. Whatever they are, and whatever style they represent, the only measure of success we’ll use to choose them will be if they reflect and energize the spiritual life and mission of this congregation.

We invite you to participate in this vision for our worship. Bring us music that helps you in your own worship. More importantly, bring us music that you think someone else might need to hear—that might draw a visitor into this place where they can join in the life of this church. Bring us music that helps you articulate your own faith and your own call to service.

The worship experience at this church should reflect and energize the spiritual life and mission of this congregation.

My prayer for us in the coming year is that we grow in spiritual depth and service, that that growth would be reflected in the way we worship and serve our God and King. For Christ’s sake, and in his name. Amen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A (sort of) Special Day

Today is a sort of special day. It won’t show up on any calendars—liturgical or otherwise—but it matters to me as I try to make sense of the calling I have and the job I’m in.

As a pastor you start to think about time in a different way. When you’re a kid you think in terms of the academic year, remember that? From the first day of school you start counting the days until the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. When you come back from that there are a few three-day weekends to sustain you until Spring Break, when the real countdown begins—the one that takes you to summer (where you instantly start counting the days until you have to go back to school). It takes a long time before you can shake the student mindset. It usually starts the first time you look up in mid-July and find yourself in an office, or on a jobsite, or anywhere else that isn’t the beach.

What I notice about this way of marking time is that it highlights the time we aren’t doing something. We look forward to the breaks—we give special value to the times when we don’t have to do whatever it is we were doing in school. Some of that carries on into the jobs we take when we’re no longer students. I’ve always looked forward to taking trips, seeing new things and getting out of my routine.

But as a pastor I think I’m having to re-tool my sense of time again. Why? Because the times that the rest of the culture associates with holidays and travel and rest have turned out to be my busy seasons. Christmastime is a popular time with a lot of people for traveling and relaxing, but Advent and Christmas were exhausting for me. Easter represents Spring Break for much of the civilized world, but it’s also by far the church’s most important Sunday. My sense of time—of how the year passes—is now built around these crucial events, these special remembrances that mark the Christian year.

None of this is a complaint, by the way. I love the sensation of learning something new—of learning a new way to experience time.

So what’s so special about this day? Not much, if I’m perfectly honest. It’s just the halfway point between Christmas and the beginning of Lent. Easter comes early this year, and so even as I’m still seeing pine needles around the house (OK, artificial pine needles), using gifts for the first time and occasionally even humming the odd carol, I need to start thinking about how best to express the more somber themes of Lent. It’s a bit like that day in August when you realize that school is just around the corner. Nothing wrong with Lent, of course, just as I’m glad there was a school for me where I could learn and play and sing and see my friends. But it’s different from the carefree joy of summer, just as Lent has a tone that is different from the joyful celebration of the Christmas season.

I’m not quite ready for the sober reflection and introspection of Lent. I’m still enjoying the buzz of the newborn Jesus, of being with my family for Christmas, of watching Ian grow up a little more, of celebrating 10 years with Julie, of being a pastor again. I’m sure by the time it rolls around I’ll need some concentrate time to pause in calm reflection—God’s Providence is like that. But for now I’m going to ride the Christmas wave as long as it’ll carry me.

Lent is coming, but it can wait. Just three weeks now...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

'Fellowship Happens'

1 Cor 1:4-9

Today we begin a brief series that I hope will become something of a tradition here. As we begin this new year I want to return to the foundations of a healthy church, of an organic church—one that lives and serves from the inside out. If you were here a year ago when I started as your pastor, you’ll remember that we moved through a series of messages on Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission. Over the next four weeks we’re going to look at those topics again—the point is to deepen our understanding of the church—of what it can do and be in this community—and about our place in it.

In the movie Jurassic Park, some scientists figure out how to grow dinosaurs from DNA. In order to control the creatures they only bred one gender, but that didn’t end up working very well for them. One of the characters, a scientist who was famous for his writings on Chaos Theory, said that trying to control or limit nature this way was impossible. He said that no matter what the scientists did to try to control the reproduction of these creatures, ‘life will find a way.’

One of the themes of Paul's letter to the Corinthians was the significance of fellowship in their shared lives as Christians. But first some background.

The city of Corinth was a major trading center between the eastern and western worlds. It was a cosmopolitan city, with diverse ethnic and religious groups, dominated by the business and financial concerns of the day. Many people in Corinth back then had dual citizenship... Without dwelling too much on the obvious, Corinth was a lot like London.

And the church in Corinth had some of the same challenges that Christian communities face here. How to grow and thrive in a social environment that was indifferent, if not outright hostile to it. How to relate to people of other faiths without losing the distinctives of their own. How to share their message faithfully without driving people away.

London, just like Corinth, is a hard place to hold a church together. Here at this church it’s important to strike a balance between being faithful and open, without being judgemental on the one side, or becoming just another social club on the other. Sometimes that feels impossible.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is helpful for us because right from the start—before he identifies any issues or teaches any theology—right from the start he reaffirms his relationship with the people there—he reminds them that he writes as a friend who loves them and believes in their calling to be a church in their complicated city. He mentions their fellowship, with each other in Jesus Christ.

The word Paul uses there is koinonia, a Greek word that translates to communal, or to participate in, to be connected to, to be a companion or partner—to share something in common.

Some of you know that Julie and I went back to Southern California during the Christmas holidays. It was great to see our family and friends, to soak up some sunshine and to eat in our favorite places. But we were surprised to notice how much we missed London—how much we missed our home here—how much we missed all of you. Now don’t get me wrong. So much of our past and maybe our future is wrapped up in the people we know in our hometown, but we were so pleasantly surprised to realize that our present is here—our fellowship is here—our sense of connection and community and shared mission is here—our koinonia is here.

What Paul emphasizes in his letter is the unity that grows out of sharing the journey of faith with other travelers. Even in struggles—even when the culture ignores or opposes you—even when it’s hard to discern what’s true and essential about this faith—life will find a way—fellowship and community and koinonia will find a way.

The practice of Fellowship is one of the key foundations of a living church. From how we greet people at the door, to how we welcome newcomers, to how we build friendships together, to how we grow in faith together through study and conversation—those levels of fellowship are the glue that holds a church together, the energy that gives us life, and way we witness to the work Christ is doing in each one of our lives. Almost every other piece of church life depends on the quality of our fellowship together—on the quality of the relationships we build together in the context of this community of faith.

We’re called as a church to help meet a basic human need—to provide a place where people can experience fellowship together. When we don’t do this part effectively, people will find other ways to meet that need. Bruce Larson is a Presbyterian minister in the States. In a book on fellowship written more than 40 years ago, he said:

“The neighborhood bar is probably the best counterfeit there is for the fellowship Christ wants to give his church. It’s an imitation dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.’

We don't have any intention of offering a counterfeit fellowship here. But finding ways to have meaningful fellowship together can be difficult in the city. People here are busy: you have demanding jobs—a lot of you have to travel for business—some are starting new careers—some of you are raising kids who go to school, play sports and take music lessons—maybe you are one of those kids—some of you are living the single life, which is time-consuming in its own way—some of you are retired but with busy social lives. Did I leave anyone out?

Facebook has become a way for people to connect and re-connect with people they may not always have time to see in person. Facebook is a social networking tool that started at Harvard University and has spread to schoolkids, young professionals and older adults, too. I keep in touch with my family, my old friends in the States, and I’ve even found some friends from high school using the Facebook search tools. More importantly, I have almost daily contact with more than 30 people here at ACL. While I was in the States I was still able to share in some of the struggles people were having during the holidays, and also in the joy of a couple who got married here last week. Fellowship found a way, even though we were in different parts of the world.

I’ve even been able to keep in contact with former members here—in the States, in Finland, and all over the world. Our young adult group plans events, shares news and posts pictures of their exploits using Facebook. As busy as all of these people are, they still take the time and effort to connect with each other. Just like the scientist in Jurassic Park said: Life will find a way. Fellowship will find a way.

Well how do we create and sustain fellowship here at the American Church? I suppose one of the key lessons is that there really isn’t any master plan for how this happens. True fellowship happens organically—it grows naturally among people who are on the journey of faith together. You can’t force true fellowship—it just doesn’t work that way. Author Joseph Myers warns that churches sometimes ask people to make intimate connections that they’re not fully ready to make. You know what that looks like—the minister or someone else tells you to stand up and hold hands with the person next to you, or to share a prayer concern with a stranger. Those are fine things in the proper place, but sometimes we rush it.

But the opposite happens, too. Sometimes we get so careful about offending people that we don’t encourage or provide space for the kinds of intimate connections that we want and need—the kinds of connections that grow a church organically, from the inside out. We have to find a balance between those two sides, and it’s not always easy.

Even if there isn’t a master plan for how to create Fellowship, it’s still a crucial part of the foundation of a thriving, healthy church. In a lot of ways, Fellowship is where we become the people that God made us to be. When we connect with other people within the community of faith, when we can let down our collective guard and enjoy just having fun together, when we learn to listen and to share with each other, then we’re living out the faith we claim as Christians.

It starts at the door and at Coffee Hour, with the way people are greeted and served. It’s our mission here to welcome every person—to let them know that we’re glad they’ve taken the time out of their busy lives to come and worship and learn and pray in this place.

But it goes beyond welcome. It’s also a part of our mission to make sure that people who reach out to us are folded into the community life at this church. That’s a more complicated process—it involves sharing our lives and homes and food—but it’s so important to the life of fellowship in this church.

At a deeper level we’re called to encourage the Christian formation and growth that comes from deep, committed relationships. Small groups, covenant partnerships, spiritual retreats and relationships built on shared accountability—these are the gold standard of church fellowship. Some of you are already there, but there’s more to do to get this going more broadly in our church.

In the passage from the psalm Elizabeth read for us this morning, David talks about those whom God has gathered from east and west, from north and south. He says that God led them directly to a city where they could settle, so ‘Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love, and his wonderful deeds for all people, for he satisfies the thirsty and he fills the hungry with good things.’

In this city where we have settled from east and west and north and south, God has offered to fill our hunger for fellowship through this community of faith. My prayer for us this year is that we will experience the full blessing of koinonia, of life together, of fellowship, whether through Facebook or face-to-face, in Christ’s name.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Some Notes on Jetlag

Jetlag is a strange thing. When you travel far enough out of your time zone your body reacts in all kinds of strange ways. You get used to a certain rhythm and clock, and then you tinker with it and your body and mind team up in a rebellion. It’s strange.

We’re just back in London after being in LA for Christmas. It was great to be home—to see my family, to spend time with some friends, and to eat at my favorite places (In-N-Out, La CabaƱita, Frontier Wok and, of course, Tally Rand in Burbank). My mother and father-in-law were such gracious hosts for all of us on Christmas Day, and my mom took good care of us for the rest of our visit. I got to see my sisters and their kids, and spent some good time with my friend and brother-in-law Bill. We had one Cigar Night while I was in town, full of conversation about movies, theology, food and family.

Being back in London is good, too. Julie and I were both surprised at how much we missed it—at how much it feels like our home now. Being back in our house here, seeing our friends, going to church—all of that is making us feel settled and, well, good.

But there’s still the jetlag to overcome.

It’s much harder to come east than it is to go west. When we get to LA from here, we have a hard time staying awake beyond 8 or 9pm for a while, but we tend to wake up rested and ready to go. Who cares if it’s 4am? When you go east you can’t get to sleep until 2 or 3am, and then it feels impossible to wake up. The third night and the day following are always the worst for me, and this time was no different. I couldn’t sleep until past 3am, and then had a hard time getting out of bed at 10:30. We feel sluggish and off-kilter right now, but it’s going away.

Why talk about jetlag? Because it seems to me—even though it makes us tired and grumpy and out of sorts—that jetlag is a persistent reminder that we left something (and some people) behind. It makes me think about what’s happening with my family in Burbank, at our church in Glendale, in my favorite places to eat, even. The feeling of jetlag as I re-enter this new home reminds me of my old home, even if just for a few days. Part of me is living in both places this week. I work here, sleep here, play with Ian and talk with Julie here, but part of my body—my rhythm—is still in LA. It’ll go away by the weekend, but for now I’m allowing it to remind me of the great family, the wonderful friends, the vibrant church, and the hometown that I still love.

The other day Ian was concerned that we might love London as much as we loved Burbank. As I scrambled to think of something to say in response, I ended up telling him that we were blessed to have two places to live that we loved equally. As it came out of my mouth it occurred to me that it was true. How gracious God is to call us to a place far away from what we knew and loved, and to teach us to love it there, too. I wonder if that’s the gift that missionaries receive in order to survive the amazing work that they do. I’m light years away from seeing myself as a missionary, but I think the gift might be the same.

The jetlag I’ve been feeling this week is a little reminder of that.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Christmas Message for the New Year

'Oh, Joy.'

Last week in the Guardian, James Meek wrote a great article on English words we don’t use anymore. He kept running into words he didn’t know, and so he decided to make a point of looking up every obscure word he found. Here are some of his discoveries:

Zugunruhe describes the migratory restlessness of birds.
A Gonfalon is a long banner with a coat of arms, used in Italy, if you were curious.
Albedo describes the amount of sunshine refelcted back into the atmosphere by the earth.

Isn’t that useful? I hope you were all taking notes...

Christmas is a special time for all kinds of reasons.

We’re more generous than usual.
We go out of our way to be nicer than usual.
We seek out friends and family.
We eat different foods—in different quantities than usual.

I suppose my point today is that in addition to all of those things, in the Christmas season there’s something else we do differently. There are different words we use that we don’t always find places for during other times of the year.

Over this Advent season we’ve been looking at the big themes of the Christmas message: Love, Peace, Hope, and tonight we’re going to talk a little about Joy.

But first, it occurs to me that we don’t always use these words during the rest of the year. Sure, we tell people that we love them, and we read the news about peace talks and things like that. We even talk about our hopes sometimes if we really feel safe.

But how often do we talk about these things together?
How often do we take a moment to think about how these words fit together?
It’s one of the blessings of Christmas that we read these beautiful passages that show us what life can be like—what life was meant to be—what life really is because of the Christ-Child.

A few weeks ago we talked about Love. John 3:16 is such a familiar passage to many people: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. It’s because of God’s love for us that we have a Christmas to celebrate in the first place. It’s because of God’s love for us that he came in the form of a helpless baby, to grow up and show that love in a way that offers forgiveness and redemption for everyone.

Next we talked about Peace. God created everything to live in perfect harmony—he created us to live in contented relationships with each other and with him. He called that Peace ‘Shalom’, and even though we’ve broken it, he never stops trying to help us put the pieces back together again.

Just yesterday we talked about hope. Not just pie-in-the-sky hope, but the real hope that comes from believing—from expecting—that God has fulfilled his promises to us in the birth of the Christ Child.

And so this evening we come to Joy. The word Joy is all over the Christmas story: The Magi in Matthew’s gospel were ‘overjoyed’ at the sight of the newborn Christ-Child. In Luke’s story we heard the ‘good news of great joy for all people’. Joy is a pretty important part of the Christmas story.

It’s hard sometimes to get a good definition of Joy. It usually gets lumped in with happiness, even though it’s a much deeper thing than that. More often than not we hear it in an ironic form—with an eye-roll and someone saying, ‘Oh, Joy’.

I like to think of Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoons. When something really good happened to Snoopy—something really special—he would dance. Have you seen that picture? Snoopy dances with pure Joy.

Bob Bennett is a singer-songwriter. One of my favorite songs of his is called Madness Dancing, where he talks about what it feels like to pray and worship and just be in the presence of God. ‘Joy is like a crashing tide’, he says in that song.

Maybe the best definition of Joy in the Christian sense came from a Bible teacher I knew back when I was in high school. He said that true joy was the ‘deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ’ Think about that. True Joy is having confidence that Christ is who he says he is, and that he can do what he promised to do.

Confidence doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have any questions or doubts, but it does mean that we put some effort into the lifelong journey of learning to trust God and God’s work in our lives. The Jesus we celebrate—that ‘infant lowly, infant holy’ from the choir’s song tonight, is God’s act of love toward us—his gift of Love and Peace and Hope and Joy. Words we don’t say together often enough.

On the first Sunday of Advent we read the story of the Prodigal Son. You’ve probably heard that one before: A son takes his inheritance early, and when he blows all the money he comes back home. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and dropped everything and ran out to embrace him. He forgave him and kissed him and threw a party for him.

To me, that parable tells the true story of Christmas. That while we were still a long way off—before God had even crossed our minds—he was running toward us, ready to embrace us and throw a party for us.

And so in that party—and in the ones we’ll celebrate tonight and tomorrow—in all of these parties I invite you to see the Love and Peace and Hope and Joy of God, rolled up into that tiny baby, given as a gift for you.

Merry Christmas, and may the Love and Peace and Hope and Joy of Jesus the Messiah be with each one of you, today and every day. Amen.