Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Good Goodbye

(Last week our old church in California said goodbye to Rev. Craig Hall and his wife Ann after three years of service. The letter below was read at Craig’s retirement luncheon.)

Dear Glendale Presbyterian Church,

I want to share a few things as you say goodbye to Craig and Ann Hall. It’s natural to think back through our memories of their time with us, and that’s a great thing—especially since they’ve given us so much to remember.

How many of you were at Craig’s first congregational meeting? He’d been there just a few weeks and he’d put us at ease with his strong sermons and easy laughter. The feel of the church was changing, and it was great. Craig stood up in front of the congregation at that meeting and said this: “I know you all like me. I hear things. I know you all like me right now. In about six months, though, it won’t be like that—some of you will still feel the same way, and others of you will grumble and decide that you don’t care much for me after all. I want to say right now, while you all still like me, that I don’t care. I was called here to do a job, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

It occurred to me then that if you could put the smell of fresh air into words, that’s exactly what it would sound like. It released all of the usual tension around churches that centers on whether or not the minister is happy—or whether enough people are happy with the minister. Craig stepped into that moment and said that it didn’t matter. What mattered was helping us get back on track as a church, and that’s exactly what he did.

Everyone has a story, and mine is just one of them. But as Craig and Ann leave GPC I want to say how grateful I am for their help in mentoring Julie and me as we tried to discern God’s call back into pastoral ministry. Craig didn’t know me very well when I showed up in his office and started asking him questions, but he took the time to encourage and challenge me, and God used him to help prepare me to say ‘yes’ when the London church called us. Ann spent time with Julie to help prepare her for the difficult role she was stepping into. We’ve been here more than two years now, and Julie still quotes Ann every now and again.

I believe it’s a crucial part of a pastor’s role to equip people to do the ministry God called them to do, whatever it is. Craig and Ann didn’t back away from that responsibility with us—from investing time and energy into us—and I want to thank them for that.

I have another treasured memory from Craig’s first few months at GPC. There were about 30 of us crammed into Henry Artime’s basement theater to commemorate D-Day by watching clips from movies and a few episodes of Band of Brothers. In the episode I remember, Easy Company was floundering because it had an inexperienced combat leader. In the middle of a battle that was turning into a disaster, a senior officer sent Lt. Spears to take over and press the attack. He ran right through the fighting—right past some very surprised Germans—and rescued a squad that was trapped in the wrong place. Then he ran back through the battle and took charge of Easy Company, leading them with skill and courage.

What I remember from that night was looking over at Bill Myers, who looked over at Henry, who made eye contact with another guy, and so on. In that moment I knew that just about everyone in that room was thinking the same thing. GPC was going through some challenging times, but in the middle of it all this guy strolled right through the tension and took charge, and in the process helped us find a way out. We trusted Craig, even after such a short period of time, and it was an amazing feeling. On the screen one of the sergeants in Band of Brothers turned to a buddy of his and said: “Looks like Easy Company found itself a new leader.”

We felt exactly the same way.

Craig led GPC over these past 3 years with skill and courage and toughness and good humor. Through it all he never lost sight of the fact that this wasn’t about him—that it was really about GPC remembering how to be a church again, and maybe even that it had been a church all along. What a gift he gave to all of us—what a generous, out-of-the-blue extravagant gift he gave to each person in this community of faith.

Craig and I have talked a lot over the past few years about healthy departures. How someone leaves a community is often more important than how that person arrived. The health of a church can be measured by how it says goodbye to someone it loved, and you’re all experiencing that right now. Even now, that’s something that Craig is giving to this church. Even now, as he leaves, his goodbye to you is a sign that this church is on its way back to health and strength and service.

To Craig and Ann I want to say thank you for your faithful service, for your mentoring and for your friendship. We’re just one family from GPC, but God changed our lives through your ministry here.

To my friends and family at Glendale Presbyterian Church, I want to say just one last thing: You have been well led and well loved by Craig and Ann Hall. Never, ever, settle for anything less.

With Blessings,

John D’Elia

Friday, February 20, 2009

R. Ian McCallum, 1920-2009

I learned a lot today about an old friend.

Ian McCallum was born into a privileged family in 1920, and spent the rest of his life serving people who weren’t as fortunate as he had been. He was a physician and worked in wards that served victims of Blitz during WWII, and because of his work he contracted tuberculosis. As a result he spent his career in occupational medicine, researching the illnesses of the lungs that strike working people, while developing preventions and cures for keeping them from getting sick in the first place. He wrote some of the seminal literature on lead poisoning and the 'bends', saving the lives of countless workers in the industries of Northern England. Several of his textbooks are still in use. Along the way he was a husband and father, a church elder and a teacher of Scottish country dancing. He was an expert gardener, maintaining a patch of rare and beautiful flowers at his house in the Canongate section of Edinburgh’s city center. He was (quietly) proud of the fact that he had published a peer-reviewed journal article in every single year after his retirement (there are active professors who can’t touch that publishing pace). He was known as an expert in the history of alchemy, and compiled a catalogue of Scottish silver hallmarking…simply because it interested him.

Ian McCallum was one of those people I feel lucky just to have met. That he was my friend is one of the true blessings in my life.

I went up to Edinburgh to attend Ian’s funeral this week. Some of you will know that I served as an assistant minister at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh back in 1992-93. I lived in a church-owned flat in the Royal Mile—it’s still one of the great formative experiences of my life. After I’d been there a few weeks, a couple came up to me in church and invited me over for lunch. Ian and Jean McCallum, I later learned, had made a habit of taking the visiting assistant ministers under their wing, and on that Sunday it was my turn. They pretty much adopted me while I lived in Edinburgh, having me over for meals, helping with laundry, introducing me to their friends, and even taking me away to their country house a few times. I remember going with him to Pitlochry, near their vacation home, to buy the morning papers, which we read together and chatted about between breakfast and lunch each day. When I had my kilt made it was Ian who insisted that I could not leave Scotland unless I walked the Royal Mile in my Scottish gear. So he came with me, dressed in his own Highland kit, and we walked together up and down the main street in town.

We stayed friends over the years. Ian and Jean came to visit in California not too long after Julie and I got married, and they clearly enjoyed getting to know her. When I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Stirling in Scotland, visits to Ian and Jean became annual events. They were such a funny, loving couple. If they disagreed about something Ian would look at Jean and call her a ‘dreadful woman,’ and she would immediately respond by calling him a ‘horrible old man.’ Then they would giggle, and somewhere in the laughter they would forget what they had been arguing about and move on to something else.

One of my favorite visits to their home was one that I made by myself. Julie was pregnant and didn’t want to travel, and so I dropped in on the McCallums, armed with a sonogram image of our not-yet-born son. I remember handing the picture to Ian and saying: “Ian, meet Ian.” He was genuinely moved, and over the next few years he was so gracious to our Ian—reading him stories and walking him around the amazing garden he tended in the middle of Edinburgh. That’s a picture of them together above, in Ian and Jean’s home in Edinburgh. Only the Parkinson’s disease that was diagnosed in the last few years kept him from doing all the things he wanted to accomplish. It was from Parkinson’s related complications that he died last week.

So this week I was back in Edinburgh, back in St. Giles’ and back in Ian and Jean’s home. Edinburgh, for all its rich history and architecture and beauty, is a little emptier now. But as I head back to my home in London it occurs to me that so much of what I know about hospitality and generosity, I learned in the McCallum home. In that simple way, Ian lives on with us as Julie and I reach out to other people and invite them in for a meal.

In the afterglow of Ian’s funeral today, I’m reminded of just how fortunate I was to know him. I’m thankful for that right now. What a blessing he was…and still is.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Evangelicals and Politics in America

(I was invited to speak this week at a meeting of The All-Party Parliamentary Methodist Fellowship. This is a gathering of Methodist Christians in the Houses of Commons and Lords who meet monthly to discuss issues of faith and politics, and I was asked to give some historical and theological background to the election of Barack Obama. What follows is an edited version of my remarks.)

I’ve noticed that the topic for today is ‘Barack Obama: A New Vision for America?’ I’m going to take that title as sufficiently broad enough to speak on the history of evangelicals and evangelicalism in America, and in particular the evangelical engagement with the broader culture in the US. As a Christian who is also an American, and also a minister and an historian of evangelicalism, I make no pretense of neutrality on this topic. It matters to me very deeply—you can let me know if you think it has overly colored my analysis of events.

You’re going to hear me talk a lot about evangelicals today. One reason for that is that the history of political engagement among evangelicals is frankly more interesting than that of other Christian traditions. But to be fair, the real reason is that evangelicalism is what I know—less sometimes as a participant than as an observer, but I do reside theologically within the boundaries of evangelical Christianity.

Listen to this quote from the news last week: ‘I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future, is itself of the essence. The 21st Century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God.’

That was no American politician shilling for evangelical votes. It was Tony Blair, who won the race to become the first foreign leader to visit Barack Obama in Washington. It struck me that one critical difference between British and American public life is that while Blair had to wait until he was out of office to speak openly about his faith, the US won’t elect a president unless he or she makes some claim to personal faith as a candidate.

The relationship between American Christianity and American politics is an enormous topic—one that would take far longer than any of us has today—but it is an important one in light of the recent US election. My goal today is to start with some background on the history of Christianity in America, and introduce some themes that relate to the election of Barack Obama. The basic point is this: Evangelicals as a voting bloc have broadened the range of issues that matter to them, and this diversification provided a part of the crossover that swayed the election Obama's way. The background to this shift will be the focus of my presentation.

Some quotes that point us in the right direction:

John Winthrop: (Led the group of Puritans who founded the Mass. Bay Colony in 1629) ‘For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.’

Alexis De Tocqueville: (French historian and political philosopher) ‘The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditional faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.’

America is a religious nation, and for much of the first 150 years the dominant religion was Christianity. It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Christian thought and biblical teaching on American culture—in some ways that influence continues today and is visible in people who long ago abandoned any personal links with Christianity. But it’s more accurate to say that America was and is a religiously free nation. From the beginning, several of the colonies were founded with the expressed purpose of providing religious freedom to their citizens. The Quakers of Pennsylvania protected Roman Catholics escaping from England, and Rhode Island was known for separating church and state completely. Most Jewish Americans and more than a few Muslim Americans will freely admit that America is the freest and safest place for them to live and thrive.

Still, that overwhelmingly Christian influence has led to a sort of shared myth of America as an explicitly Christian nation, especially among evangelicals. The idea of ‘American exceptionalism’, or the belief that America has some unique and divinely inspired historical destiny, sets most non-Americans’ teeth on edge. For many American evangelicals, however, it remains a deeply held belief.

Christianity in America, while certainly present at the founding of the nation, reached its greatest level of influence in the 19th and not the 18th century. Church attendance in the colonial and revolutionary periods was far lower than it would be after the Second Great Awakening and beyond. In fact, the spread of Christianity in America follows a pattern that directly challenges the standard evangelical narrative.

Most American evangelicals believe that the nation started with a strong and influential Christian consensus, which has eroded over the last two centuries through moral and theological decay. It is crucial for the understanding of contemporary events—including the election of Barack Obama—to accept that the opposite is actually true. In 1776 only 17% of Americans attended church—not exactly a strong and influential consensus. By 1850, in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, that number had doubled to 34%. By the turn of the 20th century, 50% of Americans attended church, and by 1982 that number had risen to 62%. (Source: Finke and Starke, The Churching of America: Rutgers, 1992.)

The only conclusion supported by the actual data is this: While Christianity was certainly present at the founding of the United States, it only achieved its cultural dominance in the late-19th and 20th centuries. That matters, partly because it’s always better to have an accurate picture than an inaccurate one, but mostly because it helps us understand the events in the early 20th century that led to the rise (and eventual fall) of the Religious Right as a political force.

First, though, a word about the role of evangelicalism in 19th-century America. It will surprise many to know that evangelicals were at the forefront of the major social movements of the day: women’s rights, rescue missions and other relief work among the poor, and most importantly, the abolition movement. In the 19th century there was no division between the meeting of physical and spiritual needs—in fact, to it would have seemed strange to an evangelical in the 19th century to separate the two. But that all started to change near the turn of the 20th century. Historians generally attribute the marginalization of evangelicals and the origins of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies to a handful of factors.

Certainly immigration was a factor. Huge numbers of Roman Catholics and Jews were coming from Europe, diluting the American self-image of a largely Protestant Christian nation.

Science and the rise of evolutionary theory also played a major role. This is the age of the modern university, built on a foundation of neutral inquiry and secular thought. The educational institutions of America, even those with Christian origins, began to marginalize Christian faith and practice not only in the curriculum, but also in student life.

The rise of modern Biblical criticism was the most important factor. The use of historical and literary methodologies to examine the Bible and challenge traditional faith was the last straw. It was during this period, in the early decades of the 20th century, that two businessmen provided financial backing for the publication of a series of pamphlets defending traditional Christian doctrines. These were called The Fundamentals, which gave us the term fundamentalist. The articles were written by some of the most prominent British and American scholars of the day, and more importantly, were distributed free of charge to ministers and laypersons alike.

As strange as it may sound, Fundamentalism was not originally a militant movement. But after the Scopes Monkey Trials in 1925, where conservative Christianity was savaged in the press, fundamentalists began to separate from denominations, academic institutions and other areas of public life. They built a thriving subculture of parallel institutions including churches, Bible colleges and missionary agencies. At their best they cooperated on projects and campaigns, while at their worst they separated not only from the secular culture, but also from each other.

The division between fundamentalist and modernist Protestant traditions in America can be compared to a divorce. These were, after all, Christian people of mostly Anglo-European origins, who had simply found living together impossible. In the divorce, each group got something in the settlement.

The left wing of the church, which was suspicious of enthusiastic preaching and revivalism, took custody of social action—work with the poor, international relief work, and progressive political action. This more liberal wing of the church was much more open to revisions of inherited doctrines, and embraced a broader definition of the Christian faith.

The conservative or evangelical wing of the church took primary responsibility for evangelistic efforts—for soul-winning and other spiritual work. This group also emphasized the defense of traditional doctrines and practices, using a fairly narrow conception of Christian truth.

It’s this division, which has only recently started to weaken, that defined Christian political life in America for almost a century. For our topic today it’s important to note that the fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant side of this split spent an enormous amount of time and energy defining who was and who was not a true Christian. George Marsden, a prominent historian of American Christianity, has argued that without a Pope or other voice of final authority, conservative American Protestantism tended to employ boundary issues to define who was in and who was out. Originally these were traditional issues of doctrine: Deity of Christ, Trinity, Authority of Scripture, Atonement, and Eschatology.

These boundaries were defended with such vigor and militancy at times, that even groups who agreed on virtually everything could separate from each other. Separatism became, for the conservative wing of Protestant America, the functional equivalent of excommunication. The best example of that is the case of Billy Graham in 1957. Graham, who was (and for most would continue to be) the star of modern revivalism, had led enormous evangelistic rallies in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. He set his sights on New York, as most evangelists did, and built a coalition of local church leaders to help him organize his Manhattan Crusade. Trouble arose, though, when word got out that there would be leaders from mainline Protestant churches joining Graham on the platform. The form of separatism practiced by conservative evangelicals at that time prohibited any cooperation between individuals or groups that didn’t share the narrowest understanding of Christian doctrine. Graham was criticized for including non-evangelical leaders in his crusade, and a major segment of the evangelical movement separated from him before the event—most of that group of evangelicals has remained functionally separate from Graham and his ministry for the half-century since the New York campaign.

Think about that for a moment. An influential group of conservative evangelicals split from Graham because he was too ‘liberal’, and they managed to stay separated as Graham led hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to faith in Jesus Christ. Our contemporary understanding of the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, whether we know it or not, is rooted in the 1957 conflict over Billy Graham.

The important thing to recognize is that for good or ill, evangelicalism came to be seen as obsessed with determining who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Some of this was utterly fruitless and destructive, as with the divisions over the sequence of the End Times or the fight over Billy Graham. Some of it was helpful discernment of theological differences—the sort that matter for evangelism and church ministry. But even in that area evangelicals could go a bit over the top. Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults was published in 1965, and defined the conservative evangelical outlook on other religions for a generation, especially in regards to Mormonism. Martin, who had misrepresented his educational credentials for decades, earned millions on revision after revision of his guide to non-Christian religions. To be fair, he was often more moderate than his readers, as in the case of his positive assessment of the Seventh-Day Adventists, but he created an atmosphere that, ironically, made it more difficult to conduct meaningful evangelism among Mormons.

Martin’s book, I would argue, represented just one of many overreactions to the marginalization of conservative Christianity that had begun in the early part of the 20th century. We should remember, though, that this marginalization did not slow the steady growth of church attendance in America, but it did erode the self-perception among evangelicals of their cultural power in wider society.

A key shift happened with the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 70s. This organization represented a dramatic shift in the way evangelicals would engage American culture, moving from agreement or separation over doctrinal matters to cooperation on political action on a narrow range of social issues. The most striking thing about this group was that it assembled, just as Walter Martin’s book was exploding in popularity, a coalition of evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, traditional Jews, and Mormons.

The key here is that these groups, who previously would have had nothing to do with each, suddenly banded together over abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, and the fate of the modern state of Israel. This shift away from doctrinal issues and onto social/political engagement has defined conservative Christian political participation for more than a quarter century. The rise of the Christian Right, which encompassed fundamentalism and much (though not all) of evangelicalism, has been a dominant political force in the Republican party. That was true until the run up to the election of Barack Obama.

Why the change? Before addressing that question, it’s important to note that the breakdown of the conservative evangelical political coalition does not represent a breakdown of unity on those issues. Christianity Today, an evangelical publication, is conducting a survey of Christian leaders to determine their level of concern over moral issues in light of the new administration.

There are two explanations that will be important to historians of this period someday.

First, we have seen a happy erosion of the boundary-setting mentality of past generations. More thoughtful leaders are reflecting on, and in some cases repenting of, the tendency to pronounce final judgments on other Christians and even non-Christian people. That role, in any consistent theology, is God’s alone. As an American Christian I think this change allows for a more gracious and complete expression of a Christian worldview in political life.

More importantly, there was a broadening of the list of issues that influenced the voting patterns of evangelicals. There is more to define the Christian encounter with the broader culture than simply being against abortion or homosexual practice. Deeper Christian reflection on issues of peace, poverty, social justice and the environment emerged as having a strong influence over the voting decisions of many young evangelicals. That came as an unwelcome shock to leaders of the Christian Right, but it was welcomed by many as a sign of maturity and depth among evangelicals as they developed new ways to engage the culture.

But again, why the change?

Partly it represents a new way of understanding the idea of truth, or maybe a better word to use there is ‘certainty’. There is a greater level of sensitivity toward other faiths or political views among evangelicals than existed before.

Certainly the public identification of President Bush to the evangelical movement, alongside the perception of injustice and failure in the Iraq War, pushed many younger evangelicals out of the Republican camp.

Some of it simply comes down to good solid leadership. There have been influential evangelical thinkers who have been communicating this broadening of evangelicalism over the last 10 years or so, and that influence seems to have caught on in a big way. On the left, Jim Wallis has been a champion of social justice among evangelicals for decades, but his book God’s Politics forced many people to see their engagement to the culture in new ways. On the more conservative side, Rick Warren has joined the evangelistic emphases of the conservative camp with a vigorous commitment to social action as well as anyone since the 19th century. Institutions such as Fuller Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Evangelicals for Social Action have developed an intellectually and theologically sound set of arguments for the broadening of political engagement among evangelical Christians.

This transformation hasn’t been easy—some early leaders lost their jobs and ministries in the process—but in the end it has made room for a more vibrant and effective witness for evangelicals in the broader political world, and it had a direct impact on the election of Barack Obama as the American president.

The next step will be to see if these progressive evangelicals—the ones who broke ranks with the Right and helped to elect Obama—if they will be welcomed into the expanded progressive movement, or if they will be alienated and return to the entrenched, boundary-making politics of the past.

Monday, February 09, 2009

If You Choose to Accept It

(This is the last in a series titled, 'The Contagious Church'.)

Romans 1:8-17

In offices and board rooms around the world, people are reviewing their mission statements. A ‘mission statement’ is a brief explanation for why a company or other organization exists. Organizations use them to set direction and create a shared vision for what they’re trying to accomplish. You can bet that a lot of financial institutions are reviewing or revising their mission statements during this time of crisis.

It got me thinking about the mission statements of places I’ve worked before.

Union Rescue Mission: We embrace the urban poor with the compassion of Christ, giving hope and healing for a changed life, helping them to find their way home.

Fuller Theological Seminary: embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church.

The Presbyterian Foundation: A vital part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Foundation cultivates, attracts, and manages financial resources of individuals and institutions to serve Christ's mission.

The church I grew up in had a simple statement: ‘To know Christ and to make him known.’

Today we finish our series on what it means to be a church that is alive and contagious. The sentence I’ve been saying over these past few weeks is in the form of a definition, but as I looked at it again this week it occurred to me that it functions in some ways as a mission statement.

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Each one of those qualities or practices helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life in a generous and contagious way with other people. The sentence as a whole describes how and why the church exists. Today we end with a look at the last of the four expressions of the church: Mission, the part of our Christian life that draws us outward into service—it’s the way we become the hands and feet of the Body of Christ.

8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
11I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. 13I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
14I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

There isn’t much for me to say about Rome as a city and an empire that you don’t already know. It was a the single most influential place on earth at the time, and the Apostle Paul’s desire was always to preach the gospel there.

Paul begins with an expression of his love for the Roman Christians—he tells them how thankful he is for their brave faith in the face of horrible persecution. But what he really wants is to be with them—to share his insight to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to use his gifts to bring more people into the faith.

The letter to the Romans is Paul’s most complete statement of Christian theology and world view. This is the advanced letter, meant for the experienced believers, and not really aimed at beginners. It’s a sign of Paul’s confidence in the maturity of the Roman community that he addresses so many issues in such depth.

The reason that it’s the first of Paul’s letters to appear in the New Testament is simply that it’s the biggest of them all. Paul’s letters, like the prophetic books in the Old Testament, are arranged in order of size, instead of content or when they were written.

Paul ends this passage by reminding his readers that the gospel’s power is realized when people believe it and live by it. It is ‘a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.’ But just before that Paul makes one of his classic bold statements: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’

It’s important to look at that claim before we move on. When Paul talks about not being ashamed of the gospel, he isn’t talking about feeling guilty or disgraced by what it says. When Paul uses that word he’s saying that he hasn’t been disappointed by the gospel—that his confidence in its truth hasn’t been shaken or threatened.

What Paul is saying is that his faith has remained strong in the face of all kinds of challenges, and that he is pressing on with his mission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone who will listen.

What does that mean for us?

To be unashamed of the gospel is to accept the full meaning and implications of Jesus’ life and ministry—his sacrifice and his promises.

So back to the discussion about mission statements: How are they created?

One of the best guides to creating a mission statement teaches us to ask three important questions as we begin:

1. What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address?
2. What are we doing to address these needs?
3. What principles or beliefs guide our work?

We’re going to come back to that in a moment.

One of my favorite old TV shows was ‘Mission Impossible.’ It was the grandfather of shows like ‘Alias’ or ‘24’, where there’s always some impossible task to be completed in a limited amount of time. The leader would get an envelope and a tape saying what needed to be done. The recording would always end with: ‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it’ followed by a description of the task.

What is our mission here? What are the full meaning and implications of Jesus’ life and ministry—his sacrifice and his promises? Hopefully we’re exploring parts of that every week in our worship and study and prayer and reflection. But at its core, Jesus Christ calls us to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We feed and clothe and comfort people in need, without ever forgetting that our message and motivation is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. We will not be ashamed of that message here in this church.

In my denominational tradition we talk about the Great Ends of the Church:

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
The maintenance of divine worship;
The preservation of the truth;
The promotion of social righteousness; and,
The exhibition of the Kingdom of God to the world.

Do we accept that? That’s a pretty important question. It takes the challenge of having faith in our contemporary world—all of the tension between science and theology and national interest and just plain doubt. It takes all of that challenge and joins it together to the challenge of acting on our faith—of behaving and working and loving and spending differently, because of what we believe.

Do we accept that? In our passage Paul makes the bold claim that he’s not ashamed of the gospel. Can we honestly say the same thing?

Well, what do we do now? One of the great joys of sharing this message at this point in our church’s life is that I get to say that we’re moving in the right direction on a handful of mission fronts. Our children’s ministries and partnership with Young Life are helping young people meet Jesus in meaningful ways. The Cold Weather Shelter and Soup Kitchen are demonstrating our love tangibly for the community around us. Our support for the International Justice Mission and local evangelistic work are keeping us connected to the world beyond these doors. All of these represent the healthy blend of meeting physical needs and also the need to meet Jesus in faith. This church has made a bold commitment to serve others in Christ’s name, and we’re only getting started.

The call to each individual here, and to all of us as a community of faith, is to draw on the blessings we receive through fellowship, worship and discipleship, and to turn those outward for the benefit of family and friends and strangers alike. From the very beginning of God’s relationship with his human creation, and all the way to the present day, the covenant we share with God is this: The blessings we receive are given so that we will be a blessing to all people.

In that sense we are a church—a community—with a mission. Meeting physical and spiritual needs isn’t an option, it’s a command from God himself. It’s the mission we’ve been given and empowered to accomplish. It’s a mission that we take seriously here, and one that we plan to grow.

In this place we believe we have important responses to those three critical questions that lead to an effective mission statement:

1. What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address? The world is filled with spiritual and physical needs that we have the means to address.

2. What are we doing to address these needs? We’re working to provide tangible help, while sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with love and creativity.

3. What principles or beliefs guide our work? We believe that the God who made us and redeemed us offers something unique to the world in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to work together to continue to accomplish the Great Ends of the Church, to build this community on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and to share it through fellowship, worship, discipleship, and mission.

As we end this series of messages, let’s stand and say that sentence together:

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Character Building

(This is the third in a series, 'The Contagious Church'. There are photos of the London snow storm below this post.)

Colossians 3:1-4

Today we continue our series on what it means to be a church that is alive and contagious. The key sentence for us over the next few weeks, and feel free to memorize it, is this:

A contagious church is built on a foundation of Jesus Christ, and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission.

Each one of those qualities or practices helps to shape us into the people that God calls us to be, and each one helps us share that life in a generous and contagious way with other people. Today we continue with a look at Discipleship, how God shapes us into the people he made us to be.

1Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

There are some things for us to notice about this passage.

The Colossians were a part of the same network of churches we talked about last week, with the Ephesians and the church at Laodicea, and others. It was a significant trading city, but it was never rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in the year 60 AD.

The letter is addressing a theological problem for the Colossians. The one is different from the letters Paul writes to churches that are struggling with what to do about their Jewish traditions. The Colossians were mostly Gentiles, and their problems had to do with the influence of other religions on their faith in Christ. The first two chapters of this book are a summary of Christian belief about God and the Messiah—if you’ve never read Colossians, I’d recommend it to you.

In the first line of our text we see a simple equation. If you were raised with Christ, then it will change your life from the inside out. ‘Set your hearts on things above,’ Paul says, which is a way of calling believers to focus their hearts and lives and concerns on Jesus Christ. The life of faith—the life of discipleship—is different from our past lives.

Next Paul says ‘Set your minds on things above, and not on earthly things.’ Allow your worldview to be changed once you’ve accepted the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This isn’t an invitation to be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. This is a call to build your outlook on life on a foundation of Christ’s teachings—Christ’s forgiveness—Christ’s promises.

The point for us today is this: Discipleship describes the process by which we allow ourselves to be remade by Jesus Christ.

Now, let’s be serious, this is not about our bodies somehow taking on a different shape, or being made from different stuff. This is about our lives—the way we live—what we value and protect and share—and what we communicate to the world around us. It’s about all of that being broken down and reshaped into a life that will serve Christ and his Kingdom at every turn.

'Band of Brothers' tells the story of a company of elite paratroopers during WWII. We follow these guys from D-Day to Holland to the siege of Bastogne and finally to victory in Germany. In the first episode we see the difficult training Easy Company endured in order to earn their place in the Airborne Division—they studied, drilled in formation, and ran up and down a hill called Currahee. This time of preparation built a deep sense of friendship and community among the guys, but it didn’t make them paratroopers. The only way to earn the Airborne badge was to jump out of a plane—they had to make five successful jumps in order to graduate.

What does that mean for us? How do we begin or continue the process of becoming more mature in our faith? How do we grow into more effective disciples of Jesus Christ? There is no easy list here. This isn’t magic. Discipleship is a process of working at the basics of the Christian faith—of the Christian life.

Nothing I’m about to say will be a surprise to any of you. The path to growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ requires Prayer, Study, Service and Risk.

We pray because God invites us to come to him in this intimate way. We study because the words of Scripture help us to understand our experience of God. We serve because a Christian life that only focuses inward is neither Christian nor much of a life.

And then there’s risk. At some point, somewhere along the way, when we’re willing to acknowledge that this life of discipleship isn’t about us—at that point we have to take a risk and show the world just who it is that we follow...who it is that we serve. At some point we have to jump out of the plane—not to earn salvation, but to show what God’s work looks in the life of a disciple.

How do we grow as disciples? In one sense we have to remember that the word disciple is the root of another word we don’t like to use very much: discipline. That word has been distorted to represent punishment or pain or both. But at its core the word discipline describes the systematic instruction of a student—one definition describes discipline as the modeling of character, and the teaching of self-control and acceptable behavior.

Now frankly, we may not like those words any more than we like the sound of pain and punishment, but the fact that we don’t like them doesn’t mean that they aren’t true.

The Christian message leads directly to the call to live the Christian life. And that means we look to Jesus Christ as the model for our character. We look to his teachings as examples of self-control and the behavior that makes our lives into examples of God’s grace.

In the end, though, it’s important to remember that at one level this is a spiritual thing—a supernatural thing. We don’t just work our way into being better disciples, though it takes work. We don’t will ourselves into being more faithful, though I do believe that part of faith involves and act of the will. The key is to remember that we don’t earn this blessing on our own power.

Becoming a disciple is a gift—it’s a gift that we put ourselves in position to receive, even as we have to acknowledge that it comes from outside of us—from Christ himself. Becoming a disciple is a gift, but it’s still one that we have to open for ourselves through prayer, study, service and risk.

In the book of Acts we see Jesus coming to Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the faith, and changing his life—transforming his identity so much that only a new name would do. Saul the enemy became Paul, the apostle of Christ’s gospel to the world.

As we come to the Table this morning we come as people called to a new way of living—a new way of loving and spending and growing and serving. The God who came to us while we were still his enemy—that same God comes now with an offer to re-make us into the people we were meant to be all along: People who reflect the grace of God to a world that has forgotten what grace is.

As we come to the Table this morning I invite you to pray that God will continue the good work he has already started in each one of our lives. Pray that he’ll stretch you and grow you and even break you if necessary. Pray that your life will be good news to this city and this world. Pray that you will be his disciple. Amen.

Monday, February 02, 2009

London Freezes Over

We woke up today to 7 inches of snow outside. Bus service was suspended, the Tube was severely delayed, and Ian's school was closed. For LA natives it was our very first Snow Day, so we decided to take advantage of it.

Some shots around our house in the morning.

This is our neighborhood.

We went over to Primrose Hill (on buses today), to meet some friends who were sledding over there.

No better way to wrap up a day off. Ian and I made our first snow angels in the backyard.