1581) Church Growth and Basic Truths (1972)

Image result for why conservative churches are growing dean kelley images

——————-

By Albert Mohler, April 25, 2011, at:  www.albertmohler.com

     By the late 1960s, liberal Protestants began asking a rather difficult question.  Why were the conservative churches growing?  In retrospect, one aspect of the liberal Protestant crisis was reflected in that very question.  The mainline Protestant denominations would have been better served by asking why their own churches were declining.

     Commissioned by the (liberal) National Council of Churches, researcher Dean M. Kelley set out to find out why conservative churches were growing, even as the more liberal churches were declining.  In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion, Kelley argued that evangelical churches grow precisely because they do what the more liberal congregations and denominations intentionally reject — they make serious demands of believers in terms of doctrine and behavior.

     “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley noted, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

     With amazing insight and candor, Kelley spoke for mainline Protestantism when he noted that it had been generally assumed that churches, “if they want to succeed, will be reasonable, rational, courteous, responsible, restrained, and receptive to outside criticism.”  These churches would be highly concerned with preserving “a good image in the world” — and that meant especially within the world of the cultural elites.  These churches, intending to grow, would be “democratic and gentle in their internal affairs” — as the larger world defines those qualities.  These churches will intend to be cooperative with other religious groups in order to meet common goals, and thus “will not let dogmatism, judgmental moralism, or obsessions with cultic purity stand in the way of such cooperation and service.”

     Then, Kelley dropped his bomb: “These expectations are a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise, and arise from a mistaken view of what success in religion is and how it should be fostered and measured.”

     Kelley then presented his considerable wealth of research and reflection on the phenomenon of conservative growth and liberal decline.  “Strong” religious movements make demands of their members in terms of both belief and behavior.  These churches demand adherence to highly defined doctrines that are to be received, believed, and taught without compromise.  They also understand themselves to be separate from the larger secular culture, and the requirements of membership in the church define a distance from secular beliefs and behaviors.

     The liberal churches are, by their own decision, opposed to these very principles.  The mainline Protestant churches desired to be taken seriously and respected by the intellectual elites.  They wanted the benefits of cultural acceptance and esteem.  They lowered doctrinal and behavioral requirements and made membership more a matter of personal preference than of theological conviction.

     Kelley concluded: “To the person who is concerned about the future of the ecumenical churches, this theory can offer little encouragement.  The mainline denominations will continue to exist on a diminishing scale for decades, perhaps for centuries, and will continue to supply some people with a dilute and undemanding form of meaning, which may be all they want.”

     …In a recent column in The New York Times, David Brooks raised similar issues…  He noted that many Americans “have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.”

     And he is right, of course.  This is an eloquent description of the religious disposition so well documented by Dean Kelley almost 40 years ago.  This describes the mainline Protestant aspiration — to be seen as serving the public good without the taint of theological judgment…  But, says Brooks, “Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last.  The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False… 

     Note that Brooks defined the “strong” profile of belief with terms such as “rigorous,” “arduous,” and “definite.”  With considerable insight, Brooks informed his readers that rigorous theology “provides believers with a map of reality,” “allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally,” “helps people avoid mindless conformity,” and “delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us.”  Meanwhile, arduous codes of behavior and conduct “allow people to build their character.”  Brooks explains that “regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.”

     Brooks concludes with a look at Africa, where conservative Protestantism is thriving.  He writes:  “I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa.  The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behavior.  The blunt theological talk of the church ladies — right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better effect.”

     In the span of just a few paragraphs, David Brooks made the same argument that Dean M. Kelley made in his book-length report on research four decades ago.  There is a wealth of insight in both analyses.  In the present context, evangelical Christians face many of the same questions asked by the liberal Protestant denominations in the 1960s and beyond.  The main question is always deeply theological: Do we really believe that the message of the Gospel is the only message that offers salvation?  

     …In the end, sociology can get us only so far and no further.  The rigor, ardor, and energies of evangelical churches must not be held merely in a desire to hold to a form of religion that will grow, but in a biblical commitment to hold fast to the truth of the Gospel and to share that saving truth with the whole world.

*******************************************

I Timothy 3:9  —  They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.

Revelation 14:12  —  This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.

II Thessalonians 2:15  —  Stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

*******************************************

Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud  (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury

1580) Church Growth and Basic Truths (2016)

Image result for church growth images

By Tyler O’Neil, December 2, 2016 atwww.pjmedia.com/faith

     A five-year study of growing and shrinking churches in Canada revealed that theology is critical for church survival, and even for attracting younger people.  Beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, the importance of converting people to Christianity, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are strongest in growing churches, and weakest in churches on the decline.

     “If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner,” said David Haskell, lead researcher in the study Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.   This declaration is powerful, but the numbers are even more striking.

     A whopping 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of worshippers at growing churches agreed with the statement, “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.”  In shrinking churches, only 67 percent of worshippers and 56 percent of clergy agreed with this statement.

     This finding echoes Saint Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”  This statement seems to contradict many allegorical interpretations of the resurrection of Christ in vogue among “liberal” Christians.

     But the study goes even further in providing evidence that “conservative” beliefs about the literal interpretation of scripture correlate with growing churches.  In declining churches, only about 50 percent of clergy agreed that it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” while one hundred percent of clergy in growing churches agreed with this statement.

     A full 71 percent of clergy in growing churches read the Bible daily, compared with just 26 percent of clergy from declining churches.  This trend is the same among worshippers: 46 percent of those attending growing churches said they read the Bible once a week, while only 26 percent who attend declining churches reported reading scripture that often.

     A full 100 percent of clergy at growing churches (and 90 percent of worshippers there) said that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers.”  In contrast, only 44 percent of clergy at declining churches agreed.  In a fascinating twist, almost twice as many congregants (80 percent) of pastors at declining churches believed in God’s ability to answer prayers with miracles.

   These findings come from a large sample of mainline Christians in Ontario, Canada.  The study surveyed 2,225 churchgoers, along with 29 clergy and 195 official congregants.

     At a common-sense level, these correlations make sense.  If Jesus literally rose from the dead, if it is important to convert non-Christians, and if God has the ability to answer prayers, attending church would have more spiritual value.  If you believe that heaven exists, that Jesus’s death and resurrection allow Christians to go there, and that the only thing required to save someone from eternal torment is to convince them to believe in Jesus, you will find more motivation to go to church and to bring others with you.

     And if clergy and congregations read the Bible less, they would likely be less committed to spreading the truths revealed by Holy Scripture.

     Haskell told The Guardian that growing churches “held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.”

     “Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are ‘sure’ that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life,” Haskell told Britain’s The Guardian.  “Because they are profoundly convinced of [the] life-saving, life-altering benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church.”

     Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible prove to be more unified on priorities and morality as well.  “That also makes them more confident and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own,” Haskell added.  “Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring or basically positive is an attractive combination.”

     While the findings of the study are remarkably clear, Haskell suggested they were likely to be controversial.  “If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that.  Theological orientation cuts to the very core of the religious practitioner.”

     On another note, the study found that two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, while two-thirds of those at shrinking churches were over 60.

     While the “liberal” theology of many mainline churches dates to a more recent origin and often accommodates many ideas considered contrary to orthodox Christianity, some might argue that the “liberal” versus “conservative” terminology in theology is misleading.  The key beliefs here involve the literal interpretation of scripture — most especially the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and the importance of converting others.  These are universal orthodox Christian beliefs.  They are the kernel of the Christian faith, the reasons to be a Christian and not something else, and while some may consider them “conservative,” the thing they conserve is nothing more or less than the “Mere Christianity” presented so effectively by C. S. Lewis.

     The study did not involve “conservative” versus “liberal” issues like church positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, or Darwinism, but rather on pivotal beliefs that make up orthodox Christianity…  These issues are less important than the resurrection of Jesus or God’s power to do miracles.

     In fact, one might ask, “If Christians who believe that God can do miracles and that Jesus bodily rose from the dead are to be considered conservative, what sort of Christians would be called liberal, and in what sense are they even Christian at all?”

     The results of this study are clear.  Churches which champion the literal truth of the Bible on the key issues at the center of the Christian faith are growing, while those which do not are shrinking.  (Tomorrow’s meditation will describe a much more extensive 1972 study done by the liberal National Council of Churches that came to the same conclusions.)

***********************************************

I Corinthians 15:14  —  If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

John 14:6  —  (Jesus said), “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

II Timothy 3:16  —  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

***********************************************

Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud  (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury

1530) You Are Welcome

   Image result for welcome mat images

The following welcome is printed each week in the bulletin of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona Beach, Florida.  It reflects the kind of welcoming community every congregation should be.  It does not say that all the choices reflected in the welcome are good choices, and it says nothing about what is and is not sinful.  It just says that all are welcome to worship at Our Lady of Lourdes, along with the rest of the sinners that gather there each week.  What is right and what is wrong will most certainly be a part of any church’s message, and certainly a part of being a child of God– but that is not where we begin.  The church begins with an invitation, and this ‘welcome’ has it right– ALL ARE INVITED!

————-

Welcome…

     We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, ‘y no habla Ingles.’  We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail, or could afford to lose a few pounds.

     We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli, or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket.  You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woke up, or just got out of jail.  We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

     We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.  We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians junk-food eaters.  We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.  We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion.”  We’ve been there too.

     If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here.  We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or want to go to church only because grandma is in town.

     We welcome those who are inked, pierced, or both.  We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.  We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts… and you!

****************************

     The Gospels of Luke and Matthew record parables of Jesus in which he compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast.  In both parables there are those who refuse the invitation, but in both ALL ARE INVITED.

Luke 14:15-24  —  When one of those at the table with Jesus heard this, he said to him, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
     Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.  At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, `Come, for everything is now ready.’
     “But they all alike began to make excuses.  The first said, `I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it.  Please excuse me.’
     “Another said, `I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out.  Please excuse me.’
     “Still another said, `I just got married, so I can’t come.’
     “The servant came back and reported this to his master.  Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, `Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
     “`Sir,’ the servant said, `what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
     “Then the master told his servant, `Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.  I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’ “

From a similar parable as recorded in Matthew 22:8-10  —  “Then Jesus said to his servants, `The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

****************************

Lord God of our salvation, it is your will that all people might come to you through your Son Jesus Christ.  Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection.  Amen.  –-Lutheran Book of Worship

1415) Albert Einstein’s View of the Church

     Much has been said about the failure of the churches to stand up against Adolph Hitler and the Nazi revolution in Germany in the 1930’s.  Certainly, many in the church became enthusiastic supporters of the Nazis, even as Hitler placed more and more restrictions upon the work of the church, forcing it to allow the evil message of the Nazis to have authority over the message of the Gospel.  

     But there were many in the church who were not silent, and who did speak out in spite of the danger.  Their brave witness has been forgotten by many, but it did not go unnoticed at the time.

     Albert Einstein, a Jew, was exiled from Germany.  He had this to say about what he saw in the 1930’s  (Quoted in Time magazine, 12-23-1940, page 38):  

     Being a lover of freedom, when the (Nazi) revolution came I looked to the universities to defend it (freedom), knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but no, the universities took refuge in silence.

     Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks.

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...

Albert Einstein

     I then addressed myself to the authors, to those who had passed themselves off as the intellectual guides of Germany, and among whom was frequently discussed the question of freedom and its place in modern life.  They were, in turn, very dumb (silent).

   Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth.  I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration for it because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom.  I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.

*********************************

Acts 4:18-20 — Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 17:5b-7 — They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.  But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting:  “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house.  They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”

     John 18:36 — Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.”

****************************

Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage:  We humbly pray that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will.  Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes who came here from many lands and tongues.  Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there be justice and peace at home; and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth.  In time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

1324) “Church Doesn’t Care About Me”

Image result for sunday morning rockwell images

SUNDAY MORNING, Norman Rockwell, May 16, 1959 cover of The Saturday Evening Post

—————————

A SURVEY:

A 2008 survey by LifeWay Research found that 72% of American adults who do not attend church say the church is full of hypocrites.  The same study found that 79% of those unchurched Americans think the church is more concerned about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.

——————

A STORY:

     My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go.  He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home.  Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, “I know what the church wants.  Church doesn’t care about me.  Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, and another pledge.  Right?  Isn’t that the name of the game?  Another name, another pledge.”  That’s what he always said.

     Sometimes we’d have a revival.  The pastor would bring the evangelist to our home to visit my father.  The pastor would say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him... get him, get him;” and my father would say the same thing to him.  Every time, my mother would be in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt.  And always my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.”  I guess I heard it a thousand times.

     One time he didn’t say it.  He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to 73 pounds.  They had taken out his throat, and he said, “It’s too late.”  They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces.  I flew in to see him.  He couldn’t speak and couldn’t eat.  

     I looked around the room.  There were potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed.  And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower.  And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.

     He saw me read a card.  He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare.  If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story.  He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

     I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”

     And he wrote, “I was wrong.”

–Fred B. Craddock, in Craddock Stories, ed. by Mike Graves and Richard E Ward, Chalice Press, 2001, p. 14.

It was too late for the church to be interested in that man’s name or pledge, but they were still interested in him; and so he was finally able to realize that they really did care.  

*********************************************

I Peter 3:15-16  —  In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

Matthew 5:16  —  (Jesus said), “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Colossians 3:17  —  Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I Timothy 1:13  —  Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.  The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

*********************************************

O Lord, give us mild, peaceable, meek, and humble spirits, so that, remembering our own sins, we may bear with the sins of others; that we may think lowly of ourselves, and thus not be angry when others also think lowly of us; that we may be patient towards all people, gentle and gracious; as God is so to us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Thomas Wilson (1663-1755), Anglican Bishop

1322) Treasure in Soiled Hands

By ELCA pastor James D. Engh, in the November 1995 issue of The Lutheran, pages 20-21.

———————

     I face the altar on Sunday mornings before I turn to greet the congregation.  And I pray silently: “O Lord, our maker, redeemer and comforter, we are assembled in Thy presence to hear Thy holy word.  We pray Thee so to open our hearts by Thy Holy Spirit, that through the preaching of Thy word we may be taught to repent of our sins, to believe on Jesus in life and in death, and to grow day by day in grace and holiness.  Hear us, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.”

     I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that prayer.  This opening prayer from “The Order of Morning Service” in the 1913 Lutheran Hymnary still ushers me into God’s presence.  It reminds me that my roots run deep into the rich soil of a great religious heritage—faith, piety and a people, a particular people with names and faces.  These people rooted me in the gospel.

     Our small wood church sat on a windswept hill on the prairies of northeast South Dakota.  Meant to be white, wind and sand, and extremes of heat and cold had long since weathered it gray.  The steeple pointed to a rooster, a weather vane, and beyond to the heavens.  Deeply grooved wooden steps testified to the tens of thousands of feet that continued to return here.

     I recall a Sunday in June. The doors stood open as flies buzzed in and out.  Arriving worshipers could hear the strains of Holy, Holy, Holy drifting out the doors.  I know that’s what the organist played—she always played it before services, Sunday after Sunday.

     People filed in, found their pews and nodded silently to those whose eyes they met.  These shy farmers had a tremendous capacity for silence.  But what went through their minds?

     Some were laying out plans for Monday’s work.  Others likely remembered with regret something done or said since they last sat in this place.  Some prayed for rain and a good crop this year, if it be God’s will.

     Above all, they prayed for the children.  They were all there, from one in her mother’s arms to one who was leaving home to her seek her fortune in Minneapolis.  “Yes, protect them from the evil one, Lord; keep them from harm and danger.  Have we done enough for them?  Will they remember their Bible stories, their catechism, their God?”  Their parents’ prayers spoke a love deeper and stronger than they were comfortable expressing.

     While they prayed, others studied the picture above the altar;  Jesus, in a boat with his disciples, calming the storm.  That picture interpreted their lives.

     These farmers had a deep reverence for this church.  It wasn’t much to revere, I suppose.  It groaned in the wind, the ceiling was stained from leaks and it needed new windows and a coat of paint.  But it was a place like no other in their lives.  It was where God’s people gathered to worship.  It had been made holy through the years by baptisms, confirmations and weddings.  People had their sins forgiven here; they’d heard the gospel and received the sacrament here.

     For an hour each week something extraordinary happened—people met God.   And I was a part of it.  As a result, I was rooted in the gospel, bit by bit, week after week.

     I loved that place.  I loved those people, though it took me a long time to recognize who they really were.  To me they looked shy, awkward, uneducated.  They were farmers on the verge of being driven into poverty by the next drought, storm, or drop in prices.  Faces leathered by the sun, some dressed in patched, soiled clothing.  Dirt and grease had stained their callused hands beyond cleaning.

     A few of them drank too much.  Some were nigh unto impossible to live with.  Others were not exactly willing to resist temptation.  Some could hardly talk without using foul language, and all were plagued by doubts and unspoken fears.

     Not a very “spiritual” looking crowd, some might say.  And they’d be right.  They could be petty, judgmental, unkind, unforgiving, and they could hold grudges with the best.

     And they knew it.  They hung their heads and marveled that God could love such as them.  But they were God’s gift to me.

     Such as they were, God still chose them to bear a treasure.  They were the first to speak God’s “I love you” to me.  Awkwardly stumbling over words, they somehow managed to speak powerfully of Jesus.  The Spirit breathed through their words and my experiences with them.

     I have vivid memories of these folks– who had known much more tragedy than I– kneeling under the picture of Jesus calming the storm.  That image has pulled me through my faith-testing times.

     I remember the old woman our pastor helped to an open casket below that picture.  Placing her hand on the cold, lifeless face of her husband of 58 years, she traced the sign of the cross with her bony, arthritic fingers.  In that moment, I knew I was in the presence of one of God’s special ones.

     I especially remember sitting next to my friend Roger, trying to help him memorize his Bible passage for the Christmas pageant, puzzled why this bright boy couldn’t memorize a few lines from Isaiah.  Later, I watched as the teacher led him back to his seat when, during the program, he couldn’t say anything intelligible.  Bewildered and frightened he sat beside me.  I cried for him then, and I cried for him a few weeks later at his grave.  It was a brain tumor, I think.

     I remembered his lines and even then understood something of what they meant: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4).  I learned something on that sad, wintry day about Christian faith and hope as I watched Roger’s parents’ eyes move from the casket to the pastor as he repeated a promise: “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

     This is the stuff on which I was nourished.  It’s available only to those who live among God’s believing, worshiping community.

     The church building no longer stands on that nameless hill in northeast South Dakota.  Most of those voices that once were raised in praise to God are now stilled.  Many lie in the cemetery behind the place where the church building once stood.

     It’s lonely there now, yet the strains of Holy, Holy, Holy cover this place like a blanket and are almost audible.  I can wander among the graves, read the names on the headstones, recall their faces and remember their stories—stories of failure and tragedy, of hope and shattered dreams, of sin and doubt, stories of faith that still nourish me.

     Bowing before the altar on Sundays to pray, I often wonder where I would be if it were not for those South Dakota farmers.  It’s unlikely I would be before this altar, praying the prayer they taught me.  I may not have been rooted in the gospel at all.  The treasure intended for me may not have been delivered.  God’s “I love you” may never have been whispered in my ear.

     And bowing before the altar, I sometimes think—often with fear—of the next generation.  Of all the voices competing for their attention, will they, by some miracle, hear our voice speaking to them of Jesus?

     I hope they will remember us kindly and not judge us too harshly.  I hope someday they will thank God for the priceless treasure they received from undeserving people.

Image result for lutheran congregation 1950 images

*****************************

I Peter 2:9-10  —  You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Psalm 78:1-7  —  My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth…  I will utter things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us…  We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lordhis power, and the wonders he has done…  He commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds, but would keep his commands.

*****************************

A PRAYER AS WORSHIP BEGINS:

O Lord, our maker, redeemer and comforter, we are assembled in Thy presence to hear Thy holy word.  We pray Thee so to open our hearts by Thy Holy Spirit, that through the preaching of Thy word we may be taught to repent of our sins, to believe on Jesus in life and in death, and to grow day by day in grace and holiness.  Hear us, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

-Lutheran Hymnary, 1913

1246) The View From Above

dday22

D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944; the view from the air.

——————

From Surprised By Jesus, by Tim Stafford, 2006, pages 236-237.

————————————

     (As a church) we are flawed, but together we are also the body of Christ.  We are bigger than any individual, bigger than any nation or culture.  We transcend East and West, North and South.  We are a billion hands and feet.  The church is an enormous fact brimming with life…, a vast varied congregation in every nation and tongue.

     …I listened to Stephen Ambrose’s book D-Day on a recent car trip.  In spellbinding detail Ambrose chronicles the massive planning and preparation of the invasion of Normandy in the Second World War.  Ambrose interviewed many soldiers who were there, and he offers their perspective.

     Often they experienced screw-ups.  Cockamamied plans went predictably wrong.  Bombs were dropped miles off target.  Men landed at the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong equipment.  Many died tragically through their own fellow soldiers’ mistakes.  Landing craft got off course and stuck on sandbars.  Some were destroyed by German artillery before they could even reach the beach.  Many men who reached shore couldn’t find their unit, and those who did were often bereft of equipment to do the assignments they had been trained for.  Seen from the battlefront, the scene was confusion, blood, and terror.  Many officers were sure that the invasion had failed, for all they saw was calamity.

     From above, however, the view was different.  Pilots looking down saw wave after wave of ships and planes in magnificent array (and then the beach secured and the army advancing).  The local scene might be chaos, but the greater outlook was filled with hope of final victory.  As events would show, the view from above was the accurate perspective, offering far better clues to the truth than the view closer to the action.

     So for us.  The wider our view of the church, the more likely we will understand the resurrection life that has begun.

     The church may often seem weak and foolish compared to a political faction, a skilled lobby, or a well-organized nonprofit organization.  Jesus’ church, however, demonstrates qualities they cannot touch, such as worship, proclamation of the gospel of peace, and sacrificial love.  Our strength lies in doing what is valuable in Jesus’ sight.  Our glory will be revealed on the day of the Lord Jesus.

     We who follow Jesus are tangible evidence of ‘the kingdom come.’  We are a movement that Jesus carefully constructed, shaping it from his own family of historical Judaism.  This is no mushroom, popping up on the fringes of culture.  It is more like a redwood tree, growing from a sliver of green into something rooted and massive and full of life.

****************************************************

I Corinthians 12:27  —  You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

I Peter 2:9-10  —  You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Ephesians 1:18-23  —  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.   And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

****************************************************

Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud  (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury

1227) Caiaphas

tissot-annas-and-caiaphas

Caiaphas, James Tissot  (1836-1902)

———————-

     The Episcopal church is in trouble these days.  Most Episcopalians are on the liberal end of the theological spectrum, and many Episcopalians have gone so far to the left of traditional Christianity that they can hardly be considered Christian anymore.  An Episcopal bishop can deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, publicly ridicule the authority of the Bible, question the existence of God, or marry another man– and still remain a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal church.  One might well wonder what is left of Christianity if not even those basic doctrines and ethical standards are upheld.

     But there is, in fact, something left in this Episcopal church, something on which they are strong and solid and firm and uncompromising.  This is the church power structure which has shown its willingness to spend millions of dollars, given in the offerings of faithful parishioners, for legal expenses to flex its muscles and rule over local congregations and pastors.

     Why is all that money needed for legal expenses?  There are still many good, solid, Bible-believing, Episcopal pastors, lay people, and congregations, but they do not know what to do.  They feel their national church, and in many cases their own bishops, have abandoned them, and they cannot live in a church that has gone so far from the truth.  So they have sought leadership and fellowship elsewhere, usually in Africa.  The Episcopal church is the Anglican church in America, and the Anglican church in Africa is very different.  It still has a strong and solid Biblical foundation, and it is to those bishops that many American congregations want to transfer their membership, allegiance, and mission offerings.  But the American powers that be tell them they cannot do that, because it is against their Anglican traditions.

     Imagine that.  The same bishops who have abandoned and even ridicule every Biblical truth and tradition, now, in the name of church tradition, will remove pastors from their pulpits, take congregations to court, and even seek to confiscate a congregation’s hard earned property and assets.

     There are similarities between the present conflict in the Episcopal church and the conflict that sent Jesus to the cross.  In both, we see an entrenched religious institutional authority trying to hang on to power.  In both, there are religious leaders who will use any and all legal power to get their way.  The presiding American Episcopal bishop took congregations to court to confiscate their property, thus preventing them from getting out from under their authority.  Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest at the time of Jesus, wanted to get rid of Jesus in order to maintain his established authority.  Caiaphas, therefore, forced Pilate’s hand and sought to influence the crowd to get an order of execution.  In both is a challenge to that earthly church authority and power by appealing to an even higher authority.  Biblical Episcopalians are appealing to the clear testimony of the Bible.  Jesus appealed to his heavenly Father and his own claim to be the promised Messiah, the truth of which was made evident to many people by his powerful words and miraculous deeds.  Both conflicts resulted in deep divisions.

     Caiaphas saw himself in the role of the protector of the old-time religion.  That was made particularly difficult with pagan Romans all over the place, desecrating the whole country, including the temple itself.  I am big on protecting the old-time religion myself, so I would be with him on that.  But for Caiaphas and the religious establishment of Jesus day, the protections around that old-time religion had grown into an endless list of laws and rules and obligations that was not protecting, but stifling the life, spirit, and truth of the old time religion.  Therefore, some of Jesus’ harshest words were directed at these chief priest and other religious leaders.

     The central hope of the old-time religion was that someday God would send a Messiah to save the people from their sins.  Many people believed that Jesus was the one that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries.  But Caiaphas would not even consider the possibility.  Not even after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead would Caiaphas open his heart and mind to the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah.

     Caiaphas’s goal was to have Jesus killed in order to protect the religious establishment.  Matthew 26:3 makes it clear that this was their intention:  “Then the chief priest and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”  Of the many people that played a part in the last week of Jesus’ life, it is only Caiaphas’s agenda that is completely followed.

      In God’s almighty providence, it turned out that Caiaphas’s agenda also accomplished God’s agenda.  In John 11, right after the report reached Caiaphas that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd, several of the chief priests asked:  “What shall we do?  If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away our nation.”  Romans or no Romans, it was indeed God’s intention that everyone believe in Jesus.  Caiaphas then said, “You know nothing at all.  Don’t you realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish?”  And that’s just what God had in mind– that one man should die for all the people.

     Peter, who loved Jesus as much as anyone, wanted to protect him.  But Peter had to have his will opposed in order for Jesus to accomplish God’s will.  But Caiaphas, the most wicked of all Jesus opponents, and the one most responsible for his death (humanly speaking), got just what he wanted.  As a result of the wicked scheming of Caiaphas, God’s most perfect plan reached its fulfillment.  This proves how difficult it is for us to know what is really best.  I wonder how God is working in our churches and our world today.

     One last thing.  There is a caution here for the current members of the religious establishment– and that includes me, and perhaps you also.  There is nothing wrong with being part of the religious establishment.  Right after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples and their followers began organizing themselves into communities that could worship and serve together.  This organized and established church has accomplished great things over the centuries.  But it has also taken some wrong turns and done some very bad things.  Therefore, we should look at Caiaphas not with disdain and arrogance, but with humility and caution.  We must not make the mistake he made, and let our church institution kill and bury the truth and spirit of its Lord and Savior.

*******************************************

Matthew 23:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

John 11:47-53  —  Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked.  “Here is this man performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.  So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

*******************************************

Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud, English bishop  (1573-1645)

1192) Going to Church With Max

photo-40

By Emily Colson, author of Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Freewriting about going to church with her autistic son Max; posted July 1, 2016, at http://www.keyministry.org , a website that “promotes meaningful connection between churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  Image copyright Emily Colson.

————————-

     Something happened at church.  Or perhaps what you need to know is, what didn’t happen.

     I pulled up to the church and Max bounced out of the car swinging his favorite vacuum.  Several people were unsuspectingly milling around by the front door, exchanging greetings.  “Watch out for the people!” I yelled behind Max as I watched his 8-pound Oreck swing like a ten ton wrecking ball.  I fully expected to see the crowd part like the Red Sea, people diving into the bushes head first as Max and his vacuum bolted toward them.  But instead, they extended their arms for a handshake, or a pat on his back.

     Every time I walk through the doors of our church I remember the years we lived in isolation, and the five years of staying home on Sunday mornings when we could not find our place.  Autism held us hostage.  But it is not a bitter memory; it is the soil from which God grew a victory.  When I cross that threshold now with Max, it feels like holy ground.

     Max comes most Sundays to serve as a greeter, and at the Welcome Center, and as part of the clean up team, otherwise known as the “Grunt Crew.”

     Max has clearly been given one of the lesser-known spiritual gifts of vacuuming.

     But what has changed Max’s life is what has changed mine:  He is loved.  He belongs.  He is indispensable.  We have been back at church for twelve years now, and none of this has been easy— sitting quietly is not part of Max’s skill set.  But it’s as if the whole church is learning to breathe a little deeper, and in that, we find there is enough room for everyone.

     After a wonderful and slightly aerobic morning, we could see from our seats at the Welcome Center that Pastor Paul was finishing up the message, or “the talking” as Max calls it.  That’s Max’s cue.  He flew into the sanctuary and took his position in the back.  This is Max’s spot, up several stairs beside the sound booth.

     He worships there most Sundays, all 190 pounds of him, dancing above the congregation.

     Most Sundays Max bounces so hard that one would expect him to go right through the wooden platform floor, dunk tank style.  But he won’t.  Some of the men at church noticed the same risk.  They got together one day and reinforced the floor where Max dances.  It was months before anyone told me what the men had done.  There was no mention of cost or inconvenience; no suggestion that perhaps the sound booth should not be used as a 1960s GoGo booth.  Instead, they just strengthened the floor.  Maybe this is what we all want— to find the spot where we belong, and to know that others will hold us up in it.  My friend, Pastor Brooks, said to me recently, “We move from a family attending church, to a church that becomes a family.”

     Max and I could now see the music team taking their positions on stage.  Max started dancing even before the music began, bouncing on his toes as if he were walking on hot sand.  He was extra excited this morning, anticipating our church picnic that would follow the service.  But when the music started, it wasn’t a dance song at all.  Instead, it was slow and piercing, a quiet rhythm that pulled us forward.  Everything became still.  There was a shift in the room, as if the Spirit was pouring in like a gentle tide, surrounding us, lifting us, washing over our feet.  The entire church rose in unison to stand in the deep, with our hearts turned to God.  And when the song ended, no one moved.

     Well, almost no one.

     Max could no longer contain himself.  He threw his arms over his head and leapt from the platform.  He got some good air and then stuck the landing with the precision of a Russian gymnast.  And when he landed, he yelled.  Loudly.  This was not your average run of the mill shout, or even the kind of noise one might expect when leaping from such a height.  No, this was the kind of sound one exerts when instigating a food fight.

     “BAR-BE-QUE!” Max yelled across the church, his arms still stretched to the sky.

     I ducked down to make myself slightly more invisible in the now well-lit church, wishing there were a dressing room curtain I could quickly hide behind.

     Through squinting eyes I watched as the church moved in unison once again.  But this time every head fell forward, every shoulder curled.  It was as if a single rogue wave had crashed over the entire congregation.  A moment later those same heads bobbed back up for air with a burst of laughter that filled the sanctuary.  And then the most remarkable thing happened.  Or perhaps, didn’t happen.

     No one stared . . . or sighed . . . or scowled.  No one even turned around to see where the sound had come from.  Instead, every person just turned to smile at the person beside them.  The same sweeping tide that had lifted us to God in worship was drawing us together in love.

     Max darted into the crowd and started shaking hands with people as if he were campaigning for office.  I just leaned against that reinforced platform, trying to decide if this was completely embarrassing, or achingly beautiful.  And then I heard something in the distance.  It was a man’s voice, rising above the laughter in the church, saying, “That’s our Max.”

*********************************************

1 Corinthians 12:18…22  —  But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be . . . (and) those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

Galatians 6:2  —  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

2 Corinthians 12:9  —  (God) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Romans 14:10…19  —  You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister?  Or why do you treat them with contempt?  For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…  Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

*********************************************

Loving God, we come to you in prayer with all of our limitations.  We confess that we often try to mask our challenges from those around us.  We pretend that we are whole to mask the brokenness in our lives.  Where there can be healing, we ask that you help restore us.  Where healing is not possible, we ask that you give us acceptance of our limitations and the strength to forge on.  Help us to be patient with ourselves and tolerant of others.  Give us the wisdom to not focus our attention on our limitations as humans, but on our giftedness as your unique children.  Help us to recognize the giftedness of others, even when they struggle to see the good in themselves.  Shift our mindset from what we are not, to what we are and are yet to be.  Move us forward together as a community for your glory and our neighbors’ good.  Amen.

~~ Benjamin Walters, Pastor, Elizabethtown (PA) Church of the Brethren

1142) A Forest Growing (b)

     (…continued)  Acts 2 tells the story of the day the church was born.  From that day onward, the church as a movement and as a fellowship of believers has spread out around the world and down through the centuries.  It is an amazing story.  

     But what kind of story is this story of the church?  There are many voices today in the news media, the entertainment industry, higher education, and in politics that are saying that this story of the church is, for the most part, a bad story, something of which Christians ought to be ashamed.

     It is not hard to find examples in church history and in the church today to make that case.  There have been religious wars, the church has at times supported slavery, and Christians have burned at the stake other Christians over minor doctrinal disputes, to cite just a few examples from history.  And there are many well publicized problems today; financial racketeering in the name of Jesus, sexual abuse by priests, the moral failures of high profile evangelicals, and scandals of every other kind.

     But in years past, children grew up with a different story of the church.  Catholic children were named after saints, learned of their lives, and were inspired to be like them.  Protestant children read books like Foxes Book of Martyrs and Pilgrim’s Progress, and learned powerful stories and positive messages about the history of the church.  Today, however, the message is so often only negative, and without a positive and appealing story and message, the church will not survive.  Young people hear again and again how bad the church is, and many want no part of it.

     But there is another way to look at this, one that offers a more complete picture of the church’s story.  There is a Chinese proverb that says:  When just one tree falls, it crashes with a tremendous noise; but while an entire forest is growing, no one hears anything.  The same may be said of the Church.  The church scandal stories that get all the attention are like the trees falling, here and there, with a loud crash.  But we must not let those occasional crashes blind us to the fact that we are in a whole forest, a whole world, which has been and continues to be blessed in a million ways by the growth of the church.  Life today would be much worse if not for the life and words of Jesus, and for the positive influence of the church that grew up from his followers.

     For example, most people do not realize that the Christian church is the largest single supplier of health care and education on the planet.  There are dozens of nations where, unless Christians were there providing education and health care, there would be nothing, because no one else is doing a thing.  Our own country, though becoming more secular, has almost all of its primary health care and education roots in the Christian church.  Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and many other of the nation’s first colleges were started as schools to train pastors.  St. Olaf, Augsburg, St. Thomas, St. Katherine’s, and Concordia are among the oldest and the best around here, and they also were started by Christians.  In the early years of our nation, there was no universal public education, and most children were taught by the local pastor, the only educated man in town.  And health care?  I think back to the hospitals I have visited as a pastor– St. Luke’s hospital in Minot, North Dakota; St. Joseph’s and Immanuel hospitals in Mankato; St. Mary’s and Methodist hospitals in Rochester; and Queen of Peace, St. Francis, Bethesda, and Methodist hospitals in the Twin Cities area.  Their names tell their stories.  They were all started by Christians with support from their churches.  There is a whole forest of education and health care that has grown up all around us that had its beginnings with faithful people of the church.

     There is so much more to this forest.  There are whole nations in Africa where the infrastructure and government are completely broken and corrupt, and the only glue holding society together at all is the church.  In South Africa and Rwanda, after civil strife and violence by neighbor on neighbor, the church led the way in bringing reconciliation.  In India, it is the minority Christian church that provides the main opposition to the many injustices of the caste system, even though the church itself faces increasing persecution.  Iran is one of our nation’s worst enemies, and has expressed clearly its desire to annihilate this country.  Yet when Iran suffered a devastating earthquake several years ago, American Christians were there providing massive relief work.  In prisons around the world, the most successful single institution in rehabilitating inmates is the Christian organization Prison Fellowship, founded by ex-con and Christian convert Chuck Colson.  This is not to mention that slavery, which still exists in some Muslim nations, was brought to an end in all Christian nations, including this one, mostly by the efforts of Christians.  More recently, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was led primarily by the African-American churches, and the primary motivation was the preaching of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  What’s more, our own system of democracy, with its goal of liberty and justice for all, has its roots in Christian doctrine.

    We all hear the occasional tree crashing of yet another embarrassment in the church.  In a worldwide movement of two billion sinners, there will much of that kind of noise.  But we must not forget that the world we live in is a better place in countless ways because of the life of Jesus Christ and the influence of his followers, the church.  When one looks at the big picture, it becomes clear that this is not a movement or an institution of which we need to be ashamed.  Its overall benefits have far outweighed its failures.  There is much in the church and in ourselves to be embarrassed by; but even in that we can see one of the church’s strengths.  The Church teaches us to examine ourselves honestly, and to indeed be ashamed where shame is needed, and to repent and pray for forgiveness.

     We must not be ashamed of Christ and His Church, neither should we be proud of it.  Pride has its own dangers.  Rather, again as we are taught, we should most of all, be grateful for all the ways God has, through the church, blessed us as individuals, and blessed the whole world.

     When just one tree falls, it crashes with a tremendous noise, but while an entire forest is growing, no one hears anything.  The church began very small, with a little group of believers, all together in one place, on that first Pentecost Day; and it has grown to what it is today, and has blessed the world in countless ways.  It has done so in so many big ways because, on the individual level, it has touched and influenced the hearts of billions– like the boy in the story I began with.  Slowly, quietly, in ways often hidden from the world, God’s grace has been at work– growing quietly but steadily– like a forest, or like seeds growing in a field.

***************************************************

Mark 4:26-27  —  (Jesus said), “This is what the kingdom of God is like.  A man scatters seed on the ground.   Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.”

Mark 4:30-32  —  (Jesus said), “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.  Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

***************************************************

Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud, English bishop  (1573-1645)