There’s an app for that! Well, maybe not…

By Scott Armstrong

I use apps on my smartphone several hours a day.  You probably do, too.

Twitter? Fantasy Football? Tracking your steps every day? Yes, there are mobile phone apps for all of those.

But you already knew that.  Did you know there’s an app for virtually shaving yourself? What about milking a cow? Or that there’s even an app for nothing? That’s right.  It literally does nothing.  The screen goes gray…………and does nothing.

Make sure you download it today.

There seems to be an app for everything.  There are millions of apps for things I truly have never thought of in my life.

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But as far as ministry goes, there are still areas that apps have not touched.

Giving me 26 hours a day instead of 24? There’s not an app for that.

Helping me to fit in seamlessly in a new culture within 1 week? No app for that.

Getting my neighbor down the street to respond to the gospel and see his life changed? Nope.

Many apps help you save time.  But they don’t give you more time.  Time is the great equalizer.

Some apps help you to learn a language or discover more about a culture or country. But the hard work of spending time with real people and eating their food and beginning to love them for who they are with no selfish or ethnocentric motives? That can’t be microwaved.

I’ve explored lots of apps that provide ways to share the gospel, but no app exists that guarantees life transformation.

The idea of apps is usually to make life easier.  They might help us get work done, interact with others, or have fun. Apps are handy ways to directly assist us in some way and streamline sometimes complicated daily processes.

But ministry just isn’t like that.  Honestly, it drives me crazy.

Recently I was lamenting to my wife that the local church we planted in Dominican Republic just isn’t advancing like I want it to.  Supposedly we are equipped, capable ministers who have been effective in many different places and ministries.  We have not just gone to the training seminars on how to impact the city; we now GIVE the training seminars! What, then, is the problem?! Why aren’t all the neighbors we love and care for flocking to service every week? Why do new Christians take two steps forward and seemingly three steps back in their walk with Christ?!  On a less spiritual level, why are our accounts always so low and why does the stupid bathroom outside our sanctuary keep malfunctioning?!  Aaaargh!

Much of our lives are dominated by apps that help us do things quicker, cheaper, and more efficiently.  But almost always ministry – genuine, roll-up-your-sleeves, incarnational ministry – isn’t like that.

I would love for there to be shortcuts.  But no app exists for this stuff.  The Holy Spirit needs to do a deep work in people’s lives, finances, and even bathrooms.

Lord, quick or slow, app or no app, begin that work in us.

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Still Celebrating Easter

Scott Armstrong

Ready for a quiz? What period of the Christian calendar are we in right now?

If you answered, “Easter” or “Eastertide,” congratulations!  I admit that I have written quite a bit about Advent and Lent, and both of those are very important periods in our spiritual walk.  But Eastertide is just as important, even if it goes overlooked by many of us this time of year.

Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, recently wrote about why the season of Eastertide is important for the Church.

“For centuries, many in the Church have recognized that Easter is not a one day event that we anticipate, and then just like that, vanishes.  The Church has affirmed that the power of the resurrection is more than a transient moment, but deserves sustained reflection.”

While Lent is 40 days long and is a time of fasting, Eastertide is 50 days long and leads us to a life of feasting!

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Villodas highlights three ways we can focus our attention during this sustained period of Easter.

  1. Eastertide reminds us that through the resurrection Jesus is victorious over the powers of death.

As I have written before, when Jesus rose from the tomb, he proved his sweeping, effective dominion over the powers of sin, death, and the grave.  However, Easter is not just something nice and important that happened to Jesus.  We are invited into that cosmic re-ordering.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is also available to all those who choose to follow him!

“It’s very possible to sing about Jesus conquering the grave,” Villodas reminds us, “and the next day be complicit in systems, structures and habits that bring glory to the powers of death.”  This season assures that we live in the “reverberation of resurrection” still ongoing today.

  1. Eastertide reminds us that God’s future life is available to us to enjoy and express to the world.

Just as Mary Magdalene was told to not hold on to Jesus, but rather to go and tell the good news instead (John 20:17), so we are able to offer a hope to those that desperately needs it.  Easter is not Easter if its message is not proclaimed to the world.

Pastor Villodas states it this way, “There’s probably no better time to pray for the healing of the sick because the resurrection is a reminder that one day there will be no sick.  There’s probably no better time to work for peace, because the resurrection is a reminder that one day there will be no war.  There’s probably no better time to celebrate and feast, because the resurrection is a reminder that we are headed to a banquet.  Christians, like our Lord, are to live from the future. Our communities and individual lives point to what’s coming.”

  1. Eastertide calls us to life that cultivates joy.

I am still amazed at the fact that the women present at the empty tomb that first Easter morning “hurried away…afraid yet filled with joy” (Mt. 28:8).  If we have been Christians for many years, we may have sadly lost any wonderment about Easter, let alone awe or even fear.  The tragedy is that the resurrection has become commonplace for many of us.  And if that is the case, the next thing to be lost is joy.  Many of us carry the self-denial and somber attitude of Lent through Eastertide and every other part of the year, for that matter.

But Easter is a time of celebration!  He is risen!  In the days after his resurrection, we find Jesus repeatedly eating, feasting, and rejoicing (Lk. 24:40-42; Jn. 21:9-13).  As always, but especially in this season of Easter, we have the privilege of doing the same!

Villodas wonders if at the end of history, the question God asks us will not be whether we abstained from sin.  What if the question is “Did you enter into the joy that was available to you?”

That’s the invitation offered us during Eastertide.  Jesus is alive! So let us eat, drink, and indeed be merry!

 

Choosing to Live in Easter

Scott Armstrong

Lent and Holy Week have been pretty important in my life and my spiritual walk through the years.  And there is nothing better than when the fasting and solemnity they bring finally culminates in the massive outburst of joy at Easter.  Christ is risen! There is no better celebration than Easter!

Or at least there should be.

In many cultures, churches see a bump in attendance at Easter and everyone dresses up. The music is lively and high-quality. There are years that even the sun seems to shine brighter on Easter!

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This past Easter did not exactly look like that in the church my wife and I pastor. We serve as missionaries in Dominican Republic and are volunteering as pastors of a small church plant in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.  We had been talking up our Holy Week services for many weeks, especially Easter.  We had prepped our leadership team for the important day, and the celebration was ready!

Or so we thought.

We arrived early and I had forgotten the keys to the little, concrete building. Normally that’s not a problem. But today the other two laypeople who always get there early to clean and set up were not there.  After a few phone calls and our 15-year old running a couple blocks to get the key, we found ourselves sweeping and wiping off chairs five minutes before the start of service.

Not that there were a bunch of people awkwardly waiting to get in.  Holy Week is vacation week in much of Latin America and half of our congregation was out of town.  When you are a church of 45, that gets noticed easily.  By the time the service started, we were mostly kids and a few sleepy adults.  Jesus is alive! But are we?!

The leader we are training to be the future pastor preached well, but it had more to do with Father’s Day than Easter.  Father’s Day is in two months.

Maybe you are better than me.  Maybe you don’t let any of this stuff get to you. But I found it distracting and disheartening.  What a downer!  This is supposed to be Easter, people!

To be honest, I was in a slumber, and it was of my own doing.  I needed a Resurrection as much as anybody.

We began to read from the passage in Luke.

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb…”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here; he is risen!”

With each familiar phrase, my eyes started to open in wonder to all God was doing in our midst.

The sixth-grade girl I was sharing my Bible with was following along in silent interest. She had not even wanted to read anythingwhen we met her in Sunday School two years ago.

The university student leading worship was doing a tremendous job.  He truly believes what he’s saying and singing!

Hey, that’s the fourth time in a row that José has come; God must really be doing something in his life.

The evidence of life was all around me.  Low attendance? Fidgety little kids? Off-topic message? Who cares?!  Christ busted out of the tomb and that changes everything!

Next week I can guarantee you that there are going to be lots of things that go wrong before, during, and after our services.  But I will choose to live in the reality of Easter.  All that stuff is inconsequential compared to our risen Lord triumphing over death, hell, and the grave!

Will you join me this week? Lent and Holy Week have come and gone.  But Easter remains.  Why would you keep looking for the living among the dead?

Mary Magdalene

By Frederick Buechner

It’s at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified—she had more guts than most of them had—and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best is on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, “Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). She wasn’t thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn’t let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

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Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there.

Instead of answering her, he spoke her name—Mary—and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it’s impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that, for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again. “Rabboni!” she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

Noli me tangere,” he said. “Touch me not. Don’t hold on to me” (John 20:17),thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she’d thought he was dead as a doornail, but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn’t be touched anymore, wasn’t there anymore as a hand to hold on to when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here—old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend—and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist.

*Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

The Cross is Still There

By Scott Armstrong

Along with the rest of the world I watched yesterday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France went up in flames.  The unspeakable tragedy became clear as its famous spire tumbled to the ground below. Millions of people correctly lamented such a horrendous loss and attempts to raise funds in order to refurbish the cathedral are thankfully bearing fruit, although the overall cost of renovation will be astronomical.

Amidst the wreckage, photos began to show the impact of the fire.  One in particular, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer, hit home with many of us.  It shows the altar inside Notre Dame, with smoke still rising from its ruins.  But, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the viewer’s eyes are not drawn at first to the orange-red embers of the ashes. The preeminent symbol rising from the wreckage is a golden cross.  After all the devastation and loss, the cross is still there.

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I am not the first one to write about this symbolism and I will assuredly not be the last. But the fact that this occurs during Holy Week is not lost on many of us.  In a world that proclaims in Europe and elsewhere that Christianity is outdated and nothing more than a fond relic, followers of Christ proclaim this week and always that Jesus’ death on the cross is still effective to change lives. In fact, we proclaim that God is still at work in a burning world.

Or do we?

Every year I call our people to reflect on our Lord’s journey to the cross during Lent. And every year I receive criticism from different leaders and church members.  “Lent is Catholic, not Evangelical!” “We celebrate a risen Lord; stop promoting empty traditions!” I know some of this is cultural according to the countries where I minister, and I don’t want to diminish that.  But I refuse to allow myself or my family to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter.

Thus, especially during Lent, I have preached many times on the subject of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice.  On some occasions, I have had Christians come up to me afterwards and say, “Why do you preach on the cross? The cross is no more; what matters is the empty tomb.” Now I am clearly a proponent of preaching and living the reality of the Resurrection! However, there is no empty tomb without the cross.  There is no crown of glory without first a crown of thorns.

Although focusing on a symbol of ancient capital punishment makes us uncomfortable, the truth remains.  The cross is still there, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In the midst of rubble, this representation of death declares life to us.  In the midst of destruction, this symbol of scorn and ridicule brings hope.

This week, as we join Jesus in his journey through Gethsemane and Golgotha and then, yes, the Easter garden, perhaps an image from a smoldering Notre Dame could assist us.

Though some say it’s obsolete,

Though others feel awkward talking about it,

The cross is still there.

What is Legalism?

By Edgar Hernandez

Imagine you are in an enormous house.  Some of the people who live there hear well and others are deaf. Everyone is together, and it is not obvious which is which at first glance.  In one room there is a man sitting down, and you notice he is tapping a rhythm with his feet and his fingers.  You know what is happening.  He is listening to music and obviously enjoying it.  His whole body is reacting to what his ears perceive.

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Soon, one of the deaf men opens the door and comes into the room.  When he sees the other man, he greets him and thinks, “This guy is really enjoying life. I will try to do the same thing.” The deaf man sits by the first man and begins to imitate him.  With a little practice, the deaf man keeps nearly the same rhythm.  He smiles and thinks, “This isn’t very fun, but I guess it’s fine.”

Then a third man enters the room and sees the two men apparently doing the same thing. Is there any difference between them? Of course there is!  The actions of the first man are a natural response to the music he hears, but the deaf man is merely imitating the outside behavior even though he cannot hear a single note. This is the difference between true Christianity and legalism.

When we understand the Christian life in the way God desires, our attitudes and actions are a response to the “music” of love we hear. The music is the relationship of trust we have with God who lives in us, and who we are learning to love more and more each day.   Nevertheless, legalists do not care if you are deaf to the grace and love of God.  What they value most is if you snap your fingers and move your feet just like everyone else.

The Dual Dangers of Legalism and “Traditionalism”

Our Mesoamerica Genesis office is working diligently on assisting churches that exist in large urban areas to become healthy and missional.  One of the first steps in doing so is to take a church health survey in order to discover strengths and weaknesses.  It’s a brave task to undergo actually.  No one wants to find out they are sick, or even worse, dying.

One of the biggest reasons we have found for lack of health in congregations is a combination of legalism and worship of tradition.  Having order and obeying the laws of God are quite important to be sure.  But if we allow our adherence to rule-following to get in the way of mission and loving the world around us, we’ve missed the mark. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and celebrating our rich heritage is a must as Christians.  But if we think the methods from decades ago are holy in and of themselves, we are in dangerous territory.

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Jean David Larochelle’s book in Spanish, A Natural Development of Faith, has much to say about legalism and “traditionalism,” as he calls it:

“The message of the gospel is not negotiable. We do not doubt it. Every principle is eternal.  Every principle is immutable.  Every principle is spiritual and every principle is divine.  But strategies are not principles or doctrines. Neither are they eternal.  I say again, one of the greatest sins of the church is to try to win a postmodern generation with primitive strategies.”

The Good News is not good if it is not understandable. When we do not update our methods for different generations or cultures, we can be almost certain they will not understand them, let alone respond positively.  Grace is diluted by the importance we place on rules and tradition.

“Doctrinally, legalism and traditionalism can become positions essentially opposed to grace . . . God has given freedom to his church, but many continue tying it to legalism and traditionalism.”

In reference to the Pharisees in John 9 who questioned the blind man who received his sight, Larochelle continues, “It is sad to note that, for them, the day of rest had been given priority over the person. Things, interests and laws were a priority over the human person.  Nevertheless, Jesus also made them see that he was opposed to the foolish traditions and legalism they had invented in respect to the day of rest . . . They did not rejoice with the man. They saw humanity through eyes of judgment.”

In closing, the author invites us to evaluate ourselves. “Consider if you have legalistic, rigid attitudes or thoughts towards others or towards yourself.  In the story we are analyzing, which role would you like to take – that of the Pharisees or of Jesus? Which role have you played? Which would you like to play from now on?

These are essential questions for the whole church and for each Christian who desires to reflect the love of Christ in their society.