Knocking Down Obstacles and Building Bridges

By Ramcely Cozar Castro

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” I Corinthians 9:19, 23

“When someone is aware of their cultural foundations, they cease to be obstacles to effective communication.” – Nobleza Asuncion-Lande

The book of First Corinthians is a letter to the church in Corinth by Paul, who was known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion to Christianity.

Paul, in contrast to the 12 disciples of Jesus, did not meet Jesus before his crucifixion.  He was an educated, religious person who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin.  He did not grow up in Jerusalem, but rather in Tarsus, a Greek city in the province of Cilicia.

This places Paul in a privileged situation since he received his education in Tarsus, a city known for its excellent Greek school and the high cultural level of its inhabitants.  Later he moved to Jerusalem where he studied to be a rabbi.  Taken together, this means the Apostle was an expert in Greek culture, religious Jewish culture, and Roman culture.

The phrase from author Asuncion-Lande says that becoming aware of our cultural foundations will minimize the communication barriers between an individual and people from the same country as well as those from other countries.

Paul is a clear example of the truth of this phrase: he was a great missionary and succeeded in taking the message of Jesus to the entire known world.  Language was no limitation to him, and neither were geographic divisions or cultural differences.

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Paul, a man profoundly grateful for what the Lord had done in his life, did work that required heavenly faith and wisdom. It also required him to evaluate his cultural baggage and paradigms so he could keep the fundamental concepts and jettison the rest. That allowed him to build bridges to connect with other cultures.

Those who want to work in different cultures must be aware of their own ways of seeing and living life.  They must understand themselves and their relationship with the surrounding world. We must ask the Lord, the master of all and the one who sustains us in his hands, to help us be flexible regarding any inconsequential things, and remain steadfast when it comes to that which truly forms the basis of our faith.

*Ramcely Cozar is the pastor of the La Olimpica Church of the Nazarene in Naucalpan, Mexico City.

 

 

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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?

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.

The Most Convincing Evidence

We have all come in contact with someone who has rejected Christianity primarily because of the unconvincing actions or even blatant hypocrisy of Christians. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” That sentiment pains me, and it should sicken any of us who wear the name of Christ and claim to worship him.

At the same time, if lack of spiritual fruit in believers can turn away people from the Church, the opposite is also true: a contagious, authentic faith can prove compelling and irresistible to nonbelievers.

Take the following story as an example:

“One Sunday evening a drunk woman came to our church and was converted.  The co-pastor of the church went to visit her husband the following day and saw he was a very intelligent mechanic, but opposed to religion and very skeptical.  He was disgusted by his wife’s conversion and said he had no doubt that she would soon return to her old life.  

Six months later, the same man came to see the minister of the gospel, and was greatly perplexed by his own spiritual situation. He said, ‘I have read every book about the evidence of Christianity, and I’ve been able to resist every argument.  But in the last six months I’ve had an open book in my home that was impossible to refute in the person of my wife. I’ve come to the conclusion I must be wrong, and there must be a holy and divine power in this religion if it could take a drunk woman and change her into a holy, singing, friendly, patient and pious person like my wife is now.’”

Glory to God! Truly, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

Jean David Larochelle wrote about this reality in his book The Natural Development of Faith:

“Truly the best books about Christianity have stories of the transformed lives of men and women in communion with Christ.  If we all gave our testimony of the work God has done in our lives, other people near us would also have many simple and some amazing stories of the power of God. More than that, if believers or those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus would live integrated, transformed lives, it’s very possible there would be fewer doubters” (p. 56).

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It all brings us to the well-known question: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? In other words, would your colleagues, family members and neighbors say, without a doubt, you live like Jesus Christ?

 

Faith: It Isn’t An Insurance Policy

*A reflection from the book The Natural Development of Faith: A Personal Adventure With Jesus

By Jean David Larochelle

“There are some noxious beliefs, like: ‘If you are sick, it is because you don’t have faith,’ or ‘If you suffer poverty, you have not taken hold of the riches of the King.’  None of this could be further from the truth of the Word of God.  Faith from God’s perspective is not an insurance policy . . .

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To be a Christian does not exempt us from pain, crisis, illness, or loss, even to the point of death.  The Christian life is not a life of extraterrestrials.  Our world is a real one in which everything exists.  We do not fool people with a superficial gospel or Savior.  We offer a good, solid message, not a temporary and mental drug.  We offer ‘the whole will of God.’ (Acts 20:27)

Right now if you are passing through difficulty or everything is stacked against you, if you are at the point of losing hope because of a difficult or painful circumstance (because such moments will come as a part of life), I encourage you to see those difficult circumstances, if that’s what you are experiencing, as opportunities to take a step forward in your faith.  In general, difficult times do not come by chance or without purpose.  They are to grow and mature us in our faith.  That’s why, when everything seems lost and everyone abandons us, we are always left with Christ.  There are moments when every bit of hope is exhausted and you feel helpless to carry on, powerless to keep fighting, powerless to keep moving forward.  When you look to the heavens in search of relief from loneliness, rejection and abandonment. When all you want to do is cry. When you keep fighting but see that the odds are not in your favor. Know that God is with you and will reward perseverance and faithfulness.  Faith develops when circumstances are not in our favor.” (Larochelle, pg. 15-16, 33-34)