Think on These Things

By Carla Sunberg

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9 (NRSV)

To quote John Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is often the case, whether in the secular world or in the church. These words from the Apostle Paul are a reminder that those who are in leadership must be careful about their attitude. The way in which leaders look at the world will have an influence on those around them.

I have recently read the book, “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling. In this book, and in his TED talk, he begins to challenge our negative notions. Why do I bring this up? Because I find that the church often becomes a breeding ground for negative thinking and conversation. If we were to believe all we hear about Christianity and the church, we might all be ready to throw in the towel and give up. Spending much time on social media or listening to the news, can skew our perspective on the world. We have become addicted to negative news, and it is creating a crisis of anxiety in our world. Paul was trying to give us a prescription for that fear.

Rosling tells us that we have allowed the negativity instinct to kick into high gear, meaning that we focus much more on the negative than we do on the positive. Our instinct is “to notice the bad more than the good.” He gives three reasons for this: 1) “misremembering of the past,” 2) “selective reporting by journalists and activists,” and 3) “the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”

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Just imagine if we were to put the church into this paradigm. Often we reminisce about the past and the “good old days.” We wish we could go back to those days when the “church was full” and “everything ran so well.” Unfortunately, we fail to remember the struggles the church faced then and that things may not be worse than that now. At the same time, we have a media that is ready to pounce on every negative story about a church leader they can find. As both religious journals and the secular news openly dissect them, we hear the details of major failures. Rarely is there news about the good work the church is doing in a community. Our hearts are stirred with empathy for the bad news we receive on a regular basis, but eventually compassion fatigue begins to settle in, and we become exhausted responding to the latest disaster.

Let us listen again to the words of Paul. “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This is the antidote we all need because it will help us to reframe our lives from a positive perspective. According to Rosling, “The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.” Leading people to a place of hope is possible when we pull away from the negativity instinct.

Leaders must intentionally lead the way, helping the church community develop a more positive manner of looking at our world. God is still on the throne. Christ has not changed His mind about His bride, the Church! Remember, Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The reality is that in many ways the world is getting better. There will still be bad news and difficult times, but overall there is improvement. I believe this is true in the life of the church as well. Is the church in some parts of the world aging? Yes! Is that creating an issue that makes it difficult to show that there is a net positive increase? Yes! However, that does not mean that the church is not reaching out and still leading thousands of people to Christ every year. Did you catch that? Somewhere around 120,000 people made a profession of faith last year through the work of the global Church of the Nazarene. Last year 501 new churches were organized, and over 100 of those were in the United States and Canada.

As I write this article, I am in Mozambique. Yesterday I sat with leaders in this country who are passionate about following Jesus. A few years ago, the district superintendents and other leaders got together to talk about what was happening in their country. They recognized a deep spiritual hunger among the people and an open door to the gospel. Realizing that they had been handed a significant opportunity, they knew they needed to act. The synergy of God and man, working together, resulted in a five-year strategic plan for the expansion of the work of the Kingdom in Mozambique. This included the addition of new districts and centers for discipleship and pastoral development. In the first three years, the church grew by 10 percent, and soon they will be meeting to assess the current effectiveness of the plan. They could have been overcome by poor conditions in parts of this country. They could have made excuses about the lack of funding and the challenging climate. Instead, they chose to focus on the positive and move in a direction where God was leading.

It is time to change our thinking and allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds. Then we can lead the church in the direction where Christ is going. This will only happen when we intentionally practice truthfulness, focus on what is honorable, do what is just, have pure thoughts, engage in pleasing actions, practice excellence, and spend time praising and commending others. Let us think on these things.

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Time to Raise an Ebenezer

By Carla Sunberg

When was the last time you saw an Ebenezer? “A what?” you may ask. It’s a rather old word about which we hear quite little. It does appear in the Old Testament in the book of 1 Samuel. On two occasions the word is used and we read of Samuel setting up an Ebenezer between Mizapah and Jeshanah, after God helped the Israelites and kept them safe from the Philistines. Quite literally, eben means “rock,” and ezer means “helper.” This is a rock that reminds the people that God is our helper. It also lets us know that Ebenezer Scrooge’s name was an oxymoron.

Over time the people of God marked their journey with an Ebenezer. This rock became a continual reminder that “thus far the Lord has helped us.” Every time they saw the rock, generation after generation would recount the way in which God had helped in a particular circumstance.
 
Throughout the years, it appears that there may have been more than one Ebenezer. Whether God had led the people out of Egypt, across the Jordan river, or helped to defeat the Philistines, a rock was set up as a reminder to God’s faithfulness. This rock was placed in a conspicuous location so that it wouldn’t be missed by God’s people.

Let’s fast-forward a few millennia to the time of John Wesley, where the physical rock, or Ebenezer, seems to have been replaced by testimony. The early Methodist societies encouraged its members to regularly speak a word of testimony, a verbal reminder that “thus far the Lord has helped us.” Weekly they would gather for a time of accountability and witness to the work of God in their lives. They spoke these to one another, and to anyone else who might be willing to hear the story of God at work in their lives. They engaged in an age-old practice, that of storytelling. It’s something that God’s people have done throughout history.

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Whether it was Samuel or John Wesley, it was the leaders who helped the people raise their Ebenezer. Samuel was a sensitive servant who spent time in God’s holy presence, therefore he was able to effectively lead the people. Wesley subjected himself to the rigorous accountability of his own Methodist societies.

Leaders must always have their own testimony so they can point out the Ebenezers along the way. A nearness to Christ is necessary if we are to lead a people of God. Occasionally becoming vulnerable before our people and pointing to dependence upon God is not a bad thing. A good leader recognizes that they don’t have all the answers but he or she demonstrates reliance, glorifying God in the process.

While the old testimony service may no longer be in vogue, maybe we need to recapture the value of Ebenezer. Space needs to be created for testimony, so that individually and collectively we can recount God’s faithfulness. There should be no monuments to ourselves, but only to God who regularly helps us in this journey of life. God has brought us this far, we will go no further without the Lord leading us, and so, we must provide the opportunity for our people to raise their Ebenezer.

The promises of God were not just for one generation, but for all. We are all to become active participants in telling the story, and there should never be just one Ebenezer. The rocks of God’s help should line the pathway of our lives, and that of the church. For the generations to come, we should continually point to the rocks, telling of God’s help. The Ebenezers become our lifeblood to the future. If we can’t point back to a time that God was our helper, we may just die. It’s time to raise an Ebenezer.

Dejected…and Rejoicing

By Scott Armstrong

As many in the Nazarene world and beyond are aware, a week ago a Boeing 737 airliner with more than 110 passengers and crew crashed Friday near Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, shortly after takeoff. The plane, Cubana Flight 972, was on its way to Holguín, Cuba, when it went down about 12 p.m. local time.

On board the aircraft, 10 couples from the East District were on their way back to their home Province of Holguín after being part of a National Conference for pastors from the Church of the Nazarene. In the days after, expressions of grief and solidarity were expressed from the General Superintendents and brothers and sisters around the globe. On May 21, Dr. Carla Sunberg dedicated her message at the Global Ministry Center’s chapel service to the couples who were killed and the family members and Cuban leaders who are picking up the pieces after this tragedy.

In the Dominican Republic the missionaries and National Office leadership met, as we do every week, for devotions and prayer.  This time the mood was somber.  We knew the right theology: God is sovereign.  He has a plan.  He offers eternal life to those who die in Him.  However, the questions remained: why did this happen? Why didn’t God stop this? What about the ten orphaned children who are now weeping and will not see their parents on this side of heaven?

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In the midst of such struggle, the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries’ Coordinator for the Central Field (Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Panama, and Puerto Rico), Paquita Bidó, began to read from Psalm 100.

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness;

come before him with joyful songs.

Know that the Lord is God.

It is he who made us, and we are his;

we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

 

Enter his gates with thanksgiving

and his courts with praise;

give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;

his faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Worshipping with gladness? Joyful songs? Thanksgiving and praise? Clearly, this is not a lament Psalm!

Paquita acknowledged that we mourn with our Cuban family, and we recognize our bewilderment.  We must not explain away this devastating loss with trite words of affirmation or theological maxims.  At the same time, she explained that she brought this psalm to us as an expression of faith in the very midst of sorrow.  The Lord is God; we are not.  He is Creator, and we are his creation.  As sheep, we enjoy the care of the Shepherd and obey his voice.  What a privilege to serve him for as long as he gives us breath.

Paquita continued.  If we proclaim that God is faithful only in the good times, then what good is that? Our trust would be based merely on circumstances going our way and not on a loving Father who allows pain in our lives because he knows best.  However, we do, in fact, declare that He is good, and His love endures forever, even in – or especially in – this bitter reality confronting us.  And his faithfulness is promised not only to us, but it continues through all generations.

In the light of this reality, and even in the midst of sadness, we shout for joy!  Our tears co-mingle with thanks and praise.  God is good.  Still. Even now.

Our entire region is devastated. We have mobilized to give and pray for Cuba.  And as we weep, we also rejoice that we serve a good and faithful God.  Yes, his love endures forever.

Hope in the Midst of Grief

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On May 21, 2018, 
General Superintendent Carla D. Sunberg delivered the message at the morning’s Global Ministry Center chapel service. The Nazarene pastor couples killed in Friday’s plane crash were honored as their names were read aloud, and Dr. Sunberg reminded us of the hope we have in Christ even in the midst of grief.

The Army And The King

By Rev. Carla Sunberg

Several years ago I heard a sermon by the President of Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, USA — Carla Sunberg.  Rev. Sunberg opened the work of the Church of the Nazarene in Russia and served for 13 years before becoming a pastor and District Superintendent in the United States.  She spoke the following words to 2,000 university students at Olivet Nazarene University and I hope they inspire you as much as they did us that day.  Although many would say that this generation of youth is lazy or apathetic, Dr. Sunberg’s vision is quite different.

The vision? The vision is Jesus.  Obsessively, dangerously, undeniably it is Jesus.  And the vision is an army of young people.  You see bones?  I see an army.  And they are free from materialism.  They laugh at 9 to 5 little prisons.  They could eat caviar on Monday and crusts on Tuesday and they wouldn’t even notice.  They know the meaning of The Matrix and How the West was Won.  They’re mobile like the wind.  They belong to the nations.  They need no passport.  People write their addresses in pencil and wonder at their strange existence.  They are free, yet they are slaves of the hurting and dirty and dying.

And what is the vision?  The vision is holiness.  It’s a holiness that hurts the eyes.  It makes children laugh and it makes adults angry.  It gave up the game of minimum integrity long ago to reach for the stars.  It scorns the good and strains for the best and it is dangerously pure.  Light flickers from every secret motive, every private conversation.  It loves people away from their suicide leaps, their Satan games.  This is an army that will lay down its life for the cause.  A million times a day, its soldiers choose to lose, that they might one day win the great “Well done” of the faithful sons and daughters.  Such heroes are as radical on Monday morning as Sunday night.  And they don’t need fame from names.  Instead they grin quietly upwards and they hear the crowds chanting again and again: “Come on!”  And this is the sound of the underground: the whisper of history in the making, foundations shaking, revolutionaries dreaming.  Once again mystery is scheming in whispers, conspiracy is breathing – this is the sound of the underground.

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And the army is disciplined, and also discipled: young people who beat their bodies into submission.  Every soldier would take a bullet for his comrade in arms.  And the tattoo on their back boasts: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Sacrifice fuels the fire of victory in their upward eyes.  Winners, martyrs – who can stop them? Can hormones hold them back? Can failure succeed? Can fear scare them or death kill them?

And the generation prays, like a dying man with groans beyond talking, with warrior cries, sulphuric tears, and with great barrel-loads of laughter.  They are waiting and watching 24-7-365.

And whatever it takes they’re going to give.  They are breaking the rules, they are shaking mediocrity from its cozy little hide, they are laying down their rights and their precious little wrongs, laughing at labels, fasting essentials.  The advertisers cannot mold them.  Hollywood cannot hold them.  Peer pressure is powerless to shake their resolve.  At late night parties before the cockcrow cries, they are incredibly cool, but dangerously attractive inside.

On the outside they really hardly care.  They wear clothes like costumes to communicate and celebrate, but never to hide.  Would they surrender their image or their popularity? They would lay down their very lives!  They’re going to swap seats with the man on death row who’s guilty as hell, a throne for an electric chair.  With blood and sweat and many tears.  With sleepless nights and fruitless days.  They pray as if it all depends on God, and they live as if it all depends on them.

Their DNA chooses Jesus.  He breathes out, they breathe in.  Their subconscious sings.  They had a blood transfusion with Jesus.  Their words make demons scream in shopping centers.  Don’t you hear them? Herald the weirdoes; summon the losers and the freaks.  Here come the frightened and forgotten with fire in their eyes.  They walk tall and trees applaud.  Skyscrapers bow.  Mountains are dwarfed by these children of another dimension.  Their prayers summon the hounds of heaven and invoke the ancient dream of Eden.

And this vision will be.  It will come to pass, it will come easily, it will come soon.  And how do I know? Because this is the longing of creation itself, the groaning of the Spirit, the very dream of God.  My tomorrow is his today.  My distant hope is his 3D.  And my feeble, whispered, faithless prayer invokes a thunderous, resounding, and bone shaking: Amen!  From countless angels.  From heroes of the faith.  From Christ himself.  And he is the original dreamer.  He is the ultimate winner.  It’s guaranteed.  That’s my King.