At Arm’s Length: A Lenten Reflection

In this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on a haunting phrase: “at a distance.” Doesn’t seem too scary or even noteworthy, right? Why would I say it is haunting?

It was the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the night before he would be crucified. Feet have been washed, Passover has been served, and the soldiers have taken Jesus away from the garden. The disciples have fled – well, sort of. All three writers of the synoptic gospels make it a point to tell us that one of Jesus’ chosen three, the man whose preaching would convert 3,000 in a day and who would become the pillar of the early church, followed Jesus “at a distance” (Mt. 26:58; Mk. 14:54; Lk. 22:54).

We often lambaste Peter, especially when he denies his Lord and calls down curses on himself.  Thank goodness we are not like him, right?

On closer examination, during this season of Lent, we realize that our discipleship looks a lot like Maundy Thursday Peter.  Joan Chittister says, “We believe, yes, but often only remotely, only intellectually.  We follow Jesus, of course, but, if truth were known, more likely at arm’s length, at a nice, antiseptic distance.  Imperturbably.  Our commitment is not the kind of commitment that jeopardizes our jobs or our relationships or our social standings.”

Ouch.

If we are honest with ourselves, we love the part of following Jesus that deals with multitudes being fed and blind men receiving sight.  Even the creative sermons and lessons Jesus teaches inspire and challenge us.  But that self-denial part? Not as popular nowadays.

Could it be that we are profoundly terrified of suffering? Chittister maintains that “when we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow…Suffering is a stepping-stone to maturity. It moves us beyond fantasy to facts.”

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I don’t know about you, but I would many times rather take the shortcut to spiritual maturity instead of slogging painfully through trials and hurts. But that shortcut does not exist. And Lent reminds us of that. In this season we realize, along with Chittister, that we are ascetics. Thus, “we must be prepared to give up some things if we intend to get things that are even more important.”

With Jesus being interrogated, whipped, and nailed to a cross, Peter was still not ready to follow him there. The sacrifice was too great. The suffering too heinous.  It was better to follow Jesus at a distance.

Perhaps in these days being haunted by that phrase is not a bad thing. Perhaps we, too, will examine ourselves and choose growth instead of ease, intimacy instead of distance.

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Dear American Church…I Am Not Renewing My Membership This Year

By Frank Powell

Dear American Church,

Let me cut to the chase. I am tired of this club. I want out.

Here is the thing. I didn’t sign up to join a club. Maybe there was a misunderstanding. Maybe I contributed to the confusion. I am not sure how we arrived here, but things are going to be different. I am not renewing my membership this year.

Here’s why.

Jesus didn’t die for a club.

The church should be missional. The church should have an external focus. The church should shine as a beacon of light in the community. I feel like you started this way. When you began, your focus was reaching the needs of your community and your world.

But something changed. Now you focus on your needs. Your mission is comfort and security…at all cost. You invite people into this “mission.” I am afraid you created a monster. A country club minus the golf course, which is the best part.

I love the church Jesus Christ died to establish. I believe in the church’s future. I believe the church is the primary means through which the world comes to know the power of the cross and salvation.

So, believe me when I say this decision is not a declaration of the global church. It is also not a declaration of every church in America. As long as the King sits on the throne, the church will thrive and be a beacon of light in a dark world. This is a declaration of the American church culture, generally speaking.

Let me highlight some of the reasons I think this a club.

Clubs pour time and resources back into themselves.

People in clubs think paying their “dues” gives them stock in the club. People in clubs expect resources to be used on them and their needs. The church of Jesus Christ should never equate giving with power. It should never use most of its resources to feed internal programs and events.

Clubs value comfort and security.

This is why you pay to enter clubs. You want to feel safe and comfortable. Clubs value health and comfort. I am not saying churches are wrong for pushing into suburbs. Our cities need men and women passionate about the mission of God in those areas.

But I am worried your desire to embrace suburbia is often more rooted in your country club mindset than in God’s direction.

Clubs keep conversations in the shallow end of the pool.

Clubs are not venues to share feelings, disappointments, and struggles. Clubs keep conversations in the kiddie pool.

“How ’bout them Cowboys? What about the stock market? Will Trump be the next President?”

True story…I have a close relative (let’s call her “Jill”) who was asked the question “How are you doing?” by a member at her church. Jill had the audacity to tell this lady she was not doing well and needed prayers. The lady then proceeded to tell Jill she never intended Jill to actually tell her how she was doing.

This is a club mentality.

“How are you doing?” is not an open door to tell people about your problems. It is simply their way of acknowledging your presence.

Let’s be real, American church, you secretly hope “How are you doing?” does not lead to someone telling you about their problems. You don’t have time for that.

The church of Jesus Christ should value transformative community. You should bear one another’s burdens. No one should walk the road alone. No one. Galatians 6:2 says you fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens. That’s weighty stuff.

Are you bearing anyone’s burdens, American church?

People in clubs want to make their club the biggest, brightest one around.

Being a club is about competing. I am competing against you. You are competing against me. Clubs don’t care if they steal people from other clubs. In fact, stealing people from other clubs is calling “winning.” It shows that one club offers something another club does not.

This looks a lot like the American church. You view stealing people from other churches as “winning” because the bottom line is attendance on Sunday.

The church of Jesus Christ should view church growth through the lens of people coming to know Jesus. How many people have you baptized this year? How many people know Jesus today that did not know Him a year ago?

Why is this a competition, American church???

Clubs only invite people into their lives that look like them.

Clubs value likemindedness. The church of Jesus Christ should value diversity. Can you honestly tell me, American church, you value diversity? You chalk up your lack of diversity to things like cultural differences.

Really?

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Clubs are divisive and argumentative.

A few days ago my wife and I passed eight churches on the way to the church we were attending. We live 1.5 miles from the church building. Eight church buildings in 1.5 miles. That’s one building every .15625 miles (sorry, I like numbers).

I understand I live in the Bible belt, but is it necessary to have that many notches on the belt?

Please do not misunderstand me…this country is diverse and you need different expressions of the church. But do you really need 8,000,000,000 churches in one city? This, however, is what clubs do. Insiders believe their way of doing things is THE way. This is a dangerous trap.

When the focus shifts away from Jesus, the level to which you will become divisive has no end. This starts by refusing to associate with those outside of Jesus. Then it moves to those outside of your fellowship (or denomination). Then it moves to people within your denomination who think similarly but differ on one “important” issue. Then it moves to those in your denomination who think less like you. And so on, and so on.

Eventually you create what you see today. Over 9,000 different denominations (your divisiveness makes it difficult to even define a denomination). Do you see the slippery slope?

American church, if you rallied around Jesus and not your traditions, your impact would be exponentially greater.

People in clubs value keeping everyone happy.

Clubs hate losing members, so they cater to every need. If Joe is unhappy about this change, the club caters to him. If Jill is unhappy about that change, the club caters to her.

Most churches today equate unity with happiness. Unity does not mean you keep everyone happy. Unity means you keep everyone focused on Jesus.

Some people feed on the attention they receive from getting their way. The church should be unapologetically focused on making disciples and shining light into the darkness. Clubs don’t like change. Clubs do things the way they have always been done. Making disciples and refusing to change are usually at odds with one another.

So which value drives you, American church? Making disciples or preserving traditions?

Honestly…

____________________

Again, I am not leaving church…I am leaving the club. There are churches living out the mission of Jesus Christ all across America. Praise God for these churches. But I am tired of spending time and energy contributing to a culture that fattens itself with more resources.

I am tired of spending my time convincing others I am right and they are wrong. This only feeds my natural tendency to be judgmental. If I am right, everybody else is wrong. But if Jesus is right, love, grace, and truth become the standards by which I look at the world. I like those standards. It feeds a much less natural tendency to accept and love.

I want to focus on those who haven’t experienced the gospel. I want to spend time figuring out how to minister to my neighbor whose marriage is on the rocks, my friend battling cancer, or my classmate struggling with pornography. I want to surround myself with a group of men and women that are missional.

There is hope for you, American church. There is hope because God reigns over all things and situations. There is hope because Jesus is the head of the church. But I can’t sit comfortably in a club any longer.

I want to be join a movement. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

Frank Powell

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

This article was originally published at: FrankPowell.me

Real Life Church in Quito, Ecuador

Some of our friends and colleagues in ministry have planted a new church in the heart of Quito, Ecuador. A few weeks ago they described their initial months and their strategies and philosophy in an article published by Ardeo Global. What do you notice about their approach? Can you see this working in your city?

Greetings from Quito, Ecuador! Our team has recently begun our church planting work here with our first church service in September, 2018. The name of our church, Iglesia Real Life, reflects our mission to show how the message of the gospel and the love of Jesus Christ provide real life solutions to real life problems. I think that is the goal of every church, but our focus can get clouded with church logistics and we can begin to focus on the upkeep of a physical church building and its programs. Our team is looking at church planting from a different philosophy. We’ve studied Jesus’ ministry and found that most of His time was spent ministering to non-religious people outside of religious buildings. Our goal is to break free from non-biblical traditions in order to focus on what really matters: loving on people as Jesus did.

So what does that look like? Most noticeably, we don’t meet in a church building. We want our area of influence to be unrestricted by the geographical location of our church, we want to be free of distraction from the work and resources required to maintain a church building, and we want to be welcoming to people who would never feel comfortable entering a church. Our goal is to eventually have various teaching points throughout the whole city so that every new person we meet can attend a worship service and Bible study near where they live.

Currently, we’re meeting at a really neat place near the commercial center of Quito. It’s a food court with a central area for concerts and other events. It also has a playground and separate area where the kids can meet, and the owner is letting us hold our events there for free! So far we’ve had one church service there, and we did our best to make it really feel like a celebration. We had upbeat music and balloons and confetti poppers. At the end of the service, Pastor Josué closed with a prayer but didn’t close his eyes, so people were a little surprised when they realized he was praying. But why not talk to God as though He were standing in the room with us, since we know He is? In the big things and the small things, we want moments like that in our church. We want to get to the root of why we do things and challenge people’s ideas of what the church is. We simply want to be the hands and feet of Christ, loving and serving the people of Quito unconditionally.

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How exactly are we going to serve and meet the needs of the people here? Well, first we have to learn what their needs are, and to do that we have to start by just getting to know them.  Quito is the capital of Ecuador and in many ways is very modern. There is a large downtown area filled with businesses and people living a metropolitan lifestyle. So far we’ve found that many of the issues of people here are pretty similar to those of people in the US: marriages need help, teens need guidance on what to do with their lives, and it’s difficult for families to spend quality time together amidst the many demands of everyday life. However, Ecuador is also a country with a developing economy where many people face underemployment and struggle to simply provide for their families. Problems with drugs and teenage pregnancies are increasing, crime makes it dangerous to be outside after dark, and Venezuelan refugees here face blatant racism every day.

When we first started planning our outreach strategies, we expected that we would be reaching the people in the modern, business-focused, post-Christian part of Quito, and based on the location of our first teaching point we definitely will have opportunities to minister to them. However, in our day-to-day interactions we’ve met people from all walks of life with various needs, both spiritual and physical.

The need for hope and love is universal and does not discriminate across socioeconomic differences, and neither will we in our efforts to reach anyone who is ready to hear of the immense love that God has for them, whether that looks like hosting a marriage seminar or paying for someone to see a medical specialist that they couldn’t afford on their own. Our daily challenge is to stay flexible and open to where and to whom God is leading us.

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This article was originally published at Ardeo Global.

Welcoming the Wilderness During Advent

The following excerpt is from “Advent is a Season of Longing,” written by Carolyn Arends and published in Christianity Today.

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

If the latter is the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. To the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

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So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John chose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

–Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.

We Saw the Rising Sun

By Hiram Vega

Of all the names of Jesus, one rarely mentioned is the Rising Sun, or the New Dawn.  The name evokes the image of the soft red light that comes before the sun.  It is the prelude to a new day. 

In Chapter 1 of his gospel, Dr. Luke tells us that God visited a priest called Zechariah, who lived in a town in the mountains of Judah.  His wife, Elizabeth, also belonged to the priestly family of Aaron.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the eyes of God and carefully obeyed the commandments and regulations of the Lord.  They did not have children because Elizabeth was barren.  Both of them were already very old.

Why did God choose a common priest, old and childless, to play a fundamental part in the work of salvation?  Maybe the answer is the one that the Apostle Paul wrote: He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important (I Cor 1:28 GNT). God continues to call both young and old to speak on his behalf! Have you heard His call?

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God told an elderly couple without children that they would be parents of a prophet more important than any of the others. John the Baptist would prepare the way of the Lord.  The revelation was so great that Zechariah could not believe it, and as a result he was mute for a time.

I would like to say that I would have believed God in that moment, but the truth is that many times I believe my circumstances more than I believe God.  I believe my finances more than I believe God.  I believe my symptoms more than I believe God. I need a divine yank on the ear to clear my doubts away and strengthen my faith.

When Zechariah saw his newborn son, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied (Luke 1:76-79):

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.

Today the prophets of the Most High proclaim the same good news. These women and men, young people and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, bring the light of Christ to all those who are in darkness in every place, city and neighborhood.

How will you embrace the opportunities of this season to announce the New Dawn?

Analysis and Interpretation of the Pastoral Role

By Rev. Ernesto Bathermy

As we analyzed and interpreted the images of a shepherd/pastor from the Old and New Testaments in the previous article, those texts shed light on our work and responsibilities as pastors:

  1. Feed the flock

When we speak of feeding the sheep, we refer to teaching and instructing the believers in the Word of God and in Christian doctrines.  The Lord himself affirms that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). This declaration shows us clearly that the Word of God is spiritual food for the soul of a believer.

The apostle Peter referenced the Word of God when he wrote to Christians of the diaspora, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (I Peter 2:2)

The writer of Hebrews also referred to the teaching of the Word as spiritual food for the believer. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

It is evident, then, that when the Bible speaks of the role of a pastor as the one who should feed the flock, it is referring to the pastor feeding the believers with the Word of God.

  1. Care for the flock

To care for the flock has a broader connotation than to simply feed them. Likewise, a pastor’s role is not only to feed the congregation with the Word of God, but also to care for them. Isaiah speaks of a shepherd that carries the lambs in his arms against his breast.  The lamb is one year old or less, so it is by definition young and inexperienced.  In the same way, a pastor should shepherd new believers and care for them with special attention.

Another aspect of caring for the flock is clear when the prophet writes that Jehovah will gently lead the newborn lambs.  It is a picture of the care that a pastor must have for the Lord’s flock.

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  1. Guide the flock

According to John 10:4, the shepherd rescues his sheep and later goes before them while they follow.  The shepherd guides his sheep not by staying behind them, but going ahead of them.  In the same way, the pastor guides the church by being an example to the flock. (I Peter 5:3)

  1. Restore the flock

As we saw in Ezekiel 34:4, there will be weak, sick and injured members of the flock.  At times they will stray and get lost.  The same happens in the church.  Some brothers and sisters are weak in the faith, and those are the ones the pastor must seek to strengthen.

Some believers, at any given moment, can become spiritually ill.  The pastor has the responsibility to aide in curing them. Other believers will wander, and the pastor must seek to guide them back to the correct path.

Though the pastor must care for the entire flock, some brothers and sisters require special attention.  The ones who are lost need to be helped to return to the fold.

Conclusion:

A study of both the Old and New Testaments shows that the Bible says the role of the pastor is to feed, care for, guide and restore the believers.  This understanding allows a pastor to develop his or her ministry with greater responsibility and awareness, but with less frustration about basing all “success” on tangible results.

*Rev. Ernesto Bathermy is the pastor of the Celestial Vision Church of the Nazarene in Los Alcarrizos, Dominican Republic. He is also the Dominican Republic Central District Superintendent and Rector of the Dominican Nazarene Seminary.

The Image of a Pastor in the Old and New Testaments

By Rev. Ernesto Bathermy 

The Bible teaches that God calls individuals into different ministries for the benefit of the community of faith, which is the Church, and for building up the Kingdom of God.  This calling is obvious in the close relationship between the spiritual gifts and the One who gives them.  Nevertheless, we must ask, if it is God that calls and if He is the one who gives the spiritual gifts necessary to develop our ministry, why are many of us serving in ministries that seem to fail to accomplish His divine purposes?   

Many ministers become frustrated to such an extent that they abandon the ministry.  A true understanding of our responsibilities as pastors can free us from paralyzing and destructive frustrations.  In the next two entries, I will try to guide us to a better understanding of the pastorate and provide some fundamentals for a more rational pastoral practice.

The image of a Pastor in the Old Testament

The concept of a pastor that we find in the New Testament comes from an image or metaphor of a shepherd that is rooted in the Old Testament.  God used this image to describe his relationship with Israel, his people and the religious leaders in the time of the prophets.

The prophet Isaiah presented the Lord as a shepherd when he wrote, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)

The prophet Jeremiah, like Isaiah, tackles the subject in a general way when he writes that the role of a shepherd is to find land for his sheep to graze and care for his sheep.  These two ideas are quite broad.  Though grazing focuses on feeding the sheep, caring for them emphasizes his protection.

The prophet Ezekiel tells us that part of the work of the shepherd should be to strengthen weak sheep, heal their sickness, bind up their wounds, bring back the strays and search for the lost. (Ez. 34:4)

In Psalm 23, the psalmist talks about Jehovah as his shepherd, while he presents himself as a sheep.  A shepherd supplies all of his needs. Verses 1 and 2 show a shepherd that meets the nutritional and material needs of his sheep.  Verse 3 appears to refer to socio-emotional needs, while verse 4 apparently refers to spiritual needs.  All of these elements demonstrate a picture of a shepherd that feeds, consoles, cares for, guides, and is present with his sheep.

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The image of a Pastor (Shepherd) in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the disciple Luke, the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul, the writer of Hebrews and the Apostle Peter all speak to us about the work of a pastor.

In Luke 2:8, Luke writes about the shepherds who heard the news of the birth of the Messiah while they were “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” That detail demonstrates that shepherds were accustomed to spending the night with their flocks so they could care for them constantly.  

In John 10:12, Jesus says that when a hired hand sees a wolf, he will leave the sheep and run away, but the good shepherd will give his life for his sheep.   He helps us to understand that the shepherd is the one responsible to care for the sheep. It is work he takes extremely seriously.  

John 21:15-17 is a revealing passage.  Jesus asks Peter if he loves him three times.  After Peter’s first response, Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs.” When he responds the second time, Jesus tells him, “Take care of my sheep.” After the third time, he adds, “Feed my sheep.”  In verses 15 and 17, the verb that Jesus uses is bόskw(bosko), which translates as “to feed,” and means “to feed or provide food.”  But in verse 16, the Lord uses the verb poimaίnw(poimaino), which translates as “to shepherd.”  It carries the implications of caring for, guiding, governing and  defending.

 In Acts 20:28, the Apostle Paul refers to the elders of the church as “overseers” who the Holy Spirit has placed “to shepherd the church of God.” In Hebrews 13:17, the writer says that church leaders keep watch over the souls of the believers.

It is plain to see that the image of a pastor is important in both Old and New Testaments.  Now that we have examined this biblical foundation, in our next post I will explore some principles and applications of pastoral ministry.

*Rev. Ernesto Bathermy is the pastor of the Celestial Vision Church of the Nazarene in Los Alcarrizos, Dominican Republic. He is also the Dominican Republic Central District Superintendent and Rector of the Dominican Nazarene Seminary.