Ministry Moving Forward

As churches and those who serve them enter into the long days of coronavirus response, new questions arise that are difficult to answer. In the beginning, there was a scramble to figure out what would be best for the churches and how to comply with state mandates. There was an assumption that this was a limited time issue that did not require long term adjustments. It was new, challenging, perplexing, and it caused a lot of stress.

Some of the stress came from conflicting ideas within church leaderships about how to proceed in this new environment, but much of the stress was within the heart of the minister. Ministerial leadership operated under a set of practices that included study with vigor, serving people with love, teaching with engagement, encouraging the flock, and shepherding the wayward to come back into the fold. That may sound reductionist, but weekly (or more often) face to face gatherings with encouragement to bring others along is the foundation of the hopes of expanding outreach. It was not about numbers per se, but about souls. Now church leaders are struggling to figure out how to do pastoral work without weekly gatherings (or limited gatherings).

Now it’s been months and no end in sight. Ministers have assured the congregation that they should feel no guilt by staying at home and watching online gatherings. For churches like the one I serve, the online offerings are new. We worked with that learning curve and feel pretty good about where we are now, especially considering we started at zero. Many churches are gathering with less than half of pre-COVID attendance on Sunday mornings. Contributions are unreliable. The desire and intention to give sometimes falls into the background when one isn’t actually at the service. Even at the service, trays aren’t passed, to keep down the sharing of germs. There has been a major adjustment to a new way of bringing worship and Bible study opportunities to the church and congregants have adjusted to a new way to be a part of the church. In a remote, unattached, and perhaps even minimal way. More and more it is being expressed that this new way to be a member of the congregation requires too little and offers too little. But instead of a giant rally call to all members to come back to the assembly, there are other considerations. The church leader’s path forward must take into account distinct realities.

SOME SHOULD NOT COME TO CHURCH. Some people shouldn’t come to the assembly. In truth, those who are compromised in their health should not be in confined spaces for almost an hour where people are singing and the air conditioning is spreading whatever germs are present throughout the room. No one likes to think of the assembly that way, but with many refusing to wear a mask throughout the service, that is a reality. If it is true that most churches are made up of a majority elderly population and a large part of that population is vulnerable, then there are going to be a lot of empty seats on Sunday morning. It is known that the virus spreads in gatherings of people. So, in one sense, it’s hard to encourage people to gather.

AN UNAVOIDABLE MIXED MESSAGE. Pastors and church leaders are caught in a catch-22. Stay home to avoid the virus. Come to church because we need to get back to our former work. Stay home and view a virtual service on which we have worked hard to make as accessible as possible. Come to church because the church needs to gather to share in heartfelt worship. Stay home to keep your family safe from exposure to a virus that could make its way to your most vulnerable family members. Come to church to worship in person because this is where we can check in with each other and build relationships. Stay at home and type in the comment section of the video to stay connected. Come to church and smile and talk to people you love and who love you. It goes on and on, without a clear path forward as long as Covid-19 is unaddressed medically in our country.

NEGLECT. Many ministers have noticed that there are parishioners who gather in other places, take pictures of themselves in public gathered together with maskless people from a variety of families, eat indoors at restaurants (similar to churches in terms of ventilation issues) – yet are absent when the church gathers. That starts to seem like just old fashioned backsliding or neglect of the assembly. This is where shepherds can have hard conversations, regathering the sheep.

DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES. There are as many reactions to all of this as there are human beings. Some think it’s a hoax that will disappear after the November elections. Some think that if they breathe in three coronavirus germs they will end up in ICU on a vent. Some think that masks are worthless. Some believe masks are essential for the community to overcome the virus. Some listen to the news, some doomscroll through social media, some are hearing half-baked theories and conspiracies and embracing them. Some proclaim their faith will keep them well, but there is no certainty the virus is impressed with bravado. So it is a given that church leaders are not going to choose a path forward that satisfies everyone in their church. No one should think there are easy solutions.

A TRUE RISK. Gathering carries a risk. Distancing protocols may lessen that risk. At the same time, it is not wise to pretend that these protocols remove the risk of contracting coronavirus at gatherings in closed rooms with ventilation that just recycles the air. There is no protocol, no practice, that can guarantee that coronavirus is absent from the assembly.

EXHAUSTION. Everyone is weary of this entire circumstance. It wears on all every day, every place. Everyone is ready for this to be over. It is never far from our thinking. But some do just stop thinking about it. They pretend it’s not there and desire to return to a pre-COVID ministry. If the virus were a human enemy, it might be able to intimidate it, shame it, overpower it, or push it away. A thousand people a day are dying from Covid-19 and co-morbidities. The old human facade of “it won’t happen to me” is what directs some people’s paths. However we feel – tired or wary or cavalier or cautious – the virus is unaffected by our feelings.

HOPE. Until there is a proven vaccine or the virus mutates into something our bodies can fight, I don’t see this ending. In my view, we can make the best of the reality we are facing. I am hopeful. I do believe that many are watching online that have not been in a church meeting in many years. I do believe there will be a well-researched vaccine. I do believe the virus can mutate and weaken. I do believe we will adapt and live with this virus or it will be eradicated. This is our human experience over the centuries.

While we wait for that eventuality, I desire to keep my family and congregation as safe as possible. At the same time, I desire to engage, serve, love, and reach out in every way available to me. We will pray without ceasing and know that God walks with us through this valley. It is not time to give up.

DISASTER RELIEF

UPDATED 8.26.2020

It is unfortunate that over the years there has been a need to keep a list like this handy. Not only for hurricanes but fires, floods, and twisters. We live in an ecosystem that produces this kind of turbulent weather. Disaster is an opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ. God bless all volunteers/professionals and givers who help make what they do possible. 

There are many many wonderful relief agencies that will be doing all they can to reach out to the communities suffering from devastation. The following is a list of those that I have experience with and that I can recommend. I appreciate greatly those relief agencies that work through local churches because of the contacts these churches already have in the community.

One Kingdom: Whites Ferry Road Relief Ministry

Disaster Assistance COC

Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort

Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team

International Disaster Emergency Service

Convoy of Hope

Samaritan’s Purse

American Red Cross

I thank God for those who give so much of themselves to bless strangers who are suffering.

Thanks for reading, John

Following Jesus: Following Joy

Some people believe that Joy is in short supply in our world. That’s not hard to believe, given the events of the past few months and the pandemic we are enduring day by day. The anger and unrest that rumbles beneath the surface, and sometimes erupts, has caused many to lose joy.

It is hard to talk about joy. I had a professor in Holland who spent three years talking about anxiety. We studied Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus, and a lot of other people who made a career out of writing about anxiety. I asked him, “Can you do a lecture on joy?” He said, “I tried, but I don’t have much to say about it.”

Henri Nouwen, Following Jesus

Even for Christians, joy is often confused with a good emotional feeling – and feelings are fickle.

No matter what we are enduring at the moment, Jesus can bring a certain joy to our lives that circumstances cannot steal from us. Joy that comes from following Jesus is our constant companion, it is a gift from Him to our hearts.

The FOLLOWING JESUS sermon series has a consistent message: Jesus Invites You to Follow Him. I hope that the privilege of that invitation has come through. The invitation to the first disciples was “Come and See” . His call was to follow Him and become “fishers of men.” He calls us to the Jesus Life – a different kind of life. It calls upon us to love our enemies. It calls upon us to carry our cross. It calls upon us to experience joy found only in Christ.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

John 15:9-14, NIV

How Following Jesus Gives us Joy

WE ARE LOVED (John 15:9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you….)

Jesus Loves Me is more than a children’s song! It is rich with the truth of the gospel!

Ephesians 3:17-19 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

WE HAVE DIRECTION (John 15:9b-10 Now remain in my love.)

When we give ourselves to Christ, the Tempter is never far away. Our faith can be both strong and weak. We need to do everything we can to strengthen our faith to give us resilience in the most difficult days.

Living in His love is living in compliance – having a willing spirit. (John 15:10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.) He calls us to live the Jesus life. Many people have an idea that Christianity is just a matter of where we go to Church on Sunday. Really, it is a matter of who is in control of your heart. Jesus never walked outside of the will of His Father. This is our example for daily life in the Kingdom today.

WE HAVE PROMISE (John 15:11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.)

Do we really believe Jesus when he says that His joy is complete?

“The great challenge is to claim the joy that Jesus offers us. Jesus is God of the living. Jesus came to bring life, and life in abundance. Jesus came to break the chain of wounds and needs and to overcome death. He came to give life, and life is joy.”

Henri Nouwen, Following Jesus

WE HAVE FRIENDS (John 15:12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.)

We are not in this alone – we have each other.

Jesus is our greatest friend (John 15:13-14 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.)

The One you and I are called to follow is the Lord of history, the Risen Lord who is the Gate to heaven, the Door to Eternal Life, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who is the only Son of God, full of majesty and glory, who is the Giver of abundant life, who is our Lord, always drawing us closer into the mystery of God’s life. He is not a cozy friend whom you have a chat with. That is not the spiritual life. He is the Lord who calls you into communion with God.”

Henri Nouwen, Following Jesus

How do we walk through the days of our life with Joy beyond our circumstances?

With our eyes on serving and loving others. (Philippians 2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…”)

With our eyes on taking care of our own souls. (Ephesians 6:13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.)

With our eyes on those who have gone before. (Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…)

With our eyes on Jesus. (Hebrews 12:2 …Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.)

With our eyes on eternity. (Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.)

Joy is not in short supply in our world because Jesus, the source of true joy, is available, open, desiring, inviting, and even drawing all unto himself.

Resource:
Nouwen, Henry. Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. New York: Convergent, 2019.

The Cross-Carrying Life

Following Jesus means we hear his invitation to come and see, listen to His teaching, act upon what we learn from Him. When we follow Jesus, we are stepping into a new life that
leaves an old life behind. It will cost us some of our worldly ambitions, but it will give us so much more.

The Cross is God’s great act of solidarity with His Creation. Jesus Christ gave up his home in heaven to be born, live, and die as a human being.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and
every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:6-10 NLT

The Cross is what it cost Jesus to save us. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow Him.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” -Luke 9:63

What will it mean for us to take up the cross and follow Him? What should we look for in a cross-carrying life?

LOOK FOR COMPASSION

Whatever you experience in life, Jesus joins with you. We have a Savior who identifies with our experience.

  • Have you ever felt alone? Jesus knows what that is.
  • Have you ever wept in sorrow? Jesus wept.
  • Have you ever been tempted? Jesus was tempted
  • Have you ever known poverty? Jesus had no home
  • Have you been frustrated? Jesus ran moneychangers out of the temple.
  • Have you ever been weary? Jesus sat down by a well to rest.
  • Have you ever been disappointed? Jesus knew that feeling when he wanted to save, ‘but you were not willing’.
  • Have you experienced Rejection? Have you been Ridiculed?

Jesus joins us in our pain. Following Jesus is not a path of least resistance, not a path free of pain and struggle. It is a path that acknowledges that Jesus is with us in our pain.

Psalm 139:3 … you are familiar with all my ways.

Hebrews 4:15 NLT This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin..

“There is no human suffering in you or anyone else in the world that has not been suffered by God.” -Henri Nouwen

To take up our cross is to connect our experience to Jesus. Look for Compassion …

LOOK FOR DIRECTION

Jesus single-mindedly lived in the direction of the cross. In the same way, when we take up our cross, we find direction in life.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my
yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus promises….
Rest – the weariness and burdens of life can distract us from our purposeful decision to follow Jesus.

Understanding – he is gentle and humble. This is a lifetime journey – we will learn as we go.

Direction – a yoke – we will learn from Jesus how to follow Him through the complexities of a life of faith.

What do you need most from Jesus right now? Rest for your weary spirit? Understanding for your missteps and faults? Direction for your next steps of faith?

The Cross tells us that Jesus calls us all to come to Him for compassion and new direction and it also tells us to

LOOK FOR COMMUNICATION

Bring your pain into the healing presence of the cross. Your pain should be a catalyst for your prayers. Lord, it hurts not to be liked by people that I love. Lord I’m so fearful today. I don’t know where it comes from, but I am anxious and fearful. My body aches, Lord. I am in physical pain. I don’t know why the doctors can’t help with the pain.

When we pray, we connect our whole life with God’s life. Take your worries and convert them into prayer. Take your fear and connect it with God’s fear. Take your depression and see it in the presence of Jesus dying on the cross. Bring it to the One who has suffered all and lived it all. In the presence of Jesus you can live beyond pain and joy, sadness and gladness. When you pray you connect your life with God’s life. You live in a new way.

Conclusion

Jesus’ statement in Luke 9:23 begins “Whoever wants to be my disciple” What should we look for in a cross-carrying life? Compassion, Direction, Connection. Whoever wants … do you want to follow Jesus?

What a privilege it is that Jesus the perfect Son of God invites you and I to sit at His table and remain with him forever!

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord. – Acts 3:19

Why don’t you accept the invitation of Christ in this verse to lay down those burdens and take on His direction?

Resource
Nouwen, Henri. Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. New York: Convergent, 2019.

Love Your Enemies

Also available on our YouTube Channel HERE.

Following Jesus: Love Your Enemies

Following Jesus requires us to accept his invitation and to hear his teachings and ways. But not just to hear – to act. Many of the teachings of Jesus are uncomfortable and feel unnatural – He is calling us to live the Jesus life. Our text today does make us uncomfortable. Jesus demonstrated, ultimately at the cross, the principle that found a center place in his life and ministry.

It is the most unnatural thing in the world to love someone who has hurt you – someone who is an enemy in some respect – but that is what Jesus calls us to in our text. Today’s passage is one that demonstrates this.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Luke 6:27-35

Among the teachings of Jesus, I can hardly think of one that is more complex or difficult than loving our enemies. We live in such a polarized time. It’s a time when we all have a megaphone shaped like a keyboard. We live in a violent time that is shaken by racism, injustice, crime, and brutality. We normally treat an enemy the way we were treated. Wiersbe: Hatred only breeds more hatred, “for man’ anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20). This cannot be done in our own strength, but it can be done through the power of the Holy Spirit. WW

The ability to have this capability begins with recognizing the source of this kind of love.

BEGIN WITH THE FIRST LOVE

Love is the greatest need in the world. No one expresses the love we most need more than Jesus Christ.

John 15:12-14 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

Henri Nouwen calls the ‘first love’. “The first love says, ‘I loved you before you could love anyone or before you could receive love from anyone. I have accepted you. You are accepted. You are loved no matter what mother, father, brother, sister, school, church, society does. You are born out of my love.”

Experiencing First Love Frees us to Love One Another
1 John 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.

Experiencing First Love Comes From Being Forgiven
Luke 7:36-48 a woman anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. Jesus says she must have been forgiven much because she loves so much. She understood how much she is loved, and this love set her free to love Jesus with all her heart.

Experiencing First Love is in Contrast to Worldly Love
Worldly love is a transaction. If we give something, we expect something in return. This is where conflicts and hostility come from. This creates anger, jealousy, resentment and revenge.

DEVELOPING THE ABILITY TO LOVE OUR ENEMIES

Follow Jesus the Supreme Example.
If not following Jesus, then it will be impossible. If we are following Jesus, we become windows of love of God – Jesus teaches us how to live it out. “We broken, limited persons are windows on the unlimited, unconditional, unbroken, perfect love of God.” HN

Enable Love with Prayer
“We enact this kind of love by prayer. We pray so we can walk around this world and not be so needy, not be wounding others, and not be giving so we can get something in return. We pray to be free….Following Jesus means to live a life in which we start loving one another with God’s original love and not with the needy and wounded love that harms others.” HN Pray for people that you do not like. You really have to work at it. Seek God’s help to rise above our emotions and hurts.

Speak Words of Forgiveness
Remember what he said on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Lk 23:34). Stephen – the first Christian martyr – in death asked God to forgive his enemies (Acts 7:60). Speaking words of forgiveness is where the love of enemies becomes visible.

Do concrete acts of forgiveness and service.
Do not wait until you feel better about things. Do not let emotions decide what you are going to do.

Conclusion: McKeever: When we do loving things for our enemies, 12 things happen:

-God is honored.
-Jesus is pleased.
-Holy Spirit is able to use our actions to accomplish His will.
-The devil is infuriated. You are not playing by the rules.
-The enemy–those who did the bad things to you–are puzzled.
-The critics of the church are silenced.
-The church itself is blessed.
-Christians going through hard times are inspired.
-Outsiders are drawn to Jesus.
-You yourself are blessed.
-Your anger goes away.
-And according to Luke 6:35, your reward in Heaven is great.

Nothing you and I will do in this life is more important than to show the love of Christ to people who get on our nerves, constantly harass us, persecute us for our faith, and make life miserable for us.

“We become a new person every time we forgive an enemy, because we let go of the angry person inside who was holding on to fear.” Nouwen

God will help us love this way, because He loves us this way.


Resources
McKeever, Joe. The Most Revolutionary, World-Changing Thing Jesus Ever Said

Nouwen, Henri J. Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. New York: Convergent, 2019.

Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary New Testament, Volume 1: Matthew – Galatians. Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 1989.