Showing posts with label The Nature of the Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Nature of the Church. Show all posts

Monday, May 5, 2014

Wow. . . What a Church!

We've been to what looks to be our new spiritual home in Cuenca, Iglesia Verbo, two weeks now.  An exciting group of people.  Let me tell you why. 

When it comes to welcoming the newcomer - native Ecuadorian and extranjero alike - these folks go all out to welcome you.  They may not give you an extra large size chocolate bar here like Grace Chapel back home does - and Ecuador is home to lots of cocoa bean plantations, though the price of the chocolate in Hershey branded form is decidedly higher than in the States - but they do give you something that is precious. . . a rose (men and women get this) as well as a hug or warm embrace Latin American style.  Roses cost a lot less than chocolate bars here, btw.  Try around 12 cents per single rose.  

English speakers like ourselves are also accommodated by the use of a personal translator of the worship services (less song lyrics played by the different worship musical ensembles on the platform).  To utilize this free service, you sit in the main back row of the large and new auditorium and wear some large looking wired earphones (wireless will no doubt come this way in the future like it already has in North America).  Be careful when you stand and sing, though. . . you might disconnect the headphones from the connector, especially if you are a tall gringo like me. 

We've had the opportunity to get to know and thank personally a couple of translators: Erica, who translates @ the 9:30 AM Sunday service, and Belen, whom we met last night at the Sunday evening service - which can last for up to two hours, btw.  Erica has a ready smile and interacts with native Spanish speakers who are taking Verbo's English language classes, which I understand are free. . . what a deal!  They also offer free Spanish language classes for the gringos among the congregation.

Verbo recently had translation from Spanish to English available at all its Sunday services morning and evening.  They've had to officially cut back to just the 9:30 and the 11:00 AM services, leaving the 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM worship services Spanish only. . . but, if they know you are a gringo, and have someone who can translate in a moment's notice, there is translation available still.  This happened when one of the members of our Welcome - Bienvenidos - class that meets on Monday evenings saw Carolyn Anne ( I think she's literally the only white haired lady in the entire 2000 plus congregation) and found for her a translator, Belen.  True Christian love in action!   This gentleman wouldn't quit until he found for her a translator willing to help.  Dogged man for Christ and his people, indeed. 

We happened to come when Verbo was communicating, for the first time in over three years, its desire from amongst the pastors (10 of them) and elders of the need to grow the physical building out some more to accommodate more new people not already part of Verbo or a Bible believing church.  The pastor we heard, Roberto, said then and last Sunday it was the hardest message he ever had to give. . . but it was easily his most rewarding one, as the church now has $70,000 in cash and pledges in hand to enlarge the buildings and its classes and programs.  Using the Ecuadorian rule of 3's and 4's, this amounts to around a quarter of a million dollars for  building and ministry expansion.  A third floor for the existing two story modern building is planned.  This will allow for more teaching space - currently the church has just five classrooms from what I can see - and kitchen furnishings, which will equip the kitchen to finally be a warm, inviting meeting place for youth, couples, and so on to get to share a cup of coffee, some pan dulces, and good extended conversation after the worship services. 

This is a church that has a heart for God and His Word, and for people.  There is probably not anywhere in Cuenca that does not feel its influence.  Our hotel hostess, Carolina of Hotel Pichincha, knew immediately of Verbo when I mentioned it to her in conversation.  Our ever friendly English language adept pharmacist, Tatiana of Fybeca Farmacia in El Centro, has gone here (and we encouraged her to come on back and be a part once again).  From its humble beginnings in 1987 as a small group Bible study, Verbo - which means the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity - has grown to over 2,000 people in scores of home Bible studies all over Cuenca. . . and six other sister churches planted in Ecuador, and one in Peru.  The future?  They are visioning and praying for *20 more* sister churches in the next ten years.  Verbo is currently growing at the rate of one person a day, if a recent Saturday bimonthly Baptism is any indication. 

If this kind of movement amongst God's Holy Spirit - and yes, you can sense His presence here by the Spanish speakers as well as the English speakers -  doesn't excite you, I don't know what to say.  Wow. . . what a church!  What a time to be alive and to give one's life to the Master's business which will lay up treasure in Heaven tested by the Refiner's fire!  

Sign me up.        

Monday, August 20, 2012

Life Together. . . Bonhoeffer Style

As I've been saying in a few posts now, I'm reading the most excellent book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010) which has made the New York Times Bestseller list.  Previously, I've given quotations from the book.  Now I'd like to reflect on the nature of how Bonhoeffer lived, and why the way he lived was and is attractive, moreso to those who choose to follow Jesus Christ. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up with some advantages.  He had a father - and what a father! - and a mother - with familial lineage to some of Germany's past and present theologians and learned men - and his siblings.  His extended family of aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins simply added to the pastel of relationships Bonhoeffer enjoyed and benefited from. 

His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had a way of conducting family business.  He was a believer in gathering the family around the table at mealtimes for discussion.  From there, discussions about anything and everything would ensue.  But the structure had the indelible imprint of Bonhoeffer's father, for his way of conducting a conversation around the table was this:

"Karl Bonhoeffer taught his children to speak only when they had something to say.  He did not tolerate sloppiness of expression any more than he tolerated self-pity or selfishness or boastful pride.  His children loved and respected him in a way that made them eager to gain his approval; he hardly had to say anything to communicate his feelings on a subject.  Often a cocked eyebrow was all it took."  (Metaxas, Page 15)

His children were taught to be in firm control of their emotions, according to Metaxas.  While a certain part of this was cultural and familial practice, some of it is not, imho.  The drive from Karl Bonhoeffer to his children was to know what you believe and what you think before you say it. . . so as to not be embarrassed when others find fault in your reasoning and logic.  Fair enough, and actually, quite a gift . The art of speaking and debating around a table at mealtime - and learning how to speak - is quite the lost art in the current culture. 

Structure, whether it be from the direction of conversation conducted by father Karl, or the ministrations of activities and learning from mother Paula, was a given that gave root and order. . . and a way to explore the world and find meaning in it. 

From this foundation, Bonhoeffer was allowed to bloom in his own time.  Bloom he did!

He would invite his students to his parent's house, where his father would engage, with his son, Bonhoeffer's young charges in discussion and lively debate.  Of course there was food to eat, the centerpiece of any good conversation.  Once established in a cabin in the woods, he would invite his students to come visit him there, away from Berlin and the big city, to talk and reflect.  At one point, he told his landlady to allow some hooligan type students from the government run and funded state school (similar to a public high school in a way in the United States) to come in to his quarters.  She complied, but wondered in amazement at the amount of trust he gave such young, undisciplined, potentially troublesome youth.  And he would feed them there.  His kitchen and icebox (or refrigerator, not sure without further research) weren't off limits to their hungry appetites.  Such a draw, eh?  (wink)

Now, I've got to confess. . . as a public school educator, if I allowed my students, once outside back in society, to do that, my wife for one would wonder if I had gone nuts or if I was losing it.  That kind of act of hospitality is truly a mark of a believing follower of Christ.  And that he did, but not from his childhood.  The moment of trusting Jesus Christ to save him from his sins took place when Bonhoeffer was a young man, while still learning and preparing for his life's work.  And he would revisit his faith and beliefs from time to time, deepening his relationship with Jesus and with those who are of the ekklesia - the called out ones of God - who knew and walked with Jesus.  This is not the same group of people known in that day as the government state supported Lutheran Church (to be German was to be Lutheran).  Not at all!  It was the voluntary group of people who confessed Christ as Lord. 

Other ways of showing people care were visiting the sick in the hospital, showing up at home after class to inquire as to the health of a student (and to give him classwork and/or tutoring), and visiting relatives regularly and often.  Letter writing, the thing back then instead of texting or emailing, was de rigueur for Bonheoffer and his family.  In this way, through letter writing and visits, he got to know a good deal of his extended family in person in his abbreviated days on this earth. 

These kind of actions are familiar to me.  They were not always demonstrated or instilled from my childhood, but as young believer in Jesus Christ, I saw them demonstrated over the years in his people, the church.  I particularly remember my Young Adult Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, M. Craig Barnes, delivering his message - actually sermon quality stuff - to our assembled class in the Cathedral Room in Hansen Hall, then ending it with this invitation: "I invite you all to come - well, not all you, but as many as Ann and I can fit into our living room - to our house.  I'm going to leave the address and directions on the board so you may copy them down.  Phone number is on the board should you get lost. . . there's a hill or two out east on our street for those who don't get out that way much.  Hope to see many of you there tonight where we'll continue our conversation. . . this time by you asking the questions, instead of me posing them for you."  Golden words by a gifted pastor, then as now.  Who could resist such an invitation to come and spend time in great conversation. . . and ice cream to boot?  I learned much from my time spent with Craig at his house.

Ice cream. . . makes me think of another gifted pastor, Todd Dubord, and his wife Tracy.  Back in the days when he served as Pastoral Assistant at First Presbyterian Church of Palmdale, Todd would invite the church to come out to a local restaurant for "Pie a la mode," as he termed it.  This was in reality his "dry run" for his sermons he gave on Sunday mornings at the church. . . but not everyone caught on to that.  Todd would pose the provocative question for the day, and we would discuss and debate the thing. . . sometimes for hours.  I never stayed past Midnight, though, if I recall correctly.  Fun times, and a great time to get to know others who were passionate and willing servants of Jesus. 

Life together. . . Eating together, conversing together, doing tasks together, helping one another together. . . this is how Bonhoeffer realized how Christians should live - in community.  To learn from one another. . . together.  Of course, one of Bonhoeffer's written works is titled Life Together.  This isn't a review of that book, however. . . but nonetheless you get a flavor of where he was coming from in this reflection here from Metaxas' excellent biography of the man. 

My adult Sunday School class at Grace Chapel had in attendance this past Sunday two young missionaries to the Middle East.  I asked the question: "So how do these folks who know the Muslim faith quite well hear you out. . . how do you reach them and communicate with them the Good News of Jesus Christ?"  Words to that effect.  The answer is disarming: "I simply say God's Word to them from the Bible.  The Holy Spirit will illumine their hearts and help them to turn to Jesus Christ, if they will but let him."  See!  Our battle is not against flesh and blood. . . for these Muslim folks are just the same spiritually speaking as anyone else in the world who is without Christ. . . lost and in spiritual darkness. 

This is what Bonhoeffer eventually realized.  Without God's Word, we are all lost and in spiritual darkness, being apart from Christ and his blessings of Heaven.  So, as I always strive to do, I'll leave you with an applicable Bible passage that speaks to the topic at hand.  From 1 Corinthians 6 (New Living Translation):

3 We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. 4 In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind. 5 We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. 6 We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us,[c] and by our sincere love. 7 We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. 8 We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us impostors. 9 We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. 10 Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.

11 Oh, dear Corinthian friends! We have spoken honestly with you, and our hearts are open to you. 12 There is no lack of love on our part, but you have withheld your love from us. 13 I am asking you to respond as if you were my own children. Open your hearts to us!

Open our hearts to us!  The call the Apostle Paul had for the Corinthian church, and the call Dietrich Bonhoeffer had for the students and community he served.  Don't withold. . . don't keep back. . . but open wide your heart, not only to us, but to Jesus Christ, the Living One, the Firstborn of the Dead, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  What a charge to keep this is. . . and may God help me to do it day by day, in his power, not my own.  


Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Quotable Bonhoeffer (and Metaxas)

As I've mentioned in a previous post, I am reading Eric Metaxas' excellent book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010 by Thomas Nelson Publishers) which made it onto the New York Times Bestseller list in 2011.  I've only made it through the first nine chapters so far (there are 31 chapters in all), but I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book.  The first few chapters establish time, place, and circumstances of his early life.  Once past that, the story picks up and becomes engrossing.  One to reflect upon and not read quickly. . . and one to use a highlighter and/or pen to mark important passages with.  I've done so. 

Bonhoeffer, to those who don't know, was a German pastor in pre-Hitler and pre-World War II Germany, as well as during the war.  He could have established residency in the United States in the 1930's, but declined to do so.  Instead, he followed the call of God to speak God's truth to the secular power of the age. . . Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich itself.  Bonhoeffer actually participated in a failed plot to assasinate Hitler just before Bonhoeffer himself died in a German war camp just prior to World War II ending.  Exciting times, and an eventful man with God's leading.  May we be the same in our generation!  With that background given, here's some worthwhile quotes.  All are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer unless otherwise indicated.

*  *  *

Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless and the infinite worthlessness of that which is seemingly so valued.  (Page 85)

A summary from Metaxas: "In an attempt to be more sophisticated than the fundamentalists, whom they (theological liberals) hated, they had jettisoned serious scholarship altogether.  They seemed to know what the answer was supposed to be and weren't much concerned with how to get there.  They knew only that whatever answer the Fundamentalists came up with must be wrong.  For Bonhoeffer, this was scandalous."  (Page 103)

The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. (Page 106)

.  .  . 

In New York they preach about virtually everything: only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.  (Page 106)

So what stands in the place of the Christian message?  An ethical and social idealism born by a faith in progress. . .

The (liberal) church (is) as a social corporation. . . (Page 107)

From Metaxas: "Bonhoeffer quickly grew weary of the sermons in places like (theologically liberal) Riverside (Church, New York City), so when Fisher invited him to a service at Abyssynian (Baptist Church, New York City), he was thrilled to go along.  There, in the socially downtrodden African American community, Bonhoeffer would finally hear the gospel preached and see its power manifested.  The preacher at Abyssinian was a powerful figure named Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr."  (Pages 107-8)

Again, from Metaxas: "By the mid-1930's, Abyssinian boasted fourteen thousand members and was arguably the largest Protestant church of any kind in the whole United States.  When Bonhoeffer saw it all, he was staggered."  (Page 108)

Metaxas again: ". . . the only real piety and power that he had seen in the American church seemed to be in the churches where there were a present reality and a past history of suffering."  (Page 110)

I still believe that the spiritual songs of the southern negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America.  (Page 114)  I'll add this note: Bonhoeffer was so struck with the power and influence of the negro spirituals he listened to that he took these recordings with him back to Germany, to allow his students and others to listen to them as he first did so.  They were some of his most treasured possessions, according to Metaxas.

From Metaxas: "He seemed to want to warn everyone to wake up and to stop playing church."  (Page 122)

When I took leave of my black friend, he said to me: 'Make our sufferings known to Germany, tell them what is happening to us, and show them what we are like.'  I wanted to fulfill this obligation tonight.  (Page 128)

From Metaxas: (from one of Bonhoeffer's students) "Among the public, there spread the expectation that the salvation of the German people would now come from Hitler.  But in the lectures we were told that salvation comes only from Jesus Christ."  (Page 128) 

If you want to be pastors, then you must sing Christmas carols.  (Page 129)

From Metaxas: "He loved.  And by being with his disciples, he showed them what life was supposed to look like, what God had intended it to look like."  (Page 129)

From Metaxas, again: "Bonhoeffer aimed to model the Christian life with his students.  This led him to the idea that, to be a Christian, one must live with Christians."  (Page 130)

Leaders or officers who set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.  (Page 142)

From Metaxas: "The words of the decree (Reichstag Fire Edict), produced and signed into effect before anyone had had time to think carefully about it, made possible most of the horrors ahead, including the concentration camps."  (Page 149)  Yup. . . there went the German people's individual liberties and civil rights, just like that!

All of this reminds me of the famous quote by philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 
"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,"  the Apostle Paul advised in another context in 1 Corinthians 10:12, but one connected to the issue at hand: the allowance of evil and idolatry in one's life and in the culture at large.

I hate evil, because God does.  It's real.  C'mon. . . you mean to tell me that the Aurora, Colorado Batman movie theater killer was a good guy?  He was and is mentally troubled, for starters.  Or how about the Iranians rattling their sabers at Israel?  Is that good?  No!  Or how about what happened to Kelly Thomas, the homeless man who was beaten and killed at the hands of the Fullerton, California police department?  Is that good?  Look at all the demonstrations that event caused.  No!  How about the inclination of my heart to not be with God's people, the ekklesia, the called out ones of God, and share my life transparently in front of God and man as I do Sunday by Sunday?  Is that good?  No! 

See, evil is everywhere in every person, because "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," Paul wrote in Romans 3:23.  "All our righteousness is as filthy rags," the prophet Jeremiah wrote (Jeremiah 64:6).  This is why Jesus came.  To allow us to exchange our filthy rags for a white robe, where we are judged "not guilty" by God the Father, because he sees "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).  "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow," Isaiah the prophet declared (Isaiah 1:8) 

This is the Great Exchange. . . one Bonhoeffer had, and I've had as well.  It's the best exchange you'll ever have in your life, to rid yourself of all your guilt and shame you have before God the Father and let Jesus bear the burden and the punishment of your sin. . . a subsitutionary sacrifice. . . which is one main reason why he is worshiped as God the Son, part of the Trinity.

Questions about the above?  Please do leave a comment below.  I do check regularly for them, and I'd be honored to help folks deal with this issue in a gentle, loving, compassionate way.  I know.  I've been in that position.  


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Spiritual. . . But Not Religious

How many times have you heard from others "I'm spiritual, but not religious?"  I have!  It's cropping up more and more often when I converse with people these days.  The "rub" here is that if you are "spiritual," you have it together, you're real, you're a good person.  The "religious" person, by contrast, is not together, fake, and a bad person. . . in short, a "hypocrite." 

I ran across the following dialogue lately, and thought I might share it here. 

*  *  *

In George MacDonald's novel Robert Falconer, there is a bit of dialog which highlights the folly of today's conundrum regarding "spiritual, not religious" ideas. The segment is taken from Chapter 8 "My Own Acquaintance."
‘We are a church, if you like. There!’
‘Who is your clergyman?’
‘Where do you meet?’
‘What are your rules, then?’
‘We have none.’
‘What makes you a church?’
‘Divine Service.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘The sort of thing you have seen to-night.’
‘What is your creed?’
‘Christ Jesus.’
‘But what do you believe about him?’
‘What we can. We count any belief in him—the smallest—better than any belief about him—the greatest—or about anything else besides. But we exclude no one.’
‘How do you manage without?’
‘By admitting no one.’
‘I cannot understand you.’
‘Well, then: we are an undefined company of people, who have grown into human relations with each other naturally, through one attractive force—love for human beings, regarding them as human beings only in virtue of the divine in them.’
‘But you must have some rules,’ I insisted.
‘None whatever. They would cause us only trouble. ...'"

*  *  *

Hat tip: the late Chuck Colson/The Colson Center for Christian Worldview 

 One of the Christian nonfiction books I read early in my Christian life was Ray Stedman's 1972 classic Body Life.  Stedman, longtime pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, brought to life just how the Body of Christ is meant to live and operate. . . then, now, and for the future.  A classic easy to read primer on what Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts and the ekklesia, the Body of Christ, and yes. . . the worldwide, universal church.  Another way of saying it is the catholic - "notice the small "c" denoting "universal and worldwide - church.  A useful passage is Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV): 

  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[e] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Lots to chew on in that passage!  I'll briefly point out a couple of observations.  The Body of Christ is plural.  It is made up of many persons ("saints") who the Apostle Paul refers to as "we."  So the church is plural, not singular.  Many persons, not one. 

We may start out as children in the Christian faith (v. 14), but we don't stay there.  We are to grow up!  (v. 15)  This reminds me of the famous line in the film Shadowlands, where Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis declares to his church congregation, "We need to grow up!"  We do. . . and so do I.  All of us.  Staying as children is unnatural and does not become us.

As I tell my wife on a regular basis, "Ministry is a team sport!"  No "Lone Rangers" in the Christian life! 

Worshipping God together assembled as Christ's Body, the church these days and being connected and accountable to Christ as He expresses Himself through His body is so countercultural in the present day culture.  Yet it is scripturally taught.  The easy way out is to say "I'm not religious. . . I'm spiritual!"  The harder path is to - as the Apostle Paul and C. S. Lewis would say - grow up and be a willing part of Christ's Body. . . the church, warts and all.  No, the church is not perfect.  But she is still Jesus Christ's bride whom He sought and bought with His precious blood on the Cross.  Respect her - the church - at least that much.  Work to better her and let God cleanse her from her sins, not condemn her and walk away like a Lone Ranger.  Hope to see many of you in church this Sunday.