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Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Sermon Series: Classic Christian Virtues of Health and Healing

Do you remember the moment in Jesus' ministry when he encountered an ill, supposedly crippled man who had been sick for 38 years? Believe it or not, that man came daily to a pool that was believed to have healing properties but he had not asked anyone to put him into the waters.

When Jesus encountered the man, his question was surprisingly frank: "Do you want to get well?" (John 5: 1-10).

Well, do we? Do we really want to get well? Do we want to live lives that are full of wholeness and health? Do we want to live as long as our bodies will let us? Do we want to have relationships that not only spend our lives, but also enrich them? Do we want to reach our full potential as people? Do we want to have a faith that both challenges us, as well as, strengthens and fulfills us? Do we really want to be saved? Do we want to be whole---a whole person?

You would think so. But amazingly, if we are honest, there are many times that we carry on our lives in ways that not as healthy as they should or could be. We all do things we shouldn't. We pick up habits we can't break. We relate to others in ways that hurt them and us. We can get caught in varying kinds of addictive behavior that is both harmful and destructive to ourselves and to those we claim to love. We might even choose religious behavior that brain washes us into social or spiritual complacency and human ignorance. We might ironically settle down to live at the very edge of the stirring waters that might help us, restore us, or make us stronger and better people, but we fail to make the simplest effort to admit our weaknesses and ask for the help we desperately need.

Several years ago, an alcoholic came to a church where I was serving, seeking to find help with his drinking problem. After hearing about his desire to change, I agreed to pray and work with him as much as I could. I visited him regularly after his AA sessions, even going with him on occasions. After a while, however, and after seeing that he had stopped coming to church and had dropped out of AA, I went to his home for a visit. Upon arrival, I entered his house to find what I feared most---that he had returned to the bottle. What I did then as a caring pastor, is to go over to the refrigerator, pull out all of his booze and then I proceeded to pour them out into the sink.

The poor fellow never forgave me for tying to help him. I later realized I wasn't helping him, because he was the one who needed to take the action of getting rid of his drink, not me. But he couldn't break the spell upon himself. Even though he was seeking and crying out for help, he did not want the help I gave---or at least, he couldn't yet receive it. It was one of my first pastoral lessons on the difficulty of helping hurting people, especially people who were addicted and struggling within themselves. It is the kind of struggle any of us could have at certain periods of our lives for all kinds of other reasons in many other ways. For whatever reason, we come to the edge of the healing water, but we do not make the final effort to get well.

In my upcoming series of messages, I'm going to talk about some of the most important healing habits and virtues of the Christian faith which can help, over time, with much prayer, patience and practice, to help break to the most powerful dysfunctions in our lives---especially the emotional, spiritual and relational dysfunctions we all often succumb to. These healing virtues are Christan virtues, but not exclusively so. You might might find them to be part of a good counseling practice, part of an AA meeting, or you might also encounter many of them them in other major religious traditions or spiritual values.

What is distinctively Christian in these virtues, however, is how they are fully realized in the life and teachings of Jesus who preached a message of wholeness as the very salvation that God has uniquely made available to the world through by grace through faith. Jesus himself was not just a preacher nor only a teacher, but he was also was a healer---a faith healer and miracle worker. Some have even observed, in light of the recently new development of modern psychology, Jesus to be one of the most gifted counselors of all time. His methods of wisdom in knowing what to confront or when to give comfort are unsurpassed. Through his healing approach, Jesus not only helps us find the way to heaven, but he helps to enable freedom for living our lives more abundantly here and now.

If you go into popular book stores today, some of the greatest selling books are in the category of self-help and spirituality. While there is certainly a lot of misleading and even false information out there, the increasing sale of these kinds of books point to a growing hunger or desire to find higher levels of emotional health to improve the meaning and value of our lives.

Giving such excessive attention to personal growth is unique to our culture and our spiritual poverty. Never has so much human energy been given to solve the threat to self experienced in today's world. One wonders the reason. Is the need for self-help due to our neglect of the self or is the need for help due to our obsession with ourselves? Good for the publishers, but bad for us is that the more that is written about how to help ourselves, the less content or settled people seem to become. Could it be that the focus on self is well-intentioned, but wrongly aimed? Could it be that the key to healing is not so much in the continued discovery or journey into self, but it is the very denial of self that is most needed.

This way of self-denial which Jesus advised, is not self-negating, but a refocusing which leds us own a radical spiritual journey toward life-lifting, divinely given virtues which can help us rise above ourselves in ways that we go beyond our personal pursuits and move toward the deepest levels of health and healing found by living a fuller, more consistent life with God?

In the messages of the next several weeks we are going to look certain of these virtues, both biblical and christian, but also moral and classic, which have proven to be life challenging and life changing to many people who admit their own demons and struggles and face them with courage and hope. Most of them are probably basic to you, well-known and even regularly practiced by many of us in certain moments of our lives. But they are sometimes forgotten or overlooked in the heat of living or in the stress of our failure to measure up to our own best intentions and expectations.

I hope you will bring your Bible, your family or a friend as we explore these healing virtues together. I hope you will say to yourself, for the sake of your own health and healing, "I do want to get better, be a whole person, but I need someone to help me!" It is just that kind of readiness and willinginess that can help you hear the words of our Lord spoken directly to you: "Stand up. Take up your mat, and walk!"

Hope to see you at church,
Pastor Joey

Thursday, August 20, 2009

MISSIONS: Are You a World Christian?

The mission statement of our partnership says: “The e-mission of our church is to exalt Jesus Christ as Lord, evangelize others to know him as Savior, to encourage believers to become equipped and empowered disciples who engage the world with faith, hope and love…and the greatest of these is love.” My focus is on the last phrase. What does it mean to be disciples of Jesus who engage the world?
This may sound a little daunting at first. How can our small churches touch the big, complicated world out there? It could be more possible than we might think.

Last Monday morning when I turned on the morning news some of the first images I saw was of that of the President trying to sell Health Care, then more news about Michael Jackson’s death, a picture of Hurricane Bill, and then right at the end, a personal photograph of a normal, average Minnesota couple on an outing, with a little squirrel jumping up in front of their camera as if he was posing with them. The picture they made quickly became national news. How? It was posted straight from their digital camera on the internet. Some people first figured the picture was doctored in some way, but right when the guy was taking a picture with his remote, the little squirrel, living in the park, very used to humans, and thinking the clicking sound of the camera might mean some free food, just happened to pop up in front of the camera at the right moment.  What captivated me most was not just how quickly the little squirrel popped up, but how quickly this simple, small, intimate personal photo shot reached the eyes of the watching world.

We live in that kind of time when the lines between what is local, what is national or considered worthy of being called world-wide is being blurred. The smallest, most remote message can quickly emit into the whole, wide world and in a matter of seconds. The world is within seconds of even the most trivial message.

While there are many ways the church must engage the world with its message, I want to consider, based on the biblical text John 3: 16-17, three major motivations for the world-wide Christian mission.

For God so loved the world…”

Here we are taken directly to the heart of the matter. The whole idea of the church on mission in the world or the Christian being involved in God’s mission begins with God, not us. Christian mission was born not out of an invention of the church, the disciples, or even in suddenly in the life of Jesus, but mission began in the very heart of God, the Father.

Draw your attention briefly to three biblical texts that show the beat of God’s heart. Take your Bible and turn to Genesis 12 where God calls Abram to leave his country, his kindred, his father’s house and to go on journey to a new, unknown land. It is this final part of the blessing that still echoes in the mission of the church today: “ you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:3, and also Isaiah 51:1ff, and Revelation 21:22-26).

Throughout the biblical revelation God has a heart for the nations---the world. “For God so loved the world….” Even though there is, in the Bible, a continual struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, between spirit and flesh and faith and worldliness, don’t ever take this to mean that God hates the world he has created. God hates what sin, evil, and corrupt worldly powers have done to the world, but God still loves the world. To join in with God in mission and to become a world Christian means you know and have God’s heart of concern for the world.

Several years ago, as a family, we were struggling with our daughter’s mental illness. We paid for and search out every resource we could to help her until one day, when she reached 18, she informed us that she was moving out. We had all kinds of fears for her. We loved her. We did not approve of where she was going. We did not approve of the decisions she was making. From every possible angle, she was going not just a different way, or simply her own way, but a dangerous way that would be a very difficult way. As we worked through this with one of the family counselors helping us and when it became clear that our daughter was not going to listen to reason, and probably could not reason on her own, the counselor looked at me and gave me this word of advice. “I know you don’t approve of where she is going or what she is doing, but whatever you do, don’t close your door to her. It is so easy to say, “If you go out that door now, you can never come back?” I’ve seen parents say this, and even mean to do well by it, and they may or may not stick to it, but so often it tragically happens that the child goes away, gets into trouble and then believes they have no place to come home. That is the greatest danger of all.”

At the very core of the gospel God opens his heart to the world he loves. Even though the world turns away from God, God does not turn his back on the world. This is where the Christian mission begins, when we begin to see straight into the heart of God.

Second, ...he gave his only son.” God does not wait on the world to come to him, but he makes the offer of ultimate love to the world. Becoming a world mission-minded church means that we don’t wait on the world to come to us, we go to the world with the offer and the invitation of believing on and trusting in God’s son.

But this is where it gets more challenging. When we repeat those very biblical words of Jesus who says, I am the way, truth and life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) or the words of the early church who preached so boldly in Acts 4: 12, that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”, this is where the world may not share God’s heart or ours. How can we be world Christians when the world doesn’t agree with our core message?

We all know is that you can do Christian relief work in the world without much of a problem. You can even be a follower of Jesus most parts of the world and most people will leave you alone. Many will even admire you for your faith. But in some places and among many people, if you dare to pray exclusively in Jesus’ name or you teach that Jesus is the one and only savior, you will find increasing resistance. How can we preach Jesus in a world more complicated and even more colorful than we’ve imagined?

I think there is an approach we can take that remains true to our central claim but does not intend to insult or condemn others. Once Jesus told his disciples who were about to stop a man from casting out demons and who was not one of their group: “Do not forbid him…for he who is not against us, is on our side.” (Mark 9: 39-40). This is God to know. Everyone not following Jesus is not necessarily against him.

I’m reminded of something former Baptist missionary George Braswell once shared with his students about his own mission work in Iran before the religious revolution there in the early 1980’s. He was a Christian working in a Muslim land, but at that time he was allowed to speak for Jesus as long as he didn’t speak against Islam. He told us how he learned to be a gracious guest in that strange land and how he was mostly welcomed, even appreciated by many, even as a Christian. One day, while roaming the streets, where Islamic religion seemed to permeate every nook and cranny, leaving little room for the light of Jesus, he found himself in a barber shop. What did he find on the wall of that barber shop but a picture of Jesus? That Islamic barber had Jesus on his wall, because he said, "Jesus died for him, too." Though still a Muslim, this man was open to Jesus---not against him (See Braswell’s “To Ride a Magic Carpet, Broadman, 1977).

Perhaps the most important, qualifying biblical picture of Jesus’ intention not to condemn others comes in Luke’s gospel, as Jesus has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. In Luke 9: 51-56 we read messengers went ahead into a Samaritan village to see if Jesus could pass through their town. But the Samaritan village rejected Jesus. When James and John, some of his most trusted disciples learned of the rejection, they are ready call fire down from heaven to consume them just like Elijah did when he called fire down upon the false prophets of Baal. But when Jesus heard their desire, he rebuked them saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (KJV).

What manner of spirit are we of or do we have when we teach, preach and witness to the gospel of Jesus? This is the most important question we must ask ourselves, isn’t it? Do we teach that Jesus is the only way in order to help save and include all people in that salvation, or do we teach Jesus as the only way in order to exclude and curse, even wishing their own destruction if they don’t receive what have to share? Jesus says, the manner of Spirit we have makes all the difference.

After reflecting on this text, one wonders if Jesus could have realized is that the same Jerusalem that made the Samaritans angry enough to reject him is the same Jerusalem that made Jesus weep. Perhaps in his heart, Jesus knew the Samaritans were not really rejecting him, because they didn’t even know him. Maybe they were rejecting the corruption, the hypocrisy and the failure of Jerusalem to be the light it was called to be.

Who doesn’t think here of how the great Hindu and social leader, Gandhi, also a great admirer of Jesus and even a follower of his teachings, once considered becoming a Christian until he encountered the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of some Christians in South Africa? I personally believe the “manner of spirit” present or absent from our witness to Jesus makes all the difference in what we proclaim. The gospel clearly says that Jesus is the only way, but this is not mean to exclude people but to invite all people to this one, sure, true way that God has established wholeness, salvation, mercy and eternal hope in the world. Jesus is the brightest light God has given, but this does not mean God desires to insult others or has left himself without a witness in other ways that will lead people toward Jesus and to his saving spirit of grace.

I want to consider one more text concerning Christian world witness, where Paul faced the Greek Athenians in Acts 17: 1-32. When Paul encountered firsthand their own religious ways and even more surprisingly, that in their ways they were still open for more light and new understandings, rather than condemning them for their “false” religion, he commends them and especially points to the altar they have dedicated to the “unknown god.” Seizing upon this opportunity and their open-mindedness, he then proceeds to proclaim to them the God now revealed more fully through Jesus Christ.

That was one of the greatest strokes of missionary genius found in Scripture----Paul didn’t condemn their own religion or religious efforts, but he commended them. Seeing their own religion as human part of the search for God, he then moved on to share his witness to God who is now searching for them through Jesus Christ. Paul didn’t compromise his faith by respecting or even finding areas of agreement, but he used their religion as a bridge to present good news of Jesus. Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world (John 3:17) or open-minded religion that seeks truth, but to save the world through its openness to new revelation---the true revelation of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps more than anything else, we need this kind of respectful, positive approach in our preaching, our teaching and our witness. We need to watch how we approach people, respect people as we offer them the truth we share.

“Whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
After you gain God’s heart for missions and after you preach the truth respectfully to others, it is also important to realize that world Christians carry out their mission as a rescue mission, believing that people are still perishing and that, more than anything else, the world really needs God’s message of love and grace as revealed through Jesus Christ.

Do we still believe that people are perishing? Today if you talk about perishing or Hell, people think of God in the category of something worse than what Michael Vick who brutalized animals. Should we then do away with Hell in our preaching and teaching? Some Christians think so. In one recent book entitled “If Grace Where True” two theologians argue that if God’s love never fails and if grace is really grace that is full and free, then it will eventually cover everyone’s sins. Sounds good, doesn’t it? If we are caring, compassionate, and loving Christians, we might at least wish this were true. But if we are going to be biblical, evangelical, and even realistic about the world we already know all too well----a world that is filled the very real drama of both tragedy and redemption---with both the good that saves and the evil that destroys, where the actions we humans take do matter and have lasting consequences that can’t be taken back. If this is the real world, then how could we accept such an idealistic view that says all will be saved, no matter what they do or what happens? In fact, what is salvation, if it is not salvation from the very destruction and perishing that threatens all our lives?

Before we consider more about what Hell means in theological and biblical terms, let me first tell you a story that puts our hearts in right place. It puts us in the right “manner of spirit”, Jesus recommends in Luke 9.

I recall hearing years ago how a mother lost her son to addiction and an early death. During his youth, he got addicted to alcohol and drugs and ended up living a meaningless and otherwise worthless life. After his funeral the mother went to her pastor fearing that since her son had never made a profession of his faith, he was now in hell. Hearing the mother’s fears, the wise pastor attempted to comfort her. He said, “I know you are very troubled with what has happened to your son. I also know you feel a sense of guilt, whether you are really guilty or not. But what I want to ask you now is one single question. Did you love your son?”
“Of course, I did,” she answered. “Even thought he was a failure and wasted his life,” there was nothing he could do that could make me stop loving him.”
“Well, do you then think your love to be stronger than God’s? If you could love and forgive your son, no matter what he did, do you think God’s love was less than your own? The pastor continued: “If you really believe in God’s love, then rest your own troubled heart in his love. Know that there was nothing your son could do or didn’t do, that could thwart, hinder or change God’s love for him. If God’s love is not stronger and more compassionate than our love, how then could he still be God? Go back home and rest yourself in that love that is many times better, stronger and more patient than your own.

I like that story. It doesn’t do away with Hell, but it puts our hearts in the right place---with emphasis upon God’s unfailing, conquering, and unrelenting love. If there is anything we can be sure of, it must be that God is love and that his love can save us, and yes, it can even save us from ourselves. Because you see, it not just the devil that is our worst enemy, we are sometimes our own worst enemy. God’s love is so great that he can even save us from ourselves. This is at the core of the good news.

If you doubt that God’s love is this great, greater than our sins and all our wrong choices in life, just think about the one dying thief on the cross alongside of Jesus. This guy messed up his life big time—his whole life. He messed up the very gift of life he had been given all the way to the very end. We don’t know exactly how he messed up, other than being a thief, nor do we know why he did it. What we do know is that when light finally came to him, and when he found himself in presence of the Savior, he was broken, humbled, and sorry for his sins. And because he was willing to humble himself and surrender to God, Jesus forgave him and made the most wonderful promise: ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.’

This is what God’s love can do. It can reach into the evil that has laid hold of us and can redeem the worst in us and the worse of us. We should never attempt to play God and know who can or can’t be saved. His power to save is not the problem. We can rest in God’s perfect knowledge, his unfailing love and his limitless power to forgive any sin. With this understanding of God’s love that never refuses us, even while we are still in our sins, our understanding of Hell must somewhere be located within God’s love. But how can that be? How can the fires of Hell have anything to do with love?

This brings me to the other thief on the cross. You remember him, don’t you? He’s the one who never surrendered to anyone or anything. It was his way or the highway. When he found himself in the presence of Jesus, he was unremorseful, stubborn, belligerent and cruel. No matter how hard we look into his soul, there was nothing there---there was no sign of any kind of remorse, no repentance, no sign of any humility, and no willingness to feel the heart of the Savior. There was, as the biblical text reveals, seemingly nothing left in him to save. It was not the thief’s crime or sin that was the problem, but it was because of his heartless, stubborn unwillingness to surrender to God’s light and love being revealed right before his eyes. Because he rejected the light he was given, he was left to suffer the consequence of his own actions. Because he did nothing but call good evil, and evil good, because he blasphemed the Spirit that flowed from God’s own heart to his, this man’s own words and his own selfish will became his own sentencing. God did not send him into hell, but he was already there, beginning in his own heart and mind. (Luke 23: 39-42).

This is one of the major reasons I can’t let go of the biblical teaching about hell. It’s not because God sends people to hell. The Bible does doesn’t give a picture of God sending people to hell. Hell is primarily reserved “for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). But out of his love God has made us free agents with free will so that we have the real ability to determine our own destiny and fate. True love has not only the power to hold on to us, it also must have the capacity to let go. It is not out of God’s hate for us, but his holy love that he allows us the freedom to do the unthinkable….to deny the very life, the very love and the light he gives. Love is not love unless there is freedom to absolutely reject it. The fires of hell Jesus talks about both figuratively and literally are the ultimate warning that our actions will have consequences---lasting ones. God is love, but he is love that is both holy and just. (In fact, the philosopher Kirkegaard once asserted how evil could take hold of someone in such a way it becomes debatable whether or not they are still to be called a person).

But who would reject such love and justice? Who in their right mind would reject the love God has for them? That very question is where our knowledge is limited, but God’s knowledge is not. We don’t know who rejects love out of their right minds or who rejects love out of a troubled, or injured mind that can’t grasp the light they have been given. This is why we too must be humble in our witness to God’s truth.

Grady White was a Baptist circuit riding preacher and dairy farmer in northern rural Iredell County, back in the early 20th century. For a while, it is reported that he preached at no less than 12 churches at one time in this area. Of course, that was a different day and time, but there is no doubt he was a very wise, gifted and respected pastor and preacher. One story I was told about Pastor White concerned a funeral he once preached when everyone knew that the guy who died was a scoundrel. There was nothing good that could be said about the fellow and everyone knew it. How was he going to reconcile this bad guy’s life with a funeral service that should be respectful of the dead?

The lines with which pastor White opened the service went something like this. “What we need to know more than what this man did or didn’t do is is that now he is in the hands of a just and loving God as one day we all will be. We entrust his soul into hands of the only one who sees and knows all things---even the deepest corners of all our hearts.”

What I like about these words, is that Pastor White knew human viewpoint is always limited. It’s not our responsibility to figure out eternity, but we are called to join with God in his rescue mission to bring love, light and hope into the places where the powers of hell still need to be conquered.

Finally, if you still doubt that we still have a world rescue mission, just consider the brokenness, corruption, darkness and oppression we still see in Afghanistan, where our soldiers are fighting this very moment. Did you see those oppressed woman on TV who had just had a new law made against them that if they refused their husbands they could be withheld food or worse, jailed?They were in prison having to have their own children come to visit, which was the only joyful moments of their lives. Tragic. Sad. Evil. Such a real, dark place of terror and destruction is real in this world. The battle is all around, and is not simply a battle resolved with bullets and bombs.

In the book, Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortensen tells how books, not bombs are making the real difference in the Islamic culture of Afghanistan. His story tells how he was once helped to survive a mountain climbing injury by Afghans and has stayed in that country to build schools. This simple decision to be one man on a mission is already changing the educational landscape of that country one community at a time. If battles can still be better won with books than with bombs---with the pen rather than with the sword--- just think what could happen when that culture is literate enough to encounter the message of the greatest book of all?

This is why we must stay on mission: God's heart is still for the world. He has sent us to share in his rescue mission. Does your heart beat with the heart beat of God?

© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Monday, August 3, 2009

MINISTRY: Are you a God-called minister?

The story goes that two people were riding a bike built for two up a steep hill. They finally made it up the hill with great difficulty. After catching his wind, the person on the front finally spoke up, “Whew! That was surely a steep hill!” Then the person on the back responded, “Yea, if I hadn’t kept my foot on the brake we might have rolled down backwards.” In regard to your church life, are you one of those who are peddling desparately or are you one of those who are putting on the brakes?”
Many are peddling desparately these days. Recently there have been some alarming statistics released about the future of the church. The Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention published on their website these sobering seven facts, “Special Report: The American Church in Crisis” ( Here's a synopsis:

  • Less that 20% of America's regularly attend church
  • American church attendance is steadily declining.
  • Only in one state is church attendance more than population growth---Hawaii.
  • Mid-size churches are shriking, but the smallest churches and largest churches still show growth.
  • Established churches---40 to 190 years old---are on average, declining.
  • The birth of new churches is only 1/4th of what it needs to be to keep up population growth.
  • By 2050, the percentage of the U.S. population attending church will be half of what was in 1990.
What will be the future of the church in America? This is what many people are wondering, including me and it should be you. But it’s not a time for any kind of blame game, but it is a time for understanding and a time for action. It could be that whole future of the church rests upon on a single comma in the Bible. This comma is not in the original Greek, but is specifically found in the King James Bible. But before I get to the "missing comma", let's observe the apostle Paul "begging" the church to understand what it means to live the Christian life.

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called..” (NKJV, Ephesians 4:1).

Although Baptists have made much about the issue of calling for pastors and ministers, what Paul is referring to here is the calling of every Christian. So, let me ask you. Do you consider yourself to be a “called” Christian? From my observation of 30 years of pastoral ministry, very few American Christians understand the Christian life this way. Many understand the Christian life as a choice or an option. Others understand it as a way of salvation or a hope. Some think of their faith as a heritage or a tradition, but very few consider it a “calling” or “vocation”. But this is exactly what Paul is suggesting, isn’t it?

On NBC’s Evening News with Brian Williams, Wednesday July 29th, 2009, they had another of their regular special reports on people who were “Making a Difference” in these days of economic downturn. In this spot, those who were seen “making a difference” where Indiana couple, Monty and Susan Scales, who walked away from their well paying jobs, leaving their lives behind, and for the last 4 years have lived in a 240 square foot camper to live and work rebuilding homes in the Gulf Coast region. When asked why, Susan responded, “After she saw the devastation on the news, she went back to work and felt useless.” They moved from Mississippi, to Louisiana, and now to Texas, to help victims of Hurricane Ike. As Monty says, “especially to help those who fall between the cracks”. And they are not rebuilding houses one at a time, but they are currently working on a dozen houses at a time, living on the donations from supporters back home.
When asked about the greatest sacrifice, Susan says it is “not seeing her grandchildren grow up.” “This is a killer,” she said, as she held back tears. Of course, Americans are known for their volunteerism, but what I noticed during the entire interview was the United Methodist “Cross and Flame” displayed on the utility trailer located right behind them. Nothing was ever said about their faith or the church during the interview. Nothing really needed to be said. The symbol was there in plain sight for the world to see. This was not just volunteerism. This was not just two generous, caring people. These were two people who were living lives “worthy of calling to which they had been called.”

Watching that segment made me feel close to Susan and Monty Scales, though I have never met them. I felt close, because I recognized their hearts and also because I felt a “unity of the Spirit” with them. I felt Paul’s words about, “one body, one Spirit…one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…. I felt all that while watching how Susan and Monty Scales answered the call. Isn’t it interesting, how “calling” brings unity?

With this introduction to the Christian calling, we are ready to consider the case of the missing comma. In the King James Version of the Bible of Ephesians 4: 11-12 (from a Greek translations in 1611) the text reads this way: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, (comma) for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”

Now consider another reading from the New King James version (based on a more recent Greek translation): “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”   Did you catch the very different reading? In the older King James reading, Christ gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to do the work of the ministry. But interestingly, as scholars have gained knowledge of the Greek, the more accurate translation is updated in the New King James version that Christ has given pastor and teachers to equip all the "saints" to do the "work of the ministry,” which in turn, builds up the body of Christ. Do you see the difference? The church that is built up and edified is the one where “everyone” is called, gifted and being equipped to do ministry!

Has the church missed this? It is the part of the church that fails to realize its giftedness and refuses to be equipped for ministry the part of the church that is dying? I recall hearing one of my professors at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, tell a story of a a student pastor who was being interviewed for a possible call to become the pastor of a church located not too far from the seminary.

As the student came for the interview, he noticed that the church building was in disrepair. But the people talked about how much they loved that old building and mentioned how much history and heritage was there. Finally they turned to the potential pastoral candidate and asked him: “If you were to become pastor here, what’s the first thing you’d do?” After a moment of reflection, the young seminary student looked the pastor search committee in directly in the eyes and answered: “If you want my honest assessment, I’ll give it to you. If I were to become pastor here, the first thing I'd do is tear down this building!”

The story goes, that although the committee were rather shocked by his goal, they came to realize it was exactly what they needed to do, and they called him as pastor and the ministry began to grow.

What would happen if we started focusing more on our ministry, and less on our buildings and our traditions? Of course, I don’t mean we have to tear down our buildings or disregard good traditions, but what I’m talking about is moving from being a church that exists to maintain what we have to being a church that primarily exists to minister as the called, gifted ministers of Christ in this world. It kind of sounds like New Testament Christianity, doesn’t it?

Several years ago, Pricilla Pressley, in an TV interview described that Elvis died prematurely at age 42, as an “unhappy man”. She went on to say that the problem with Elvis was that he never came to terms with who he was, or who he was meant to be. Pricilla reported, “Elvis though he was put on this earth for a reason, either to serve, care for people, to preach or even to help save people.” “That agonizing desire was always there,” she continued. “He knew he wasn’t fulfilling it. He would go on stage and all he could do is think about.” That is, all he could think about was what he wasn’t doing. This is what made him unhappy in life.

Did you know that Elvis had more hit records since his death than before, and that one of, if not his greatest selling hit of all times was his recording of the song, “He Touched Me!” Do you ever wonder if Elvis missed his true calling?

Have you ever wondered whether or not you are missing your true calling in life? Ministry is for all of us, not just a chosen few.

© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

DISCIPLESHIP: What Can You Learn from Jesus?

Are you still learning from Jesus, or do you think you already know everything?

I recall hearing about a pastor who once told one of his parishioners, “There’s nothing in the Bible I can’t understand!” Maybe he was that smart about the Bible, but I believe there is still something even the most brilliant minds can still learn from the living Christ.

Recently on NBC the Today Show took a Vacation. Literally, the stars of the Today show went to various American vacation spots to televise. One of the spots was Key West. While there they began to interview, Sean Fisher, grandson of the legendary treasure hunter, Mel Fisher.
As they told the very remarkable story of how Mel Fisher spent much of his life looking for sunken treasure and telling his family, partners and workers each day, “Today’s the day”, until 1985, it literally was the day. Mel Fisher found the so called, sunken 16th century Spainish ship known as the “Bank of Spain” and uncovered a treasure of a half a billion dollars. What caught my attention was what came out of the reporter’s mouth next. Right after reporting how wealthy Mel Fisher became upon finding his treasure, the reporter's very next words were: “…Of course, Mel’s gone now...” Only 12 years after spending 16 long years looking for treasure under the ocean, Mel’s life was over.

Here’s the point: Its one thing to spend your life looking for earthly treasure, but it’s quite another thing to realize that all the treasures gained in this life will soon be past. Jesus pointed to this reality and the wisdom to be gain from it. One of his most important spiritual teachings was about“not storing up treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume and where thieves break in and steal….” With a keen, spiritual insight, Jesus recommended “storing up treasures in heaven…”and “seeking first the kingdom, because, “where your treasure it, there your heart will be also” (NRSV, Matthew 6: 19-21).

What we can still learn from Jesus is a spirit-empowering perspective of life. More than anything else, says one scholar, “Jesus was a spirit person.” (See Marcu Borg’s, Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time (HarperSanFrancico, 1994, p. 33ff.). His alternative wisdom and view of life and its other-worldly, spiritual dimension of reality is what we get from Jesus throughout his entire ministry. This was the authority that went beyond that of the Scribes or the Pharisees. This was the kind of man that led people to ask themselves: “What manner of man is this?” It is this dynamic, encompassing spiritual view of life that still enables people not only to see things differently, but to become very different and even much better people.

But there is something else we can learn from Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, and by his Spirit, Jesus not only calls us to a new way of seeing, but he calls forth an alternative way of community and life together.

As we’ve watched the current financial crisis unfold before us and around the world, hasn’t it become clearer, how little we really understand about what it means to live in community with each other and for the world? As the world gets smaller, in that we realize more how connected we are with each other, and as the world also get’s larger, in that it is far more complex and uncontrollable than we’ve realized, don’t you think we’ve all got some very important things to learn so that we can all live life on this planet in ways that are constructive, redemptive, caring and compassionate?

The late Texas congressman Mickey Leland is a prime example of what it means to live a life for others. Leland died in a plane crash on August 7, 1989 while on a famine-relief mission in Africa. As chairperson on the House Select Committee on Hunger, he visited Ethiopia and Sudan at least six times in six years. When he was criticized for spending time away his home district, he replied by saying, “I am as much a citizen of this world, as a citizen of this country.” It was no mere coincidence that among those who died with him in his final mission on behalf of the “least of these” were African Americans, whites, seven Ethiopians, Christians, and Ivan Tilliem, a Jewish philanthrophist and anti-hunger advocate. Mickey Leland died just as he lived, as not just a congressman from Texas, but a citizen of this world (From a Sermon by Zan W. Holmes, Jr, entitled “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in a book entitled, When Trouble Comes, CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, 1998).

Whether you realize it or not, this is what Christian discipleship is about. It’s about not only seeing things from a heavenly, other-worldly perspective, but it is also about seeing the needs of this world more clearly and learning how we should respond in love and compassion. I pity those who can't see further than the nose on their own faces. We are to live not just a life to gain and gather “treasures” for ourselves in this life, but we are to live a life that is both with and for others and to share even greater “treasure in heaven”. True Christian Discipleship in the way of Jesus can help you see and become so much more. Are you willing and ready to learn?

© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

FELLOWSHIP: Are you Encouraging each other?

It was not until 1993 that I purchased my first "cutting-edge Window's operated computer. Up to that time I was still using MSDOS on a reconditioned 286 with a 5 1/4 inch floopy drive. After extensive research, I decided to buy frmo a top-rated mail-order company. The best, most powerful computer you could buy at that time was a 486 Intel processor with 66 megaherz of power. When I unpacked holstein colored box, it was a sparkling tower of beauty. But that was the best I ever felt about it.

After I got it up and running, following instructions step-by-step, it never worked correctly. It took an excessively long time to boot up. No sound was heard through the speakers. The CD Rom drive didn’t know the difference between a music CD or a software CD. Things would jump around and shut down, when I attempted to type a letter. The manufacturer responded quickly and attempted to fix it. I was living in Boone at the time and there was 2 feet of snow on the ground and they sent a certified repair man from Tennessee three times to try. He finally concluded that the computer had some kind of internal conflict. All the parts checked out O.K. I had good parts. Maybe I had the best parts. It could have been a great computer, but the problem, he said, was that the parts didn’t communicate well with each other.

Sometimes churches and communities of faith can be like my 486 computer: The church of Jesus Christ has a wonderful message; that is it has all the "right" parts, but there is a problem of internal conflict within the fellowship and nothing seems to be working correctly. Christian fellowship is the major concern of the First Epistle of John, where he writes to one of the early churches: "Dear Friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who love is born of God and knows God... (But) if someone says, 'I love God' but hates another Christian, that person is a liar. For if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, who we have not seen." (1 John 4: 17,20).
Do you see the serious implications of these words? Within 50 to 75 years after the church was born, the unity and fellowship of the church is already being tested.

Several years ago, while living in Germany, I watched an amazing news documentary. A local Lutheran minister in a certain German congregation was trading places with a local bartender. The minister would do bartending for a week. The bartender would do ministry and preach on Sunday. Somehow this strange cultural exchange began as a challenge from the local bartender who told the minister that he was able to do more ministry in a weeks time at the local bar than most churches did in a month. The challenge was accepted. After the week was over the bartender was so frustrated with church work that he wanted to rush back to the bar. The Lutheran minister resigned his church position and began his studies to become a bartender. When asked why on earth he would do such a thing, the minister responded. “It’s simple, really. I found the fellowship at the bar to be more "Christian" than the fellowship which we had at our church.”

What are we to say to this kind of slam against organized churches? Don't people say this kind of thing all the time: “I don’t go to church because the bars are just as good a place to find fellowship?” Or they say other things like“I can be just as good a Christian at home." Or recall the words of Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi about Christianity? "I could follows Jesus if it wasn’t for other Christians” How do we give an answer our Christian struggle to have genuine, caring, sustaining fellowship with one another?

One thing we must do is to agree with the critics. Yes, you heard me right: agree! We must agree because the evidence is all there: genuine Christian fellowship is hard. Before the church got good and started, they were already dealing with the problem of Christian fellowship. They were struggling with who to let in, who not to let in, how to deal with conflict and how to resolve it, and they were struggling with how to simply get along with each and love one other. The challenge of Christian fellowship has always been hard, if not impossible on human terms alone.

So we come to final question:why try it? Why take on the challenge and the struggle to ‘have fellowship’ with each other? Why not just turn out to be a skeptic of all human relation like the late french philosopher Jean Paul Sartre who had the philosophy: “l’enfer, c’est les autre!” (“Hell is other people.”)? Can we find one good reason to the contrary?

This is exactly what John's epistle gives. John gives us a word against all the human broken-ness we experience in the world and in the church. He gives us a word against our individualistic, egocentric, selfish choices which constantly alienate us from each other. John says: “We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands....(this Jesus)...the word of life. This one who is life from God was shone to us....we are telling that you may have fellowship with us (John 1: 1-3). It was Jesus' kind of living and his kind of loving that makes fellowship and community possible even against all the negative odds and brokenness of our human condition.

Charles Colson, founder of Christian Prison Fellowship, tells of visiting a prison in the city of Sao Jose de Campos. It was a prison that was so unmanageable it was turned over to Christians to run over 20 years ago. He writes: “They called it Humaita, and their plan was to run it on Christian principles. The prison has only two full-time staff; the rest of the work is done by inmates. Every prisoner is assigned another inmate to whom he is accountable. In addition, every prisoner is assigned a volunteer Christian family from the outside that works with him during his term and after his release. Every prisoner joins a chapel program, or else takes a course in character formation.

‘When I visited Humaita,’ Colson continues, “I found the inmates smiling, particularly the murderer who held the keys, opened the gates, and let me in. Wherever I walked I saw men at peace. I saw clean living areas, people working industriously. The walls were decorated with biblical sayings from psalms and proverbs. Humaita has an astonishing record. Its rate of repeat offenders is 4% compared to 75% in the rest of Brazil and the U.S.

How was this possible? Colson says, “I saw the answer when my guide escorted me to the notorious punishment cell once used for torture. Today, he told me, that block houses only a single inmate. As we reached the end of a long concrete corridor and he put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, “are you sure you want to go in?” "Of course”, I replied impatiently. “I’ve been in isolation cells all over the world.” Slowly he swung open the massive door, and I saw the prisoner in that punishment cell: a crucifix, beautifully carved by the Humaita inmates---the prisoner jesus hanging on the cross. “He’s doing time for all the rest of us,” my guide said softly. (As quoted in Donald W. Mccullough’s, The Trivialization of God, Nav. Press, 1995, pp. 95-96).

Christian fellowship is possible, among the best of us and even among the worst of us because it is a fellowship that is not based on who we are, or what we can or can’t do. Chrisitian fellowship is based on what Jesus has done in his saving work of redemption and forgiveness. This is why the fellowship which John invites the church into is "...with the father and with his son, Jesus Christ.” (1:3). It is a way of relating based upon God’s love expressed through Jesus Christ. Believing in and living out this kind of love, which is based upon the grace and forgiveness of God expressed through Jesus Christ and his cross, is the kind of love that not only makes human fellowship possible, it makes most anything possible.