Putting Out the Welcome Mat

25 Apr

Everyone likes to think, “Ours’s is a friendly church,” but is that the reception visitors receive? As members, when we pull into the parking lot, we see the cars of our friends and we can anticipate the warm welcome from people who love us. It keeps us coming back for more! But is that how others see us? Let’s walk in to our church with “new eyes” and look around.

Listening to the Building & Grounds

Grandma was right: “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” Like it or not, the first thing people see is our parking lot and, if it is littered, pockmarked with potholes, and lacks any place for them to park, that all-important first impression isn’t going to be a good one. On the other hand, if there is a spot reserved near the door marked, “For Our Guests,” it shows somebody cares. If the lot is clean, well-lit, and bordered by flowers, I’m ready to learn more about these people.

At Grandma’s house, only salesmen and strangers come to the front door. Friends and family always came through the kitchen. Likewise, sometimes there is a difference between the front door of the church and the door the family uses. If that’s the case, we need to make sure someone is at the front door to welcome guests, or there should at least be a sign pointing to the “Friends and Family” entrance.

The Entrance Exam

Almost before he asked me for my name, he began a theological inquisition. Was I a member of the “Lord’s Church”? What did I believe about the Holy Spirit and Pre-millennialism? He was a “gatekeeper.” A sweet-faced, white-haired lady met me with a smile, but then began gathering grist for the gossip mill. She was a “busybody.” Unfortunately, sometimes visitors are subjected to an entrance exam.

A smiling face and a warm greeting the moment I walk through the door says, “We’re happy you’re here!” The second step is just as important. Do we introduce ourselves and ask anything at all about our new friends? About their family, work, where they live – the questions we would ask a new friend?

And don’t forget to introduce your new friend to another member. Don’t just shake their hand and leave them standing to navigate their way alone. Show them to class or invite them to sit with you during worship.

“You’re sitting in my spot”

Ouch! Sister Smith had been sitting in the same spot on the same pew forever. Brother Jones had staked out the seat next to the isle from the day the building was erected. Before I could warn our guest of the sin they were about to commit by sitting in the sacred space, Brother Jones or Sister Smith rudely booted them out – and they will never come back. If you are going to become permanently attached to a sacred space, at least have a plaque made to warn people.

“Where is everybody?”

Once, Jan and I went to visit a congregation. We checked their website first and they advertised a coffee hour thirty minutes before Bible Class. That sounded so friendly, but when we arrived, we walked into the foyer and no one was there. We walked into the auditorium and no one was there. We scratched our heads and then heard voices down a flight of stairs, so we followed the sound and found the Fellowship Hall. When we walked in, everyone stopped talking and just stared at us. There was a coffee pot and the remains of a tray of donuts off to one side. No one said a word. No one got up to greet us or invite us to sit with them. I’m not shy so I walked over to a table full of men and introduced myself. They shared their names, but nothing else. It was like I had walked into a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. Jan looked around wondering where the children were. It took us visiting for three weeks before we discovered what a warm and friendly congregation they really were, but I wonder if anyone else would give them a second chance.

How hard would it have been to at least put a sign in the foyer or on the doors directing us to the coffee hour? If this was a friendly church, why didn’t someone get up and prove it?

Don’t Forget the Kids

My children are precious and so are yours! If Bible School is important, then the classrooms should be clean and well lit. As a parent, I want to know my children will be safe. Who is the teacher and how will my children be protected?

We were so impressed by one congregation. Not only were the classrooms inviting, but there were pictures of the teacher and her aide posted on the door. When parents dropped their infants off at the nursery, they were given a pager in case there was a problem. The new parents could worship with peace of mind knowing that if there was an issue, they would be contacted.

I love “Family Friendly” worship where the children are considered a part of the congregation too. The worship leader always has at least one song for them and the preacher begins his sermon with a story and a lesson for the children. One congregation Jan and I visited began the worship by inviting the children to bring their contribution to the front, file past a giant water bottle and drop their coins in. As the kids rushed to the front, they were often given extra coins to contribute. Everyone loved it! By the way, the children decided how their collection would be used. It might go for a school lunch program to help feed hungry kids. It could be used to drill a well in a poor country so those children would have safe water to drink. It had even been used to build the playground at church. The important thing was the children were included.

Put Out the Welcome Mat!

Over and over I’ve heard churches complaining they aren’t growing and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t our own worst enemy. Here are some more suggestions and questions:

  • Do we send our visitors a personalized follow-up letter and call telling them how happy we were to meet them?
  • Is there any information available in the foyer about our congregation, our history, and the services we provide?
  • Are parents told about Bible School, Children’s Worship, or the Nursery facilities?
  • Are guests invited to join in with activities, service projects, or even just asked to sit with them during services?
  • Does anyone ever invite the guests to lunch after services or to coffee later during the week?

Perhaps the solution is as simple as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

 

 

Humble

17 Apr

 

“In a society where fortune favors the strong, modesty is often seen as a weakness. Climbing to the top of a corporate ladder is our modern version of ‘survival of the fittest’ — and for that reason, meekness is often under-appreciated. But turns out, the secret to success and fulfillment may very well lie in the ability to express humility.” — Lindsay Holmes

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek,” but that’s a virtue we no longer seem to value. Americans tend to equate meek with weak, but true humility is a virtue of success. Later, Jesus told his disciples, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” (Matthew 23:12). So how can I learn to be humble?

Humble People Focus on Others

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” – Peter, 1 Peter 5:5

While it’s true that humble people tend to reflect inward, but they focus their energy on other people. C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Lindsay Holmes observes, “Because there’s this lack of self-absorption, humble people also have more courage to try new things. With a focus on others, there is less pressure to be perfect.”

Humble People Act on Their Compassion

Research has shown that humble people are more likely to help others in need. They are more charitable and generous, and, studies show compassionate people live healthier and happier lives.

Humble People Make Moral Decisions

Stuck between a rock and a hard place? Humble people look to their “moral compass” when they are making decisions. A proud man’s arrogance causes them to blunder, while the wise man humbly looks for guidance from above.

Happiness is a Journey

Everyone wants to be happy, but it is a strange paradox that people who pursue happiness often don’t find it, while people who don’t focus on happiness find it along the way. Mike Austin, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, explains, “Human nature is such that we want to be happy, however we tend to define that, but … people that are the happiest are the ones that don’t think so much about trying to be happy …. They get caught up in projects, people and things that they consider bigger and more important than themselves and then they get more happiness anyway as a byproduct.”

Humble People Make Great Leaders

“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth,” Numbers 12:3.

Humble people give other people credit inspiring the best from their followers. They are open to collaboration. Time Magazine reported humility actually makes people better employees and bosses. James reminds us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” (James 4:10).

Humble People are Patient

Because humble people are focused outwardly, they do not require constant affirmations. They are willing to wait and enjoy the journey. The Apostle Peter said, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Modesty fosters patience.

Humble People Enjoy Stronger Relationships

Humility creates a sense of “we-ness” in relationships. Modesty and genuine graciousness fosters true friendships and builds stronger relations. The Apostle Paul reminds us to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love,” (Ephesians 4:2).

 

Thanks to Lindsay Holmes and a wonderful article in the Huffington Post, July 13, 2015.

A Subway Sermon

8 Apr

At the Radio Station in Seoul

I loved riding the subway trains in Seoul. They are incredibly clean, amazingly safe and very efficient. One day I was riding home after we finished taping a radio program for the Christian Broadcasting System. The train pulled into a station and a street evangelist hopped on carrying a life-sized cross and an amplified sound system. He set up his pulpit in the center of the train and preached with all his heart to the captives on the subway who did their best not to look at him. When he finished his two-minute lesson, he looked around the car and his eyes lit up when he saw me watching him. He lit up and rushed over. Then he bent down so we were face to face, smiled from ear to ear and asked, “Are you,” he struggled to find his words in English, then he demanded, “Are you … Christian?”

Now the whole train was watching us. “Yes,” I replied smiling.

He danced triumphantly speaking in tongues and then shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!” at the top of his lungs. People started to grin at my predicament. Then he stooped down again and asked, “Are you … Presbyterian?”

“No.”

Undaunted, the little man continued, “Are you … Catholic?”

“No,” I answered again.

Puzzled, he simply asked, “Baptist?”

“Nope.”

He was truly puzzled now. “Methodist?”

“No.”

In desperation, as the subway was slowing down to enter the station, he asked, “Mormon?”

“No!”

He couldn’t stand it. People were beginning to pick up their belongings as we slowed to a stop. Finally, he cried out, “What are you?

I grinned from ear to ear and replied, “Just Christian!” and I jumped off the train.

People are shocked to learn there are over 33,830 different denominations in the world today.[1] This is true despite Jesus’ telling his Father, “2My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” (John 17:20-21).

So how can we all be one? Perhaps we need to first ask, “What divides us?” A simple answer might be our different doctrines and dogmas, that is, our different interpretations of what it means to be a follower of Christ. For example, the battle cry of the Reformation was “Scripture alone!” The Protestants were opposed to the idea that God’s will was revealed in the Bible and by the traditions of the church, but what is ironic is, the Protestants, whose war-cry was “Sola Scriptura” quickly codified their interpretations into creeds with the practical result, they were doing the very same thing they were protesting – following the Bible and their codified traditions.

Enter the American Restoration Movement whose cry was “Just Christian! Just Bible!” How is that possible? By depending on “book, chapter and verse” for their interpretations. The key is to have scriptural support for their practices and beliefs, but not write them down. Unfortunately, the written traditions reflected in creeds was oft times simply replaced by oral traditions. Rather than each generation searching afresh to see what God said in his Word about various questions, people began to rely on customs and traditions. (“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”)

To truly be “Just Christians” requires continual renewal and three special attitudes: (1) an agreement to allow the Bible to speak, (2) an agreement to recognize some things are simply “matters of opinion,” and (3) a commitment to love, because without love it is impossible to be a Christian.

 

[1] According to the World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford Press, in 2001 there were 33,830 denominations claiming to be “Christian.”

The Seed Principle

7 Apr

Methuselah – Judean Date Palm

They were dark days for the land of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather, King Manasseh, was captured by the Assyrians who put a hook in his nose and led him captive to Babylon. Josiah’s father, King Amon, was completely corrupt and his officials assassinated him. Josiah was only 8 years old when he was crowned king.

In those days, people worshipped any number of deities and idols and who was to say if there really was only one true God? Confusion reigned in the land, morality plummeted and corruption was everywhere.

At 16, the young king decided to worship only the Lord, the God of his great, great, great, great grandfather, King David. By age 20, his zeal knew no bounds as he systematically destroyed the idols that filled his kingdom. At 26, he began to restore the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and the workers discovered an ancient scroll, the Book of the Law.

Now Josiah had the guidance that he needed. Before, his reform was blind. He did what he thought was the right thing, but now he had a plan and the reform, like all good reforms, began with the king’s own heart. On hearing the words of the scroll, the king tore his robes, humbled himself and wept bitterly. With the Bible before him, Josiah learned how to be pleasing to God. King Josiah discovered the “seed principle.” (See 2 Chronicles chapter 34.)

The Seed Principle

In 2005, Israeli scientists announced to the world, a Judean Date Palm – a tree long thought extinct – had just germinated. Today that plant is over 3 meters high and doing well; the first of what will hopefully be many, many more. How did that happen?

Forty years before, archaeologists, excavating King Herod’s desert palace at Masada, uncovered a jar full of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds. No one thought seeds that old could possibly grow, so they sat in a professor’s desk drawer for four decades! Then a botanist planted one and the rest is history.[1]

The Apostle Peter told Christians the word of God is seed. When it is planted, it produces people of God (1 Peter 1:23). Josiah understood that and so do we. Rather than becoming enmeshed in the minutiae of people’s opinions, dogma and theology, why can’t we just be Christians and read the Bible for ourselves? Just as tomato seeds produce tomatoes and strawberry seeds produce strawberries, so the word of God, when planted in good and honest hearts, produces Christians. It’s ancient seed.

 

[1] Science 13 June 2008, pp. 1464

Photograph of Methuselah By Benjitheijneb – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20441116

The Accountable Christian

20 Mar

I was wrong. I felt pressured and I snapped at my wife and said somethings I’d later regret bitterly, but it was too late. What could I do to make it better? How could I smooth over those hurt feelings? She said it was “okay,” but I knew better and I felt awful. Have you ever done something like that? What makes you feel guilty and how do you deal with it? Flowers? Dinner out? Offer to do the dishes?

In ancient times, when people felt they had offended God, they offered costly sacrifices. Blood was shed. Our “sin” cost the lives of innocent animals. A priest arrayed in special robes performed a solemn ceremony and we expressed our sorrow with a price. The more elaborate the ceremony and the more costly the sacrifice, the more certain we were that the gift was effective in reconciling us to God.

But now comes Christianity and the end of sacrifice, clergy, elaborate rituals and a palatial temple. For many people, it just didn’t seem to satisfy their deepest need for reconciliation with God.

Do you remember the story of Naaman? He was a Syrian general afflicted with leprosy. Upon learning of the power of the Prophet Elisha, Naaman went to Israel to be healed, but it was too simple. “Go dip yourself seven times in the Jordan River,” the general was instructed. Listen to his response:

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage, (2 Kings 5:11, 12).

Likewise, sometimes the Christian Gospel seems too simple. Human beings seem attracted to pomp and circumstance. We love elaborate rituals and mysterious ceremonies. To simply be forgiven is just too easy and people felt the same way in the first century. Many of the Jewish Christians still felt a longing for the old ways of sacrifice and ritual. That’s one of the reasons the New Testament book of Hebrews was written. Notice chapter 10:

For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins, (Hebrews 10:1b,2)

The writer incisively points out if the temple sacrifices had truly taken away sin, why did they have to keep being repeated year after year? In fact, all the sacrifices did was serve as an annual reminder of our sins (v. 3). It would be like buying your wife an expensive gift to make up for your foolish actions, but every time you saw the present, it just reminded you again and again of how awful you were. Rather than reconcile, it just reminded you of your guilt. How futile! And so:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, (Hebrews 10:11).

Thus, true reconciliation isn’t a matter of repetition – offering the same sacrifice over and over again. Consider the Christian “Plan of Salvation.” It begins when our eyes are opened and we see things the way they really are. That is, we “believe.” Not only is that experience an eye-opener, it cuts us to the heart and we turn around: “repent,” but to ensure our repentance is genuine, we need to “confess.” That means admitting first to ourselves, then to God and to everyone else that we have sinned. At that point, believers are born again, that is, baptized, and their sins are washed away.

Now consider how the same steps can also work in relationships. When I realize, I have hurt someone (the believing stage), it genuinely cuts me to the heart and I begin to behave differently (repentance). It may take great courage, but I need to admit I was wrong (confess). My confession is believable because I have changed my behavior. This is an opportunity for a new beginning – a new birth if you will, in the relationship.

Notice how this approach is different from the first. The old way of dealing with our guilt calls for elaborate sacrifices. The new way calls for a change in behavior. The old way depends on someone else: a priest, a counselor, a friend. The new way places the responsibility on us for our actions. The old way didn’t involve the other person at all. The new requires confession.

Simple? Perhaps, but the Gospel is truly good news for every aspect of our life.

Yawning Your Way Through Worship

13 Mar

It’s something we have felt for a long time, but a book published in 2014 by George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless[1], confirms fewer and fewer Americans are attending church. In the 1990’s, 30% of Americans were classified as “unchurched.” That is “someone who has not attended a Christian church service, other an a special event such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months.” In the 2000’s that number rose to 33%, and in 2014, 43% of Americans were classified at unchurched.

Here is the breakdown for 2014:

  • 10% are “Purely Unchurched – they do not currently and have never attended a church.”
  • 33% are “De-Churched” – They once were active in church but are no longer.”
  • 8% are “Minimally Churched” the attend church infrequently and unpredictably.”
  • 49% are “Actively Churched” and Barna defines that as “Attend church at least once a month.”

The two groups classified as “Churched” are interesting, but the group that worries me most are the “De-Churched.” What happened? Why aren’t they part of our fellowship? I was relieved to learn, according to Barna, that we aren’t actively driving people out of our churches, but the sad truth is, we are boring them to death.

“Our surveys reveal that about one-quarter (24 percent) of the unchurched believe the typical church experience is boring or tiresome. In addition, they don’t see church as a place of meaningful community.”

Barna and I agree the answer isn’t to put on a better show – we don’t need to add pyrotechnics and improve our choreography – what we need is to “do things in and for your community that are valuable, visible, and memorable. … What does your church offer to the churched and churchless people that is too valuable, too meaningful, for them to ignore?”

That is not to say we must focus entirely on community service (as important as that is), but we need to learn to help people discover how relevant a relationship with God and one another is. “Churches should be places where we experience God’s presence in the company of his people. … People don’t come to church for the carnival rides. They come to meet God. … Our studies consistently show a large majority of people leave their church’s service without feeling as though they have connected with God.”

Brothers and sisters, as we gather for worship, fasten your seat belts because we have come to encounter God!

[1] Churchless: understanding today’s unchurched and how to connect with them: based on surveys by Barna Group/ Barna Group; George Barna and David Kinnaman, general editors, 2014.

The Cowardly Christian

6 Mar

Mountain Climbing on Mt. Rainier, Washington, USA

There is a passage in the Apocalypse that startles me. As the book is drawing to a close, Jesus tells John:

 “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death,” (Revelation 21:6-8).

The list startled me. I expected murderers, sexually immoral and liars to burn in hell, but cowards? As I continued to think about this, it dawned on me just how important courage is. Do you remember the Parable of the Talents? The one servant with the one talent failed because he was afraid:

24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you,’” (Matthew 25:24, 25).

“I was afraid.” How often has fear kept us from doing what we know is right? James, the brother of Jesus, said, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” (James 4:17). Theologians call this a “sin of omission.” Contrast that with a “sin of commission” – actively doing wrong. I suspect more people will fail to reach heaven because of sins of omission than any other. Again, Jesus told his followers, his disciples:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” (Matthew 25:41-46).

The more I thought about the sin of being a coward, the more I understood why Jesus is so appalled by the lack of courage in his disciples. A cowardly leader is so afraid of doing the wrong thing that he fails to act and the congregation suffers the consequences. A cowardly Christian is like outdated yeast that fails to leaven the dough and we end up with flat bread instead of a light, flaky, golden loaf. A cowardly church hides behind closed doors and fails to tell the world of a loving Savior.

So how do we learn to be courageous Christians? Courage isn’t something we think about. It is something we do. It’s time to step out of our comfort zones and be agents of change – the salt and light that Jesus expects us to be (Matthew 5:13-16).

 

Papa Was Right (Maybe)

27 Feb

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel

My grandfather was a huge influence in my life. He was a very small, dark Oklahoman, but had a ready wit and loved a good story. Papa was also very wise. For example, he noted that only fat people eat diet food, so if you want to avoid being overweight, you should avoid diet food, at least according to my grandfather. Likewise, Papa was a practical man. He insisted, “Life is uncertain so eat dessert first.” Papa also insisted that we should pray after meals instead of before so we would know just how thankful to be. It turns out, Papa wasn’t too far off base. The Jewish people, based on Deuteronomy 8:10, say the blessing after the meal!

“When you have eaten, and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”

On the other hand, Jesus gave thanks sometimes before (Luke 24:30), and sometimes afterwards (Luke 22:20). So why do Christians say their “blessing” over the meal before enjoying it? Some scholars believe the practice is tied to Jews and Gentiles eating together.

It must have been very hard for someone like Peter, a Jew, who had never eaten anything “unclean” (Acts 10:14), to enjoy a meal of forbidden food (Galatians 2:12). Perhaps that’s why Paul told Timothy, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” In other words, prayers make the food acceptable to eat, so it would make sense for Peter to pray before the meal.

But whether we pray before, after, or both, thanking God for our food is a wonderful practice. First, it cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” – an essential Christian virtue. I remember watching an old Walter Brennan movie where Brennan played a cantankerous old farmer. As he dug into the family meal his wife chastised him and insisted they say grace before they ate. I’ll never forget his bitter prayer: “Lord, we ploughed the field, planted the seed, hoed, watered and harvested the crop, but we give you thanks anyway.” His prayer reflected his sad character. How much sweeter is a thankful spirit!

Second, thanking God for our meals teaches us to depend on Him Who provides us with food, and shelter and clothing (Acts 17:25).

Finally, saying grace is a wonderful opportunity to teach our children to pray. Don’t you remember how special you felt when your father asked you to lead the family prayer at the dinner table? So, go ahead, take a moment to bow your head and thank the Lord for his love at every meal – even if, as Papa advised, it’s after dessert.

Welcome Home

15 Feb
Church of Christ Groton, Connecticut

Church of Christ
Groton, Connecticut

We’ve come over 3,000 miles to settle into our new home on the Atlantic Coast of New England and the contrasts to San Diego are startling. The sun sets over the Pacific, but it rises over the Atlantic. Someone described Southern California as a “parking lot that moves at 70 miles per hour.” Rush hour on route 12 which runs in front of the church in Groton, Connecticut and our home, means four cars at the stop light turning into the Navy base. There are some obvious differences: San Diego rarely (if ever) sees snow. In fact, people there are startled by rain. Just after we unloaded the U-Haul truck into the parsonage, we had over a foot of snow to celebrate our arrival. Perhaps it’s the contrast to the dazzling, white, blanket of snow, but I’ve never seen such blue skies as those we have seen in the past two weeks in Connecticut.

On the other hand, some things remain the same. That’s the beauty of being a part of God’s Family. Wherever you go in the world, you are home. I remember many years ago when I was a young soldier away from home for the first time. I was stationed in Berlin, Germany and the first thing I did when I arrived was search out the church. It was different. Instead of calling themselves the “Church of Christ,” they chose to call themselves the “Gemeinde Kristi.” (The German word for “Church” is too formal and cold to describe the fellowship we enjoy.) Likewise, the little group of believers met in a large, two-story home instead of a formal building surrounded by a parking lot.

On that first Saturday, when I nervously knocked on the door, I was met by a wonderful, round-faced, white-haired woman, Marianne, who didn’t speak a word of English. That was okay because I didn’t speak nearly enough German to carry on a conversation. All she knew was that I was an American believer and that made me family. She welcomed me into her home, served me cookies and tea and showed me the family photo albums chatting away (in German) as if I was a long- lost cousin – and I was!

Jan and Dixie and I have come to work with the church in Groton, Connecticut. It’s much, much smaller than the church in San Diego and they don’t have nearly the staff (just me) or the finances that Canyon View enjoyed, but what impresses us isn’t what they lack – it’s what they have!

Our truck was met by Sue who had stocked the pantry and the fridge and even gave us enough home-made chicken noodle soup to eat on for a week! The next morning people just kept coming and coming and coming and carrying in our boxes and belongings. The woodshed in back was packed with firewood for the stove and Wednesday night after services (which consisted of a delightful meal accompanied by stories and songs and prayer) the men packed into our living room to demonstrate their fire-building skills in our wood stove. Everyone had advice and suggestions on how to get the most heat and survive a New England winter. Then right on cue, the snow began to fall.

Can you imagine what it felt like to sit in my chair in the living room with my feet propped up on an ottoman with a hot cup of coffee and a good book by the fire? Outside the bay window everything was buried under new fallen snow, but we were snug and even Phoebe our old cat was curled up by the warmth of the woodstove.

So, what does this little dynamo of a congregation have? First, leadership. I believe “A congregation is no stronger than her leaders” and we have two amazing Shepherds. Notice I didn’t say “managers” or “visionaries” (although they are that too.) Biblical leaders – call them elders or overseers, presbyters or pastors – are first concerned about people and their souls. Deacons can take care of the physical stuff, budgets and buildings, but Shepherds are called to care for souls. On the Judgment Day, the Shepherds won’t be questioned about paint chips and carpet samples. The Great Shepherd will want to know what happened to His lambs.

Murray and Dorothea are retired after serving twenty-years with East European Mission in Vienna. Murray’s ancestors helped settle Connecticut and their love for this area is obvious. We don’t say much about the role of an elder’s wife, but Dorothea is exemplary. She and Murray work together in a beautiful way as a team.

Our other elder, Jim and his wife Denise, are perfect for the mission of this congregation. We are located just across the street from the main entrance to the Navy’s submarine base and Jim is a former submarine officer. He shares the responsibilities for leading singing and teaches the Sunday morning Adult Bible School class. I’ve never known an elder more loved by the children than Jim. Likewise, I’ve known churches where Paul’s admonition that elders be “able to teach” is brushed aside, but both Jim and Murray are excellent teachers.

There is one more imperative quality for an elder in my opinion and that’s having a heart for hospitality. Elders who open their homes understand how important that virtue is for church growth. Again, it’s an easy quality to dismiss, but damnable when it is lacking. I know it sounds trivial, but Jan and I were truly impressed when Jim and Denise opened their home to the entire congregation for their fourteenth Super Bowl party! There were TVs everywhere and food and drink and laughter and stories and Jan and I knew we had found a new home in Connecticut.

It takes more than just good leaders to have a dynamic congregation. It takes brothers and sisters with Nehemiah’s “will to work” and judging by how our new family welcomed us, Groton feels like home!

Leaders, family, and a love of the Lord: I’m excited about our future together.

A Cup of Coffee and Granny’s Bible

9 Jan

img_0262I had to get out of the office so I could focus on my class preparation. There were too many distractions and too many people dropping by, but when I settled down in the diner with my hot cup of coffee and my laptop, a young girl in the booth next to me asked, “What are you reading?” I took a deep breath, smiled and answered, “The Bible.”

“Oh, that old book,” she replied. “My grandmother left me her Bible when she died, but I just couldn’t get into it.”

“Did it sound a bit like Shakespeare?” I asked.

“Yeagh,” she smiled. “I guess it did. I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why should I bother reading the Bible anyway?”

“Was it important to your granny? I asked.

“Yes. She read it all the time. Kept it next to her bed in the home,” she answered.

I put down my coffee and looked at her. “It’s a curious book.” I closed my Bible so we could read the cover. “Do you see it’s full name?” I asked. “It’s called the ‘Holy’ Bible because the word ‘Holy” means ‘special.’ It’s a unique book, unlike any other.” She picked up her coffee and came over to my booth and we began to talk. “Let me see if I can give you some reasons to pick your Bible up again,” I said.

“The Bible is a very old book. In fact, some of the oldest parts of the Bible were written over 3,500 years ago and the most recent parts were written nearly 2,000 years ago. The fact that it has survived at all is amazing. It was originally written on perishable material like cured animal skins and a fragile material made from plants called “papyrus.” Many ancient books have perished through benign neglect, but the Bible has even survived determined efforts to destroy it!”

“There are a lot of really old books though aren’t there?” she asked.

“That’s true, but the Bible is different. For example, it doesn’t reflect the common errors of its day,” I answered. “Think about it. Egyptian medical books from the time of Moses prescribe animal feces, crocodile teeth, and other similar remedies for disease.”

“If men had written the Bible from their own unaided wisdom, the same silly ideas we find in other ancient books which treat scientific matters would be found in it. How shall we explain their absence in Scripture?” — Rubel Shelly.

She stopped for a minute to think. “So the Bible doesn’t do that?” she asked. Then she took a sip of her coffee and continued. “But I’ve always heard that the Bible contains a bunch of errors. In fact, I’ve heard it is filled with mistakes.”

Now it was my turn to sip my coffee. “The ‘errors’ of the Bible are a slippery lot. The list keeps changing! Relevant research by historians, archaeologists, and scientists have always settled every dispute. For example, before the 20th century, scholars thought the book of Acts was full of mistakes. Let’s look at just one. Luke, the author of Acts, called the rulers of the city of Thessalonica in Greece ‘politarchs.’ Scholars said that was an obvious ‘mistake’ since not a single inscription could be produced using this term. Today we can point to nearly 70 inscriptions that use it and over 40 percent of those are from Thessalonica itself!”[1]

“Yes, but I’ve heard that the Bible has been changed through the centuries. Couldn’t people just have edited out embarrassing stuff?”

“A lot of people think that,” I said. “Some people believe the church changed the wording. Others think books were added to it and still others believe things were taken out. What do you think?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, a lot can happen over 4,000 years!”

“William Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago. How can you be sure the Romeo and Juliet we are reading is the same as the one he wrote?” I asked.

“Can’t we just look at his first manuscript?” she asked.

“We don’t have it,” I answered.

Of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, no manuscript in his autograph is known, and much the same is true of the productions of the other playwrights who worked in the great period of drama from 1580 to 1642. …. The facts can be summarized in this way: no play by a professional playwright which was successful on the stage and which was printed before 1642 is known to have come down to our time or near it.[2]

I continued. “So what scholars do is gather up as many copies as they can find from ancient times and compare them. The more copies we have, the more certainty we have about the veracity of a reading.”

“Well that makes sense I suppose.” The waitress refilled our cups.

“With the risk of boring you,” I apologized, “let me share some statistics with you. You’ve heard of Julius Caesar?” I asked.

“Roman Emperor,” she answered.

“A Plus! The Emperor is famous for his book the Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.). There several manuscripts of it, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day.”

“Okay,” she replied.

“The same is true of most ancient books. There are only a handful of copies and most of those are dated hundreds of years after they were originally written.”

Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC-AD 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of has two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogue dc Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals. — F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

“Now let’s look at the New Testament written about 2,000 years ago. There are over 5,000 ancient Greek manuscripts and over 20,000 ancient translations so we’re pretty sure we know what it originally said.”

“Okay, okay,” she said moving towards the outside edge of the booth.

“Wait,” I pleaded. “Before you go, let me give you two suggestions that will help you read it and three good reasons why you should.”

“This is beginning to sound like a sermon,” she protested.

I laughed and said, “That’s what you get when you drink coffee with a preacher!”

How to Read the Bible

  1. Use a Good Translation – the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. Keep Granny’s Bible with your precious keepsakes, but read the Bible in a modern translation.
  2. In the beginning, some parts of the Bible will be more interesting than others. I recommend new readers start with the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Then get involved with a good Bible class to help you read the rest of this amazing book

Reasons to Read the Bible

  1. The Bible has an amazing history – It’s a very old book that is just as popular today as it was thousands of years ago. No other book compares in terms of popularity and circulation. The entire Bible is available in 554 languages. The New Testament is available in 518, and parts of the Bible have been translated into another 2,932 languages and dialects.
  2. No other book has had as much influence on western thought and literature. If you want to understand culture, you need to be familiar with the Bible.
  3. But the most important reason of all is the claim that the Bible makes to be the Word of God. Think about it! If it truly comes from God and not just people thinking about God, then no other book is as important as the Bible. When you read the Bible, God is speaking to you!

 

[1] Politarch. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

 

[2] Elizabethan Handwriting, 1500-1650: A Manual, by Giles E. Dawson and Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton (1966)