Friday, February 27, 2015

The Newtonville Community Church

                I have to admit that I stole the idea for the following story, and I do not remember where:
                The church rejoiced when the Jones and the Martins decided to join the fellowship.  Both families were drawn by the friendliness of the people, the magnificence of the choir, and the churches involvement in mission.  Another reason they joined the Newtonville Community Church was because it was the only church in town. 

Newtonville was a small town the average traveler missed; all it took was one blink, and you could drive from city limit to city limit; and the only building you could see from the highway was the church. 
              You may be surprised to know that of the 273 people who lived in Newtonville, only 64 of them were members of the church, but on Sunday morning the church was full, for when you include the children, the church could have as many as 110 of God’s people present.

All was well in the Newtonville Community Church until the adult Sunday School class had a lesson on the end times.  As the teacher talked about how difficult it is to understand what the Bible says about the final judgment, one of the members interrupted, “It’s no problem at all.  I just read that book ‘Left Behind,’ and it clearly uses what the Bible says to outline what the ends time will be like.   The Lord will return at the trumpet sound and reign on earth for 1000 years.” 
            Another class member was of the opinion that the 1000 years spoken of in the Bible was symbolic, “Imagine 1000 years, that’s a long time, it represents the fact that Jesus is ruling now and will rule for eternity.” 

Well debate turned into raised voices, and raised voices turned into yelling, and people said things they shouldn’t have, until one elder said, “Well if that is the way you feel about it, I’m going to start my own church,” and he did, and 32 of the members went with him.
             They started the Newtonville Premillennial Community Church.  Now there are two churches in town.  The choirs were about half as good as when there was one church, and it seems that the two churches combined only did about half as much mission as the original church.

A year passed when both churches started having a fight over the idea of predestination.  Can you believe it?  You could hear the Calvinist saying, “If you read Romans it says that we are predestined.  God chooses us before we could possible choose God.” 
           “No, no, no, ‘whosoever will,’ that’s what the Bible says.   Whosoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Well you guessed it, voices were raised, tempers lost, and before you knew it, there was a split in both churches.

Now there were four churches in Newtonville and each had 16 members.  There was the Newtonville Pre-millennial Providence Community Church and the Newtonville Pre-millennial Free-will Community Church, the Newtonville A-millennial Providence Community Church, and the Newtonville Pre-millennial Free-will Community church.  The choirs in the four churches were about one-fourth as good as the choir when they all went to church together, and with so much money going to pay the light bill in four buildings, there was not much left over for mission.
             Well it didn’t stop there.  There was a funeral of a dear man who did not belong to any of the churches, but the pastors of all four churches spoke at the funeral.  The first pastor said, “We will miss old Zeak, but he is in a better place.  You know the Lord said to the thief on the cross, today, today you will be with me in paradise.  Well today, Old Zeak is in paradise.” 

The second pastor to speak said, “I too will miss Zeak, but what the Bible teaches is that Zeak will be raised at the last trumpet when the dead in Christ will rise.” 
              Most everyone at the funeral was civil enough not to extend the debate, that was until the next Sunday during Sunday School.  There debate broke out and tempers flared and some said, “Well just start a new church that believes like we do. And you know there are now eight churches in Newtonville:   There is the Newtonville A-millennial, Providence, Wait until Jesus Comes Resurrection Community Church and the Newtonville Pre-millennial, Free Will, Immediate Resurrection Community Church.  Well you get the point without me giving the names of all eight churches.  Each church now had eight members.

During the presidential election year there were more splits over politics, which gave rise to eight new churches, now a total of sixteen churches in Newtonville with each church having four members, with no choirs, and no money to do mission.  Can I give you the name of two of the churches:  The Newtonville Pre-millennial, Free-will, Wait until Jesus Comes Resurrection, Democratic Community Church, and the Newtonville Pre-millennial, Providence, Wait Until Jesus Comes Resurrection, Republican Community Church.
              Once people start to split, it’s hard to stop.  About a year later there were people in the churches who said the only way to interpret the Bible was to be literal, and others who wanted to leave room for deeper study of the various forms of literature in the Bible.  You can only guess how difficult that debate was.  But the debate led to folks leaving their churches and starting new churches. 

Now in Newtonville there were 32 churches with two members in each church.  Actually, most of the churches consisted of a husband and his wife. All was well until the husbands read in First Timothy 2:  I Do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 
             Whew, 64 churches with one member in each church, no choir, no community mission, but 64 different people who all believe they are the one perfect church.  Everybody in each of the 64 churches now had a church that believed exactly the way they believed, and the church practice was exactly the way they wanted it.  They sang only the hymns they liked and celebrated Communion as often as it pleased them.  Each of the one-member church’s requirements for ordination was exactly as all the members believe it should be; that is, as the one-member wanted it.  Some like going to church for two hours and they could do so now, I think only 2 of the 64 one member churches worshipped for two hours; the other 62 one-member churches took advantage of the church-of-one concept and kept worship down to ten minutes. 

So which church are you going to join, The Newtonville Amillennial, Free Will, Wait Until Jesus Comes Resurrection, Democratic, Literal Bible, Quiet Women Community Church.  Or the Newtonville, Pre-millennial, Providence, Wait Until Jesus Comes Resurrection, Republican, Bible Study, Let the Women Talk Community Church.  Or the imperfect church of which you are a member, that has other members with whom you may disagree, but you do everything in your power together to honor Jesus Church through worship and participating in his mission and upholding the unity of this diverse church.  Jesus’ only recorded prayer for today’s church is this, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one,” which church will you join? Amen.
                I have a dear cousin who in some ways has a different theological perspective than my own.  We are both Christian, no doubt about that; however she is not a Presbyterian.  This is not to say that Presbyterians are right and her church is wrong, it’s just we have different understandings.  I hope that neither one of us is so presumptuous as to think that we are always right and other denominations are wrong.  It would be an expression of elitism for us to believe that of the thousands of Christian denominations that my church says it best.  My church’s theology is right – always right. The practice of my church is the only one truly based upon the teachings of the Apostles.  
                Some churches worship on Saturday, most on Sunday.  Some churches only baptize by immersion, others pouring, and still others by sprinkling, and then there are those who will baptize by any of these modes for what matters to them is that water is used.  Some churches baptize children and others only baptize those who make a personal profession of faith.  Some churches celebrate the Sacrament of Communion every time they meet others only four times per year.  Some churches welcome the leadership of women and others will not allow women to even speak in church.  Some churches allow leadership to gay and lesbian Christians and others consider the sin of homosexuality such a sin that all gay and lesbian people are condemned to hell.  Some churches believe the Bible is literal throughout, thus for example the world was created in six twenty-four hour periods.  While other churches understand that the Bible is an ancient book written by ancient people to an ancient church, thus the Bible must be studied within this context, all the while understanding that the Bible is inspired by God and through its pages God still speaks to the church.  There are Pre-millennial believers, Post-millennial believers and A-millennial believers.  I could go on.
                I think we have to admit that the church of Jesus Christ is very diverse, and rather than condemn what would be most of the church to hell, or believe they are in some way inferior because they do not believe the way we do, does great damage to our ability as the church to spread the good news that God has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  Maybe a better way is to never stop the discussions.  Never stop listening to what others understand to be the truth and maybe we can learn from each other. 
                I know the temptation to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it.”  But, the problem is that the ancient book we call the Bible is interpreted in so many different ways.  Who is right?  Only God knows, and the best way for us to know is to discuss and learn from each other rather than argue.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


                The Roman Emperor Constantine, wishing to unite his empire, made Christianity the religion of the state and Christendom was born.  State money could be used to construct church buildings, and as time passed, the church grew in power and with power came wealth.  For example, before Constantine a bishop or presbyter would have been persecuted for their faith, after Constantine, church office was coveted by some as an avenue to wealth and power.  Of course the inevitable happened when the church is married to the state.  By the late fourth century other religions were no longer protected by the state; pagan temples were destroyed; military service and judgeships were reserved for Christians; and by 423 pagans could be exiled, wealth confiscated, and sometimes put to death.  Yes, the persecuted church became the persecutor.   As more time passed Christendom has ordered:  crusades, inquisitions, burnings of Protestants, burnings of Catholics, drownings of Baptists, witch burnings, abortion clinic bombings, the KKK, promotion of slavery as an institution, and unfortunately the list continues.   

                Christendom is NOT Christianity.  I understand one definition of Christendom can be the use of the Christian faith for personal, economic or social gain.  Christianity is simply living by the grace of God and following the teachings of Jesus.  And among the teaching of Jesus is this, You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

                Christianity is not alone.  Other religions have their form of Christendom.   The obvious example is our current battle with, let’s see what can I call it, “Islamadom?”  Yes, I just made that word up, but it seems to follow the same patterns of how wealth and power (call it oil) can pervert religion.           

                With this said, let me be clear, I am a Christian.  I trust Jesus as savior and Lord, and look to him to better understand how I am to live in this world.   I, like all others who profess Christ, have a little (maybe more than I want to admit) Christendom in me. 

                “Lord, help me and be merciful!” Amen.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Thomas à Kempis

                For those who like to sing the “Old Hymns,” during worship, this coming Sunday is the day to be at Westminster.  We will be singing one of the oldest hymns in the book, written by Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century.  Wow that is some 600 years ago.  He predates the Reformation, so we are talking old.
                Thomas was born around 1380 in Kempen (thus the name Kempis), which is close to Dusseldorf, Germany.  Though he was poor, his mother was a school-mistress and provided Thomas and his older brother Jan with an education and a knowledge of Latin.  Thomas and his brother spent much of their lives at the monastery.  Thomas lived a quiet and contemplative life as a monk.  His primary work was as a copyist.  He copied the entire Bible at least four times, and one of these copies is still preserved.  He is best known writing The Imitation of Christ has become a spiritual classic in the church.
                I have found many of his quotes to be worth personal and corporate reflection.  Here is a smattering of some of my favorites:
            “If thou wilt receive profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and seek not at any time the fame of being learned.”
            “At the day of judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.”
            “Love flies, runs, and rejoices; it is free and nothing can hold it back.”
            “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying or meditating or endeavoring something for the public good.”
            “Remember that lost time does not return.”
            The hymn we will be singing this Sunday (March 1, 2015) is “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High.”  The original text is twenty-three stanzas and in Latin.  We have five of these in our hymnbook and of course they are translated.  As we journey through Lent, consider the truth behind the words he wrote in that old hymn:

            O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
            How passing thought and fantasy,
            That God, the Son of God should take
            Our mortal form for mortals’ sake.

            For us baptized, for us He bore
            His holy fast and hungered sore;
            For us temptations sharp he knew,
            For us the tempter overthrew.

            For us to evil power betrayed,
            Scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,
            He bore the shameful cross and death,
            For us he gave his dying breath.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why Be a Presbyterian

                There are many reasons I am a Presbyterian.  Maybe foremost is that I was born into a very Presbyterian family.  I like Presbyterian order and Presbyterian worship.  Presbyterians have always emphasized mission, and I am proud when I think of the many ways Westminster Presbyterian Church has participated in the mission of Jesus Christ.  But at the top of the list of what attracts me to the Presbyterian Church is the church’s understanding of grace and salvation. 

                I have to admit there have been some settings where I was made to feel guilty if I neglected our spiritual disciplines; you know, things like having a daily quiet time with the Lord, Bible study, the Lord’s Day worship experience, and being a witness. 

Not so prevalent in my life, but I have heard some folks talk about their fear.  If you believe the wrong way you will go to hell.  If you do something really bad, you will go to hell.  Or, if you have neglected something really important (you name it), yes again, you will go to hell.

Did you know that Presbyterians believe that salvation begins with God, and it is never earned, but joyfully received?  This means that I am a child of God, and if this is true there is nothing that can separate me from the love of God found in Jesus Christ our Savior.  My relationship with God does not depend upon what I do, but upon what God has already done.  Soooooo, there is nothing I can do that will make God love me more, and there is nothing I can do that will cause God to love me less. 

I would hope that every parent has an inkling of this relationship.  It is not always true, but most parents unconditionally love their children.   As far as it is humanly possible, I do not think there is anything one of my children can do that will make me love them any more or any less.   Of course, in their accomplishments I beam with pride and when they really mess up, I can be deeply disappointed, but when it comes to love that is unconditional. 

If this is the case in our relationship to God, we as God’s children are absolutely secure.  There is no fear of losing one’s salvation.  It also frees us to serve Christ out of a sense of gratitude.  We are to worship, serve, study and give not because we are afraid, not because we feel guilty, but because we are grateful to God.   A healthy Christian worships, serves and gives in gratitude to Almighty God because of the salvation that is already accomplished by Christ. 

Paul wrote at the end of Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Thursday, February 19, 2015


What do you say to someone who is suffering?  “I know what you are going through.”  Well maybe not, but I could not think of anything else to say. 
My personal favorite is the words spoken to a parent whose child has died, “Now that they are in heaven they will not have suffer any of the pain we know in this world.”  Well that may be a bit extreme.  Very few folks are so coarse. 
         I am tempted to say, “You are in God’s hands.”  That’s not bad, but it comes close to blaming God for suffering.  There are those who blame God, but I understand that suffering is the very thing God is against.   Suffering has many causes:  greed and selfishness, exploitation, poor mechanics like when an engine fails on an airplane.   Sometimes people build homes on faults and suffer the wrath of an earthquake.  Disease, well that is a hard one. 

But what do you say to someone who is suffering.  Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale University writes, “Your words don’t have to be wise.  The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken.  And if you can’t think of anything to say, just say, ‘I can’t think of anything to say.  But I want you to know I am with you in your grief.’ . . . To comfort me, you have to come close.  Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”  Thanks Nicholas for the wisdom.
         Our Christian faith understands that in Christ, God has come to sit beside us on our mourning bench.  John Buchanan wrote, “When a child asks, as every child does sooner or later, why everyone has to die, my experience has been that the best answer is not a lengthy attempt to explain human mortality, but a hug. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

I will be preaching from the Book of Judges this coming Sunday, particularly about the Biblical account of Jephthah.  The formative idea came from something I read by Haddon Robinson.
The Jephthah story is one of the great tragedies in the Bible.  Basically, in asking God for a victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah promises that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns from his victory.  Well of course, his only child, a daughter hearing her father’s approach dances out of the house to greet her victorious father.  She is overjoyed, but Jephthah is heartbroken knowing that he has vowed to sacrifice his daughter who happened to be the first thing out of his house. 

The bottom line is that Jephthah is a man of great faith, but bad theology.  Jephthah should have known that God abhors human sacrifices, yet he sacrifices his daughter. 
There is a great danger when someone has a deep faith, they are absolutely committed to God, call them staunch, but they have bad theology.  One only has to look at the atrocities that have occurred in the name of religion, and specifically in the name of our savior.  Maybe we should spend more time in the study and in prayer learning about the grace and love of God as well as God’s judgments.  A good place to start is to read our Book of Confessions.

There is always the temptation to think “I am right.”  But the Confessions give us the perspective of hundreds of people who have experienced God in Jesus Christ, and these confessions have been adopted by the church as reliable expositions of what Scripture teaches.  Maybe I am not right, but maybe this church treasure can keep us on the right path.
Remember to study your Bibles tonight, and maybe you should also pick up the Confessions.