There’s nothing like a children’s program to …

kidschoir01I have had the opportunity throughout the years to speak at summer camps and conferences, and almost without exception there is the inevitable end- of- the- week program put on by the children showing what they have learned about Jesus. The children gather in the front to say some memory verses and to sing some special songs they have learned. The average person would probably take a Dramamine at this point if they didn’t have a kid in the program.

However, being an old psychology major in college, I have noticed that the same personality types and behaviors are present no matter what group of kids is performing. There is always the little boy who has no idea what is going on; who is just looking around like he’s a walk-on never having seen any of these people before. There is also the little girl (and it usually is a girl) who knows every verse and every word to the songs, and is singing at the top of her lungs like she is trying out for American Idol. Finally, there is the kid (boy or girl) who while singing, is waving frantically to his/her folks as if they are about ready to go home and leave her/him at camp for the rest of the summer. I love it! Check me out on this the next time you witness a children’s program. These kids are just being who they are; they can’t help it!

John Miller, in his book The Contentious Community, compares the church to a children’s choir singing about Jesus. “Innocence and guile are perched on the edge of the platform, waiting to burst forth in song or shove some unsuspecting freckle-faced being to an ignominious landing three feet below. And it isn’t that Bonnie is innocent and Bobby is full of guile; it is that innocence and guile, the ideal and the real, are coursing through the veins of each.”

My friend Marshall Shelley, in Ministering to Problem People in Your Church (highly recommended), writes “The church, indeed every Christian, is an odd combination of self-sacrificing saint and self-serving sinner. And the church, unlike some social organizations, doesn’t have the luxury of choosing its members; the church is an assembly of all who profess themselves believers. Within that gathering is found a full range of sinner/saint combinations. Ministry is a commitment to care for all members of the body, even those whose breath is tainted with dragon smoke.”

As a pastor, I have learned that much of the unsettledness and criticism that people have of their church come from the issues they are facing in their own lives. The anger we have because we’ve been passed over for that job or because of what’s happening at home often gets redirected at the church. Our feelings of frustration or increasing insignificance due to where we are in life often flashes out when we feel we are not heard or our preferences not honored at church. All this is not to say that the church is perfect, but to hallmark the fact that the church is made up of imperfect people; “innocence and guile, the ideal and the real, are coursing through the veins of each.”

How do I know all this amazing stuff? It is because I too am a unique combo of sinner/saint with the faint odor of dragon breath (ok, maybe not so faint). We pastors need to recognize this and not to play the victim by thinking that we’d be better pastors if we just had better people. George MacLeod said, “I’ve never met a man who wanted to be bad.” This is who we are; this why we have needed the grace of the gospel to save us as well as to sanctify us. It is also why we need one another, though thrown together in an unlikely children’s choir, to help each other sing praises to Jesus and to keep his Word in our hearts.

Bonhoeffer…Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had a brilliant career in theology ahead of him. At seventeen, he began his studies at Tubingen, Germany. He earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin at age 21. Then, at 24, he qualified to teach there. When Adolf Hitler took power, many pastors and theologians yielded to Nazi interference in church affairs, however, for Bonhoeffer there could be no German-Christian compromise with Hitler. He signed the Barmen Declaration, which declared independence from Hitler’s state and from the co-opted church. He helped create the independent “Confessing Church” in Germany.

In 1935, he created and directed a clandestine seminary in Finkenwald (Pomerania) for training young pastors in Christian discipleship. There, he shared life together with about 25 young men devoted to God. It was closed down by the Nazis in 1937 but not before he wrote two classics: “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” He was officially forbidden to publish or speak publicly but he continued to work for the resistance to the Third Reich.

In 1943, Bonhoeffer’s record of resistance and his involvement in smuggling Jews out of Germany safely into Switzerland (the “U7” operation) got him arrested. Just before he went to prison, he became engaged to Maria. He wrote love letters from his cell but his plans were never to be. After two years in prison, it was learned that he played a part in a failed Hitler assassination attempt. He was declared a traitor and executed by special order of Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945 at the age of 39, just a few weeks prior to Hitler’s death and the end of World War II. In August 1996 the German authorities announced that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no longer regarded by law as a traitor.

It was at his secret seminary in Finkenwald that Bonhoeffer both learned about and wrote “Life Together.” I would encourage you to read it (perhaps in a small group setting, maybe as roommates or suite mates in college, maybe as families). Over the next few weeks let me share a few things that Bonhoeffer said that I have found most helpful in doing Life Together as a church.

“Let (us) thank God on (our) knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

Bonhoeffer saw that the visible fellowship of the church is the result of God’s grace- it is a blessing (Ps.133:1). He says that not all Christians receive this blessing: the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in foreign lands. The physical presence of other believers is a sourced of immeasurable joy and strength to a believer. Have you experienced this? “The companionship of a fellow Christian is a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.” When we visit the lonely or the sick and touch them and speak encouragement to them, it is as if they were touched and encouraged by God himself. When we bless and affirm each other, we do so with the blessing and affirmation of Jesus Christ. It is to our shame that this incredible gift is so “easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.” Christian fellowship is based upon grace.

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ… We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

I am a brother to you because of what Jesus Christ did for me; and you are a brother or sister to me because of what Christ did for you. We’ve heard that before, but Bonhoeffer unpacks it is a different way. He says that a Christian needs other Christians because of Jesus Christ. Let me personalize this thought. I know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ has pronounced me guilty. Before God, I am a guilty sinner even though I do not feel like one. I also know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ has pronounced me not guilty and righteous because of my faith in what Christ has done for me. God’s word has pronounced me not guilty even though I feel guilty and unrighteous. Therefore the Christian lives by God’s Word pronounced upon him. Thus, where is my salvation? In Christ; how do I know? It has been pronounced upon me by God’s Word.

That is why I love God’s Word, for it forms the very basis of my relationship with Jesus Christ and is the very foundation of the assurance of where I stand with God. And this Word of God has been given to us not only for ourselves but for one another. The Christian needs another Christian to speak God’s Word to him, especially when discouraged and uncertain and when he cannot help himself. He needs his brother to be the proclaimer of God’s Word to him. “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

This could help enhance our understanding of 1 John 3:19, 20: “By this shall we know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him; for whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts…” The context indicates that the very way we know we belong to God is by how we love one another. I believe that speaking the Word of God into someone’s life is an incredible act of love; it brings encouragement to the heart of a brother/ sister and assurance to our own hearts that we belong to God.

What is Your Hope for the Church?

Christianity Today is celebrating a “rebranding,” which includes a new visual identity and the launch of a new ministry website, ChristianityToday.org. As a part of its celebration, it is asking people to respond to the question “What is my hope for the future of the Church”? Since I am a contributing editor to Leadership Journal, also published by Christianity Today Int’l, I was invited to write something in answer to the same question.  To be honest, when I went on the website and started to read people’s hopes for the future of the Church, I got scared. Call me Mr. Sensitive, but after being a pastor for 40 years all I’ve heard have been people’s preferences for what they want the Church to be like, and these preferences are often hidden behind their hopes, dreams, and “suggestions.” I believe that many of these “suggestions” are based upon flawed Continue reading “What is Your Hope for the Church?”