Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Give Me Thy Heart"

She was only a few notes into the prelude when I found myself silently singing.  It was a surprising moment, but then, such are to be expected in worship.  The song I had not heard since forever ago.  Honestly, I cannot remember the last time, but I do remember that it was one I grew up singing in church as a boy.  She played and I sang under my breath.  No one heard me as I sat there in the pulpit chair singing this song from the past.  " 'Give me thy heart,' says the Father above.  No gift so precious to Him as our love.  Softly He whispers, 'Wherever thou art.'  Gratefully trust Me and give Me thy heart.  Give me thy heart, give me thy heart.  Hear the soft whisper wherever thou art.  From this dark world, He would draw thee apart.  Softly, so tenderly, give me thy heart."
Such moments of remembrance and blessing happen often enough that I should not be surprised, but always I am.  It is amazing to me that a song from so far back in my past could be remembered so quickly.  The mind and heart is an amazing thing.  Somewhere along the way, I sang that song so much it became embedded deep in my spirit to be recalled with such clarity at an unexpected moment.  My experience is nothing special.  Each of us have had such experiences when God brings to mind some word or song to bless us again and again.
All of this makes a strong case for exposing our children to the great songs of faith.  They, too, might benefit some day from something that soaks into their spirit even though they are unaware it is happening.  And, it also speaks to the value of memorizing sections of scripture.  Who knows when some Word of God may be needed in our faith journey?  Who knows when some unexpected moment will bring to mind a piece of God's Word which will get us through a difficult and impossible set of circumstances?  Like you, I am grateful for what is stored away already for possible recall in the future and, perhaps, we all could be more intentional about letting God's Word settle in our hearts in the present moment.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

'Tis the Season

As noted in the previous blog, " 'Tis the season for church budgets."  While some churches do get along fine without one, the general consensus is that one is as necessary as the Bible.  Maybe even more necessary some would say.   Certainly, its value increases as it is seen as a financial guideline for going forward instead of a piece of holy writ that must be taken literally.  Unfortunately, it can become a point of contention among different groups who have their own agendas to push.  Pushing God's agenda, or vision, is always a better thing.

Figuring out God's vision never seems to be an easy thing for the church.  Whenever some expert comes into the church to give direction to a visioning process, the end result is often what might be called "vision by consensus."  Armed with statistics about past performance, projections about future growth, and a listing of needs which might be met, leaders gather and determine the vision of God for the community of faith.  "Vision by consensus."   The whole process seems miles, maybe even light years, away from God's record of putting His vision out there for His people in holy scripture.  It often ends up being more about us than about God.

The problem with "vision by consensus" is that it is usually too manageable.  It is something within our ability to get done.  When God casts forth His vision, it always requires a huge amount of faith for His vision is greater than our resources and energies.  Moving toward His vision will always require a new kind of radical dependency on Him because a vision from God is always going to be beyond our means.  Unlike "vision by consensus" God's vision will not be possible without a radical faith that embraces God as the only One who can make it happen.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Ugly Secret

This is the season for church budgets.  A few churches operate without them,  but most churches give them "Holy Writ" status.   When prepared and adopted, these church budgets become the grand directive for the life of the church.  Outsiders might think top billing would belong to the Bible, but the real insiders know it is that document prepared with calculators, spread sheets, financial campaign reports, and enough graphs and charts to choke several elephants.  No large successful church would dare to operate without one and most smaller churches consider having one to be a sign that it has moved up into "Big Boy" status.
However, there is an ugly secret to be told about church budgets.  The secret is that it is a flawed process which creates them. What makes it flawed is the way the sacred community allows its work to be shaped by secular influences.   In most churches a budget is prepared and then monitored through the year by a Finance Committee.  This committee is usually filled with church members who are bankers, accountants, financial consultants, and small business owners.  When someone with such credentials joins the church, they are seen as "shoo-ins" for the Finance Committee.  And so, from the very beginning this important committee gets filled with good knowledgeable folks who have a profit/loss mentality.   In this financial world of the church, gifts are spoken of as income while ministries are regarded as expenses.
One of the really strange things about the church is the way it seems to take such delight in adopting secular practices into its mode of operation.  Suddenly the church is no longer the Body of Christ in the world, but a small business to be managed by a CEO Pastor and its governing board.  Market place business practices and staying in the black become more important than God's vision for His Church.  After all, God's vision for the church will likely require re-structuring the financial priorities which nurture the institutional church at the expense of the spiritual community.  Most Finance Committees are too invested in caring for the needs of the institution to allow such radical change.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Fearful Thing

One thing which scares the gathered church is silence.  There is not much of a Quaker spirit in most contemporary Protestant churches.  Noise is preferred over silence.  There are those moments when we give lip service to the value of silence, but it is so perfunctory that it ends up being a meaningless moment hardly taken seriously by anyone.  It happens when the preacher or worship leader begins a congregational prayer by inviting everyone to enter into silent prayer as a prelude to the verbal praying about to come forth from the chancel area.  Sometime instead of praying silently, put a timer on the length of time allowed for the silent prayer.  Never is it really much time for praying.
In a recently read book entitled "Why Jesus?" by Ravi Zacharias, he writes, "The Church has forgotten the teachings of quietness, solitude, and meditation that are a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage and provide great strength to the soul.  We have moved from silence to noise.  We have moved from reflection to fast-moving programs.  We have moved from quietness to the inability to remain focused on a thought for even a moment, so that the next item on the program has to begin as soon as the previous one has finished.  There is no time in our services anymore for quietness and contemplation."
What that timer will reveal is that people are often invited to silence, but never really given permission to engage it.  The assumption from the one inviting the congregation to pray silently is that there is a switch which turns prayer on and off.  No one is allowed time to transition from where they are to where they are being invited to go.  And, of course, the prayer is arbitrarily ended or interrupted after 30 seconds by the sounds of public praying.  Is it really true that the church is so afraid of enough silence to actually allow its people to pray when gathered?  Maybe it is too fearful a thing.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Baptism Day

The conversation took place a few days ago in the local farm supply store.  Actually, it was last Friday which was the Friday before the Labor Day weekend.  A sign on the counter announced the store closing on Saturday at 1:00 pm.  I commented to the proprietor and his wife, "Looks like you have a nice long weekend planned."  She turned and said, "Me and my son are getting baptized tomorrow afternoon."  As we talked, they told me of their Primitive Baptist Church and its pattern of Saturday baptisms.  "I wanted to be baptized at the river, but there is too much water, so we are going to be using Mill Creek Pond not far from the church."  It was a special moment of listening and sharing in the sense of excitement and anticipation being felt by this woman who talked about her upcoming baptism.
Baptizing folks is one of the things the church does right.  Now it may be true that there are some along the way who are baptized for the wrong reasons, but it also true that it can be a powerful spiritual moment in a believer's life.  One of my first baptisms was an elderly man who became bed ridden and was baptized at home.  A number of the men in his Sunday School class accompanied me and became the witnessing and celebrating church there in his room.  And I remember others who on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday came to the altar for baptism on a Sunday they were expecting to be just like any other Sunday.  Those Sundays always made me aware that preachers need to spend more time inviting folks to come to the baptismal waters.  When invited, people come.  They come because of the way God is at work in their hearts.  The lack of frequent invitations only hinders the work of the Spirit.
Of course, no one needs baptismal water to seal the covenant God has initiated with us.  Neither is it a stamp on the ticket to glory.  It is a moment of submission.  It is a moment of declaring Jesus is the Saving One who is desperately needed.  In our United Methodist tradition, it is a moment of kneeling and bowing.  It is a sacred moment of grace marking.  It is a moment unlike any other moment in our life.  The woman in the farm supply store had it right.  It is a moment to anticipate and something to tell others.