Thursday, January 31, 2008

Memory Stones

I collect rocks. When I go somewhere new I look for a small rock to bring back, something typical of the area. I label it with a Sharpie and it becomes a memory stone for me. I think the habit started years ago when I first went abroad to Costa Rica. Standing atop volcano Irazu I noticed an atypical quartz-like dark stone lying on the broad expanse of gray basalt. It rode home with me in my pocket. I gave it to a geology teacher to identify a few years ago and never retreived it. It may still be in his classroom. But the stones have been gathering ever since.

My immediate family enjoys a good laugh at me because of this. When I unpack after a trip they say, "Where are the rocks?" and insist that one of these days Customs is going to deprive me of my collection. I just smile at their teasing. I have enough Scottish stubborn-ness to keep doing as I please.

I was looking over the memory stones from this past trip and one in particular got me to thinking. I picked it up at Bet' She-an, the ancient Roman city mentioned in an earlier post. It is marble and the small ridge seen by the shadow in the picture indicates it was part of a carved stone. With all the ornamental marble carvings the Romans did, that is not uncommon.
But consider this. Slave labor cut this stone from perhaps one of the Roman quarries in Asia Minor. It was loaded on a ship and taken to the major port of Caesarea. There more hands loaded it on a cart to be hauled along the Via Maris (the Roman road) up to the Jezreel Valley and then down to Bet' She-an. Craftsmen then carved the stone to fit into the facade of the Cardo, the main road of the town. The large carving this piece was a part of could have come crashing down in the earthquake of 479 BC. and shattered. This small piece lay in the debris through the centuries. With all the marble uncovered in the excavations of the 20th century, it was not significant enough to be collected, and so it lay there until some nerd came along and picked it up, put it in his pocket, and carried it half-way around the world to his home in South Carolina.
When I rub my fingers along the shaped ridge I think of the countless people who have been in contact with this stone, unknown to me, and yet all of us known to God. The psalmist exclaimed, "What is man, O God, that thou art mindful of him?" (Please excuse the gender limited usage of the KJV, Psalm 8.) "Yet thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor."
Of the unknown multitude associated with this rock in its history, I suppose most of them knew little glory and honor in their lifetime. Yet in the sight of God, each person was beloved. What greater honor is there than to be valued by the creator of the heavens and earth? That is more than I can comprehend, but that's the nature of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
The great Roman empire of this stone witness is long gone. The marble monuments we erect to ourselves get shattered. Our penchant for praise and significance has us striving for honors that disappear within a generation. But the love of God endures forever. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Good Times in Galilee

Our last day of touring in Israel kept us around Galilee. The weather was rain, then haze, then rain, then clear, more rain, etc. I was sorry those here for the first time didn't have a clearer day so they could see the Golan Heights or Mount Hermon. But still it was a good day.
This is Capernaum on the north shore, where Peter lived and Jesus did a lot of his ministry. The pod like building to the left is a modern church built over the home of Peter. The white structure behind it is a fourth century synagogue, built on the ruins of a first century synagogue.
We went, of course, to Tabgha, the place where the boy offered his five loaves and two fish to Jesus, who then performed of the miracle of the feeding of 5000. This famous mosaic is under the altar. Note there are only four loaves of bread in the basket. The fifth loaf is the bread that is placed upon the altar for the eucharist.
Had a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee first thing. And spent some time along the shore as well.
After eating some fish called the St. Peter fish (much like a bass in taste) at the kibbutz En Giv, we went to Bet She'an. Bet She'an was the capital of the ten Roman cities in Jesus' day called the Decapolis. It is located where the Jezreel Valley meets the Jordan Valley, a strategic location.
The power of Rome, militarily and economically, is still evident in the ruins. The coliseum there was the largest in Palestine, seating 7,000. Roman marble, all imported, is everywhere and the expensive mosaics cover many store floors.

We ended up ou tour at Bet She'an and then crossed the Jordan River into the country of Jordan. Crossing through two border controls took awhile, but it was the hour and a half ride back to Amman that kept us on edge. The road up the mountains had sharp cutbacks and crazy traffic on roads that weren't the best. We climbed from 700 feet below sea level at the border crossing to 2500 feet above sea level at Amman. All I could think was to say a prayer of thanks that it wasn't snowing or sleeting as the weather forcast had predicted.

One last night in Amman, Jordan and then an 11 hour flight back to New York. Ready to get home, as are my pilgrims. But it has been good, good to walk the ancient ways again and to be reminded of the peoples God loves over here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lizzy

After the whirlwind day of touring, many of our group went to the diamond factory and shop here in Tiberius. I when along, but didn't hardly look at anything (sorry, girls). I'd already found my gem and her name is Lizzy.

Lizzy is a survivor who says "I am very open to talk." And so I bought two milkshakes in the lounge and we sat there and talked.

We met in the buffet line here at the Royal Palms Hotel. I allowed her to take the place in front of me, and a conversation began. Lizzy and her husband where here to enjoy the spa. Tiberius for centuries has been known for its mineral water spas. I learned he is a disabled veteran of the 48 war for independence. I also learned a bit more of their story.

Lizzy and her husband immigrated from Budapest after the war. No more family there. Only an older brother who survived the Holocaust with her. She was sent to Auschwich at age 13. She said, "You know the mean doctor, Mengela, who told you which way to go? I was just a little girl, so the older women on each side of me held me up to look bigger, and I was sent to the work camp with them. (As you recall, the other line led directly to the gas chambers.)

In 1946 she and her husband came to Israel to join a Kibbutz. On the island of Crete, seeking papers for immigration she was asked her name. "Aliza is not a Hebrew name," the officer said, "you will be Miriam."

"And so now I am Miriam, but call me Lizzy like everyone else," she told me. We sat and talked about our families and life. She was disappointed I did not have pictures of my wife and girls with me.

Lizzy spoke of her struggles as though they were just last week, and yet with an indifferent resignation. Her husband lost a leg in the war. "And he had his operation to repair his leg at the same hour I was delivering our first child. The same hour!" Imagine this 19 year old new mom in a new country with no family, raising her daughter alone for a year and a half until her husband was released from the hospital. "It is life," she shrugged.

God has been gracious. She has nine grandchildren, all in Israel, and five months ago, her first great grandson was born. Lizzy loves to dance, and used to sing, even acting for awhile, but now life is slower. I asked if she was observant in her religion and she said "No, after the war we thought, 'What's the use?'"

And so I passed the evening with a survivor, who now with a sick husband looks for conversation. Lizzy is indeed a gem, a gem who has endured horrific abrasions of life, and yet sparkles with life.

A Whirlwind in North Israel

The tour of the Holy Land continued today with a whirlwind tour of major sites in the northern part of Israel. First we drove to the coast to see Caesarea with its restored theatre. Also saw the remains of Herod's palace - he sure demanded the lush lifestyle. His palace sat on a man-made peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, and still he included a fresh water swimming pool in the middle of it. His palace was where Paul was brought from Jerusalem. The picture is of the amphitheatre and in the distance the remains of the Crusader fort.
Then we stopped at Herod's aqueduct so that those who wanted to could put their feet in the Mediterranean Sea. The weather was great there.
On to Tel Meggido, the ancient ruins of 25 cities going baack as far as 3500 BC. Meggido sits at a strategic point overlooking the Jezreel Valley and is the place John was referring to when he wrote of the final battle of Armageddon (KJ Version). In the picture you can see the ruins from the Cannanite period, with the circular altar in the center, and beyond it the Jezreel valley. Meggido has the ruins of Solomon's palace and stables (for his chariot army), and the water tunnel built by King Ahab.
Next it was Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation. Beautiful place.
Got into Cana where five couples renewed their marriage vows in the church that commemorates Jesus's first "sign" miracle of turning the water into wine.

Finally we made Tiberius on the coast at Galilee. Just before dusk we rode up to Mt. Arbel overlooking the Valley of the Doves. There we got an overview of the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, often called the Gospel Triangle (not because things disappear there but because in the triangle so much of the gospels occur.)

One more day of touring and then we begin the long journey home. That will be nice.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Scenes of the Old City

The alleys of the Old City are both intriguing and unnerving. It's like looking into a maze with twists and turns and choices that branch off in different directions.

Near the Cardo (the center steet or "heart") in the Jewish section, we observed the archeological remains of the wall built by Hezekiah about 700 BC to protect the city from the Assyrians. It was 25 feet wide and ten feet tall.
And finally, we were fortunate to be at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre while the Armenian Church was celebrating Christmas. Well, actually the Christmas celebration was a week ago, but today, seven days later, they have another celebration. The singing of the liturgy was powerful as it filled the ancient structure. And besides, they looked pretty cool in their blue robes.
Now we head to the coast and then north to Galilee.

The Way of Suffering

We walked the Via Dolorosa in the rain this morning. What a combination it brings of spiritual pilgrimage and the hustle and bustle of life. The Old City of Jerusalem has so many interesting sites and the air is filled with the cacaphony of buying and selling in the stalls.



In the picture the arch over the lane is the Ecce Homo Arch, perhaps the place where Pilate said, "Behold the man," and asked whether they wanted him released, or some rebel named Barabas.

You can buy fresh bread by Station 3, where Jesus falls for the first time.











The final two stations of the cross are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was crowded today. One reason was that the Armenians were still celebrating Christmas. They had a service going on that lasted from 10 to 12:30. We still saw the chapel over Golgotha, and parts of the nearby tomb.

One of the neat things at the church was seeing Wajeemh, the Doorkeeper of the Holy Sepulchre. His family has been the keeper of the key for generations. I met him last year, a friendly fellow. And he is there by the door every day, ready to pose for those who want a picture. What was it the psalmist said: I'd rather be a door-keeper in the house of the Lord...

Hospitality in Jericho

Jericho is an oasis with several springs of mineral water. Jericho is the oldest documented city in the world. There may be older cities, but so far none has the archeological, carbon dating evidence to prove it. The picture is of a tower in ancient Jericho, which dates over 10,000 years. Yep, 10 big ones.






While in Jericho to see the dig, an ancient sycamore tree, and the ruins of Herod's summer palace, we also ate lunch. I was invited to eat with the bus driver and our guide. It was a feast. First they brought out all types of salad, relishes and humas. The pita bread was toasted over open coals.

Then came the rice dish, served with plain yogurt. (I never would have thought of that combination, but it was good actually.) Then came grilled chicken, chicken wings, lamb kabobs, and grilled lamb chops. The latter were delicious and I said so. So they brought more! I shared with our driver, Abdullah, and ate what I could, but one was left. The waiter, while clearing the plates, took the remaining chop and put it on a bread plate and set it before me. I caught on quickly that I was to finish the meal (clean my plate, so to speak) and so I did.

It was simply too much, but there was more. The dessert was kunafa, a special goat cheese topped with fine honey coated pasta, with arabic coffee on the side. Talk about scrumptious - even though I was about to pop! But it was apparent my hosts were delighted that I enjoyed the meal. When I finished and expressed my appreciation, the waiter brought out a big bowl of fresh fruit and bottles of water. When I couldn't touch it, he bagged it all up for me to carry with me.

Our guide, Munzer, said he ate a big meal at lunch every day, then for supper maybe a piece of fruit and for breakfast a piece of bakery. Every day. I asked if that was common practice, but we were interrupted and I never got an answer. Munzer is on the left and our driver is on the right in the picture of the two guys I ate lunch with.
Jericho impresses you as a place with thousands of secrets, and yet it wears its emotions on its face. The economic depression of the area is obvious, as well as the frustrations of confinement and control. But the people seem to be proud of thei city and their organic, delicious fruit and basically radiate joy, not to mention hospitality.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Praying for the Peace of Jerusalem





We paused several times today to specifically pray for peace in this land. Our sensitivities were heightened, as was security all about us. We saw soldiers all over the place this AM, on alert because of the unrest in the Gaza Strip. I figured the Israeli's wanted to make a show of force to discourage any sympathy demonstrations.




Going into Bethlehem we had to pass through a checkpoint in the "Wall." The Israeli's call it a security wall. The Palestinians call it the Wall of Apartheit. The graffiti on the wall spoke their sentiments clearly. And we got a first-hand look at how imposing and oppressive it is.


Over here the only thing clear about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is that it is a complicated tangle of hopes, loyalties and lies. Something beyond human wisdom is needed. Something like a Messiah, a Savior, a God who places in each heart a burning desire for peace, wholeness, respect, and freedom. And so we pray. We pray for those who feel the fear, for those who have known the harm of evil's done, for those who cannot forgive, and whose who continually want more. We pray for peace.

Walking Where Jesus Walked

Today was a beautiful, somewhat cool day in Jerusalem, filled with powerful times of reflection. We began the day at St. Peter in Gallicantu, the church built over the ruins of Caiaphas' house. We were the only tour bus there, which mean we didn't have to be rushed. Our destination was the pit, or dungeon underneath the house, where Jesus was kept after his arrest. It's one of the few places you can be pretty sure you are walking where Jesus walked. And what a place it is.


Now there are steps to walk down into the dungeon, with lights and a lecturn added. Jesus was lowered down by ropes under his arms, as all prisoners were then. After our guide explained how we know this is the place and the way Jesus would have been handled until he saw Caiaphas the next morning, we turned out the lights and by flashlight read Psalm 88:
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave... You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.

Then we sang, "Were You There." And before the reality of it all weakened us too much, we climbed the steps back up to the daylight. Then it was over to the Antonio Steps, the first century road between the lower and upper portions of the City of David. It was the main route in Jesus day, so once again you can be pretty sure you are "walking where Jesus walked."



On to Mt. Zion, the hill across from the Temple Mount that King David loved. There we entered the Crusader room, built where the Upper Room would have been. The room is opened to all faiths since the memorial for King David is underneath it, and for many centuries it was converted to a mosque. So you aren't supposed to have worship services in it. But again we were fortunate and were the only group there. So, having come prepared, we quickly celebrated Holy Communion in the location where the Last Supper took place, as well as where the Spirit descended upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
Next we went to Bethlehem, to the shepherd's caves and the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in Christiandom. The side of the church built over the grotto of the nativity is under the Greek Orthodox control. There were more groups here and an Armenian service was taking place, so we had to hurry along. But we did sing, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" beside the Nativity.


We ended the day at the Garden Tomb. It probably isn't the actual site. Most scholars agree that the Church of the Sepulchre is built over the place of crucifixion and burial. We go there tomorrow after walking the Via Dolorosa. The Garden Tomb however gives you a good feel of what it could have been like. There again we celebrated Holy Communion, this time with a focus on the resurrection.
Nice day, capped off with an evening hike back to the Damascus gate and a quick walk through the Moslem section. I had dreaded taking the time to come on this trip this year, but of course now I'm delighted I did. Seeing the people in my group experience these places is worth the effort to get them here. Now I'm thinking maybe I can encourage others to come....








Thursday, January 24, 2008

Weeping over Jerusalem

It is special to get to be in Jerusalem, but it often leaves me sad. First, just the history of conquests (so many in the name of some religion) and the centuries of rebuilding and more destruction and more rebuilding leave you wondering about all the violence and hatred people are capable of. And then there's the ever-present tension of all the faiths wanting the hottest real estate in religion, the temple mount. Finally, there also something about the sadness in the people of the streets that just kind of soaks in.

So, by the time we got to the Dominus Flavit Church on the Mount of Olives, I was more in the mind frame for the place than I realized. The Church, built in the shape of a teardrop, signifies Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. The reading was from Matthew 23 where Jesus said, "Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I wanted to gather your children as a hen gathers her young under her wings. But you would not."

Maybe I was just tired from all the walking we did today. But as we left there and walked down by the Garden of Gethsemane to the Church of the Agony (supposedly at the place where Jesus prayed and was arrested), I just wanted a Redeemer to show up and remove the sadness of the place. And believe me, I was longing for the kind of redeemer Judas was most likely hoping Jesus would turn out to be: a redeemer who was ready to use power and might to whip the place into shape.

Sometimes when you feel some of the brokenness of the world, you simply want it fixed. You don't want a plan, or good intentions, or promises, or a chance to demonstrate your faith. You just want the sick made well, and the lonely to laugh out the cackel of companionship. You want shalom delivered on a silver platter.

But it sure doesn't happen that way. Jesus walks the way of suffering and turns and asks "When are you going to figure it out?" (I think that quote is in there somewhere!:) And that's what I was feeling in the church of tears today.

What revived me for the rest of the pilgrimage, you ask? Surely you asked... A young woman, dressed in garments that indicated she was probably a novitiate for the Carmelite nuns, sat quietly in prayer throughout our time there. There it was, a juxtoposition of chaos and grace.
Down the hillside it dawned on me, I had the chaos, thinking about the chaotic evil of the world, and she had the grace, calmly placing life under God's control. I remembered a verse learned in childhood and suddenly realized for the first time that it has a much broader band of application: Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Such is life in the hands of God.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How Could You Be Disappointed?

I know, "count your blessings." But I was disappointed when we got to the top of Mt. Nebo this morning and it was socked in with fog. Besides no astounding view, we couldn't even find Moses grave! The picture is from about a thousand feet down, as we went down the road toward the Jordan valley - desolate land, but still shepherds out there with their flocks of sheep.

We did go to Madaba and visit the church with the mosaic of Jerusalem, the earliest known map of the Holy Land. What I realized today was how I've framed my conception of the Holy Land from the political boundries of today. In the early days of Christian pilgrimages, Palestine included much of Jordan as well as what is now known as Israel and the West Bank. Holy sites and early churches were built at sites all over the land, including Madaba and Nebo.


Speaking of early Byzanine church ruins, I was surprised to find some at Bethany Beyond Jordan, the site many scholars say is where John the Baptist did his baptizing. The photo is a wide shot of the area. Under both shelters there are ancient ruins of churches, indicating early acceptace of this site as authentic. This site is just a few yards from the Jordan River. What impressed me here was the muddy ground, the sticky kind of mud that clings to your shoes. At one point I scraped over an inch off each sole. What a place to get baptized! If it had not just rained we probably wouldn't have known this. No wonder Naaman complained about having to bathe in the muddy old Jordan, it looks muddy and yucky.

In Jerusalem tonight. Listened to "The Holy City" as we rode in this evening and that experience always gets me. How could anyone be disappointed with that?


Winter in Jordan

It only snows in Jordan a couple of times a year, they say. Well, what are the odds…yes, we began the day in Amman with snow flurries. That finally changed to rain as we drove down to Petra. Then the sky cleared for us as we walked through the Siq (the narrow gorge you walk down to enter Petra). Then the fog moved in. And as we drove back into Amman, it was snow, snow, snow. The weather threw a lot at us, but the day was a homerun as far as I’m concerned.

I’d looked at Petra a lot on web sites, but none of the pics did it justice. In the middle of nowhere, a bedouin tribe called the Natabeins, built in the first century BC a trade city. The city structures are all gone, (due primarily to the great earthquake of 749 AD) but the tombs and funeral buildings they carved in the sandstone are amazing.

The hike through the Siq is about 1 ¾ miles. You could pay to ride a donkey or a donkey pulled cart, but we’d heard about how the animals are mistreated there and did not want to support that with our trade. Besides the hike was the best way to experience it, slowly.

The rain had made the colors in the rock stand out even more. But best part, as I’ve heard others say as well, was the last turn in the Siq when the magnificent “Treasury” fa├žade came into view. The Treasury was all carved from one rock. Erosion and humans have defaced many of the mythological figures carved there, but still the craftsmanship is evident and impressive.

Waiting to see how long it snows tonight in order to set our itinerary for tomorrow. Either way, we will be going to Mt. Nebo, where Moses looked over into the “promised land.” I just realized, I’ve already seen more snow in Jordan in one day than I have in Sumter in five years. Who would have thought it.


(Note, this post was made for Jan 22 but the Arabic Google wouldn't let me post it, so it's here a day late.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Primary Predictions on Issues at GC

What will be the most significant issue we deal with at General Conference in April? Will it be issues from the Ministry Study, the Report from the Council on Bishops setting the stage for Regional Conferences, our stance on homosexuality, finding a place to stay in Fort Worth, Judicial Council elections, authorizing a new hymnal, or what?

An important issue that really isn't on the table has been raised in some emails being circulated and commented on by several church leaders. It regards the changing make-up of the General Conference with the continuing increase of Central Conference delegates.

This year, the delegates from outside the US will compose 30% of the total, up from 20% in 2004. In 2012, the Methodists of the Ivory Coast will have about 58 delegates instead of the 2 they have for 2008. If the trend continues, by 2016 delegates from overseas could be a majority.

The sensitive, but critical issue behind the numbers is not representation, but cost. This year's GC is projected to be significantly overbudget, due in large part to the cost of transporting Central Conference delegates along with the cost of interpreters. As the numbers increase for future GC's, the cost will escalate. These are costs that will be apportioned among the US annual conferences, since very few of the Central Conference churches are able to pay any apportionments at all. Presently, there are no proposals to address such a looming financial crisis.

Yesterday I spoke to the Florence District pastors about General Conference issues. From their responses to the issues I outlined I had two observations. The first relates to the adage, "The only politics is local politics." In other words, really the only real thing people are interested in are the issues they perceive that will affect them. And in terms of GC it was: what decisions are going to affect apportionments and what decisions will affect the way pastors are deployed for ministry (are we going to change sacramental authority?)

Secondly, most pastors have little idea how Gen Conf gets its work done. After our lunch, several pastors expressed appreciation for learning how the legislative committees of GC operate as they deal with the petitions. I wonder how much such a lack of awareness about our process contributes to a feeling of "disconnect" between the local churches, pastors and the general church.

Finally, one pastor asked, "What is the biggest issue facing our church, and what will General Conference be doing about it?" My response: The biggest issue is to fulfill our mission, Making disicples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And General Conference will do very little about that directly. What GC will do is make decisions that will enable or hinder the local churches in fulfilling our mission, but ultimately the responsibility is on us.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Grandma Evangelism

Sometimes you think of the right thing to say, when the moment is over. Yesterday, on my way home from teaching about Need Oriented Evangelism I thought of the illustration that would have helped. It's one I've used in sermons and other classes.

I was trying to show the point that small churches don't have to think only in terms of "programs" to address people needs in their community. It works just fine when one person takes some initiative, or when "two or three gather in Christ's name" to be the church for someone else.

The church I served last, in the upstate, was a relocation and restart. A small congregation of about 50 moved from a declining mill village location to a new site a couple of miles away, but right in the middle of several growing sub-divisions. It was also right in the middle of several large established churches. The mostly elderly congregation had little to offer in terms of programs and classes, especially when residents could easily "shop" for what they wanted in the nearby churches.

What it did have was several Grandmas' with a desire to show God's love. When new residents would visit the church, the Grandmas would swoop in and connect with the children. They staffed the nursery, and told the parents, "You go worship while we take care of the kids." Many of the new residents were relocated to the area by their jobs, meaning the family grandparents were in other states. The substitute Grandmothers connected with the children, sometimes seeing them during the week - some even attending little league games.

With such connections in place, families began to join. It was only a trickle of one or two families at first. But those families soon brought new friends along with them. Within a couple of years there was a a solid base of members upon which to build. Now the church has about 500 in worship each week, so the evangelism of the Grandmas' keeps bearing fruit.

Needs Oriented Evangelism simply means that the discovered needs of "the stranger in our midst," "the least among us," and the one facing life without Christ trump the perceived needs of the church. Thus whatever church looses its life for Christ's sake, will gain it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Baptism Reaffirmation and Need-Oriented Evangelism

This Sunday the lectionary takes us to Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus. We started a few years ago having in the service the Congregation Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant on this Sunday. At the close of the service, people are invited to come to the font, and place their hands in the water to reaffirm their baptism. They can also take one of the smooth stones from the font, to carry with them as a reminder of the gift of God's covenant.

Last year I had two or three people come to me after the service saying how meaningful it was. A couple of them asked why we haven't done this before, and I'm pretty sure they had been at previous reaffirmations. My point is, it's all in God's timing. Previously they weren't at a point in their journey where baptismal reaffirmation meant something to them. But that year, the message of God's love, the symbolism of cleansing and rebirth, or the significance of forgiveness and a covenantal life touched their point of need and yearning.

We all need to remember this, so we don't grow weary in well doing. The best apple pie ever cooked means little to someone with no appetite. The best gift of all, a relationship with Christ, will go untouched by those so full of this life that there's no room for anything else.

Tomorrow after the worship services I'll drive to Clover to lead a workshop on Need-Oriented Evangelism (N-OE). People have needs. How do we identify and connect with their needs as a portal for a) demonstrating God's love through our service, b) establishing a relationship, and c), introducing them to a life of discipleship in Christ? (There's my workshop in a nutshell!)

The bias of N-OE, which basically comes out of Natural Church Development, is programmatic. The quick fix is to do some sort of survey of the community to discover the dominant common need (child care? after-school programs? divorce recovery? etc.?) and then to create a program administered by the church which will lure the targeted population in.

The idea is that those who respond to the program will thus appreciate what the church does, and join. (I've noticed there is little attention given to what to do if the public responds. How will they be introduced to the life of the community of faith, and how will they learn what it means to give one's-self over to a life in relationship with Christ?)

This is a large church orientation which can be frustrating to churches with an average church worship attendance of about 200 or less. Churches of that size can muster the resources to do the necessary program, but it takes a significant commitment of the energy in the congregation to make it happen. Success is not guaranteed. Thus if it doesn't work, doesn't bring in new people, a failure mentality sets in and provides a basis for that self-defeating comment, "We've tried that before."

For a large church, the commitment to a new program calls for a much smaller percentage of their resources (people and money). So if it doesn't work out, they can more easily chalk it up to experience and move on to the next promising opportunity.

How does all this tie in with baptismal reaffirmation, you may ask? We really don't need programs to do N-OE if we are faithful to living out our baptismal covenant. Baptism commissions us to serve in Christ's name. On that basis, church members can develop a sensitivity to the needs of others and then a) respond to them by demonstrating the love of God through service, b) establish a relationship with them, and c) introduce them to a life of discipleship in Christ, with or without the church having an official program for it. Amazing, isn't it?

I sometimes wonder if the purpose of church programs is to keep us busy and give us the feeling we're doing something while we avoid personal engagement in the life of discipleship. So, to not grow weary in well-doing, I will pray that this Sunday will be God's time for another someone in the fellowship to discover their baptismal calling, and to say, this is meaningful and I want to help make a difference, and maybe there's a need God's calling me to pay attention to, and....well, guess that's why we call Him the Living Water.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Support Systems

Spent some time this week working on a way to connect some people with each other, all of whom are going through significant personal change. I want them to have the opportunity to support each other. Then spent time on the phone with a person in crisis across the state. In response to my questions, it was clear there was no support system of friends, and the person really wanted a recommendation of someone just to talk with.

So, here's a reminder to me and anyone who reads this. Have you worked on your own support system of friends lately? Called to check on them, or just to chat a minute? If you have a network of people you can call on, I know a lot of people who would consider you wealthy beyond measure.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Epiphany

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land, begins with the words, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire.” He was wrong. January is crueler by far. It mixes hope with reality, a more volatile combination....

The realities of January convict us with our limitations and failures. The hopes of January convict us with what could be. That is a powerful combination, January or anytime, because together they demand we admit our need of a Savior. And suddenly, Bethlehem’s famous son is insufficient as an infant in a manger.

We need the Son of God, who boldly strides through our darkened and doubting hearts with redemption and real transformation in his hands. We need the divine Word-made-flesh to upgrade our earth-bound hopes with visions of the earth receiving its king. Babies are disarmingly cute and welcome us close into the warmth of love. But babies cannot stand in the gap for us, protect us from that which would undo us, direct us in the fray of conflict, or sacrifice on our behalf.

No wonder the ancient Church established the season of Epiphany following Christmastide. Epiphany means to “show forth” and re-tells the gospel stories in which the divine nature of Jesus shines through His humanity. In this Jesus of Nazareth, we see revealed the living God of purity, justice, and grace, who calls us to worship him in spirit and in truth....

Full article posted at my Checked Luggage blog here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Convincing others we really care.

Yesterday afternoon I participated in an event at the county courthouse. One of Trinity's members, Jack Howle, was being installed as the Chief Public Defender for the 3rd Judicial Circuit. Last year our state legislature passed the Indigent Defense Act of 2007 to coordinate and standardize the public defender offices across the state, and to give the give the public defenders a more equitable status with the solicitor's office. Our own Rep. Murrell Smith was instrumental in getting it passed. It was a needed reform of the system and I understand it has become a model for other states.

Jack was the right man for the job and I felt honored to bring the invocation and benediction. Jack has been the Chief Public Defender in Sumter for ten years and has many more years experience in the field. He is calm and consistent and has a quiet determination to do what is right. Every Tuesday he is at my early morning men's Bible study and is very active in our church. Those who need the services of a public defender are fortunate to have such a dedicated and experienced attorney who sees his work as a call to ministry through his baptism.

Jack's comments after the swearing in acknowledged family and colleagues and the work of the public defenders office. What stuck with me were some of his closing words when he said that the general public often has a erroneous and negative view of the people who must rely on public defenders. Jack said that they are simply people for whom the circumstances and choices of their lives have put them in a position to depend on the expertise of others they cannot afford. "The most difficult part of this job," he said, "is convincing our clients that we really do care about them."

Jack, of course, was talking about the public defender's role, but I immediately thought about the role of the church. How good a job have we done convincing people that we really care about them? It doesn't matter to them if we can share the way of salvation if they perceive that we really don't care about them. What's the old saying? No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

Jesus is not a commodity that we can package, market and distribute to others. Jesus is known in a relationship of grace that is passed from heart to heart. Instead of evangelism and church growth programs, maybe we need to back up and re-train ourselves on being truly caring people. Perhaps we need to pray for hearts of compassion, and then the ability to break apart the stereotypes of the church so that the world can see through us that God indeeds cares. To what lengths are we willing to go to convince others that because of Christ, we actually, really, do care about them?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Broken Things

Been a busy week, this first week of 2008, and with the writers on strike I've been hesitant to cross the picket line and make a post. Actually, writing just hasn't been on my mind. In addition to the usual first of year administrative stuff, seems I've spend a considerable amount of time listening to people dealing with significant brokenness in their lives. Broken health, broken friendships, broken relationshps, broken hearts. Talking with a friend this evening about brokenness in our lives I remembered an article I wrote several years ago about Broken Things, which I've posted in its entirety on my Checked Luggage blog. It includes this paragraph:

On any given Sunday the congregation is full of people who are privately holding on to broken things in their lives. They may be struggling with conflicts at home, pressures at work, disappointments in themselves, or uncertainty about their world and their future. We know it’s OK to admit physical broken-ness and ask for prayers. But to place any other type of broken-ness in the box feels like admitting weakness or failure – things that reveal just how human we are.

It is so tough to admit to others that we don't have it all together. And we expend so much energy keeping up the mask of that "all togetherness" with each other. How courageous, how beautiful and how humbling it is when someone says, "I've got something I need to talk about," and they trust you with their wounds.

Sadly, too many times we even try to keep our brokenness from God. But remember what God told Paul when Paul prayed for his "thorn in the flesh" to be removed: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness." (1 Cor 12:9)

God knows our brokenness. In becoming one with our human nature, Christ took on our woundedness, even as we are wounded. And here's the question, If God's strength is made perfect in our weakness, then why are we so determined to hide our weaknesses, and why do we work so hard to portray ourselves as people (and churches) of great strength? I guess we still think it's all about us, when it really is all about God.