April 2017: Does our Puzzle Piece Fit?
Jigsaw puzzles are great fun. We have all done them in our youth, with our children, and some of us, with our grandchildren. I remember in my mother’s later years when Alzheimer’s was beginning to limit her mental capacity, she still enjoyed jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles come in varying levels of complexity, but regardless of the complexity, and our puzzle solving abilities, we all start at the same point with a box of pieces in small, colored, irregular shapes. We normally begin by finding a few that fit together rather quickly, usually those that are on an edge, at a corner, or ones that contain part of an easily discernable pattern. As more and more of the pieces start to fit together, a picture begins to emerge—hopefully the one that is on the front of the box! We put the final piece in place and want to celebrate. Everything fits into a harmonious whole. We stand back and gaze at our accomplishment with pride. Wouldn’t it be great if our lives were like that?
In the real world, our lives are a jumble. We struggle to make the pieces that we already believe to be important fit into a pattern of 24-hour days, 7-day weeks, 30-day months, 365-day years, and three score and 10 year lifetimes (Psalm 90:10). Sometimes, halfway through the process, it seems like someone changed the picture on the box. We’re not completing the same picture we started. Perhaps we encounter a major life change, health issue, or family requirement that forever will alter our personal jigsaw puzzle.
In the midst of our struggles to make sense of our personal puzzles, someone in our lives suggests a new piece. “It’s been wonderful for me,” our friend says, “it will look wonderful in your puzzle too!” Just find a way to fit it in. But I look at the calendar and realize that they only way I can add this piece is to take out pieces that are already. My friend has no idea how hard it was for me to make my current pieces fit. In fact it has been so hard that I am really kind of wedded to them. Rearranging my puzzle could mean some tough choices. I may need to give up something. The normal result is that I opt not to change. I tell my friend, “Your puzzle piece looks nice, but I can’t see a way to fit it into my personal puzzle.” Or maybe I just put off the decision. “I’d like to try your puzzle piece, and I may someday, but not right now. I’m satisfied with my puzzle as it is.” Does this sound in any way familiar?
New Commandment is a rather large piece to fit into the Arden Presbyterian jigsaw puzzle. From the very beginning we tried to find a way to fit it into the organizational structure of the church. So how has that worked out for us? One of my first Arden activities was the Thursday morning “Gathering of Men” where I met Jerry Ariail. Jerry told me of his frustrations in trying to fit a men’s ministry into the Arden puzzle despite multiple efforts. I wondered. Could the New Commandment ministry I had seen in my last church help? I attended a few organizational meetings of the church. Lots of ministries were discussed, but no Men’s ministry. I asked why and heard silence. Later, after joining the diaconate I suggested the New Commandment puzzle piece to the diaconate as an extension of their mission of “sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus… especially in their helping one another in time of need.” The deacons and the pastors agreed that we should give it a try…it just might fit. So we started. Organizationally it seems to have fit. The Arden Web page, to some degree, shows the place for New Commandment piece in our organization. It is connected with and underneath the Diaconate and attached to the Service and Mercy Ministries.
But where does it fit with regard to people. And this is where it gets difficult; finding a place for New Commandment in the life puzzles of the individual members and leaders of Arden. It is not my norm to look at the “glass half empty,” but sometimes that kind of view is necessary to understand where we are. So here are the numbers.
- Arden has roughly 200 men who regularly attend or are church members. To date, 17 men have participated in NC once (8% of the population). We average about 10 men on any given month (5%).
- Arden currently has 23 serving officers (Pastors, Elders, and Deacons). To date 5 of the 23 have participated once (22% of the population) and 4 regularly attend (17%).
- Put in more negative terms, 95% of our male population and 78% of our officers have chosen not to participate in New Commandment.
Clearly, New Commandment has room for growth within our community. The challenge is how do we encourage more of our men to fit New Commandment into their personal puzzles? Of course, New Commandment is not the only venue for service to Arden’s men. There are a large number of members, men and women, who reach out on their own to visit and serve members. The assigned shepherding elders provide a resource for members to reach out to when they are in need. The visitation ministry has also been useful in identifying members—single females, widows, widowers, and seniors—who need help in their homes. Since beginning 9 months ago, we have served 13 members of the Arden Community, many of them several times, and not just on our one Saturday-a-month schedule. An additional 12 have been identified as having needs, but New Commandment participation has been insufficient to support them. It is hard to reach out to a needy person and ask, “Can we visit you this Saturday, and help you with anything?” while wondering if we will have to make an apology call on Saturday because we just didn’t have enough men.
Is the jigsaw puzzle an apt description for how New Commandment fits into Arden? It so, our picture currently looks something like this. We are organizationally connected, but from a mission perspective, from a heart of the church perspective, we barely have a toe-hold. Our puzzle looks something like this:
Sinclair Fergusson writes that “God’s will is perfect because his wisdom is flawless. We see this in small things, sometimes in great things. The Lord is the master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives. The pieces may be strangely shaped; often we cannot see how they fit together; but eventually when the big picture is complete we will see that each piece was perfectly shaped. He leads us by ways we could not have guessed, into situations we never expected, to fulfil purposes we never could have imagined.”
Herb Reese, the founder of New Commandment, whom I often refer to in these devotionals, wrote in a recent blog that, while it is true we Christians have given our world many things, there are two things in particular that we have to give to this world right now:
The gospel – The most important gift we have to give to the world is the good news that God has provided a way for us to come into a right relationship with Him through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. All have sinned against God and stand condemned before Him. But Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sin when he died on the cross and then rose again. God offers us forgiveness and eternal life when we place our faith and trust in Christ as the one who paid the penalty for our sin. This good news is the greatest gift anyone can ever receive.
The love of Christ – This is not the love of Christ as an idea, but the love of Christ as a pattern of action. The widows in our congregation still need the love of Christ, no matter how long their spouse has been gone. The single mom in our midst trying to raise children on her own needs the love of Christ. The person walking through the doors of Arden to advocate for people who have just suffered a disaster needs the love of Christ. Our wives need the love of Christ. Our children and grandchildren need the love of Christ. The love of Christ is unique and distinctive. When practiced, it is immediately recognizable by the entire world.
It is through both of these elements, faithful proclamation of the Gospel and mirroring the Love of Christ that Jesus’s New Commandment of John 13 is really followed.
All these thoughts lead me to a poem that one of my Brigade commanders had posted outside of the door of his office. He had titled it, “I’d Rather See a Leader.” Colonel Jerry Childers came to our command almost immediately after suddenly losing a teenage daughter to spinal meningitis. I only learned that fact years after serving under his command. He never told us. Instead, this man of deep faith just led by example. Searching for and finding the poem on the internet, I found it originally was about the difference between speaking the word, and living the word. The poem is by Edgar A. Guest.
I'd rather see a sermon
than hear one any day;
I'd rather one should walk with me
than merely tell the way.
The eye's a better pupil
and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing,
but example's always clear;
And the best of all preachers
are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action
is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it
if you'll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action,
but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver
may be very wise and true,
But I'd rather get my lessons
by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you
and the high advice you give,
But there's no misunderstanding
how you act and how you live.
So where do we go from here? I think we have actually said that from our very first announcements for this ministry.
- Pray that our Lord would continue to guide this ministry and all who participate in it.
- Pray that the men of Arden would join us. When possible tell them of the blessing they will receive and the blessing they will be. Become a New Commandment recruiter.
- Commit to participate at least a week in advance so we can plan our visits
- Help identify those in our community who we can serve. Many, particularly seniors, don’t want to ask for help. But even when they don’t need help, the fellowship of a visit from a brother in Christ shows them the love of Christ we are trying to reflect.
“By this will all men know you are my disciples, that you show love one to another.” John 13:34
March 2017: Is Our Service Part of Our Sanctification Walk?
In last month’s devotional we considered what might cause a church to be put up for sale. The answers could have been positive or negative regarding the overall health of any church including our own. We talked a bit about things that cause decline in our churches and the responsibility that we have toward those who gave of themselves in the past to build the church. We talked about the role of service ministries, like New Commandment and how they can contribute to building up the overall health of the Church—the Bride of Christ.
As we consider this, there is a concept in pre-Christian Roman law is useful. The concept called usufruct that was embraced by the founders of our nation means that we should be constrained in the present when partaking of the fruits of what truly belongs to our predecessors and our successors. It suggests a sense of responsibility to those who went before and those that will come after—a kind of stewardship that sees inheritance as looking backwards and forwards in time. In essence, usufruct gives us the right to make use of something, like the church, while being under an obligation to pass on intact, without injury, the substance of the thing itself. Our church is like that, both in its physical and spiritual contexts. It is a gift from God and from the prior saints here at Arden who gave their talents and treasure to build it up. As custodians of this gift, we are able to use this gift freely. But we are also charged to employ the gifts the Lord has given us to pass it on—intact, healthy, and growing—to the next generation. Usufruct is a useful concept, but do we embrace it. Do we feel that responsibility to pass it on in the same or better condition than we received it?
This is more than a corporate, institutional responsibility. Usufruct also operates at the individual level. Perhaps that is a good introduction for this month to start by looking at a men’s ministry like this at the individual level and asking if it can be a viable component of our individual sanctification. Much of this month’s devotion is drawn from Sinclair Fergusson’s recent book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. Pastor Chad recommended this book in his reading challenge, and Pastor Doug Tilley and I have been reading and discussing it over the past few weeks. So let’s talk about sanctification and service.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the word sanctification embraces the idea of being set apart for a special purpose. In the temple items of furniture, rooms, clothing, and even the tribe of Levi were withheld from ordinary use. They were to be treated with special care. In this sanctification, God takes the initiative. He does that with us through divine election. Ferguson says that divine election is the foundation of sanctification, not the other way around. Everything depends on God’s initiative. The Triune God devoted himself to the goal of bringing about our devotion to him, by setting us apart. In doing so, he brings glory to himself while simultaneously giving enjoyment to us. We are supposed to enjoy sanctification, to glory in it. But sometimes we don’t. Why not?
It may have to do with the priority we place on our sanctification walk. If sanctification isn’t my priority, if I am seeking after other priorities, should I be surprised if my Christian life is full of frustration? When I seek after other priorities, am I---consciously or not—trying to withstand the eternal purposes of God? If God has committed himself to changing our lives, to sanctifying us, then wisdom—not to mention gratitude—should dictate that we would be committed to that too. Otherwise, we find that God’s will and our will are in competition with each other. The graphic below shows types of interactions both between us and the Father and within our Christian community. These relationships range from unity and love where we enjoy our fellowship with the father to enmity and hatred where the relatioship is more like warfare. Where am I within these descriptors of my sanctification walk? Fellowship?, Cooperation?, Competition?, Conflict? Where are you? Where is Arden Presbyterian Church. As we struggle for holiness in an unholy world, where are we on this sliding scale.
In our sanctification walk, God desires us to dwell together in perfect unity. But out natures lead us to something less. Peter assures us that God desires to be in union with us. He is with us; He is behind us; and He is not only at our side but He is on our side in striving us closer and closer to union with Him. "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” 1 Peter 2:5
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 1 Peter 2:12
This pursuit of holiness is not just His desire--it is the specific command of God the Father: “as he who called you is holy, you also must be holy in all your conduct, for it is written “be holy for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:15-16. In other words, Jesus is saying ‘Be like me!’ Holiness and love don’t exist apart from each other; in fact they have a symbiotic relationship. Sanctification is growing in holy-love; love is growing in holiness.
And that is where New Commandment and, in fact, all of Arden’s service ministries come in. Those who are becoming holy will always have an impact on those around them, both those that are participating in these ministries, and those that are being served. There will be the irresistible attraction of the beauty of holy-love showing what life in the presence of God really is—life as it was meant to be lived. Sinclair Ferguson says that this cannot but attract the human heart since a deep desire in us is to be all we were meant to be. The Army’s greatest recruiting slogan was, “be all you can be.” But through sanctification we move toward a much higher goal, being all we were designed by our maker to be. That is God’s unchanging plan for us.
That is where the commandment to love really takes hold and the desire to gratify self loses its grip. Certainly, we will always struggle with our sin natures, but when the Spirit brings us to new life and our adoption into the family of God, He brings about a rebirth in us that creates new dispositions. We not only experience a change of status so that we belong to God’s family, but we also begin to develop the characteristics of our adoptive family, His family, and move away from the negative characteristics of the world. His family is the family that we came here today to care for and to love. And that love through service is an integral part of our personal sanctification.
February 2017: Church for Sale. Is a Sign Like this in Arden's Future?
Two weeks ago, I went to do some “New Commandment work” in my own family, visiting my daughter who is also a single mom with two high school age children. While working on her house, I decided to take a break a go for a run. One of the nice things about running in Brandon, Florida is that, unlike the hills of Western North Carolina, the terrain is very flat, so I can do that runner’s high thing and sort of zone out, albeit at a pace quite slower than I used to run 20 years ago. While on my run, it was as if this sign jumped up in front of me. It was kind of startling. I don’t think I ever saw a For Sale sign on a church before. I ran a little further thinking about it. Is there a market in Florida or elsewhere in the US for used churches? But then a more serious question crossed my mind. Why? Why sell a church?
While we often refer to a church as a building, the truth is that the church is a body of God’s people. What happened to this body that would have caused them to put their building on the market? And more questions—would this building remain a church, and become the place for another body of believers to grow and flourish? I have seen that before, but normally there would be an accompanying sign, “Join us at our new location, 1234 Gospel Road.” Or, perhaps the land would be repurposed for some secular use.
I turned around and ran back to the sign because it seemed that perhaps there was a larger message here, and an even more foreboding question. Is a sign like this in the future of my church? I took this picture, filed it on my iPhone, and went back to my work on my daughter’s home. I would think about the “SmileySold, Church For Sale” sign later.
“You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.” Haggai 1:9-11 (ESV)
During my Army career, I was stationed at Ft. Ord, California several times. Ft. Ord started as a World War I artillery range, and at the start of World War II, it was expanded into a training base. It remained active until 1994 when it was closed as part of the post-Cold War drawdown. Over the decades of its use, it was the home of multiple chapels. My daughter took her confirmation studies in one, we worshipped and attended wonderful Bible studies in another, and I sang in a community performance of the Messiah in still another.
But perhaps the most interesting chapel was an old white wood framed church near the post headquarters. It was one of those old World War II era buildings that were extremely durable and common on nearly every CONUS installation. However, when I was stationed there, this chapel had been repurposed. When a larger main post chapel was built, the old wood chapel was decommissioned. By the time I was assigned there in 1980, the steeple had been removed and it had become the Commanding General’s briefing room as it was very close to the general’s headquarters building. The troops (and almost everyone else) referred to it jokingly as “The Godless Chapel.” But as I consider the SmileySold church in Brandon, I wondered what the people who worshipped there, prayed there, received the sacraments there, who saw their children baptized there—what would they think and feel if their church home, was now a “Godless Chapel.” How would we feel if our church building was “repurposed” for a use—not necessarily pleasing in the sight of the Lord? While the use of the building may not be the most important priority of the church, consideration for those who worshipped there; and tithed, sacrificed and served to build and sustain the facility should be of concern to us.
But what happened to the body of believers that worshipped at the SmileySold church. It would seem there are at least three possible scenarios. The first is church growth to the point where the facility is just insufficient to meet the needs of a growing body of believers. We have seen that in several churches, and that dynamic is evident in many churches that are exploding with growth. The church two of my seven grandchildren attend is growing like that, and has so many pre-school and middle-school youth that they have started an aggressive campaign to build a new youth facility to meet the needs of these kids as they grow and mature in their faith.
In Stuttgart, the International Baptist Church we attended, was unable to persuade their builder and the bank that financed the loan to allow them to build a traditional baptismal. These businessmen knew that the church would not survive, and at a future date it would need to be sold and repurposed. It would be difficult to sell a building in Baden-Wurttemberg with a concrete baptismal. So the church could not have one. Instead, they constructed a communion table that had a Plexiglas bathtub inside that doubled as a baptismal. The more important point in this story is that this English speaking church in Germany grew so rapidly that they paid off their building loan 10 years early. Church growth kept the facility from being repurposed. I checked their web-page this week and IBC-Stuttgart is still growing. That growth necessitated the initiation of a building campaign in 2010 to build a new facility (on the same grounds) that will triple the size of the existing church. A church that began in 1960 as a mission church to support American Servicemen is now an international church with over 700 regular attenders and more than 50 nationalities worshipping together.
So what will be the future of our church? Sustain, grow, or contact “SmileySold” and repurpose?
While growth and some respect for the facility is necessary and appropriate, a church is a body of believers, who grow in our knowledge and love of the Word, corporately worshipping our Triune God, lovingly communicate the gospel, and striving to actively live out their faith through the application of time, talents, and resources—just as stated in our church’s new vision.
Those actions are what are really important. And that takes work both inside the four walls of the church and outside. Both components are equally important.
The story of the SmileySold church could be one of expansion—taking service to the Lord in new directions. It could be one of contraction. A church dwindling in size that no longer needs or can support a large infrastructure. It could be a change in focus and structure for the ministry. Or it could be a church that is just dying. Having served God’s providential purpose, His people have just moved on.
What will be our Church’s future? That is clearly in the Lord’s hands and in his design. In Herb Reese’s most recent devotional he comments that after having attended over 150 men’s conferences over the past 14 years (mostly Iron Sharpens Iron conferences), a summary of the topics covered at these conferences can be grouped under nine general headings….but one topic is never addressed. It’s the topic of good works. He notes having never seen a workshop (other than his own) that covers this important Scriptural issue and that most modern men’s ministries mirror the larger Evangelical vacuum in this area. This is sad, because a man of God isn’t truly a man of God until he has been “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Local church men’s ministries should clearly define the role the Men’s Ministry plays in fulfilling the vision of the church and the pastors. I believe we are doing that here today by following Jesus’s New Commandment.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
At January’s New Commandment meeting we had more workers that we had members identified to serve. That was a mistake I regret. It was just for my lack of effort in identifying them. That is not the case today! Today we have more need than we will probably be able to serve. A key example: yesterday, I received a call and was told of a member and his wife who need help—he is in hospice, and they feel that their church has abandoned them.
Pray that the Lord will give us strength and perseverance to serve joyfully; and that our Lord will raise up other workers to help us meet needs like these. Pray that there will come a day when we can confidently say that no member of our church feels abandoned. When we do this, as the Lord directs us, I am confident that we will have no need for a SmileySold sign.
“Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:37-38
January 2017: Integrating Young Men into New Commandment
It’s January and, if you are like me, a bit of lethargy may have set in. The Christmas decorations are down, we’ve had two weeks of frigid weather and we even had to cancel church last Sunday. So up pops the 2nd Saturday of the month and an email reminder about New Commandment. Let’s be honest, sometimes coming to church on a Saturday morning in January may not appear as exciting as it did in August. But then I think back to some of the things we’ve discussed over past months, the work we’ve done and Arden members we’ve helped.
- Dec: “For you are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand that you should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-10 – Can we really avoid the work that God created just for us?
- Nov: Is Satan going to breathe a sigh of relief when we don’t recognize the impact of good works done for our community?
- Oct: Do we see guaranteeing the well-being of the members of Arden as a covenant responsibility? “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13
- Sept: As Christian men, good works are nothing special. It’s what we do. “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” Luke 17: 7-10
Over the past few months, the Session and Diaconate have been working on a revision to the Arden vision. Craig is going to introduce it in the Congregational meeting tomorrow, but I would like to give you a preview today, by highlighting one section of that vision. We strive to live out our faith through the active application of our time, talents, and resources in ministry and service to our church…
New Commandment has the opportunity to be a part of making that active application real in 2017. There may be many ways the Lord will lead us to do that, but perhaps one way will be to integrate Arden’s young men into this ministry. We’re glad to have our new youth pastor, Gabe Malloy with us today, and over the coming months we hope to work together toward that end.
Young men will infuse a kind of energy into New Commandment that can definitely use. We just have to be open to it. Consider this Old Testament example. The 11th Chapter of 1st Chronicles tells the stories of King David’s mighty men; Jashobeam, Eleazar, Benaiah, and Abishai and their amazing deeds. In verses 22-25 we are told the story of a young man.
“And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds. He struck down two heroes of Moab. He also went down and struck down a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen. And he struck down an Egyptian, a man of great stature, five cubits tall. The Egyptian had in his hand a spear like a weaver's beam, but Benaiah went down to him with a staff and snatched the spear out of the Egyptian's hand and killed him with his own spear.” 1 Chronicles 11:22-23
Have you ever seen a young man who had so much energy pulsing in him that he did something really stupid. When you were young did you do anything really dumb? When I was about 25, I attempted auto-rotate a helicopter into a too small landing zone. Another pilot nearby radioed to me, “You’ll never make it.” I said, “Watch me.” I had a really close call that day, and felt like an idiot. I may have been bored from too many hours of flying with students, but it was really risky.
Can you think of a time in your youth when you did something crazy to show off?
The story of Benaiah is something like that. Benaiah may have been bored on that day when he decided he’d just go jump into a snowy pit that happened to have a lion in it and kill it. What was he thinking? I’m sure his dad, Jehoiada, had a few choice words for him when he got back.
Jehoiada: “Are you crazy, Son?” What were you doing killing a lion on a day like today?”
Benaiah: “The lion fell into a pit. So I killed it.”
Jehoiada: “But why did you have to jump into the pit? Couldn’t you have just speared it from the top, or at least waited until the snow melted?”
Benaiah: “What’s the thrill in that?”
Jehoiada: “What do you mean, What’s the thrill in that??? What’s the thrill for your mom and I when our son gets killed!!!
Benaiah: “Dad, stop! I’m a warrior. I do dangerous stuff like that all the time. And besides, all my friends were watching.”
All young men need a cause worth dying for. And when they aren’t dying for a cause, they’ll invent ways to cheat death just to prove to their friends and show the girls how tough they are. They’ll do wheelies on motorcycles while doing 110 on the freeway. They’ll flip snowmobiles backwards in midair. They’ll ski off a cliff. They’ll dive into a river without knowing the depth or anything else.
Pastor Herb Reese, founder of New Commandment, tells the story of Shane Brotherton, a youth who liked to cheat death. His mother, Yoshiko was Japanese and had lived through WWII, and married an American soldier during the occupation. They moved to Texas where Shane was born. Shane was a daredevil, constantly pushing the limits. First it was skateboards. Then it was motorcycles. Then skydiving.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, Herb and his wife were watching a TV special about the tragedy when it came to President George W. Bush’s flight on Air Force One. The Air Force was randomly flying the President around the country for safety while all commercial flights in America were being grounded. Accompanying President Bush were two F-16 fighters. The TV special showed pictures of the planes out of President Bush’s window.
Then they interviewed one of the pilots flying the F-16s and it was Shane Brotherton! Herb and his wife couldn’t get over the irony that the son of a woman who lived through WWII and the crazy risk taker was now guarding the President.
“These things did Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and won a name beside the three mighty men. He was renowned among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David set him over his bodyguard.” 1 Chronicles 11:24-25
All young men need causes worthy of their energy, and what greater cause could there possibly be than the cause of Christ? With New Commandment, we can help direct the incredible energy of our young men to needs right here in our Arden community.
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” 1 Timothy 6:12
December 2016: Application of Jesus’s New Commandment is the Christmas Spirit
For believers, the Biblical narrative of Jesus birth is very familiar. When the Christmas season nears, even the youngest among us recall the familiar verses, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given...,” “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
We remember familiar hymns like “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World.” For Judy and me, the songs and Scripture verses from Handel’s Messiah come to mind as we have had a long tradition of attending a performance, wherever we have lived. Last year we attended the Asheville Symphony Chorus’s “Sing-along Messiah.” The bass oratorio “And behold, darkness shall cover the earth” always gives me chills and reminds me of a blind soloist from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus that performed it at Ft. Ord, California in the 1980s.
Feelings inspired by memories like these, family traditions, decorations, celebrations and church traditions like candlelight services, the Angel Tree, the Advent Wreath and Samaritan’s Purse Shoe Boxes can all be categorized as what we call “the Christmas Spirit.”
But perhaps as we think of our New Commandment ministry, perhaps we can view the Christmas Spirit as something more. Consider these verses and the example of Jesus:
2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV) “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.”
John 1:14 (ESV) “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Philippians 2:1-4, 13 (ESV) “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” 13 “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
In his discussion of the incarnation, J. I.Packer in his book Knowing God writes: “We now see what it meant for the Son of God to empty himself and become poor. It meant laying aside glory; a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice, misunderstanding, and ultimately death on the cross. … The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity—hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory—because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ emptied himself and became poor to serve us—He gave his all.
Packer sees many believers talking about the “Christmas Spirit” but rarely meaning more than sentimental cheerfulness on a family basis. But Jesus’ commands and his example make it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. He says, “It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of Him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. The Christmas Spirit itself should instead be the mark of every Christian all year round.
Packer then discusses what the Christmas Spirit is and what it isn’t. It is not…
- A spirit that offers a wish and perhaps a prayer (like the Levite in the parable) and yet is too busy for the needy.
- The spirit of Christians whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bringing up their children in nice middle class Christian ways, while leaving sub-middle class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to fend for themselves.
He then describes what the Christmas Spirit is. It is…
- The spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just their own friends—in whatever way there seems to be a need.
I think that is a bit of what we are trying to do with New Commandment, and why each of you came here this Saturday morning. This Christmas Spirit is evident on many other days as our members serve those both inside and outside of our church community. This year Arden members served in Cherokee on summer youth mission trips, in Haiti, in Nichols, SC, for Disaster Relief. I found out this past week that Arden sends about a dozen of our members every Tuesday to ABCCM—medical professionals and others—to provide medical care for those in need. These are just some of the Arden outreach areas that I (a relatively new member of this church) am aware of. Certainly there are many more.
The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10 describes two aspects of our covenant with God–salvation apart from good works and salvation that results in good works.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast. For you are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand that you should walk in them.”
That’s a fascinating concept. God created the projects that we are doing today—(name them)—for the express purpose of having us walk in them. Herb Reese says in one of his blogs, “God didn’t save us to sit on our butts in endless meetings. He saved us, quite literally, to work. We have been set free from our lust, guilt and shame. We have a new relationship with the God of this universe through faith in his Son. He has filled us with his Spirit—that now gives us the ability to do God’s amazing good.”
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Now we have the opportunity to show our Christmas Spirit supporting a number of our members, an opportunity that only seems to grow with each passing month.
November 2016: Has the Mafia arrived at Arden
You’ve just been served your breakfast with a group of friends from Arden. It’s the beginning of regular Thursday morning breakfast at your JK’s Cafeteria. All the employees and regular customers know you and you know them. But suddenly you realize there are some new “regulars” you hadn’t noticed before. At a booth to the left of you sit a group of four older men. “This is Thursday morning,” you think. “Weren’t they here last Thursday? Yes, yes they were. In fact, they were here the Thursday before that.” The men talk in whispers while you eat your JK’s Special and check out CNN.com on your smart phone. Suddenly bits and pieces of their conversation creep into your consciousness.
“Which one of us…kill…? Monopolize…drug trade… Who…bribe…? I’ll get the…pimp…”
As their words catch your attention, the muscles in your neck involuntarily tighten. You realize that these are no ordinary men. They’re the mafia and they’ve come to Arden to claim it as their territory. The implications of your discovery overwhelm you as you picture the impact these men are going to have on your community: a mounting murder rate, increased crime, drug abuse, family breakdown and a dysfunctional city government and police force. Now, imagine the same scenario, only this time, as you sit next to the group of four older men, you overhear them saying something like this:
“Which one of us…rent…video? Body in trunk…The Godfather…drug trade…pimp… But I like…Amish Mafia Who…bribe…?
Now you realize that the four older men are not the mafia at all. Rather, they’re getting together to talk about the mafia. They like everything relating to the mafia. It’s their hobby and the basis for them meeting once a week. So you breathe a sigh of relief. They’re not meeting to have any kind of negative impact on your community. They’re simply meeting because they’re buddies and they like all things mafia. Seems a strange and negative start to a devotional.
Now….which of the above scenarios best describes our weekly men’s bible studies?
Are we meeting once a week because we’re making plans, like those four mafia men in the first scenario, to have a dramatic and irreversible impact on our community, only in our case an irreversible impact for good? Are the implications of what we discuss in our group deep and profound, reaching far beyond our small circle of friends? Will Satan be defeated? Will souls be saved? Will marriages be restored? Will our city government function better? Will people be delivered from slavery to sin? Will the poor be served? Will anything good come of our meeting together?
Or, are we just meeting because we want to talk about the Bible and about the things that could happen if someone were to actually do them? In other words, is Satan breathing a sigh of relief because we’re failing to realize the power of the Holy Spirit that is available to us, and because we don’t recognize the importance of good works in our community? Are we meeting because we are friends and like all things Christian? I know this is rather severe. But our community desperately needs us. So what do we do?
At its core, New Commandment Men’s Ministry links worship and study of the word to a conviction that the love of Christ has immediate and practical implications for the neediest of our members. We define the practice of the love of Christ based on what God has done for us through Christ in the Incarnation and Redemption. Jesus commands us to love each other the same way he has loved us. And while this command most certainly has practical implications for how we love our spouses and children, it extends outward to the entire community. Since all believers are to love each other the way Christ loves us, Scripture makes it clear that the neediest in any church must receive a high priority.
If we are loving them the way Christ has loved us, then we should be identifying with them and committing to them the way Christ did for us. So here are three critical questions we should be prepared to ask every widow, widower, single parent, senior and anyone else in the church with a long-term need. How our members answer these questions will tell us if we are loving them the way Christ has loved us.
Question #1: Are there people in this church who know you well? It’s a simple truth: we can’t love someone we don’t know. And if no one knows a widow or a single mom in our church, then our church is failing her. The love of Christ demands that we come to know the members of our church who are in need to the point that we can empathize with them.
Question #2: Are there people in this church who are committed to you and demonstrate it by regularly by visiting you and serving you in your home? “Through love serve one another” Scripture commands us in Galatians 5:13. But the irony of a church “service” is that we’re not really serving one another. Service must take place in the home, not in a church building. The home is where our practical needs are met and where we can meet the practical needs of others. Major ways to demonstrate commitment to the widowed and single parents are by establishing a connection with them, praying for them, talking with them, and working in their homes on a regular basis.
Question #3: Are there people in this church who are willing to guarantee your well-being by sacrificing for you? Guaranteeing someone’s well-being means taking responsibility for them. Examples from Scripture are Judah taking final responsibility for Benjamin, Ruth taking final responsibility for Naomi, Jonathan taking final responsibility for David, the Good Samaritan taking final responsibility for the waylaid Jew, and John taking final responsibility for Jesus’ mother Mary. Just as the practical result of the fall was Cain’s callous disregard for his brother Abel (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), so the practical result of salvation is a believer caring for his brother or sister in Christ (“Yes, I am my brother’s keeper.”).
When all the APC widows, widowers, single parents, and seniors with a long-term needs answer “yes” to these three questions, we will be able to say, “Yes, we are loving our neediest in our church the way Christ loved us.” Until then, there is work to be done.