Our congregation is participating in a three year program called the Acts 16:5 Initiative. You can learn more about it here. A team of people from the church is attending seminars with others from New Hope Presbytery (our Presbyterian region) for prayer, study and reflection. We come home and share with the congregation. At our recent seminar, we saw this video, and it really made us think. What do you think? What does this suggest about the direction in which churches should move?
Archive for September, 2011
Here is a letter to the editor that I sent to the Presbyterian Outlook in response to another letter. You can read the original that sparked my interest here. I really believe that being a small congregation can be a strategic advantage. The small church is one of God’s strategies for reaching people.
I greatly appreciated O. Benjamin Sparks’ letter to the editor in the August 8 issue of the Outlook, as well as the Pentecost 2011 letter from the Committee on Theological Education that inspired it. Twenty-one years into a small church pastorate, I still find it exciting, challenging and rewarding.
The facility-rich, money-rich, resource-rich, staff-rich and program-rich model is not the only faithful way to “do church.” It is not the only good structure for the work of drawing people into the embrace of Jesus Christ. It is not even the appropriate model for every context, culture, or population group. What if we stopped seeing small size as a problem or a failure and viewed it instead as an opportunity and even a strategic advantage? What if we saw small, strong congregations as one of God’s strategies for reaching people? At the moment, the PC(USA) is rich in small congregations, and just maybe God wants it that way.
Many people will not be reached through models of church that require affluence. What is required is a model that is rich in faith, rich in prayer, rich in relationships, and rich in simplicity, creativity, and flexibility. It is a blessing not to have large facilities and too many things that must be maintained. Trusting God, a small church can move quickly to meet people on a personal level.
Yes, some small congregations are unhealthy and may need to die by closure, but larger congregations can also be unhealthy. Yes, many small churches need transformation, but doesn’t every church need God to transform it? Isn’t every congregation called to be reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit? And this, too, is certain: whatever its size, every congregation is called to lay down its life, take up the cross and follow Jesus.
Initiatives such as “For Such a Time as This,” which pairs small congregations with recent seminary graduates, are a step in the right direction. Imagine what could happen if working through small, strong congregations became one of the PC(USA)’s respected and cherished strategies for reaching people in the name of Jesus. Imagine the greater diversity of people we could reach out to and the greater number of communities the PC(USA) could be active in. Imagine if we developed creative ways to support the faithful indigenous leadership that is in the small churches we already have. Simply inviting small church folk to come to a leadership event here and there is not enough. This is going to require personal, onsite attention in the small church’s home territory, and the best mentors will come from small churches. And imagine what could happen if we started new congregations that will deliberately be small, whose goals may well NOT include owning a building or accumulating wealth. Think of the flexibility they would have in responding to God’s call to mission!
If the PC(USA) hopes to share the good news of Jesus, and if we want to deploy our small congregations in that effort, then we must fulfill our ordination vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. As the COTE letter notes, this includes making imaginative use of our money across the church. And it includes loving our small congregations.
Small churches are a great place to learn to be a pastor, and a great place to learn to be a Christian. Remember that they are also a great place to meet Jesus in the first place.
Photo by Andy Potter, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license
After a Bible study about one of Jesus’ sea crossings, one of our members asked for a sermon about “the other side.” This is what I came up with for our congregation’s homecoming service on September 25. This sermon focuses on the call to go. Something needing ongoing prayerful thought and creativity: what are some alternate routes to reach the other side?
A Rough Ride to the Other Side
A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 8:23-9:1 and Romans 10: 12-15
When Jesus insisted that his disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, they didn’t put up any argument. They knew where he was coming from. They knew the need that waited on the other side. They didn’t know exactly what they would find, but it would be some form of what they had seen already: perhaps another hungry crowd like the one they had just left. Definitely they would see lots of sick people, and they might even see a really fearful situation like what they had seen in Gerasa: demon-possessed people living in the place of the dead—the cemetery.
The disciples also didn’t argue about setting out because Jesus had sent them out before with a commission. In Matthew 10 he told them:
• Go and proclaim the good news
• Cure the sick
• Raise the dead
• Cleanse the lepers
• Cast out demons.
They could hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice, the same urgency that Paul expressed later in this way: How can people call on Jesus if they haven’t put their trust in him? And how can they put their trust in him if they haven’t heard of him? And how can they hear unless somebody goes and tells them?
No, the disciples didn’t put up an argument.
But deep in the night, far from the shore, I am sure they wished they had. Because of the topography at the Sea of Galilee, windstorms can quickly come up with little or no warning. It happens because the Sea itself is down in a bottom, 700 feet below sea level, while the hills around the sea soar up to 1200 feet above sea level. Air cools off quickly at the top and rushes down to take the place of warmer air rising up off the sea. The disciples didn’t have a barometer to detect the subtle changes in air pressure that might have warned them that a storm was forming.
They were hit without warning, and this was a bad one. Even the most seasoned sailors among them didn’t have the stomach for this churning sea. In the Greek Matthew says that the waves tortured the boat.
And being just as human as anyone else, the disciples probably “lost it” as they struggled to hang on. I can imagine them shouting at each other over the noise of the storm. We should have rested in port when the crowd dispersed! Andrew, James and John, you’re the professionals in this bunch. How come you didn’t notice that the wind was changing? Peter, how come you didn’t speak up? I knew I didn’t like the looks of those clouds I saw on the horizon! But the wind carried their voices away. (more…)
My father’s birthday recently came around again. I am grateful for his love and strength. Here is a sermon that I preached at Morton Church soon after Daddy’s death.
A Sermon on Deuteronomy 33:27; Romans 8:26, 28, 31-32, 35, 37-39;
And John 14:1-7, 18-20, 25-27
In Loving Memory of My Father, Fred Harris
When I was a child my father had very, very strong arms. He could scoop up and toss feed into the manger as if it were as light as lint. Daddy could throw bales of hay across the loft. His hands could strip the last drop of milk from a cow.
Daddy could pick my mother up in his arms and carry her over the threshold. My brother, Charles, and I both remember Daddy lifting us into his lap. We vividly remember, for example, Daddy holding us there while Mom did the paperwork when we had to check into the hospital for surgery. But best of all was how high Daddy could lift us up. He would come in from the barn at night, and Charles and I would reach out our arms and exclaim, “Daddy! Jump us in the air!” And we would jump, and he would raise us up much higher than we could ever jump. We could even ride on Daddy’s shoulders then. That’s one thing I think of when I hear that song, “You Raise Me Up.”—“I am strong when I am on your shoulders…you raise me up to more than I can be.”
It has really hurt to watch illness and time take their toll, so that at the end, we were lifting Daddy with our arms. His hands grew so stiff that he could barely move his fingers. Why did this good man have to endure this? And why did we have to witness it? This kind of pain is the price we pay for living and loving.
Daddy’s favorite hymn begins “Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.” Sometimes pain makes it really challenging to trust that promise. Is God really on our side, and yet God still lets these things happen? Nobody is spared. And as Paul puts it, the whole creation, and not just us humans, is groaning with longing for God to set us free from suffering and death. All nature does sing, yes, as another of my father’s favorite hymns says. But nature also weeps.
Jesus knew what lay ahead for his disciples. The pain of bereavement was going to blindside them. Jesus’ death would not be a merciful death after a long illness. His disciples were going to witness the murder of one who still had so much promise and so much to live for. Jesus knew that his disciples were going to literally feel orphaned. Abandoned. And yes, their hearts would be greatly troubled and they would be afraid. They were going to ask the same questions that even the most faith-filled people find themselves asking when pain overwhelms them. Is God really on our side? Does God still care?
Jesus declared, “I’m not abandoning you! I’m not leaving you orphaned! I am making a place for you in God’s house, and I am going to come back and take you there. You will always be with me.” And Jesus added, “Because I live, you also will live. And then you will know, you will know, that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Trust me on this!” This wouldn’t stop his disciples from feeling the pain, but it would reassure them that God is not going to let them fall out of God’s care. God isn’t going to drop them. God is still on their side. And not only is God on their side, God is at their side, and God is all around them, too. They are in Christ, and they are in God.
Paul is clear about that as well. “If God is for us,” he writes, “Who or what can ever be against us?”
“The truth,” Paul declares, “is that God really is on our side. Who or what can make God turn against us? Nothing, that’s what. Not hardship, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not peril, not sword.
What can separate us from God’s love? Nothing, that’s what. Not rulers, not powers, not anything that’s happening now, not anything that will happen in the future, not even death. No, not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation, it reads this way: “absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love, because of the way that Jesus our master has embraced us.”
In other words, Christ has got us safe in his arms. We might not always be able to feel it. We might not always be able to grasp that with confidence. But we can still turn our eyes in God’s direction. We can turn our eyes toward Jesus. We can choose to go on the assumption that God really is on our side, and that one day, God is going to still and soothe our aching souls.
When the people of Israel were getting ready to go into the Promised Land, Moses knew that he would not be making the crossing with them. But in his last blessing to them, he reassured them, “The eternal God is your dwelling place. And underneath you are the everlasting arms.” God had the people safe in God’s arms.
At the funeral service last week, many people stood to share memories of Daddy, and I heard one story that I had never heard before. One of my cousins, W.D. Harris, remembered how the hayloft was our playground on the farm. One time when he was little, he was trying to climb up into the loft in the barn that was behind the dairy barn. It was harder to climb up into that loft, and I can only remember trying to climb up there once. The rungs were farther apart than was really comfortable for a climbing child. Anyhow, W.D. was trying to climb up in that loft, and somehow he fell backwards all the way down the ladder. There at the bottom stood my father, and he caught W.D. in his arms! Daddy’s arms were underneath, and W.D. hadn’t even known they were there!
Two days after the funeral, I found a picture that Laura drew of Daddy. It was a father’s day card she made for him a couple of years ago, and she had focused on Daddy’s arms. Daddy was large in the picture, and the rest of us in the picture were small. Laura drew me sitting on Daddy’s shoulder. And in the great circle of his arms, he cradled John and Laura, a cat, a dog, and a cow. A bird—a dove perhaps?—was landing on one of Daddy’s arms. Laura drew a very gentle smile on Daddy’s face.
Friends, scripture shows us that we are safe in the great circle of our heavenly Father’s arms. Underneath us are those everlasting arms, those loving arms. Moses says so. Paul says so. Jesus himself says so. Those arms are there to catch us whether or not we know it, whether or not we can feel it. Down at the bottom, down at the bottom of whatever hell we might fall into, there stands our God. And there are those arms, ready to catch us.
At the end of nearly every prayer Daddy prayed, he would say, “And keep us all in thy love.” That’s just what Moses and Paul and Jesus were getting at: God will keep us all in God’s love, now and always. Daddy is safe there now, and he would want us to remember that we are, too. Yes, Lord. Keep us all in the great circle of your everlasting arms.
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