Archive for April, 2013

I grew up on a farm in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and in a small rural church. I’m proud to serve in another small rural church.  Recently I re-read an article by Baptist pastor Gary Farley entitled “Jesus Was a Country Preacher,” and though it’s been around a while, it’s still good food for thought for those of us who serve in country congregations.  Click on the title to read it.

I also recently listened to the audiobook edition of country singer Clay Walker’s new book Jesus Was A Country Boy, an extended reflection on the themes he explores in a song by the same title.  Walker meditates on many of the stories of Jesus and points out a correlation between the teachings of Jesus and the values Walker learned growing up in the country, such as generosity and simplicity.  Despite a minor theological quibble in a couple of places, I enjoyed Walker’s meditations and can see them as fodder for devotionals and sermons on the texts he looks at.  He also briefly mentions the ministry of rural congregations and urges people to get involved in their projects, such as food pantries to feed the hungry.  I’m thinking about writing to him to ask him to share some more thoughts about that.  I wonder if he goes to a country church when he’s home on his farm.

Here’s a youtube video of his song:


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'888' photo (c) 2008, S.³ - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/I received a thoughtful and poignant response to my recent post “And God certainly made small churches, too.”  The writer wonders about small congregations that are getting smaller and fading away.

There’s no question that the losses hurt deeply.  We miss our saints that have moved on to the Church Triumphant, and those that have moved away or left for some other reason.  It is painfully disappointing when others take our hospitality, but show no interest in the beautiful worship service that means so much to us, or in the other things we offer, or in becoming members of the covenant community with us.

It strikes me that this gives us a new understanding of what Jesus himself experienced when the crowds lost interest in him.  In John 6 he said to the few that were left, “do you also wish to leave?”  As the cross drew near, even they left him, though they later returned.

Death is certain even for the very best people, but it does not negate all that was faithful and beautiful in their well-lived lives.  I think the same is true in a congregation’s life.  Death in some form is certain for every congregation, but even death by complete closure does not negate all that was beautiful and faithful in the congregation’s life.

Just like individual believers, congregations belong to God in life, and in death, and in the life to come.  Resurrection can be a reality even when a congregation closes.  I heard a story earlier this week about a congregation that closed, and whose assets became powerful seed money for a new ministry that is blessing many.  And closing doesn’t have to mean completely disbanding.  The closing church can become a new kind of church.

Every congregation is called to die and rise with Christ.  Death can mean letting go of something that has been in order to receive what God is creating now.  It may mean letting go and moving beyond our disappointment when people don’t come to worship as we want them to in order to reach them in another way—perhaps somewhere beyond the building.  It may mean letting go and moving beyond our anger when they don’t respond and do what we think they should do.  It may mean rethinking what the purpose of a church is.  Perhaps it will mean letting the idea of getting more people into the church pews recede in order to focus more on introducing people to Christ somewhere out in the world.

What’s more, God is still calling people to form committed, covenant communities like the ones I described in the earlier post.  God is still creating new small churches.  Some are brand new and don’t look very much like the organized church that we have experienced and cherished.  Often they don’t have a building, and they meet in a home or a public place.  One new Presbyterian congregation that I learned about runs a coffee shop in a strip mall and meets there.

Some new small congregations are nested inside of larger congregations, or they share a building with another small church.  In New Hope Presbytery, Durham Presbyterian Church and Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel share a building.  New churches are being born in the midst of and alongside of old ones.

In John 3 Nicodemus asks whether a person can be born again after growing old.  The answer is “yes,” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  By the power of the resurrection, old congregations can be born again.  But it won’t be without pain and struggle and many tears, and it calls for ever deeper trust in the One who has walked the way of suffering on the way to new life.

When life as they knew it in Jerusalem was ending, and God’s people were about to be deported to Babylon, God spoke through Jeremiah, saying, “I know the plans I have for you.  They are plans for good and not plans for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” Jeremiah 29:11.  These plans did not become clear for a long time, and they did not mean escape from pain and death.  These plans were fulfilled when a new generation “came home” to Jerusalem.

God knows the plans God has for our congregations, plans for our good, to give us a future and a hope.  And God promises to stay right with us while God is working those plans out.  In our living and dying and rising again, Christ will be honored and glorified.

Resources related to churches dying and rising:

Gail Irwin writes a blog that explores questions related to the life, death and resurrection of congregations, including those who close.  It is called “From Death to Life: Churches Facing Resurrection.” (freelancepastor.wordpress.com)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a movement aimed at launching 1001 new worshiping communities in the next decade.  Find out more at this website: onethousandone.org.    Many of these are or will be small.  See profiles of some of the new communities that are starting.

See Peter Bush’s book In Dying We Are Born from Alban.  You can read an excerpt of the book here.

There is also a helpful article that appeared in Weavings magazine called, “When the House of God Falls Vacant.”  (Volume VII, No. 1, January-February 1992.)  The theme of the issue is Failure, and it can be ordered from the Upper Room at http://weavings.upperroom.org/back-issues/

See my post “Every Church MUST Die,” which is a reprint of a sermon from my archives.

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view of Nazareth

view of Nazareth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever wanted to walk the land where Jesus walked?  Recently I read a beautiful book entitled Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land by Ruth Everhart, and I wrote a review for the Presbyterian Outlook.   Here is how it begins:


“Longing to glimpse the mystery of faith again prompted Ruth Everhart to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  She writes that faith had never not been a part of the ordinary landscape of her life.  It was as familiar as her mother’s hands.  In the complicated landscape of life in the Holy Land, Everhart hoped to find much more than simple validation of the faith she already knew.  She was ready to wrestle and be wrenched like Jacob at the Jabbok if necessary.  Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land chronicles her outward journey and her inward spiritual journey.


The immediacy of the present tense allows readers to travel alongside her, to feel heat and persistent thirst, and to touch cold, hard stone.  The Dead Sea stings the skin, while the Sea of Galilee soothes like silk.  We smell crowds of sweaty people and the odors of cooking food.  We taste cucumbers and tomatoes, communion bread and wine. There are nuanced shades of beige everywhere.  As we pass through the shadow of The Wall dividing Israel and Palestine, the words “separate and not equal” come to my mind, and they are heavy with meaning….”


You can read the rest of the review here.


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'North moasaic 01 - Resurrection Chapel - National Cathedral - DC' photo (c) 2011, Tim - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Here is the sermon I wrote for the second Sunday of Easter in 2012.

Making Room for Thomas
A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Ever since that Sunday night, Thomas has been stuck with a label, a negative label, an epithet: doubting Thomas.  Don’t be a doubting Thomas.  You don’t want to be like him.

This week I saw a cartoon that shows Thomas with his arms raised and his eyes wide open exclaiming, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter!’ Why should I be saddled with this title?”

Why indeed?  Nobody in the story calls him that.  Nobody in the scripture lesson scolds Thomas.  Not the disciples.  Not Jesus.  No, not even Jesus.

Look closely. In this passage and in all the Easter stories, all the disciples had doubts and fears at one time or another.  All were struggling.  All needed help to recognize the living Christ.  It’s not fair to criticize Thomas for wanting what the others had received on the previous Sunday night.  None of them had recognized the risen Lord until he showed them his hands and side.  That’s what it says in verse 20.  He showed them, then they recognized him.

What’s more, in Luke’s version of the first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Christ, he INSISTS that they all look and that they all touch him.  Their reaction is a messy mix of joy and disbelieving and wondering.  In the Matthew 28, when the eleven see Jesus, they worship him, but some are still struggling with doubt even as they look and worship.

It’s not fair to make a negative example out of Thomas.  I think that view of Thomas comes out of reading a negative tone into Jesus’ voice that’s not really there.  Imagining that kind of tone, some artists’ paintings of this scene show Thomas in a very unflattering light.  They make him look hard-headed.  No, you sure don’t want to be like him!

One reason we read a negative tone into Jesus’ voice is that it is very difficult to translate the Greek text into English there.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation of the Greek.  The Greek actually reads like this, “Don’t be apistos, but pistos.”  Pistos is an adjective that means having faith or believing.  Apistos means not having faith, disbelieving or unbelieving.  A more accurate translation is, “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.”  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move from not trusting towards trusting.  The tone is gracious and inviting.

Jesus doesn’t say, “What’s wrong with you?  Why didn’t you take the others’ word for it?”  Jesus came, spoke the word of peace to them all, including Thomas, and invited Thomas to look and to touch, which, remember, is what he invites everybody to do in the story in Luke.

Jesus is not saying, “Stop doubting this minute, and don’t ever doubt again.  Never, ever question again, and something’s wrong with you if you do.”

If that were the case, we would have to either ignore huge sections of scripture, many of Psalms, for example, where people are in pain and filled with struggle and questions and wondering where God is.  We either have to ignore those scriptures, or else write all those voices in scripture off as doubting Thomas voices, too.

That mix of faith and unfaith, trust and lack of trust, belief and unbelief is often how it is for the people of God.  The desperate, grieving father in the Gospel of Mark is a kindred spirit to Thomas when he cries out to Jesus, “I believe!  Help my unbelief!”  It’s not either or, either you’ve got your spiritual act together, or you don’t.  It’s both and.  It’s a continuum, it’s a spectrum between unfaith and faith, sometimes we’re closer to one end or the other.  Jesus invites us towards faith, and he doesn’t scold when we struggle in the middle.

As I looked at a number of paintings of the scene between Jesus and Thomas, I saw several that do a better job of interpreting the story.  They show Jesus with his arms out open, inviting.  He looks warm and welcoming. They look warm and welcoming.  And one artist even shows Jesus wrapping Thomas in his arms.  Jesus’ wounded hands are resting on Thomas.

Jesus is gracious and reassuring to Thomas and his kindred, but sometimes Christians are not.  They are less than gracious when they or someone else is having a struggle of the soul.  (more…)

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Did you notice the tiny church at the beginning of the Dodge Ram Super Bowl commercial about farmers?  The building is a chapel, really, and it has a picket fence around it.   The church is what you see as Paul Harvey begins to intone, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.”

I wonder whether a small congregation still gathers there, and who the rural community is that this congregation supports and cares for. Later in the commercial there’s another image of a farmer at prayer inside the plain, wood-paneled sanctuary of a small church.  And towards the end we see a farm family praying together before a meal

I wonder how many viewers noticed these images, and whether they stirred memories of a once loved little church in the wildwood.  Perhaps they thought momentarily of a church that they have left behind.  I wonder how many noticed and thought, as I did, of a small congregation that they love very much now.

It struck me that many of the qualities that Paul Harvey celebrates in farmers are also much in evidence in strong small churches: dedication, faithfulness, humility, tenderness, tenacity, perseverance even through pain, commitment to the community, and the ability to be creative and make do with what you have.  You can read the whole text of his speech, including several sentences that the commercial leaves out, here.

Harvey’s refrain, “So God made a farmer” is going around in my head as, “So God made a small church.”  I don’t in any way want to denigrate large churches.  God made them, too, and God is accomplishing much through them.  But I am focusing on the wonders God can do in small communities of people who trust him.  I am imagining an array of images of life in small faith communities, with a voice speaking words like these over them:

And God said, “I need a community of people who are so committed to one another that it is a sacred covenant.  They know each other deeply and love each other anyway.  Old and young and in-between interact regularly and naturally across generations.  Out of love, they sing songs and eat foods and do activities that an older or younger generation likes, even if it’s not their own favorite.”  So God made a small church.

And God said, “I’m looking for people who will get up in the middle of the night, get dressed and go to the aid of a member who lives alone and who is suddenly ill, people who will be family to each other, kin by love even if they’re not kin by blood.  I need people committed to prayer, people who will faithfully pray for decade after decade for the same people and the same problems, and who will pray and send cards to others that they don’t even know who are hurting.  I’m looking for people who can quickly and nimbly form teams to respond concretely to needs.  People who agree to disagree, and who stick together even though they hold very different viewpoints on difficult issues, who vote blue and red on Tuesday and worship together on Sunday.”  So God made a small church.

And God said, “I need people who are ready at all times to care for whatever children show up at church, ready with Bible stories, ready to take wee ones to the nursery. People who will put children’s Bibles, soft toys and art supplies in the pews, and who are ready to become spiritual grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles and cousins to other people’s children. People who will go sports events and school events to support other children they’re trying to befriend and reach.  And when all these children grow up, wherever they go they will know their cloud of witnesses is surrounding them with love and prayer.”    So God made a small church.

And God said, “I need people who will welcome and appreciate a soloist’s song, even if it’s not perfect, and invite children and youth to serve alongside adults and welcome their input.  I want to create a community where people who don’t fit in elsewhere in the world can fit in, where a young person with developmental disabilities can regularly serve as an usher, hand out bulletins and take up the collection.”  So God made a small church.

And God said, “I need people who know that neither personal life nor congregational life consists in the abundance of possessions—and they live that way, with simplicity.  I’m looking for people who don’t need large, expensive facilities and costly materials to nurture faith, who mentor one another in faith through caring relationships, creative people who can do Christian education on a shoestring.  I’m going to call together a community that will put their trust in me instead of in their numbers and bank accounts and personal strengths.”  So God made a small church.

You get the idea.

Friends, such small churches already exist, and always have since Jesus first called a few folks together.   And as we seek to reach others with the gospel, more small churches like this will be born, and they can thrive.

And guess what.  Small churches like these can even exist inside large churches!

Click here to read “Yes, God certainly did make farmers,” another post I wrote in response to this commercial.

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