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    Can Kingdom People from All 50 States Pitch In and Help a Church in Rural Texas? Let’s Find Out.

    St. Paul United Church of Christ - Marlin, TX

    This past weekend the Waco Tribune-Herald published a feature explaining the current dilemma faced by St. Paul United Church of Christ in Marlin, Texas.

    St. Paul’s building is 97 years old and the foundation of the structure is in jeopardy. The congregation is made up of senior adults, some who have been members their whole life long. On an average Sunday 10 to 15 people gather for worship. Their pastor, Ludy Manthei, drives from Bryan to be with them. He is 70 years old. They need $300,000 to renovate a lower wall that is in danger of failing and bringing the structure down with it.

    St. Paul is located on FM 2307, off Highway 6 and in between the communities of Riesel and Marlin. I have driven by, though that was years ago. The church has been photographed and featured in a couple of books (here and here). The structure is also listed in the register of the Texas Historical Commission.

    I read the article above in the Trib on Sunday morning. By the time I was through I had resolved to send a gift, and I asked my Sunday school class to pray for this congregation. Sure, St. Paul is a rural congregation. It is small. The Trib describes their fundraising task as “daunting.” But is anything impossible for God?

    While exercising this morning I had this thought: if I shared this story with my friends, how many states would be represented if those I had encountered through the years decided to join me in sending a gift of any amount to this small congregation in rural Texas? I have an acquaintance in Alaska, friends in Kansas, a pastor friend in Alabama, an artist in Tennessee, some buddies living in Missouri. An old neighbor of mine lives in Denver. I have relatives in Georgia. A guy who lived on my hall in seminary works in D. C. Beyond my direct connections, I am sure that those people know people, or have friends, in other states.

    Sure, this idea is whimsical, maybe even a little goofy. But that’s me.

    Who knows? Maybe if we partnered together, did something a little out of the ordinary, a tad generous, the result might be surprising and wonderful and joyous. Plain fun.

    So here is the deal. If you want to join me in blessing this congregation, with no strings attached, write a note, enclose a gift, stick it in your mailbox, raise the flag and smile. Say a prayer, too. I don’t care if you stick a George Washington in an envelope with a sticky note on it that says, “building” and “the kingdom of God is big.” Maybe you are someone of extraordinary means and you want to reach out to the church to fund a piece of history. Either way, do good and grin big.

    My letter goes in the mail today and is addressed to St. Paul United Church of Christ, FM 2307, Marlin, Texas 76661.

    If you plan to join in on the fun leave a comment and let me know what state you live in. I will keep track.

    And feel free to share the idea with friends and family.

    This little congregation has been bearing the light of Christ in rural America. They need help in preserving their gathering place. Who knows what God might do with them yet?

    Finding out could be fun.


    Guides and Companions

    A Christian’s need for personal spiritual direction cannot be delegated to books or tapes or videos. The very nature of the life of faith requires the personal and the immediate. If we are going to mature we need not only the wisdom of truth, but someone to understand us in relation to this truth.

    - Eugene Peterson, "On Spiritual Direction"

    For a three year period while serving in ministry I met monthly with a spiritual director. Martha is a faithful Christian, a Presbyterian, enjoys gardening, radiates joy, and is a person of prayer. Martha listened to my story and helped me to pay attention to where God was at work. Her ministry was a gift to me.

    I know many people who are following Jesus. They listen to sermons, take part in a Sunday School class or a midweek study, read their Bible, and pray. The most crucial concern for Christians, however, is not how much knowledge we accrue or how many practices we take up as a matter of convention, but instead the overall health and maturation of the soul. These things can help, and skilled teachers and preachers can inspire us from afar. But as my teacher Howard Hendricks observed, "You can impress from a distance, but you can only impact up close."

    What our lives often lack are guides who can speak to us concerning our inner life and do so in a personal way. We lack those who will help us face ourselves and ask if our actions align with our held convictions. We are masters of self deception, and without an outside observer who listens and tends and prays alongside us, a person with whom we can be vulnerable and who assists us in remaining accountable to God, we will often choose to serve the gods of our own making rather than the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

    Good guides always know where they are heading, and they also know those they are leading. A good guide knows the destination and discerns exactly what is required to deliver those in their company safely to the end of their journey. Good guides are familiar with the terrain and carefully observe those who traverse it with them, seeking to help along the way. They know when to rest, when to push, when to lend a hand, and when to change course. Good guides also know the names and faces of those in their company, and as they travel together, they learn something of their story, abilities, temperament, dreams, struggles, fears, and hopes. They are able to apprehend the context of their companions, and are thus better able to help.

    With Martha, I was better able to see and discern where I stood on the path. I was also able to see and understand that the path of discipleship, of following Jesus, is not only meant to be perceived and comprehended, but is foremost meant to be walked.

    We all do well when we have such guides.


    The Ascension and the Defeat of Shame

    One of the central ideas within Christianity is that of forgiveness. Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and exhort disciples of Jesus to “forgive as they have been forgiven.” But it is not uncommon to encounter those within a congregation who cannot embrace the forgiveness that has been offered to them, or experience guilt because of their inability to forgive those who have wronged them.

    This is most often so because of the belief that our forgiveness is contingent upon our acceptance of forgiveness, or that an offer of forgiveness hinges on our ability to forgive.

    I am not denying that our acceptance of forgiveness lacks importance, nor that forgiveness is a responsibility and command that Christians should obey. But I am arguing that forgiveness received and granted are acts of faith given in response to the action of God accomplished in and through Jesus Christ. In forgiveness, the emphasis should first be upon what God has done. What we do then naturally follows.

    When we do not forgive as we ought, or when we fall prey to the belief that we are not worthy of forgiveness, we do well to consider Jesus. We consider his action upon the cross, where sin and death was put to death. We think of his great love for us, but also for all of humanity. We consider what he has done, and then find the grace we need to act.

    But we also do well to consider the ascension. On the third day, God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Our redemption was accomplished on Good Friday and established on Easter Sunday. And even now Jesus reigns.

    In The Face of Forgiveness, Philip D. Jamieson writes:

    The resurrected face of Jesus reveals the finality of God’s victory over sin and death. The empty tomb reveals that there is no return to the downturned face. The Father has lifted Christ’s face and we are now called to look to him. He is no mere example of a good man. He is the living Lord who has overcome all things that would harm us. His is the face that would not look away, even on Friday, and now we know on Sunday that we never will stop looking.

    A verse:

    Our guilt and shame no longer rule,
    We need not look away.
    His face of grace beholds us.
    Emboldened by atoning love, his truth it now enfolds us.
    Dying, rising, reigning now,
    It is Thee, Thou art the way.


    Distracted From What?

    Andrew Sullivan's "My Distraction Sickness--and Yours" has been widely noted this week on social media, though I haven't seen an abundance of comments. The most frequent response I have seen is an amen. The essay is lengthy and worth the time and attention it requires. Read it in one sitting, with no breaks for checking Facebook. Sullivan examines the consequences of life "in the internet," which includes the prospect of losing one's soul. (I think Sullivan means that metaphorically; I do not.)

    In one notable passage Sullivan turns his attention to churches. He has keenly observed that Christian communities have been eager adopters of the various forms of technology that have fueled our constant state of distraction. I would add that evangelical communities, because of their commitments to evangelism and outreach, are representative poster children. Pragmatic concerns have driven decision making in evangelical communities rather than sustained and principled conviction, particularly regarding technology, and the tools have remade the user in their own image. Sullivan says churches would have been better off by remaining committed to quiet places, silence, and contemplative prayer. He writes:

    If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

    I agree, if only in part. I am one of the web-weary and digitally frazzled, and I have worked with those who are either fragmented because of their technological addictions or who are well on their way. I do think silence, meditation, and prayer are curative. But the effects of those practices must manifest themselves in the lives of disciples of Jesus. We need souls that are quiet and still, not just church buildings or meditative liturgies.

    We do have a distraction problem, and Sullivan is right to say that our souls suffer. But if we are distracted, we must answer from what, and the corrective must be both practical and curative. It must be restorative for the soul, not as metaphorical construct or literary referent for a scientific understanding of the self, but as a spiritual reality, classically understood. Christians have a robust theological tradition that suggests the self is willfully distracted from God because of sin, and therefore modern technology is only the latest avenue by which our hearts and minds are so easily seduced. Stated differently, this is an old problem in new packaging. Thankfully, there is an old solution that can be freshly applied: renewed attention to God that is passionate, thoughtful, and sustained. In Jesus, we find rest for our souls.

    Some might dismiss that as platitudinous and simplistic. I do not mean it that way. I understand that abstaining from social media, implementing wise practices in order to be present with friends and family, and giving time and focus to prayer, Bible reading, or Christian fellowship requires discipline. The present distractions are not small and seldom, they are immense and pervasive. To acknowledge they exist, however, is a turning point and a beginning, just as repentance is both a first and an ongoing step on the path of discipleship.


    The Church and the Collective Yes

    Is Jesus Lord, or are the forces of advanced modernity lord? The church that cannot say no to all that contradicts its Lord is a church that is well down the road to cultural defeat and captivity. But the courage to say no has to be followed by an equally clear, courageous and constructive yes--to the Lord himself, to his gospel and his vision of life, humanity and the future, so that Christians can be seen to live differently and to live better in the world of today.

    - Os Guinness, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization

    The claim that Christianity in Western civilization faces numerous challenges is uncontroversial, though the ways in which people respond to those challenges are broadly diverse. One option is retreat, the preference of some fundamentalists, who are too often content to create isolated subcommunities of doctrinal and moral purity that fervently condemn those on the outside. Another option is syncretism and assimilation, outcomes which are never embraced or intended outright, but reach fruition over time as Christian communities slowly accommodate themselves to the dominant cultural narratives, a reality that is all too often seen among milquetoast “mainline” Christian denominations. A third response is quietism, a way forward typified by withdrawal from public discourse that may be accompanied by dedication to private piety, but leaves the concerns of the present age largely untouched.

    I have immense respect for the work of Os Guinness. I have read his books and once heard him deliver a lecture while I was a student at The University of Kansas. Guinness works diligently to present orthodox Christian convictions in light of the foremost challenges (some will say threats) of our times, and to do so with a charity and winsomeness that is seldom found within evangelicalism. He also does his best to explain the causes of these challenges, whether they be political, philosophical, social, or theological, and to urge the church toward a steadfast faithfulness to the gospel.

    But the question that remains is that of how. It is one thing to tell people to be faithful, grow in knowledge of the Scriptures, and to pray fervently. Reminding Christian people of their calling to conduct their work to God’s glory or to engage in public discourse is a noble admonition. But what to say, and how to say it, and who to partner with are the practical considerations that most often go unanswered. That is not always their responsibility. The church must heed the voices of her prophets, and turn to the Lord for answers.

    Answers begin to emerge, in part, through local associations. For Christians, this is the church. Or, in any given community, the ecumenical efforts of the body of Christ who are connected within the business or professional communities. Intellectual theorists and academics serve the church well when they help Christians assess their moment, lend understanding, and offer prescriptions. But it is all talk until those prescriptions are field tested, either through action or in prayerful conversation.

    Individuals are not powerless. All of us can live according to Christian convictions. Private prayer is a powerful act. But our best "courageous and constructive yes" to our Lord Jesus Christ is a yes alongside others within Christian fellowship. Together we are better equipped to live according to the commands given by Jesus himself, and to embody his vision in this age and in preparation for the age to come. The church, to the degree we are faithful, also provides a more powerful and compelling no to the ways of the world. It is one thing for the world to be faced with a faithful individual, it is yet another to be confronted by a faithful community. To paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, the church’s first task is to be the church, thereby making clear that the world is, in fact, the world.

    Challenges will not dissipate entirely and suffering may come. Jesus was plain on that point. But Jesus remains Lord. Take courage. Fear not.