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Wednesday
Jun212017

What Is a Church Anyway?

Common sense tells you that you can’t know where you’re going until you find out where you are.  In terms of church concepts, a lot of people don’t have a clue where they are.  Can we get down to brass tacks? Let’s start slow.

 

  • A church is a group of people.
  • A church is a group of people who have common backgrounds.
  • A church is a group of people who think alike.
  • A church is a group of people who are similar in lifestyle.
  • A church is a group of people who meet once a week.
  • A church is a group of people who share life experiences.
  • A church is a group of people who live and grow together.

We’re not really getting anywhere with this line of thinking.  We might as well be describing a lodge or club.  Let’s try another way.

  • A church is a group of people who have the same political goals.
  • A church is a group of people who are comfortable with each other.
  • A church is a group of people who accept each other as they are.
  • A church is a group of people who celebrate diversity.
  • A church is place where it is okay to not be okay.

What do we have here?  This is more like an exercise in social experimentation than the church of the living God.  Let’s keep going.

  • A church is a safe place to associate with others.
  • A church is where people are taught good morals.
  • A church is a group of people who believe in God.
  • A church is a group of people who choose a pastor to direct them.
  • A church is a group of people who hire a pastor to look after them.
  • A church is a group of people who commit to each other mutual care and support.
  • A church is a place where people come to get uplifted and encouraged.
  • A church is a place where people hear a positive message for living their lives.
  • A church is a place where membership enhances your social status.

Closer, but we’re not there yet.  These are side benefits of the church, but it is so much more.

  • A church is a group of people who are followers of Jesus Christ.
  • A church is a group of people who believe in the Bible and practice its teachings.
  • A church is a group of people who have a dynamic experience with the Spirit of God.
  • A church is a place where people come alive in worship, praise and prayer.
  • A church is a place where signs, wonders and miracles take place.
  • A church is an exciting place where people’s lives are changed.
  • A church is a place where addictions are broken and people are delivered from bondage.

Yes … but, not quite.  At least we’re getting to the heart of the matter.  The problem is, churches that reach this state often settle here and plateau.  Instead of moving forward, they become satisfied.  They believe that they have arrived at the ultimate purpose.  But danger awaits churches that linger here.

  • They turn inward and emphasize meeting their own needs first.
  • They demand personal pastoral care that taxes their pastor’s time.
  • They begin to solidify their positions in the group.
  • They seek to perpetuate and defend their power.
  • They get overly interested in land, buildings and influence in the community.
  • They try to professionalize their operation and conform to secular definitions of church.
  • They obsess on worshipping their worship, mutual-admiration and entertaining themselves.
  • They lose their motivation to grow and reach out to the unchurched.

So, what is a church?

A church is an ecclesia, a “called-out” people.  What is it called out to do?

A church is a group of people called out by God to carry on the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.  It holds a deep and conscious conviction that it must spread the gospel, make disciples and reproduce itself over and over.  The true definition of a church lies not only in what it is, but what it does. “For God so loved the world …” The church of Jesus Christ understands that love that has no object is not love.  Love is not a thing to be studied, but a principle to be practiced.

Neil Cole says, “We must plant the seed of the gospel of the Kingdom and the fruit that will grow will be changed lives living out their faith together, and that’s exactly what we mean by “church.”  The true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but more apple trees. Within the fruit is found the seed of the next generation. Christ in us is the seed of the next generation. The difference this seed can leave in the soil of a people group is significant. We all carry within us the seed of future generations of the church. We are to take that seed and plant it in the soil of every people group under the authority of our King.

The difference this seed can leave in the soil of a people group is significant. If we put Christ and His kingdom first, we leave behind agents under submission to the reign of their King.” (cmaresources.org).

Mainline churches are dying.  Mega-churches are more collectors of disgruntled Christians than soul-saving stations.  Modern trends lean more toward introspection than outward evangelism.  Somebody desperately needs to light a fire—or more like ignite a volcanic explosion!—in order to impact an increasingly unchurched world.  How much longer can we wait?

Go.  Preach.  Disciple. Plant. Work while it is day, for the night is coming when no one can work!

Wednesday
Jun072017

Why Trajexion?

 

 

Are you tired of living in the reality gap?  Where you are today is probably not where you want to be tomorrow.  And tomorrow seems farther away from today than it has ever been.  It’s called the reality gap.  You would like to get out of it if you just knew how.  The Trajexion Conference can get you started.  Let’s talk. 

God has placed today’s church in the middle of a chaotic environment.  Many of us are going crazy figuring out what’s happening.  We’re not sure how to effectively evangelize the world, we are uncomfortable with relating to new generations, and we stumble over the present trying to keep our past relevant.  Statistics tell us that we’re not doing a good job at any of it.  Giving up is not an option, but taking the next step involves pain.  The truth will set you free, but it will probably hurt you first!  Brace yourself for a candid look at our attempts, our conventions, and ourselves. 

Given the present pace of evangelism, we are not only years behind, but catching up may soon be out of reach.  The number of souls we touch, compared to the number of souls now live on the planet—a number increasing exponentially with the current population trends—means that our methods are almost totally ineffective.  We’re stuck in the gap.  Obviously, if we continue in what we are doing, we will never get where we want to go.  Either we adjust our goals to account for factors beyond our control, or we resign ourselves to failure.  In terms of people and dollars, we’re hardly scratching the surface.  Can we solve our problem by simply pushing for greater sacrifice, greater giving, and greater efforts to take the gospel to the whole world?  Or, should we make major, even radical changes in our methods to match our efforts to our rhetoric?  

The Vision Gap.  Spiritual, financial and logistical obstacles stand in our way, but other barriers prevent us from reaching a worldwide level of evangelization as well.  The greatest obstacle—the proverbial elephant in the room—is stubbornly clinging to a vision that no longer squares with reality.  Pastors and churches need to analyze the gap between what they want to do and what they’re really doing.  When the vision target moves, the method of alignment—the aiming mechanics—must move with it.  Our problems are not peripheral, but systemic. 

The Demographic Gap.  The church faces major demographic changes in ethnicity and rural/urban challenges of the new millennium.   The Pew Research Center says, “Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration. American attitudes about immigration and diversity are supportive of these changes for the most part. More Americans say immigrants strengthen the country than say they burden it, and most say the U.S.’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live.  (www.pewresearch.org).

Pew Research also projects other demographic changes that will continue to impact American culture.

  • Asia has replaced Latin America as the biggest source of new immigrants to the USA.
  • America’s demographic changes are shifting the electorate—and American politics.
  • Millennials, or those born after 1980, are the new generation to watch.
  • Women’s role in the labor force and politics has grown dramatically.
  • The American family is changing.
  • The share of Americans who live in middle class households is shrinking.
  • The U. S. population of Christians is declining and adults not involved in any religion is growing.
  • The world’s religious makeup will look a lot different by 2050.
  • The world is aging.

The Generation Gap.  The laser speed of technological change has driven a deep wedge between people of certain ages.  Change from the printing press to the automobile spread out over 500 years, but from the moon landing to the present took less than fifty.  Experts project the next fifty years will make the society of 2067 almost unrecognizable.  These innovations have already radically impacted present generations as witnessed in the rise of the Millennial Generation and Generation Z.  The traits of these emerging age groups make present methods of evangelism as useless as butter churns or potbelly stoves.

The Socioeconomic Gap.   Education levels and two-income households have brought about fundamental shifts in our culture.  The sexual revolution, the composition of the average family, the immigration explosion, the growth of entitlements, the illegal drug epidemic and many other changes challenge every facet of the church’s mission in the world.  We need to rip up the strategies of the past and start over.

So, why Trajexion?  It should be clear that we need to move on from outdated strategies and address new and residual barriers to growth.  No one person has the answer, but together, with the help of God, we can find our way forward.  Church congregations need to be strengthened.  New congregations need to be planted.  Fresh vision needs to be cast.  Rhetoric won’t work.  Dreaming leads nowhere.  We have to actually do something.  That’s why.   

Friday
May192017

No Blog This Month

                (I wrote this bit of inanity while I was still on the job, but decided against uploading it because it might have been taken the wrong way.  There is such a thing as being too transparent!  Anyway, here it is.  Read it and weep.)

                Please forgive me, but I have decided not to write a blog this month.  I fully intended to write one, but several things happened that discouraged me.  I started to think about why it just wouldn’t work out.  The more I thought about it, the more I entertained the notion that I may not write next month either.

                First, I read over my job description.  Nowhere did I find that the District Superintendent has to write an article each month for the district newspaper.  If I preside over district conferences and board meetings, sign annual fellowship cards and represent the district at General Board meetings, I’ve basically fulfilled all the obligations of the office.  Beyond those requirements, I’m supposed to look after the goings-on in the district; you know…things like mediating disputes, appointing committees, giving permission for this and that, and a few other insignificant official actions.  But I don’t think I was elected to agonize over a blank sheet of paper (or a blinking cursor on a computer screen) and fill it up with words.  I’ll admit that sometimes I enjoy writing, especially when I have something on my mind that I really want to say, but other times it is just a huge chore.  I just figured that this month I would exercise my rights and refuse to blog.

                Then, there is the time factor.  Despite popular opinion, I do not have more than the same twenty-four hours in a day that others have.  Sometimes, I just get inundated with stuff I have to take care of, and my time for peripheral do-gooder jobs flies out the window.  Some might wonder if fishing trips, time-shares and championship courses distract me, but that’s definitely not the case.  It’s the work of the ministry, organizational duties, church administration and fulfilling family obligations that swallow up time in huge gulps.  Just when I think that I have an hour or so cleared out to write, the phone rings, the doorbell clangs, or “You’ve got mail” speaks to me from my artificial intelligence apparatus.  One phone call can rearrange an entire week.  I don’t know why I’m telling this to you.  You know all about busy schedules and unforeseen interruptions.  That’s why you understand perfectly why I can’t blog.

                More on the time thing.  Even when a sufficient amount of time becomes available to compose a piece, I have to decide on the judicious use of that time.  Wouldn’t I be better off by doing something more beneficial to me and what I’m doing in my place of ministry?  Can I honestly say that secluding myself in my office turning phrases and checking synonyms rises higher in the priority list than studying, teaching, counseling, planning and all the other ministerial tasks?  Or, shouldn’t I be out there mowing the lawn, getting the tires balanced and rotated and doing all the other necessary appointments in life?  Blogging seems to be far less important when I weigh it against everything else. 

                But, there are other reasons.  Writing is hard.  Ideas are scarce (good ones, that is).  Things that I would sometimes like to write about have to be edited out in the interests of diplomacy.  Who reads this stuff, anyway?  What difference would it make if I didn’t do this?  Critics don’t need me to entertain them.  Thousands of alternative blogs appear in websites, magazines and newsletters.  The crisis I’m writing about this month will be forgotten by the time this circulates, making me seem behind the times.  And I never know when I’m going to write something dumb and will feel embarrassed when I see it on screen or when I have to eat my words. 

                You may think that I’m letting everybody down.  I’ve thought about that, too.  It’s risky, but I’ll go ahead and say it:  Get over it.  Most of us are adults here.  We all know a lot of people who just don’t do what everyone else expects them to do.  They don’t need a reason.  They’d be insulted if you asked them why they didn’t do something, or why they didn’t attend a particular meeting or why they didn’t support a certain cause.  What do we do about it?  Nothing.  We shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well.”  People disappoint people all the time and life goes on.  You don’t actually believe that other people’s agendas ought to rule your life, do you?  Of course not.  One man’s mandate is another man’s option.  I’ve got to be responsible for my own personal, individual vision.  If that vision doesn’t include writing a column, so be it.  Organization should never become a noose around one’s neck, should it?  

                Yes, I think I’ll wait until I have something really powerful to say before I churn out another blog, or at least until something strikes me as novel and fun to write about.   For the time being, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  I won’t be blogging this month.  For those of you who really need to read a blog, there are plenty of other chumps out there to choose from. (sorry—I should have said “from whom you may choose.”  See what I mean?) Also, there’s always the opportunity for you to sit down and write your own blog.  Think about it.  Thank you for your understanding.

Sunday
May072017

Closing a Chapter

This past week, I concluded twenty-two years of service as the Ohio District Superintendent.  Our UPCI manual states that an elected official can serve for eight years if he receives a simple majority of the vote, but after that he must get a two-thirds majority to be returned to office.  That happened every election cycle from 2003 to 2015, an incredible gesture on the part of the district voting constituency for which I always felt greatly honored.  Now, in 2017, we have elected a new leader who will, I’m positive, do a superb job in taking the district to an ever-brighter future.

Some have asked me how I felt about the change.  I suppose many people assume that an official who is not re-elected feels disappointed or even rejected. I want to allay all fears.  I feel as upbeat and sure about my status as I have ever felt.  I certainly bear no hurt, nor do I plan to go through a grueling analysis of how and why it all happened.  Such an exercise is futile and counter-productive. A boy never resents losing his baby teeth or experiencing the change in his voice from tenor to bass.  Why, then, should I resent going through the later stages of life?  The dynamics of a new day bring with it new challenges, and so new minds, new methods and new tools become necessary to meet them.

Change is inevitable.  I remind all those who despise change to beware.  You do yourself a huge disservice by attaching your anchor to a fleeting stage of life. That stage will dissipate quicker than you could imagine.  I know.  I was once an evangelist.  Then I became a student pastor.  After that, I was an assistant pastor, then a district youth president, then a senior pastor.  In 1995, I became a district superintendent.  None of those positions, however, defined me as a person.  Even when I was superintendent, that was not really who I was.  I did the work of a district superintendent, but the position did not define me.  The definition of my identity has always been a servant of Jesus Christ.  Positions come and go, jobs and tasks change, and the roles you play in life differ according to your age and circumstances.  All of them determine how you behave, but none of them determine your true identity.

Think about it.  If your life consists of a specific role you play, then whenever that role is terminated, you may as well shrivel up and die.  It’s over.  You have no value, no worth, no future beyond that point.  For me, that will not happen.  My identity transcends any particular assignment or position.  Moreover, if I live by the honor and accolades I receive from others, my life only lasts as long as those accolades keep coming.  The Apostle Paul affirmed that his life’s purpose was only to please God.  Everything else was irrelevant to that goal.  

To close a chapter does not mean to close the book.  A chapter in a book only serves to develop the plot and carry the story through to the next phase.  Of course, something profound and earthshaking may have transpired in that chapter.  Something critical to the story may have been revealed.  A chapter, however, does not a book make!  The plot marches on, inexorably, to the end.  In fact, there may be a twist in the final pages of the book that makes everything else make sense.  A relationship, an unexpected revelation, a beam of light cast upon a much earlier chapter may pull everything together.  

I close this chapter.  I enjoyed it.  I am different, perhaps better in some ways.  I have beautiful memories and rewarding relationships that developed as it happened.  But, who is to say that the next chapter will be less important or less rewarding?  I wait with bated breath on what the future holds.  I love my district and the wonderful people here.  Those things will never change.  I thank each person who made a contribution to my life during that time. 

As the poet, Robert Frost, wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”  

 

 

Wednesday
May032017

Your Relation Relationship: Jesus as Family

(This is the final segment of the chapter on “Your Relation Relationship” in the book “Hand in Hand: Deepening Your Relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Target date for release is July 1, 2017.)

Training and Nurturing 

First-time parents quickly find out that parenting is hard work.  This epiphany goes way beyond feeding, changing diapers or caring for a colicky kid.  Those are the easy aspects of the job.  Dealing with strong wills, rebellious attitudes, mood swings and impulsive behavior drive many parents to distraction.   These tribulations convince many parents that they are failing in their assignments, but, usually things turn out good when the child becomes an adult.   

The classic scripture for parenting is found in Proverbs 22:6. Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.   The wise man’s admonition sets the parameters for child-rearing.  “The way he should go” must not stem from the whim or fancy of a parent.  It must be solidly based on scriptural principles that have stood the test of time.  As parents maintain a strong relationship with Christ, they will develop parenting skills that work.  From the infant stage to school-age, the mother and/or father provide the primary influence in a child’s life.  While training and nurturing may be difficult, neglecting a child results in far greater pain when he or she grows up.  Four important actions need to be analyzed.  

Nurturing:  Negotiating the stages of early childhood successfully requires sensitive, nurturing care that build capacities for trust, empathy, and compassion.  Experts in early childhood tell us that supportive, warm, nurturing emotional interactions with infants and young children are vital to the appropriate growth of the central nervous system. When babies hear the human voice, for example, they learn to distinguish sounds and develop language. Watching adults gesture and make facial expressions help babies learn to perceive and respond to emotional cues and form a sense of self.

Teaching: Non-academic teaching operates in a different context than the school environment. At home, parents do not enjoy formal positional leverage. Instead, they must impart knowledge or skills that children either lack or do not know how to use.  Children only learn when they are convinced that the parent knows what he or she is teaching. The lazy, unfocused parent who presumes on “because I said so” authority will fail.  Also, remember that teaching is more than a process; it must involve right content.  What you teach is more important than how you teach.   

Coaching: Parents need to wear the coaches’ hat.  All coaching involves teaching, but the main job for coaches is to motivate players. Coaches must get closer to the human side of those with whom they work in order to effectively guide them to the highest levels of capability. Coaches work to correct errors in performance, or they see lapses in effort and inspire players to generate more intensity. Coaches get a feel for bad attitudes and target them for change. These observations require empathy, sensitivity and understanding. They also demand an inner strength that overcomes players’ natural resistance to conform. Probably, the most rewarding and enjoyable aspect of parenting is coaching.  

Training:  Parents who dedicate themselves to training stand to gain the most mileage from their efforts. It takes a huge amount of dedication, because few proactive tasks of parenting demand more work, cause more grief or catch more flak than training.  As trainers, parents hear all the bitter complaints. They get up early, put in long hours and go to bed exhausted. It is hard to make children do what they don’t want to do, or talk them into painful exercises and deprive them of fun.  Trainers, however. understand the exponential gains that rigorous training eventually yields. Tough, and sometimes mean and unsympathetic, the parent/trainer exchanges the pleasures of the moment for the joys of a lifetime.  

Without these elements, parenting fails. But, when mothers and fathers learn how to nurture, teach, coach and train, they help their children live better lives.   

Dysfunctionalism and Abuse 

The traditional family system consists of mother, father and children working together in a secure, functioning environment, with well-understood roles, responsibilities and boundaries, all experiencing the bond of deep love and care for each other.  Traditions, expectations, morals, beliefs, customs and actual differential behaviors impact the family in many ways.  A dysfunctional family results from the loss or distortion of one or more of these elements.  When this happens, the working order of the family not only breaks down, individual members may suffer profound personal disorders. 

The dysfunctional family typically exhibits the following traits:  Continual conflict, abusive actions accepted as normal, family heads under-function, minimal boundaries and guidance, neglected children fend for themselves, minimal training, inconsistent and inappropriate behavior (cursing, violence, disrespect).  Family members most likely have deep, personal unresolved problems.  These dysfunctions exist because the family spends little or no quality time together and there is little or no interest in the lives of other family members.  The problems are further exacerbated by high demand but low yield, high levels of stress and tension, extreme negativity and hostility, the problem/symptom cycle continues without resolution, no meaningful communication, and roles by significant people are inappropriately vacated or reversed.  One woman who was raised in a dysfunctional family said, “You know that you are in a dysfunctional family if you know that you cannot talk to your parents about how you feel without fearing that your feelings will be laughed at, or will bring you more emotional and/or physical harm rather than a rational, listening, and loving heart.” 

Perhaps the most disturbing profile of dysfunctional families is the widespread incidence of child abuse.  All of us have heard heartbreaking reports of abuse, mistreatment, child endangerment and death of children in our own communities, even among safe or upscale neighborhoods.   

 “Child maltreatment can cause serious physical injuries and even death. Children who are abused or neglected, including those who witness domestic violence, also are more likely to experience cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, delinquency, difficulty in school, and early sexual activity. In addition, child maltreatment can disrupt brain and physical development, particularly when experienced in early childhood, increasing the risk for health problems in adulthood, e.g., heart disease, cancer, obesity, depression, and suicide, among others. Children who are abused or neglected also are more likely to repeat the cycle of violence by entering into violent relationships as teens and adults or by abusing their own children.”  www.kidsdata.org. 

When mothers and/or fathers fail to form healthy relationships between themselves and other family members, they breed frustration and anger, which, in turn, find outlets in abusive behavior.  Sometimes, parents cover up their extreme actions by claiming to exercise discipline, but the underlying cause is their own personal problems.  Discipline is never something a parent does to a child; it must be what a parent does for a child.      

Developmental Psychologists, Bianca Mgbemere and Rachel Telles say that there are four general types of parents: 1) Permissive, 2) Neglectful, 3) Authoritarian, and 4) Authoritative.  Of the four types, they posit that the neglectful parent is the most harmful because of the disinterest that he or she exhibits toward the child.  Coming in a close second is the authoritarian parent who is long on discipline but short on love.  (myvanderbilt.edu).  

Of course, the Bible does allow for strict discipline and even corporeal punishment. But, Christian parents must realize that love and wisdom regulate discipline, and that no disciplinary action should induce suffering of any kind.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Colossians 3:21. This scripture in the New International Version reads, “Fathers, do not embitter your children …”  Unless the Holy Spirit governs the parenting process, the human spirit can dominate and permanently scar the child.  When discipline is applied wisely and sparingly, parents avoid abusing their children.  Thus, parents must operate out of their own right relationship with Christ.     

Extended Family Obligations 

The family system involves more than the nuclear family.  The extended family includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws, and sometimes those affectionately known as “shirttail relation” (or not!)  The closer knitted that an extended family is, the more each member feels an obligation to respect and support each other.  These ties carry with them a strong sense of honor, loyalty and a spirit of kinship.  Often, a patriarch or matriarch sits atop the entire structure, using whatever influence he or she has to shape opinions, make decisions and exert control over the entire family.  Those who resist that control and chart their own course contrary to family traditions are called the “black sheep” of the family. 

With the advance of DNA technology, the interest in discovering one’s genealogical background has become increasingly popular.  People have an innate curiosity to find out where they came from, what their ethnicity is and who their relatives may be.  This quest represents a universal desire to be a part of something bigger than oneself, to attach significance to their lives that may have never been known or understood.  Some years ago, I journeyed to the Arcadia region of Greece, in the central part of the Peloponnese, to the village of Mabria, not far from Megalopolis, where my grandfather was born and raised.  He immigrated to America at the age of sixteen.  Afterwards, I wrote about my experience: 

“Like a long lost friend, my past rose from these grounds to meet me. In touching it, I was assured of the spiritual bond, the sense and substance of belongingness that defines my essence. I am a link in a chain, a part of a whole, one element that derives its meaning from the rest, and awed by a glorious synergism of people and culture.  Mabria taught me the sacredness of family. I grieve for millions today who have no linkage to history, not even to one generation before them. With no sense of the past, will they have a sense of the future? If they do not know where they came from, will they not care where they are going either?  The family is sacred, yes. All families are. But the overarching lesson is that life is spiritual. Materialism, secularism, living for self and pleasure, are all vapid and unfulfilling in the end.” www.jonathanjordan.squarespace.com 

The Bible sets the standard for togetherness for the extended family.  The Jews kept meticulous records of lineages and generations.  Each Hebrew child born knew exactly who he or she was in terms of family ties.  This practice contributed immeasurably to personal identity and an understanding of family traits.  It also engendered a sense of commitment to family members and preserved a culture of protection and value.  Each member adds value and meaning to the rest.  Stories, historical facts, traditions and even heirlooms can be handed down from one generation to another.  Also, family identity makes it much more likely that grievances can be worked out and conflicts can be resolved.  Long ago, the world concluded that history was vital to understanding ourselves and our culture.  Keeping the extended family ties alive ensures that each of us has a personal link to that history. 

Christ’s Greater Family 

Jesus did not limit his extended family to blood relatives.  He intended for the church to expand its filial horizons to the world of believers.  While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:46-50.  Christians consider the members of the body of Christ as brothers and sisters, and, accordingly, we give them the same spiritual standing in our lives as we do to those who are naturally related to us.  

This sentiment transcended further to the concept of neighbors.  In his exchange with the rich, young ruler, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  Luke 10:29-37.  

The impact of the “greater family” teaching informs the vision of the church.  We do not view the world with hostility or ill intent.  Our relationship with Jesus Christ leads us to treat everyone with love, without regard for race, gender or nationality.  We share Christ’s compassion for all lost souls, and as His ambassadors, we embrace the ministry of reconciliation.  Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. 

Monday
Apr242017

Seeing the Big Picture

“For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him?” 1 Corinthians 2:16 (KJV) 

We live in the Visual Age.  If we can’t take a picture or a video of it, it’s like it doesn’t exist or never happened.  Cell phone cameras have sent picture-taking to the stratosphere in the last few years.  Experts estimate that over one trillion photos will be taken this year, dwarfing previous records set by old technologies of Polaroid and plastic film.  New uses of pictures feature “selfies,” composite photography, and identification photos that can scan crowds of people and pick out faces.  Video clips have brought giant corporations like United Airlines and American Airlines to their knees.  It is not unusual for people to store ten to fifteen thousand pictures on their phones.  Many upload their pictures to the internet where thousands more view them.  The new phrase is “it’s gone viral!”  One still picture has been viewed more than a billion times! 

In recent years, genius minds started to speculate about what they could do with the countless images orbiting in the cyber universe.  One group programmed an internet robot to cull millions of pictures of Notre Dame cathedral from cyberspace and compiled them into an incredibly detailed rendition of the famed edifice.  No tourist or architect could photograph the whole building, but, when combined with thousands of others, the results were stunning. 

We often complain about spiritually myopic people who so are obsessed with their own lives that they can’t see the big picture.  The truth is that all of us suffer from the same condition.  Some may see a little more than others, and some may have a different perspective, but none of us can grasp the picture that God sees.   No one knows the mind of the Lord, and we surely can’t teach Him anything.  (1 Corinthians 2:16).  All of us see life through our own lens.  The zoom, wide-angle and pixel capabilities may vary from person to person, but we still operate within our personal limitations.  

So, here is the concept that every one of us must understand.  The big picture is made up of millions of little snapshots taken by people like you and me, and compiled into one overarching view.  The redeeming quality about each individual view is that when we join it with that of a brother or a sister, we inch our way closer to the big picture.  Never get discouraged by feeling that you are insignificant.  Never discount the contribution you are making to the whole.  “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.” 1 Corinthians 12:20-22 (NKJV).  An independent, arrogant spirit not only exalts self, but it also minimizes the work that others do.  It is a huge mistake to pull away from the body and become isolated.  Such people often think they see the big picture, but they only see life from a restricted view.  

All of us have seen famous pictures, like the World Trade Center on fire, or the marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, or the legendary kiss of a sailor and a nurse when we won World War II.  One picture can impact a nation or a generation.  Saint of God, Sunday School teacher, praise team member, choir member, usher, greeter, home Bible study teacher, van driver, prison chaplain, tithe-payer, custodian—whatever you do, keep snapping your individual pictures.  Leave the rating up to God.  He alone will judge where to put your picture.  Fifteen times, the Apostle Paul uses the word “salute” in the sixteenth chapter of Romans.  Most of those salutations were for people unknown to us, but they were not insignificant.  They must have been extremely valuable to the success of the early church.  One of these days, all the pictures will be compiled into one, grand picture!  The only way to be a part of the big picture is to take your own little picture.  It may register as a much bigger picture than you could have ever imagined!

Friday
Apr142017

Your Relation Relationship

(This is the next segment of the chapter on Relation Relationship in the book Hand-in-Hand: Deepening Your Relationship with Jesus Christ.)

Marriage and Divorce 

Through marriage, God created more than a utilitarian means for reproduction.  Deep and complex needs for humans—as opposed to the rest of the animal kingdom—required trust, stability, commitment and love both for the marriage partners and for their offspring.  Marriage satisfies these human needs.  At the outset, divorce was never in the picture.  Jesus said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Matthew 19:8-9. 

It is impossible to calculate the enormity of damage that today’s skyrocketing divorce rates have inflicted on marriage as an institution and the families who have suffered its ravages.  Scholars researching divorce agree that, while the participating parties may feel free and unencumbered, the effect on society has been negative overall.   

“The divorce of parents, even if it is amicable, tears apart the fundamental unit of American society. Today, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s 1995 Survey of Consumer Finance, only 42 percent of children aged 14 to 18 live in a “first marriage” family—an intact two-parent married family. It should be no surprise to find that divorce is having such profound effects on society.”  Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector, The Heritage Foundation.  www.heritage.org. 

While the FRB no longer tracks these details, nothing suggests that the trend has reversed.  In fact, current data collection differs so significantly from previous decades that some conclusions are skewed.  For example, divorce rates seem to be in decline, but this doesn’t reflect the higher number of couples who have opted out of marriage for cohabitation.  No statistics exist that show how many of those arrangments fail each year, although some say that couples who live together before marriage are fifty to eighty percent more likely to divorce.  (focusonthefamily.com).    

Modern opinions about divorce posit that people just “fall out of love,” or that they simply grow apart.  Extreme cases of battering and abuse need to be addressed, but Christians should never accept the premise that divorce is normal or inevitable.  Divorce represents a failure of basic Christian principles like love, kindness, respect and forgiveness.  Dyfunctional marriages  invariably point to dysfunctional people.  Believers who strive to improve their discipleship find ways to work through and overcome potential marriage-ending conflicts.  A strong relationship with Christ by husband and wife will manifest itself in a secure marriage.  The wise man wrote: “Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies.  The heart of her husband safely trusts her; so he will have no lack of gain.  She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.”  Proverbs 31:10-12.   

Christians view marriage as sacred.  As a decree from God and integral to their core values, they do not take any threat to their marital vows lightly.  When their relationship runs into trouble, they are willing subject themselves to a complete analysis of the breakdown.  Marriage is not separate from, but a vital part of their Christianity.  

Honor Your Parents 

Small children need their parents for sustenance, discipline and protection.  They outgrow these needs as they mature and they strive to become independent.  This transition can become problematic the closer children get to adulthood.  If it is not handled carefully, it can lead to conflict and lingering bitterness.  God knew that such feelings could destroy the family unit, so He gave this command to the nation of Israel: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12. 

The word honor has interesting connotations.  The literal meaning is “to be heavy.”  With regard to the relationship between a child and a parent, the sense is to make weighty, to consider important or to hold in high esteem. This creates a bond between the two generations that holds them together even after children become fully functioning adults without any real need to depend on their parents for the necessities of life.  This command remains in force regardless of the quality of the relationship.  Even though children do not love their parents, or their parents did not raise them with wisdom or prudence, they must still honor their mother and father for bringing them into the world and providing for their basic needs while growing up.   

Honoring one’s parents has two prongs: things one should do and things one should not do.  An adult child should show concern for parents’ welfare, especially during times of illness or weakening strength.  Communication, consultation, providing assistance when needed and staying responsive are all on the list.  By the same token, children should not abandon their parents, as it were, and virtually act as though they were ophans.  Neither should they talk disrepectfully to them or demean them in any way.  As was mentioned earlier, caring for the family name belongs to each succeeding generation.  Honoring one’s parents means to refuse to bring reproach on the reputation of the family, whether my actions or deeds.   

Finally, Tim Challies, author and blogger, points out one more way that children—especially adult children—can honor their parents:  

“We can best honor our parents by forgiving our parents. And this is actually possible, for we serve and imitate a forgiving Savior. In the Bible we see Jesus’s willingness to forgive the ones who had wounded him. In the very moment the nails were driven into his flesh, he cried out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Standing at the foot of the cross and considering such a Savior, who are we to withhold forgiveness from our parents? We honor our parents by extending grace and forgiveness to them.”  -www.challies.com 

Care for Siblings 

The relationship between brothers and sisters dominates the pages of both the scriptures and of secular literature. The protocols for this relationship lie deeply imbedded in the holy writings, in culture, in legal documents, in social customs, in family traditions and in the actual give-and-take of life situations. Love, hatred, loyalty, betrayal, treachery, devotion, fighting, tenderness—all these elements and many more characterize filial bonds. Even more, the concept of brotherhood and sisterhood transcends genetic ties and holds a general meaning for associations between people who share in the same cause or class. Yet, for all this, the dynamics of the sibling linkage remains largely mysterious. We would all add great richness to our lives if we developed a more complete understanding of what it means to be a brother or a sister. 

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9.  This is one of the intriguing stories of famous brothers and sisters of the Bible which include Cain and Abel, Jacob and his twelve brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Rachael and Leah, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, Hophni and Phineas, Absolom, Amnon and Tamar, Peter and Andrew, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and my personal favorites, Huz and Buz (Genesis 22:21 ). The Bible has certain protocols by which we are to treat brothers or family members. (Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 11; 24:10.)  

Sibling rivalry basically stems from competition for limited or scarce resources among brother and sisters. In the natural habitat, siblings usually compete for food and will fight with each other until one of them manages to kill or drive the other out. The triumphant individual wins the exclusive use of the food resources available in that area. That this is indeed the case can be seen by simply looking at most families’ photo albums. Looking through these albums, one can see that there are usually many pictures of the birth and first year of their first-born child. For the second child, there are fewer pictures. And, from the third child on, one may have a hard time finding pictures of them in the album.  It’s as if they didn’t even exist!  

The role of a sibling is much more than most of us make it. Several important factors make this obvious. A finite number people in the entire world share the same parents. Blood relationship binds brothers and sisters together beyond any bond they have with others. While marriage changes the dynamics of that relationship in many important ways, marriage doesn’t destroy genetics, loyalty to parents and shared experiences of childhood. These precious elements of closeness will never be duplicated and must not be lost.  

As they grow older, many siblings do not communicate very well with each other, beyond superficialities. “Opening up to each other” means exposure, vulnerability and revealing hidden thoughts. That can be dangerous. Siblings can be too guarded, too sensitive and too obstinate with each other. Perhaps it’s because they continue to play out the petty conflicts they had growing up. In many cases, they still compete with each other, only instead of racing or wrestling, they compete with cars, homes, possessions, bank accounts, education, etc. Some still rival each other for the attention and favor of their parents. Old jealousies, spats and attempts to irritate each other stay alive. Adults siblings should accept that those days are over and they are no longer rivals.  

Carol, my eldest sister died suddenly on March 26, 2007 . I did not know it at the time, but her loss deeply affected me. I had many things that I wanted to and should have shared with her, but I just didn’t. I blamed it on the distance or my busyness, but the fact is that I wasted all the opportunities. I filled up my time with things that were way down on the priority list. Now that Carol’s death has taken her from this life, denying the enjoyment of a living relationship with her, the lost treasure of her life seems infinitely more pronounced to me.  

Past events tend to mold and shape present relationships. Interpersonal dynamics can be shaped by many things (e.g. words, acts, attitudes). Present behavior follows templates established long ago. Siblings may instinctively put up their guard around each other for these reasons. Instead of sharing their thoughts, they suppress them because of fear, rejection or ridicule. Tragically, suppressed feelings create unnecessary pain and forfeit potential fulfillment that ought to be experienced in the familial relationship. 

Brothers and sisters who fail to express love or approval for each other cause great emotional damage. This is actually a cruel form of manipulation. Here’s how it happens: Subconsciously, one of them acts in a way that says, “You must earn my love or approval. Giving it to you, however, may make you stop doing what I want you to do. Therefore, I will never give it to you.” Withholding love and approval force a sibling to keep working for it. Withholding love and approval may lead siblings to believe they are unloved and unworthy. This can develop painful emotions and creates baggage for life. How bad can it get? Heinous crimes or suicides often result from a sense of being unloved or unworthy.  

Many brothers and sisters use physical distance between their places of residence to bury unpleasant feelings and live a relatively stress-free life. It may insulate them against further hurt, but it is just managing or coping, not resolving. We shrink our souls into small boxes that leave out much of the beauty of life. These defense mechanisms really short-change our happiness and impoverish our lives. If siblings treat each other in such a way that they can’t be open and honest with each other, or if they are superficial or silent with each other, then they have cost themselves the benefit and beauty of having a brother or a sister.

Friday
Mar312017

Your Relation Relationship: Jesus as Family

(This is the first segment of the next chapter in “Hand in Hand: Deepening Your Relationship with Jesus Christ”)

The old proverb, “blood is thicker than water,” speaks to the idea that family relationships are stronger and more important than friendships.  While there are exceptions, this view holds true in most cases.  The biological ties between persons related by blood—parent/child, sibling/sibling or extended family relationships—call for loyalty and honor that eclipses all other bonds.  Anyone who is in a serious and committed relationship with Jesus Christ will honor his or her family.   

God’s creation of Adam an Eve as a married couple, and their command to be fruitful and multiply, serves as a model for the family structure.  Out of this construct, we can discern the general purpose of the family and get an idea of how it was to operate.  Paul expounds.  Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 1 Corinthians 11:2-3.  The relationship between family members became highly significant in terms of the social order and civilization.  This order provided the basis of law, government and society. 

Family studies, of course, covers an immense field, so we must limit our scope to the effect that Jesus has on our biological family.  How does one’s relationship with Christ impinge upon his or her treatment of family?  Modern views of this basic building block of society have shaken the foundations.  Divorce, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, feminism, abortion and other radical shifts in the family structure and reproductive issues call for a reexamination of Biblical values.   Ten areas of concern deserve our scrutiny. 

Importance of Family Name 

Onomastics, or the study of names, occupies a strategic place in our understanding of history, geography and anthropology.  Origins of nations, tribes and ethnic groupings, as well as individual family trees derive from the study of names.  Today, onomastics has become a vast and complex field of study.  

“This year, more than 120 million babies will be born on earth. Those who survive will sooner or later undergo the initiation process of receiving a name. At one time anthropologists thought that some groups of people were so “primitive” and unorganized that they didn’t use names. We now know that the anthropologists were mistaken and that the idea came about because research fieldworkers were not able to get inside the minds of the people well enough to understand the customs and taboos that required that names be kept secret from strangers (Feldman). The truth is that names are a part of every culture and that they are of enormous importance both to the people who receive names and to the societies that give them.” H. Edward Deluzain. www.behindthename.com. 

Reverence for names may be found throughout the Bible.  God, Himself, set the standard in the third commandment, Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain. Exodus 20:7.  In the Old Testament, the giving and receiving of a name was central to a person’s status.  While each person was given a unique first name, he or she also inherited a surname or family name.  The first name was used among close associates, but the surname indicated the family, clan, tribe or nation to which one belonged.  When Abraham’s servant went to find a bride for Isaac, he met Rebecca and asked her,  “Whose daughter are you? Tell me, please, is there room in your father’s house for us to lodge?”  So she said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, Milcah’s son, whom she bore to Nahor.” Genesis 24:23-24. She identified herself by Bethuel because, in those days, the last name was expressed in terms of the father’s name.  Since surnames identified entire groups, they carried with them the reputation and honor of the name in question.  By her name alone, Eliezer knew much about this maid who served his camels. 

The Abrahamic Covenant incorporated Abraham’s name as part of the promise.  I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. Genesis 12:2.  A thorough treatment of this vast subject would take many pages, so let us summarize by saying that the family name was to be held in high esteem, inviolable and above reproach.  Each member of a family was charged with honoring the name that he or she bore.  This curse was pronounced upon those who provoked the Lord.  Behold, My servants shall sing for joy of heart, But you shall cry for sorrow of heart, And wail for grief of spirit. You shall leave your name as a curse to My chosen; For the Lord GOD will slay you, And call His servants by another name. Isaiah 65:14-15. Also, the wise man of Proverbs said,  “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” Proverbs 22:1.  Implicit in these pronouncements is the decree to honor one’s family name. 

Providing for One’s Family 

Committed Christian parents place the welfare of their family above their own lives.  The New Testament issues a scathing rebuke for those who neglect their families. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8.  Child abandonment, failure to care for one’s children or thrusting the obligation of parenting onto others amounts to a grievous sin in the eyes of God.  Particularly egregious is catering to selfish pleasures when one’s own children have not had their basic needs met.  Mothers and fathers have a duty to attend to their children’s needs first before taking care of themselves.   

Modern families at or below the poverty level have become accustomed to state agencies stepping in to take care of children.  The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services operates a program called The Child Care and Development Fund which “provides assistance to low-income families who need child care due to work, work-related training and/or attending school.”  Nearly every state has federally-funded Head Start programs.  Other states assist with Child Care and Adult Food Program, Social Services Block Grant, Special Improvement Project, Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth, along with many county and municipality programs.   

These programs have benefitted many children in poverty, but they have also been abused and defrauded in many cases, not only by welfare recipients, but by the employees of the agencies themselves.  In the bigger picture, one wonders how many parents have turned their children’s care over to the government while pursuing their own selfish pleasures.  Christian parents, even if they must access these programs in desperate situations, should do everything in their power to meet their family needs by honest work.  In the end, the children’s welfare is not the state’s responsibility, but the parents. 

Duties of Husbands and Wives 

No human relationship is more symbolic of Christ and His Church than marriage.  All the elements necessary to a a good relationship—love, commitment, faithfulness, communication—are best illustrated in the union between husband and wife.  It is no mystery, then, that marriage partners who have a healthy relationship with God most likely have a solid marriage.  But the Bible does not leave the concept of marriage to the abstract.  Concrete rules to reduce the terms of marriage into nuts and bolts appear throughout Scripture. 

Husbands are to love their wives, provide for them, treat them with gentleness and kindness, and show them the respect they deserve.  The Apostle Paul clearly equates the role of the husband with the relationship Christ has with His church.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church … So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church … This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.  Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself.”  Ephesians 5:25-33.  These guidelines go beyond mere civility or male attitudes.  The Scriptures set forth marriage as a model of oneness and companionship.  The special creation of Eve specifically highlights this role.  (Genesis 2:20-24). 

The Bible instructs wives to submit to their husband’s leadership, treat him with respect and be obedient to his commands.  While this language seems sexist and out of place in modern society, it was never meant to be followed in a totalitarian or dictatorial way.  Paul includes this disclaimer.  Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Colossians 3:18.  When a husband is submitted to Christ, the wife has comfort in submitting to her husband.  By her submission, she is showing her submission to Christ.  If her husband is not a spiritual man, she should still submit to him insofar as it is pleasing to God.  Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.  For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands,  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror. 1 Peter 3:1-6. 

Finally, with regard to intimacy in marriage, the Scriptures are not silent.   Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.  Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 1 Corinthians 7:2-5.  When a married couple conscientiously follows these admonitions, the relationship can flourish and become strong. 

(More to come).