Set free to serve ….. (July 2013)

For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. [Galatians 5:13]

Freedom cannot be understood in terms of being free from something apart from being free to something else. This verse above reminds us that we have been set free in Jesus to be of service to him and to others. We were never intended to be set free to sit on our posterior centers and do nothing.

Service is not an option for the Christian. It is the obligation of gratitude and thanksgiving to Christ that we are ever in service to others. There is always a way to be servant to Jesus and to our brethren.  If I am physically unable to serve, I am still mentally and spiritually able to serve with my regular and persistent intercessory prayers. Our voices and disposition of encouragement and comfort is not lessened by our physical limitations.

All around us there are ample opportunities to engage in the ministry for which we were set free. Often Jesus taught us about loving others as the evidence of knowing him. From the example of washing feet to the example of giving our cloak to another; from the commands to feed our enemies to visiting the sick and imprisoned; from caring for the widows and orphans to the nurturing of little children in coming to him, opportunities are everywhere.

James 2:15-17 asks us the question, what good is our faith if in seeing a need if we do not respond to it? The point is that we are called to engage.

Saints, we are born to priesthood. We are slaves of God. Our rightful place is in service. We must be doers of the word and not hearers only. We must engage the tasks set before us if we are ever to grow in Christ’s likeness.

Wait a minute – Are you angry with good reason? (June 2013)

The question originally comes to the forefront when the Lord is talking with Jonah, but it is a fair question under many circumstances. Like you, I have frequently been approached by Christians with smouldering anger issues – usually under the kind of circumstances which tend to evoke the same question. “Is your anger justified?”

I can’t recount the number of times I have been challenged by someone who is angry about something said by another somebody “who has the nerve to call himself/herself a Christian.” On several occasions I have been verbally assaulted by people who think that the church has been derelict in their responsibilities.

One such complaint was brought to me by a woman who felt that her nephew should have been visited “by the church people.” I asked whether the nephew attended a church, to which she answered, “No.” I inquired whether anyone had contacted someone from her church to request such a visit. Again the answer was, “No.”  “Were the members of your church to know about your desire for a visit by divination?”

In this situation, I asked the accuser if she was a Christian. “Of course!” was the immediate response. So I told her, then the church was there – in you. You were aware and said nothing. You were aware of the need and you were present for prayer. The church had a representative on the scene – YOU. You, the church, should have made the need known. You, the church, should have witnessed to the nephew. So, I suppose you are right in your accusation that the church was derelict in her duties. You, the church on the scene, did nothing.

There have been other instances as well. I was challenged by a person once who had been aware of a neighbor’s financial need. The man was in need of food and heating oil, etc. The fellow complaining that the church was negligent and he was indignant. His question was, “Where is the church when you need them?” My answer was the same. You ARE the church, I told him. You were right there, you knew of the problem, and you had a checkbook.

It is a common mistake. We are always thinking of someone else doing something about the problem. Rarely do we think of ourselves as being the answer to someone’s prayer. We call someone else to pray. We ask someone else to investigate a need. We put the responsibility on nameless, faceless others to address the problem. And yet, we pray that we will grow in the likeness of the Lord. There’s nothing wrong with getting assists from other Christians, but not at the expense of not responding ourselves.

Saints, we are given opportunities to exercise our Christian faith every day. If we are unfaithful in these little things, how can we realistically expect to be led into or be given bigger things?

Make a visit. Send a card. Pray with someone who needs prayer. Open your wallet. Volunteer. Take opportunities to serve. Step out, Church. We are here and we are able.

O Lord, You are my nearest kinsman ….. (January 2013)

Each one of us comes to God with a past. In turning our life over to him, we give him our entire self, including our past losses and shame. We hand over to him every moment of disgrace, every tear we have ever cried, every word we wish we could take back, all the broken promises, the loneliness, all the dreams that died, the dashed hopes, the broken relationships, our successes and  failures — all of our yesterdays and the scars they have left in our life.

Under Old Testament law, if someone lost freedom, property, or spouse because of a disaster or a debt, the next of kin was looked to as a “redeemer.” If property had been lost because of inability to pay, the redeemer would pay for it and return it to the original owner. If a woman lost her husband, the redeemer would marry her, providing her with protection and love. God tells us, “Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth and the sorrows of widowhood. For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer. … For the lord has called you back from your grief” (Isaiah 54:4-6).

God is our Redeemer, the restorer of our losses. He is Lord of all, even of our days and our dreams in the past. When we give God the past, he can make up for all we have lost. He can rid us of the shame and fill the empty places in our heart.

Cascading kindness …… (May 2013)

Have you ever heard of the “Butterfly Effect”? No, not the movie, the theory born out of the field of General Physics. The Butterfly Effect is commonly defined in the following ways: (Physics / General Physics) 1] the idea, used in chaos theory, that a very small difference in the initial state of a physical system can make a significant difference to the state at some later time 2] the phenomenon whereby a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere, e.g., the introduction of a small, seemingly insignificant alteration within an eco system or microcosm can cause large changes over time. It is illustrated with the concept that something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings over Brazil can eventually unleash a typhoon halfway around the world. From this concept the theory gets its name.

The notion is simple. It takes into account the myriad of small factors present in any complex environment which are profoundly affected by any other small factor. Small factors reacting to other small factors are changed in a domino like effect. Those many small elements, in turn, affect other larger elements, which, in turn, affect still larger elements, and so on ad infinitum. For example, the introduction into an eco system of one small bacterium can over time lead to the extinction of a whole species or the destruction of the entire eco system. The effect can seem to be random and can result in enormous changes in many differing ways. Thus, a seemingly insignificant event can eventually alter the course of history or change the cosmos.

“Change one thing and you change everything.”

Everything in our world (defined by any scale you choose to use) is integrally related to everything else in our world. Nothing stands in isolation.

This is not only true in the physical, chemical, biological (tangible) realms, but also in the moral, emotional, psychological, and spiritual realms. Everything is affected in some way by everything else. We cannot possibly know all the small and large things that are affected by small actions or decisions. There are simply too many to identify, let alone calculate. Our minds are not capable of processing that much information.

The scripture tells us that our God knows all things. That is, he knows those things which are and those things which are not. The Architect of the universe knows all the possibilities and in his wisdom changes little things to bring about enormous consequences. For example: The great society of the Nabateans was brought down to nothing simply by the Lord’s opening another trade route. Cyrus’ rise to power and influence upon Jerusalem was engineered by the Lord years before his birth. This kind of cascading effect, once introduced, is almost unstoppable.

Consider this:

If it is true that in time even the smallest of factors can cause major alterations, then what are the possible effects of one believer’s obedience to the Lord on any given day? If the Lord were to prompt one believer in Central Pennsylvania to speak a word of grace to another person, what would be the consequences in Brussels two generations later? How would we measure the results of one seemingly insignificant person’s prayers on the everlasting life of another family in three generations on the other side of the world?

Do you remember that Brazilian butterfly flapping its wings? Did you make the mental connection between that insect and the typhoon you heard about on the news last night?

Victor Hugo wrote one of the most beautiful fictional stories (first published in 1862) about redemption. In that work, Les Misrables, a cleric forgives Jean Valjean for stealing some silver, gives that silver to him and in so doing, sets in motion a cascading chain of events which affects the lives of many people for all time. One small act of grace, by one unnamed cleric changes countless lives in a myriad of ways. That cleric could not have known the consequences of his actions that night. But, does it matter that he could not know? The aftermath of his choices was God’s domain.

Saints, God is engineering the building of his kingdom. He knows all the possibilities and the potential aftermaths of all those possibilities. So, if one day the Lord “says” to you, “Pray for (name, circumstance, people).” will we do it? Or, will we say within ourselves, “This is of little matter.” or “what difference will my prayer make?” or “I am nobody so my prayer doesn’t affect anything.” Remember that Brazilian butterfly?

Who am I that I should go and share my insignificant witness with anyone? Why should I go to the new neighbors and welcome them into the neighborhood – let alone invite them to church? What possible difference can my visiting someone in prison make? Why should I volunteer a couple of hours of my time – what is the point? Why should I send a card with a little money in it to someone who I know is financially strapped? What difference can my measly gift make?

Oh, saints, your kind word can change the world. Your forgiving and accepting heart can transform another’s life and their friends’ lives, and their progeny forever. Your sharing the good news with someone today at the Lord’s prompting may take the gun out of someone’s mouth in San Antonio twenty years from today. You won’t know, you can’t know – but does that make any difference?

Listen to his promptings. Say not, “I am but a child.” (Jer 1:7) Don’t disdain the Lord’s choice of messengers – you. Don’t underestimate the value of your little gift. (Remember the “widows mite”?) Never sell short the worthiness of your witness, your love, your acceptance, your encouragement. There’s real gold in these earthen vessels, and the Lord knows how to invest it. Trust him, and, as the Nike commercial says, “Just do it.”

Tenebrae – remembering the darkness ….. (April 2013)

It has been said that in order to fully appreciate the light, one must have experienced darkness; to fully appreciate the sweet one must have known the bitterness; to fully appreciate love, one must have tasted rejection; to fully understand joy, one must have experienced grief; and so on and on and on. Personally, I can’t testify as to whether those thoughts are universally axiomatic, but I can testify that in the spiritual realm of personal experience, I believe they are true.

I know I never really appreciated what being alive could mean to me until I had my encounter(s) with Jesus. Living was existing until I met Christ. Now I am appreciating life more and more as I grow in him. Hope was wishful thinking until the Spirit of the living God came to me and began to open an evermore certain knowledge of the future to me. Again, on and on and on.

Maybe that’s one thing that makes Tenebrae service so moving. We spend a little time each year to focus on the darkness of that hour in order that we might appreciate the expectation of resurrection all the more.

Some have said to me that they don’t want to think of their past sins, they just want to focus on his forgiveness. As for me, I don’t enjoy recalling the weakness of my natural self, or my history of falling short. I certainly don’t want to dwell on those things, but I am thankful that they creep into my awareness occasionally. Those memories help me to bask in the joy of his forgiveness and appreciate his boundless mercy and love all the more. I don’t ever want to forget where I came from lest I begin to take for granted where he has promised to lead me and carry me. I have stood on the strength of my own willfulness and discovered just how weak it makes me. I have relied on my own wisdom many times and have come to various degrees of ruin. I have tasted the fruit of self-reliance and have been utterly defeated. Remembering that I am dust encourages me all the more to cling to hope in his faithfulness and strength.

Those dark memories help me to remain open to others when they are overwhelmed with remorse and regret. I can understand (in part) their pain and I know their despair. I have walked in those sandals and do walk in them repeatedly. It makes the promise of mercy and release so much more precious.

Someday when I stand in front of his glorious presence, face-to-face, I will crumble in shame and sorrow ….. until he reaches his hand to me and lifts me up in grace and forgiveness and I will be overwhelmed with thanksgiving and praise. My voice, like yours, will sing a new song of worship. Oh, how great a love! How magnificent is your mercy! O, Blessed Redeemer, how wondrous is your loving kindness. I will glory in your life-giving covenant, your boundless compassion and your gentle ways.

It is easy to understand how we can spend eternity rejoicing in our God when I have seen myself and then beheld his majesty. It makes sense to arise in adoration and gratitude forever.

I don’t ever want to forget that this is my message – and yours. Not that God eagerly awaits judging the poor, bankrupted sinner, but that he eagerly desires to uplift, heal, cleanse and bless. May our message always be one of hope and good news to the downtrodden and broken, like we.

Things prepared in secret ….. (December 2012)

Can you feel it in the air?  Can you hear it in some people’s voices and see it in their eyes?  It seems to be everywhere.  The lyricist put it this way, “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love.  Every song you hear seems to say, ‘Merry Christmas’.”  It really is a favourite time of year for many folks, and with good reason.  Virtually everyone (whatever their motivations might be) is trying to spread the “holiday spirit.”  It’s romantic, it’s fun, it’s picturesque, and it’s filled with traditions that spark warm reveries of love shared with family and friends.  Wow, what a charged and lively environment!

People are going about preparing their Christmas surprises.  Meals are being planned, presents are being stealthily acquired and secretly wrapped, stashed in unexpected places awaiting the designated hour when all will be revealed.  We are gathering our best for our most loved and, soon, it will be that time — the great and marvelous day arrives and we are united, loved, and touched in intimate and tender ways again.

Kind of like the first Christmas.  Father, too, was preparing all – not saying much.  His wonderful gift of love was being prepared in an unlikely place while all preparation was being meticulously accomplished.

Then, on the appointed day, the gift is unveiled and we are united, loved, and touched in intimate and tender ways.  Home.  Together.  A family again.  Something we haven’t felt nor seen in millennia.  True, some who were watching, listening, being faithful were awaiting the glorious day, but most of us were quite surprised.  His best was given for His loved.  And we’ve been living in the warmth of the memory of that day for centuries.  For some of us, it makes us long for the next time He will unveil His gift again, and we will all be home, a family, united . . . finally.

May the memory of Christmas past and the hope of reunion tomorrow warm your celebrations of love, family, and giving today.

Merry Christmas. Love,       George

Letting go ……. (November 2012)

My, how hard it is to let go!  I am not sure if it stems from the human need to possess, lust to control, or just from our need to feel needed and important.  Maybe it’s just that when we care about something, it’s hard to trust the care of that person or thing to someone else.  I think that it’s too complicated an emotion to attribute to one root cause.  It is likely a combination of all these things — and more.

Parents find it difficult to relinquish control of their children’s lives, letting them make decisions contrary to loving counsel, and letting them make their own (sometimes expensive) mistakes.  Entrepreneurs often strain when it comes time to turn over the business to a Board of Directors.  Career people often find retirement an emotional hardship because they must surrender authority, influence and ownership of their turf.  Sometimes we define our own lives in terms of what we build.  So, when we must let go, we lose our sense of identity and worth.  Many grieving people struggle to let go of all they associate with the loved one they lost.  I have known families who maintained shrines to deceased loved ones for decades.  Letting go can be very difficult.

I am one who finds it difficult to let go.  (Is that a personality fault?)  Letting my girls grow up and make decisions of their own was sometimes very strenuous.  Watching them leave home and head off to college and the independence that went with it was hard.  Burying old friends is always difficult — I still visit with some of them from time to time in my dreams.  Turning more and more over to the care of Elders and Deacons is also stressful.  But if the Church is to grow, it must take on its own life and vision.  Recently, I was convicted that it was time to surrender control of Practical Compassion to a new Board of Directors.  Another one of my little creations stepped out on its own.  It was time to let go, and it was hard.

I think the biggest contributor to the difficulty of letting go is caring.  We love and we care about so many people and things.  We are concerned over them and we want them to be safe.  We enjoy the relationships we have savoured with such relish for so long, and change means letting go of what was to embrace what will be (or may never be again) …… an unknown, different future.

I am boggled at our Father’s maturity and wholeness of character.  Knowing (at least in part) how much He loves us, He still resists controlling His created children.  He could make such better decisions for us.  He could make us behave so much more righteously, walk so much more productively, choose so much more wisely.  Knowing our Shepherd genuinely cherishes us, He still lets go enough to allow us our freedom, even though we so often foolishly use it and squander our potential joy.  Hmmm.  Maybe it’s supposed to be hard to let go.  Maybe that’s just another way that we are created in His likeness.  Maybe it’s a good thing to care about something to the point that letting go is difficult.  I wonder if I’ll ever grow up enough so that letting go is hard for all the right reasons …….

I am with you ….. (October 2012)

Among the most comforting words spoken by Jesus (in my opinion) are these words found in Matthew 28:20, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”  That promise, “I am with you,” is revealing in so many ways. It shows us, for example, what the Saviour thought was and would be important for his beloved disciples to know. It gives us insight to some of his other teachings as well. For example: “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. “I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'” (Matt 25:35c; 36 b, c) These verses reflect what he would have expected from all his followers. But, please note that they talk not of what was done for him apart from being with him. Certainly the portions concerning the naked, thirsty and hungry speak of provision, but these three quoted here speak of being with him.

He promises to be with us always. He does not promise to always fix the problem, make special temporal provision, or intervene in our dilemma, but rather to be with us. The joy of knowing we will never be alone in our sorrow, or suffering, or our need is a source of great strength. From this we can glean that as we endeavour to follow in his steps, we are called upon to meet needs where we can, but (more importantly) to be with those who are suffering. Where there is mourning little can be said that is of great comfort, but being with someone who is weeping can comfort much. Just being there – no pithy sayings, no platitudes, just a loving presence to hear the cry, and listen to the heart.

Often the greatest gift, even for Jesus, is just being there. His complaint to the unrighteous was, “I was a stranger, I was in prison, I was sick. Where were you?”

Frequently our mates, our friends, or our acquaintances find themselves in the place where they are not looking for answers, nor special temporal provisions. They do not need platitudes nor religious instruction. They just need someone to be with them. They need someone to hear them cry, listen to their heart, someone to cry on.

The downtrodden, the oppressed, the disheartened, the discouraged, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned (in any form) often just need you. The common illusion is that we need some special answers to give when there are no special answers. We need some solution to give when there is no solution. Saints, we already are what is needed — loving companionship, caring company, a tender presence. Sometimes that is just what the Lord brings to us, and it is obvious that he thinks a great deal of that gift. We could do a lot worse than giving what Jesus gives us.

Let’s try simply to be there for someone.

We can only hope …

Her scream pierced the silence, shattering the tranquility of the house. In one motion Suzie and I dropped everything and began running toward the source of the scream. Parents can tell the difference in their children’s cries. Some can be ignored, some cannot. Some convey minor problems and some cries embody real urgency. This scream was laden with genuine fear, and there was no time to lose.

Racing up the stairs, we could hear her screaming at the top of her voice, “There’s a beast in the tub! There’s a beast in the tub!” We burst into the bathroom, and there, terrified, was our daughter, standing dripping wet on the bathmat. Her little body was shaking and she was looking into the water as she cried in palpable horror.

Mama went immediately to our child, and Daddy went to the water. There it was. A very small spider had fallen into the water, become trapped, and floated on the surface against the tub wall. Mama calmed the trembling child while Daddy removed the offending creature.

That one is among the family favorites when the girls get to reminiscing and stories are shared around the table. That little girl has since grown up and such beasties cause neither problem nor distress. But, at that time, at that age, the horror was real, the child needed rescuing, and the beast needed slaying. Thank goodness there were parents there when she needed them.

Saints, not all people see things the same. One man’s spider-ette may be someone else’s beast. To one person, a problem may seem too small to be of concern, but to another that problem may present a justifiable fear. Thank goodness there are older and more experienced saints around when the scream comes in the night.

It’s true, that a boyfriend breaking up with an adolescent may seem gnat-like to an adult, but the crisis is genuine to the heartbroken pre-teen. A failed test may bring genuine tears to the eyes of the young, while a minor setback may seem as though it should pose no concern to a more experienced elder. Parents must learn to take the smaller issues of life seriously when their children are growing through them. They should remember what it was like when they were young and naïve, and every problem was bigger than they.

Older, more experienced disciples also must learn to take the concerns of younger, less weathered saints seriously, too, even if we know that the beastie being faced is no valid threat. Like foolish parents, we can deride the child for being scared (which will leave a lifelong scar), or we can comfort, encourage, and even rescue our younger siblings in their predicament. Newlyweds may be in genuine distress over some seemingly trivial conflict, while more mature saints will see the problem as no calamity at all. The response of the elders should be encouragement, reassurance and hope. To the child in fear’s grip, this is a real beast!

At the same time, we must help the younger learn the difference between legitimate threats and imagined ones. They should learn not to scream for every gnat, cry “foul” at every hurt, nor over-react to every little life event. Each of us is called to this ministry: to encourage, reassure, comfort and teach. “We understand. It’s O.K. You can stop crying now. Here’s how to deal with this beastie.”

Of course, we expect that the child will grow, the immature saint will learn. Eventually the screaming will stop, the crying will abate, the over-reacting will cease and the whining will be no more. The lesson “This is how to deal with the beastie.” will be learned and the traumatized saint will become a ministering adult.

We can only hope.

Open to the unknown

   Calvary is an unusual environment in many ways. Folks come here from traditional backgrounds and find things very different from what they have been accustomed to experiencing. Sometimes our uniqueness is well received and sometimes not. But, for those who decide to stay and get acclimated to this place, the experience usually becomes an edifying and healing one.

   Some have said that Calvary Church causes them to think of a healing oasis –  a spiritual MASH unit set on a hill. They share that they have come here to find rest, healing and hope again. And we frequently hear testimonies of those who had all but given up until they found this little hideaway in our small, hidden community of Reinoehlsville.

   Indeed, we have often joked about our unlikely location. “If you found your way here, you must have been led of the Spirit – it’s the only way to find us!” I was born and raised in Lebanon, and the first time I was supposed to preach here, I was late. I couldn’t find the place. The Garretts, a family vocal ministry from New Zealand called the “Scripture in Song Singers,” were invited to come here to lead a service and teach about worship. They couldn’t find us either although they had stopped to ask for directions from the fire company and police department – neither of which could tell them where Pennsylvania Avenue was!

   It seems that everything about this little church is different from the norm, whatever that is. The Lord has had his hand on this small congregation from the beginning, and it has been obvious in so many ways. How can such a small church send so many young men and women into full time ministry – and provide the education for them to go?  How can such a small church with no single, large patron or wealthy upper class membership to carry the finances have such a wide spread missions outreach? People find their way here, they heal and grow, and then they go out again to serve in other places. Calvary Church stays small, yet dynamic.

   Different for us has been good. And yet, we can succumb to a fatal condition if we are not careful. We can become stagnant, stale and set in our ways. Inertia can kill us and rob us of our place in the Body of Christ’s ministry to a hurting world. If we are to continue to be relevant, then we must continue to let the Lord make us different. Different from us. We must be open to change and His dynamic leadership. The Lord does not want us to stay as we are, individually or as a congregation. He wants to change us from glory to glory. We will, like all other life forms on this earth, grow or die.

Can we be open to change …. dramatic change? Will we be ready to step into the unknown and evolve? Are you ready to hear his voice and step out in faith? Will we get up and act when the still, small voice from within speaks that we should do something? I pray it will be so.

But …… here’s the glitch …… If we are not seeking him, praying, listening, and pursuing him, we may never hear that sweet still voice in the first place. We can’t sit and wait for him to speak, we must seek him out daily.