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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Looking Ahead

Strange as it may seem, the church year for our congregation begins on September 1. This means that all the new committees will activate, all the new chairpersons will begin making decision, and, this year, that the grass will get cut by somebody new. Though it may seem mundane for the people who rotate off of committees and irrelevant for those nominal members who do not participate in anything outside of worship, the beginning of the new church year carries with it the promise of God’s blessing; in this year we are planning on receiving more than ever from God, and we are planning on giving back to him still more as well.
It is during this period that I think of what could lie ahead for our church. God has done absolutely wondrous things in our midst this past year, and that leads the heart to dream about the plans God has for us in the next. That is a particular proclivity of the church in the word; we can make budgets and plan curricula, but ultimately it is God who determines the events that shape our faith. Thus I can only build a framework for the next 12 months – it is up to God’s movement in the hearts of the people and up to the peoples’ response to God that will fill in the gaps.
All of our regular programs will resume their school-year schedule beginning on September 2. TEAMKid will resume on Wednesday, September 5 at 7:00. All parents of participating children should attend a brief informational meeting at that time so that we can have records of contact and health information on your children. That same night the adults will begin their new semester study. This season’s topic is Prayer: Its Forms and Functions. Come and study with us as we delve into the mysteries of what praying does and how it can change our church and community. On Sunday, September 9th Children’s Choir will resume, as will adult Bible study in an examination of the Letters of Paul. That night we will also host a church-wide Ice Cream Social honoring our new members.
There has never been a better time to invest yourself in the church than now. There are programs for every member of your family starting up in the next few weeks, and we always have Sunday School and Worship on Sunday mornings beginning at 10:00. I am very excited to begin this new church year, and am confident that if you will but give the Lord a chance you will not miss out on the blessings he will pour out on this community.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Seperation of Church and State

It seems that every time I turn around I hear more and more arguments for the separation of church and state, as though there was some physical hedge or wall that the people or government could actually increase to keep these two amorphous entities from connecting. It is true that our nation was so gun shy of a State-sponsored religion that it made certain provisions to guarantee that no such model would carry over to the new U.S.A. However, it is also true that the Enlightenment thinkers who framed the constitution (I say framed because they in no way filled in the paint-by-number portrait that exists today, they only set up parameters for such a document) sought out a supreme explanation for God, humanity, politics, and society through the faculties of reason. Unfortunately, for many of us under 45 this has most obviously failed. We are seeking to understand the world as it is presented to us, rather than setting up Procrustean frameworks that uncomfortably demonstrate our knowledge.
But what does all of this have to do with keeping the government out of the pulpit? Everything. However, it's not what you might think. I am no segregationist preacher; I happen to think that the Church should and must have a voice in the political arena, as such is that gateway to the official social arena in which we minister. You'll not hear a separate-but-equal argument from me concerning the establishment of religion nor it mirror image in government; I personally think it's all a puppet show. Here's what I mean. In all of the arguments made for the separation of church and state we hear that a union of the two would have disastrous effects on our communities. However, it is plain to me that a law-school version of this separation is completely impractical and in many ways unnecessary and unwanted. About an hour ago my church hosted its annual back-to-school luncheon for the local ISD teachers, staff, and administrators. This event is held in the context of the local church as the primary avenue of support for the schools. We pray for the coming church year, we pray for the students and teachers, we pray for their families. We eat together, we fellowship, we declare our support for the progress of education in our community. Above all, we pledge to act as a single entity, a single body in this town. Oh, and just for the statisticians out there, today we had 95% of all teachers, staff, and administrators voluntarily attend our meal.
All of this goes to say that on the practical level there is no separation of church and state. As long as both the church and the state are made up of people, and as long as the church ministers to people, and as long as God still works in and through people, there can be no authentic separation. I understand that the law students and the legislators and those driven by materialism will argue this on both a philosophical level and a practical level, my vision of the church and the world allows for no such division; we are one, and we are all called by the same God to act according to his nature and his purposes. I have never been prouder of my people or my community than I am today. May the Lord make this a blessed year in both church and state.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

God constantly breaks down our suppositions in the most glorious ways. In the scriptures God is seen turning the normal social expectations on their heads and doing exactly the opposite of what the people expect. The ministry of Jesus is a paramount example of this reversal trend; at every turn Jesus revolutionizes the social expectations of his audience. He heals on the Sabbath, eats with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, and ultimately sacrifices himself instead of conquering the world. This model of acting against the expectations of the people seems to be an integral part of the Gospel itself.
Often our expectations of what God can and will do are turned upside down when He presents Himself, too. What we assume God will do, whether it is healing, help with finances, or whatever else, is not always what God decides to accomplish. Instead, ours is the God of the unexpected, the God of miracles, and the God who surprises us with grace. We must be cautious in how we make assumptions about what God is going to do and how he is going to do it; most of the time we get it all wrong.
I was completely surprised by God’s action last Sunday. We had a wonderful time of worship with a great congregation. The Lord has constantly surprised me in how he works through this church to breathe a surprising spirit on this community. There is a fresh wind blowing in the town of Riesel, and I am amazed at how God is acting.
Perhaps you need to be reminded of how God’s love and grace often appear to us unexpectedly. All of us, I think, need get that way from time to time. Maybe you think, like I have before, that you’ve got God all figured out. It may seem that the flame of God has left your heart and home, making faith just a piece of furniture that you sit on from time to time. Let me remind all of us that our God truly is a consuming fire – our comfortable suppositions are most often turned to ash when he acts.

Friday, August 17, 2007

If there is one thing that has identified Baptist history in the United States it has been a sense of individuality. Rugged separatism in the colonies and even more vehement segregationist policies in the modern era has been the calling card of many a congregation of the Baptist family tree, and for good reason. It was in the face of State influence that the original Baptists declared their independence, a spirit that in no small amount contributed to the ideals of democracy and freedom upon which this nation was founded. However, once such freedom was indeed attained and this new nation was settled, Baptists developed church doctrines that reflected the same mentalities. In reaction to Catholicism’s hierarchy and the State’s infringement on the people’s freedom of religion, Baptists in America began seeing themselves scripturally as extreme independents in matters of faith and worship.
This is no minor matter; it is the soul competency of the believer and the priesthood of all believers that makes a Baptist a Baptist. However, I must think that there is something we are missing as the people of God, whatever our denomination, when individualism goes too far. This is generally expressed in the “church on an island” mentality of our congregations. We see the body of believers in our community as independent and autonomous, freely choosing to participate in associations and missions endeavors. Yet when taken farther, say, over the course of many generations, this tendency of individualism sinks into the personal piety of the believer in a detrimental way. By casting off the heroes of the faith of the other Christian traditions the Baptists are in severe danger of missing out on some great episodes in the history of the people of God.
Here is what I mean. In the Eastern Orthodox Church each place of worship is internally adorned with the faces and names of the heroes of Scripture, the saints, and the faithful servants of God. When you stand in the midst of that worship space there are no stages, no long plain walls, and no single cross or other icon. Rather, when worshipping in such a place one cannot help but feel a part of the great tradition of Christianity. So many faces and names immediately draw the worshipper’s mind to the stories of Scripture, further enhancing the worship experience and seating the Word ever deeper in their heart.
Will a Baptist church ever be so decorated? Certainly not – we have a cultural allergy to such things. However, as the author of Hebrews says, we are indeed surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” to the faith. As Baptists, and as the people of God in general, we would do well to see those men and women who have gone on before us, whose lives we can imitate in piety, Godliness, and prayer. May we be reminded of all these witnesses and may we live similarly.