“I would not insult any one’s intelligence by trying to prove that things are not right in the world in which we live. When we look about us and see conditions as they are in our modern life, society corrupt, standard of home demolished, school in many cases hotbeds of infidelity and immorality, and even the church too many times in a cold, godless, backslidden condition, I need no argument to make me believe that the hearts of men [sic] are wrong today.” This line comes from a sermon written by the influential Disciples of Christ preacher, R.E. Snodgrass. It was written in the late 1800s.
Another great Disciples of Christ preacher, Isaac Errett, who would go on to serve as the editor of the influential Christian Standard magazine, was ordained in 1840 and joined the Church Triumphant in 1888, one year after First Christian Church in Ashland was founded. It was during those closing years of the 19th century that many preachers and writers wondered if the vision of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone would prove elusive. Camp-bell and Stone dreamed of a church where denominational distinctions and doctrinal wrangling would fall away and a church unified on the Great Confession — that Jesus is the Christ, Lord, and Savior of the world — would prevail as the foundational call of Christ’s people. Errett, in reflecting on this angst, described the problem as centered in the expectation of a Christian Utopia. The designation “Utopia” took hold in human discourse as early as 1516 when Thomas More published his famous work of fiction by the same name. Although More’s story is both satirical and anything by utopian by modern standards, the word became synonymous with a perfect community without any argument or discord.
Every politician and religious leader since have promised utopia if he or she is elected or given absolute authority. Errett concedes that a form of utopia is possible, but it isn’t by the definition of those who were his contemporaries. For him, utopia was when “master and slave gave each other the hand of fellowship, and the humbled rich and the exalted poor stood on a common level; the prince and the beggar clasped hands as partners, and all stood pledged to the high purpose of love — even to the extent of laying down their lives for each other.” How was this possible? Through Jesus Christ. In the midst of a world of division and hatred, it is the follower of Jesus Christ upon whose shoulders the burden of true utopia is pressed.
Snodgrass and Errett were products of their time. Though they were contemporaries and, by all accounts, friendly colleagues, their sermons were grappling with the same problems with which we continue to struggle. No, not issues of morality nor the “war on the family.” The issue is both specific and broad. The problem is simply the human condition. It is easier to point to the sins of others and those sins with which we may not struggle as the source of societal strife. For the young, it may be the greed of corporations. For corporations, it may be the oppressive regulations of government. For the government, it may be the lack of generosity from the tax payer. For the libertine, it is judgmental attitudes of the Stoics. For the Stoics, it is the lack of self-control of the epicurean.
The unimaginable truth is that even when we have been made “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), the frailty of the human heart looks to blame everyone and everything but ourselves. It is easier to jump on the bandwagon and criticize the mega church who refuses to open its doors to the victims of Harvey than it is to look into our own hearts and ask ourselves, “What have I done to alleviate the suffering?” It is far easier to sign on to a Nashville Declaration against “them” or a Denver Declaration against those that signed the Nashville Declaration than it is to ask ourselves, “Have I been an agent of reconciliation to my neighbor?” We are so concerned at blaming someone else for our society having fallen short of our utopian dreams that we fail to see that we too are held captive to the human condition of greed, arrogance, spite, and avarice. Yes, Brother Snodgrass, there are problems and I am too often both complicit and complacent. Yes, Brother Errett, Jesus is the answer. Not what I believe about Jesus. Just Jesus. He is my hope.
Author and speaker Alex McFarland tells the story of a man named John Fleming. Fleming lived a quiet, unassuming life in a small town. He was well liked and considered a faithful member of his church and a loving father and grandfather. When he died, over 500 people came to his funeral. Before the service began, folks were coming to the daughter and sharing story after story of how her father had helped them in a time of need. She had no idea of the extent of (her father’s) generosity or that he had helped so many people in their times of need. The stories filled her grieving heart with joy as she settled into a pew at the front of the church. When the pastor began to offer his remarks, he lifted up John Fleming’s tattered and worn Bible and said, “Our dear brother John was a believer in Jesus Christ. Not only did he read and believe this book, but he also put it into practice in his day-to-day life. The impact the Bible made on John Fleming’s life is evident by your presence here today.”
It is a normal thing for most human beings to think about their legacy. What will you leave behind? What will be the crowning achievements of your life? Every day, we are adding content to the stories that family and friends will recall about our legacy. I’ve listened to folks recount these stories. Rarely are the brand of clothes folks wore ever mentioned. Neither bank accounts nor house size find their ways into the recollections of people’s lives. What are remembered are the stories of character and personality. The influence that folks have had on their family, the neighbors and their community are the things that are remembered. Eventually, even those are forgotten. As the years go by, the name on a granite tombstone becomes a stranger to the world. Ultimately, your faith in God through Christ and the impact you have on those who follow you are the only legacy that is eternal. Solomon writes, “My child, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and humanity” (Proverbs 3:1-4).
Even if you have some regrets, a good legacy is reachable. The Bible is full of stories like Moses who committed murder, Sarah, who could not believe God’s promise, King David, also a murdered and an adulterer, the Woman at the Well, who was unlucky in love, Peter, who denied Jesus, and Saul, yet another murderer and enemy to the Body of Christ. These saints all had lost their way, but through God’s mercy, which has been fully revealed in Christ, they discovered the path that led them to be remembered as people of integrity. If you stumble, don’t dwell on all of the troublesome details. Make God’s grace the emphasis of your testimony. Let your humility before a holy and loving God the lesson that was learned from the experiences. Too often, we tell ourselves that we can’t do something or be a good witness because of a past mistake.
When we turn to God with humble and grateful hearts, God is able to take our broken testimony and restore it to a legacy that glorifies Him. The early church understood the prophet Isaiah’s words to be the foreshadowing of Christ who came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn…to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement” (Isaiah 61:2-3).
Don’t let your past paralyze you. The church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. It is a place with people at different points in their spiritual journey. None of us are better or more holy. Our holiness is not because of our deeds, but because of what Christ has done. As I said in this past week’s sermon, the robes of righteousness we wear are not our own, they are Christ’s. He has given them to us. He has given them to us for a reason. Allow your testimony to be the testimony of God. With God there is hope. With God there is salvation. With God there is peace. With God there is joy. With God there is meaning. Our legacy is God’s hand in our lives and God’s hand touching others through our lives.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
To be honest, I didn’t even hear him the first time. He continued, “You kinda weirded me out. You were just sitting there staring off into space. You ok?” I chuckled and nodded my head. “Yes, I was just thinking,” I replied. “What were you thinking about?” he asked. I should’ve told him what I was thinking. I wanted to be thinking about the topic for this week’s Christian Echoes article. What I couldn’t stop thinking about were all the folks with whom I had been involved over the past few days.
Several weeks ago, I started planning a new sermon series. We have an interesting situation at First Christian Church. Our weekly attendance has declined, but our monthly attendance has increased by over 30%. That means we have more people coming less frequently. Statistically, our congregation has about 540 unique individuals who attend at least once per month. That is up from about 354 per month five years ago. Because of this change in attendance patterns, we have been thinking and praying about how we can best disciple the increased number of people more effectively with less time.
I recently rediscovered a book on Christian practices I read a few years ago entitled Practicing Our Faith by Dorothy C. Bass. This rediscovery spurred me to begin drafting a new sermon series, Practice Makes Perfect. In my preparations, I had read several sources but kept coming back to Bass’s book. In the preface, Bass recounted how she wanted to write a timely book that would relate to all kinds of people in encouraging readers toward a deeper spirituality.
Today is the day I write my article. It takes several hours of research, thinking, writing and editing to get it where I want it. Unfortunately, my plan for today didn’t unfold as usual. It has been a day of one situation after another. Some of the people into whose lives I was thrust are members of our congregation and others are not. I worked with two families who lost loved ones over the past few days, a working homeless couple, and an addict trying to get treatment. Before I knew it, the day was gone. And still, I had not written my article. I made my way to a local coffee shop and sat down, opened my computer and stared at a blank screen. I picked up Bass’s book and began to read the preface again and noticed that she was sharing about her time in a mountain retreat center. I read about the problems that are all too common in my life and, most likely, your life as well. She talks about juggling athletic practices, children’s schedules, friendships, household chores and frustrations at work. She concludes: “We yearn once again for a way of life that is whole, and touched by the presence of God.”
In working with all of the different folks today, I got caught up in the immediate needs. Most folks weren’t dealing with soccer practice, ballet class or water cooler gossip. Most were more interested in a place to stay before the coming rain storm hits or looking for a place to shower before going to work, reluctant to use services at The Neighborhood. One just wanted a few moments when his hands wouldn’t shake as his body screamed for another drink.
What was I thinking? Good question. I was thinking about how to speak the Gospel to a world with vastly different immediate needs. Some suffer from self-loathing or grief, and although they have a home and job, they are begging me for answers to make the pain stop. Others suffer from addictions and extreme poverty and are begging me for answers to make the pain stop. Is one pain worse than the other? Rich or poor, addict or temporarily down on one’s luck, I agree with Bass. I believe the answer is a life “touched by the presence of God.” But, what does that look like? Whatever your situation, I pray you’ll gather with us over the next four weeks as we are reminded that Practice Makes Perfect.
I am a minister in a part of Christ’s church known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Every other year, we gather for a General Assembly with delegates from all over the United States and Canada for worship, education, and the dreaded business sessions with its Resolutions.
Throughout my years of ordained ministry, I have grown more certain in my opinion that Resolutions at General and Regional Assemblies polarize folks far quicker than any sermon. Nevertheless, we find ourselves focusing more on Resolutions than hearing the Gospel proclaimed in the Service of the Word. Folks will ask me if I am “for” or “against” a particular Resolution. My answer is, “I’m against Resolutions.” They have no enforceability, as congregations have the right and responsibility to govern their own life and mission, own their own property, and call or dismiss their own clergy. Statistically, they only reflect the opinions of folks with the means or interest to attend said Assemblies and, I would suggest, do not reflect the diversity of the members of Christian Churches throughout North America. Even the debate time allotted for Resolutions is so severally lacking there, it functions more like a straw poll.
Still, I’m not the kind of preacher who gets worked up over these things. It is the curse of being a student of history. In the ongoing effort of making sure my home and office Libraries are somewhat contained, I am once again trying to cull books. In that endeavor, I stumbled across a book entitled The Disciples in Kentucky by A.W. Fortune. Fortune was a professor and dean at the College of the Bible, the forerunner of Lexington Theological Seminary, and Preaching Minister at Central Christian Church in Lexington for over 20 years. Published in 1932, his book outlines the history of the Christian Church In Kentucky beginning at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky. As he sketches the brief summary of Christian mission during the 100 years from 1832 to 1932, he touches on the debates between key leaders and institutions. Fortune hides very little of the rancor among the early founders of the Missionary Societies, Transylvania College and The College of the Bible.
Most historians consider Fortune a key player in helping to marginalize the leadership of J.W. McGarvey, President of The College of the Bible and Fortune’spredecessor, of sorts. McGarvey had been the preacher at Main Street Christian Church, the forebear of Central Christian Church. Although McGarvey was rather rigid, he was instrumental in securing the financial support for the founding of our own First Christian Church in Ashland. He traveled relentlessly around Kentucky, preaching and meeting with women’s groups to secure donations to support our church in the early years. Because of that, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for him.
Some of the debates that are outlined by Fortune in his book are not that different than the ones we currently deal with in the life of our church locally, regionally and throughout North America. How should the church balance the call to evangelism with the need to care for the poor? What was the role of music in worship? How should local churches determine the qualifications for leadership as “bishops” (or elders), deacons? Is the role of the preacher to reach converts (grow the churches) or spiritual development (primarily, care for members)? What are the best ways to combat the “lack of spiritual fervor” among Christians (a perception that church members were not excited and motivated to be involved in mission and ministry)? “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Even in the midst of bitter differences, those early Christians in Kentucky maintained unity. How? “There were two different interpretations of the church which inevitably came into conflict. There were those who believed the church should move on with the world and adapt the spirit of the New Testament to conditions that were ever changing. They held that, when not forbidden by the New Testament, they were free to adapt their program to changing needs. On the other hand, there were those who believed the pattern of the church was fixed for all time, and the fact that certain things were not sanctioned was sufficient ground for rejecting them…both sides were equally honest, but they had a different approach to these issues that were raised,” (A.W .Fortune, The Disciples in Kentucky, pp. 364-365).
“Equally honest…different approach ” is a helpful phrase in avoiding the pitfalls of division. Ecclesiastes also says, “And though one might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand-threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12). Perhaps, if we considered that our opponents are not “demonic” after all, but they simply have a different idea of getting to the same place, we would be better off. Can we be “equally honest,” and consider that there may be a “different approach?”
In 1994, the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland did a survey on correlations between family activity and faith practices. The conclusion of the Swiss study was that the religious practices of the father of the family most determines the future of their children’s faith practices. Robbie Low, a minister in the Church of England and an editor of that church’s New Directions magazine, summarizes the findings as follows:
If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all. If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.
If the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshippers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church.
What happens if the father is regular but the mother irregular or non-practicing? Extraordinarily, the percentage of children becoming regular goes up from 33 percent to 38 percent with the irregular mother and to 44 percent with the non-practicing, as if loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility.
Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.
Where neither parent practices, to nobody’s very great surprise, only 4 percent of children will become regular attenders and 15 percent irregulars. Eighty percent will be lost to the faith.
The results suggest that a father’s participation in the life of worship is extremely important in predicting a child’s adherence to the faith in adulthood. Granted, this was a Swiss study, not a US study. My early childhood included both my father and mother attending worship, but as I grew older, my mother attended worship more regularly than my father. Most of us, who think back to those who had the greatest impact on our faith, will most likely recall the spiritual mentorship of a mother, grandmother or aunt. That certainly was my experience.
Our culture has long sought to meet the unique needs and desires of people through fragmenting and categorizing us in groups by gender, interests, and age. The church has been following this same paradigm for decades. Women’s groups, men’s groups, and youth groups are assumed norms of the church, yet they find no precedence in Scripture and we are beginning to discover that such divisions are having a negative impact on future generations. This was not the case in the context of either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Instructions for worship in both the Old and New Testaments assume the participation of men, women, and children in worship (see Deuteronomy 29:10-11; 1 Samuel 1; 2 Kings 22; Psalms 148:12; Joel 2:16; Luke 2:22-38). Children are influenced when they see their parents worshiping together. They watch us as we pray, assist in reading Scripture, pay attention to sermons and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In these moments, our children are witnessing the importance of faith and worship.
Many men may feel like matters of faith are best left to mothers and church staff, but after almost 50 years of increasingly absent fathers in matters of faith, our children are the ones paying the price. Children look to their parents to help them understand what is important in life. The number of men attending worship has continued to drop over the past several decades. It is time for the church to discern ways in which we may have pushed men to the background. Even the culture of the church has demanded less and less of our fathers and men, to “go easy” on them, which has pushed men out of good and right ways of spiritual leadership and service. On the other hand, placing blame isn’t helpful. My Brothers in Christ, you are essential to helping raise up the future generations of Christian men and women.
A quote dubiously attributed to Mark Twain goes like this: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Lutheran Pastor Tim Wright created quite a firestorm in August 2014 when he released an article entitled, “Sunday Schooling our Kids Out of Church.” I read his article with regret and angst. It described my education, experiences, and results of my almost 20 years of ministry perfectly. You may access the article here:
In short, the article reminds us of a profound shift that occurred in church almost 40 years ago. For varying and debatable reasons, the church began to shift from kids worshiping with their parents in the normal, traditional worship service to extended services and children’s church that run concurrently. Kids and their parents worshiped in separate spaces and in different styles. The result? Tim Wright argues that we have raised the largest unchurched generation in the history of our country. He goes on to identify that the generations that are now adults with kids of their own are, essentially, not assimilated into the life of either the congregation or the heritage of Christian worship. They have no connection with the worship style, hymns, or rhythm of Scripture readings. Nor do they understand the culture of worship as active participation instead of receiving an aesthetically pleasing experience. In the church of my childhood, we boys endured the worship service sitting next to our parents while drawing war scenes on offering envelopes while the girls….well, I don’t know what the girls were dong. I was too busy drawing tanks and fighter jets on the pew offering envelope and bulletin cover. While I was a student minister serving First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Millersburg, Kentucky, we only had one little boy around the age of 3 years old. Granted, it was a small rural congregation of about 30 people, but during worship, the sanctuary doubled as the little boy’s playroom. He would climb under pews, play with his trucks next to the Communion Table and from time to time, would come up and pull on my pant leg wanting me to pick him up. I would reach down, pick him up and keep right on preaching. No one ever complained. A few years later, a family joined with a little girl. The attendance of children has doubled, and as a result of my experiences in seminary in worship and preaching classes, we decided to offer a Children’s Church for our two children. Ironically, the seminary’s Christian Education professor was adamantly opposed to Children’s Church and Children’s Moments. She was, of course, ahead of her time. Thankfully, after I graduated and moved away, the little church disbanded Children’s Church and both children are still active in the life of the church today.
A study in Switzerland discovered that 60 percent of children who do not worship with both of their parents in the “grown up” worship service will eventually fall away from the church. Yet, studies like this one and others by Barna, Pew Research, and denominational research are all beginning to discover the profound importance of children having an experience in an intergenerational, “grown up” worship service.
At the church I serve, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, Kentucky, we are conscious that for many parents, the time in worship is an essential part of a Sabbath rest. However, we also believe that children need to be integrated into the life of our community of faith. This is one of the reasons we invite and encourage children in Kindergarten-2nd grade to worship with their families during the first portion of the service. “But children are bored and they don’t get anything out of it.” I understand…and remember. But, I am finding that, like Mark Twain, our parents and grandparents in the faith may be astonishingly smarter than we first thought.
Each week, I receive 3-4 phone calls from folks who are not members of the church I serve looking for pastoral counseling. Generally, they begin with, “Pastor, I am depressed and was wondering if we could meet.” For many of these people, their income does not permit them to seek out a licensed counselor or psychologist. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even an accredited family counselor. My reflections should not be heard as a definitive word from an expert, but I’ve talked to many people over the past 22 years of ordained ministry. Depression is a serious issue. All of us go through times of feeling down or unmotivated. Not to discount anyone’s experiences, it is a rather normal part of life and will generally pass. Long-term or chronic depression really requires professional help and may need the attention of medical and/or psychiatric professionals. However, for many of the folks with whom I meet, I wonder if they are accurately describing their situation. Are they really depressed?
This may be a bit off-color for some of our readers, but it is an excellent example of how we confuse our symptoms. Years ago, a friend of mine went to his family physician and told him that he was suffering from constipation. In actuality, his symptom was diarrhea. You can imagine how poorly he responded to his physician’s treatment plan. As his symptoms worsened, he called his physician and explained his plight. His physician asked him if he was sure that his original condition was constipation. On discovering the truth, he asked my friend, “Why didn’t you just tell me that you were suffering from diarrhea?” My friend responded, “I don’t like that word. Constipation didn’t sound so embarrassing.”
Like any good physician, asking the right questions and getting honest answers helps diagnose the problem and determine the appropriate treatment. Here are some questions I ask folks who will too often grow impatient with my line of inquiry.
What are you planning to do tomorrow? Depressed people rarely have goals. Apathetic people will have goals, important goals. That doesn’t mean they are meeting their goals. In many cases, they may sense that their goals are unattainable, unwanted by others or that their confidence in their own abilities to reach those goals has taken a beating. These feelings will often lead to a loss of hope and excitement about the future. In the worst cases, they can lead to existential questions about worth, value, a perceived sense of inability to contribute to their family, job or community. This can lead to depression, but it is not depression, it’s apathy. So, where are you? What are you planning to do tomorrow…next week…next year?
Do you trust your family, your boss, your co-workers, your customers? Trust is a powerful tool in helping us to live a stable, and consequently, a productive life. If we don’t have a sense of trust in our lives, it can lead to apathy. When we don’t trust ourselves, our plans or our co-workers, our subconscious mind will actually set into motion certain responses to protect our emotions. The emotion of apathy is one of those defensive mechanisms. If you don’t think what you are going to do will work or that no one will support you, you simply stop caring. That way, if, or when, you or your plan fails, you won’t suffer as severely emotionally.
In many cases, what most of us are experiencing isn’t depression, it’s apathy. Feeling apathetic is a good sign. It literally means “away from the spirit.” You can still get close to the spirit again. You still have some fight left in you. Begin to move against your emotion of apathy and back to the spirit. Break down your plans into smaller steps and push forward. As you experience some success, your subconscious mind will begin to trust you again. Overcoming apathy isn’t about looking in the mirror and giving yourself a pep talk, it’s about doing something. Change your plan, seek out the advice of friends, learn a new skill, ask God to guide your steps. Incidentally, everything here holds true for both individuals and groups…especially congregations.
The Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 was one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The Confederate Army had taken positions behind stone walls along Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights. Federal troops made repeated frontal assaults against the wall. In five hours, over 6,300 Union troops lay dead or wounded. As evening approached, snow began to fall and the temperature dropped to below zero. One Union Commander was so tormented by the cries of wounded soldiers for water and mercy, he wrote in his journal, “My ears were filled with cries and groans of the wounded, and the ghastly faces of the dead almost made a wall around me.”
By the afternoon of the following day, a 19-year-old Sergeant, Richard R. Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, could take it no longer. With the permission of his commander, he filled as many canteens as he could, hurdled the wall and ran to the aid of Union soldiers. The Federal lines began to take shots at the Confederate until they saw that his mission was one of mercy. The Union Commander shouted to his troops, “Don’t shoot that man, he’s too brave to die.” For 90 minutes the battlefield was quiet, both sides observing a solemn truce as the good Samaritan ministered to enemy wounded soldiers, which was later characterized in the sculpture “Moment of Mercy” on display at the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The plaque beneath the sculpture describes the character of those dark years: “Soldiers in blue and soldiers in gray repeated this incident many times through the Civil War. This Moment of Mercy sculpture pays homage to them and the uniquely American spirit of aiding those in need.”
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-5, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” In ancient times, mercy could be found in various instances on the battlefield. The scenario would begin with the decisive victory of one army over another. The Commanding Officer of the conquered forces would present himself before the Commander of the victors, kneel, bow his head and present his sword. It was a sign of complete surrender. In many instances, but not all, the victorious commander would show mercy, allowing him to live. In the best cases, the victor would allow the vanquished to return to their homes and families with the promise to never take up arms again. Such mercy was one of the basic tenets of chivalry.
It is this understanding of mercy that informs the Christian tradition. God is victorious over sin and death. We, recognizing that living our life for our own glory is an act of rebellion, surrender to Christ. In our surrender, God is merciful and makes us alive. This gift motivates us, in turn, to show mercy to all whom we meet. Are you wounded? Christ is hurtling the walls of sin and death to bring to you the water of life. Are you in a state of rebellion? God is merciful. Surrender to the King of kings and let Christ make you alive.
My colleague at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland, the Rev. Larry Sivis, is a huge Revolutionary War buff. Recently, he loaned me a 2-volume set entitled Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Click on the title to link to our books section. To purchase books, click on the cover to go to Amazon). Notable 19th-century author and lawyer, John Wingate Thornton, credited the pulpit of the Puritan church (the forebear of many Congregational churches today) for giving the moral force to the Revolution.
The first sermon in the book is by the Rev. Benjamin Colman, the irascible pastor of Boston’s Brattle Street Church. Colman’s sermon, entitled Government, the Pillar of the Earth, was, in essence, a lecture to the Governor of Massachusetts, Jonathan Belcher, about the Biblical responsibilities of those in Government to both lend support and beauty to culture.
Likewise, the volume contains a sermon entitled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, by John Wesley, the Anglican minister credited with the founding of Methodism. His sermon outlined why the colonies should accept taxation by the British Parliament and that the freedom the colonists enjoyed in matters of faith and the safety the British military provided were reasons enough to submit to the Crown and Parliament. Needless to say, American Methodists regularly rounded up copies of this sermon and promptly burned them, fearful that his loyalty to the crown would inhibit their evangelistic work.
The Rev. John Mitchell Mason, pastor of the Scotch Street Presbyterian Church and founder of the famed Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City, preached a sermon entitled, The Voice of Warning to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States. His sermon was a defense for opposition to the election of Thomas Jefferson as President. Mason believed that Jefferson was unqualified to be President because of his unorthodox opinions on matters of the Christian faith and calls Jefferson a “confirmed infidel.”
The irony is that most of these clergymen were also strong supporters of freedom of religion. Though it may be that theirs was nowhere near as diverse as our modern context, these preachers were able to maintain strong opinions while defending the rights of every person’s free exercise in matters of faith. This defense did not soften their resolve to articulate their own worldview in a way that was both compelling and persuasive. In some cases, this preaching led notable figures like Noah Webster, the man who edited the first comprehensive dictionary, to become committed to the church. The point of these historical summaries is to encourage us to balance a commitment to the evangelistic zeal of our faith while, at the same time, remain open to both our own growth and the freedom of expression of others.
This is the strength of Mainline Protestantism in general and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically. We are expected to hold fast to the core of our beliefs and remain respectful and open to dialogue. Such debate has strengthened and informed our concept of freedom. It can be painful, but it is in the midst of passionate, well-articulated positions argued persuasively (classically defined as “rhetoric”) that will also strengthen the church. It needs to be a part of every congregation as well. Unfortunately, congregations are becoming sub-cultures of like-minded individuals rather than the community whose faith is rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. As Christians, our unity is neither rooted in our shared socio-political opinions nor in the freedom of self-determination. That is, we are not united by who we are, but by whose we are. We belong to Christ. Christ is the host when we are invited to His Table. Each human being is different. There will always be someone more liberal or more conservative than we are. There will always be someone who says that we aren’t liberal enough or conservative enough. We hold fast to the Good Confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Along with a commitment to the Creed of Christ, the church has believed and taught that a return to the Christian discipline of prayer is essential. True unity comes through personal and corporate prayer. Our connection with God through the gift of prayer not only opens us to God’s work of molding our minds but opens our hearts to fellow believers and to those in our community who have not met Jesus Christ in a powerful and real way.
Perhaps, evangelistic zeal and the courage to carry the light of Christ into the shadows of a divided world begins with prayer. It may seem that I’m claiming the same privilege of the Revolutionary Orations of our forebears, but let me declare this: We will make no substantive headway until God’s people begin their apologetic efforts with the humility of prayer and service.
-Dr. Ike Nicholson is the Senior Minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).