Semper Reformanda

October 2017

Column for October, 2017

This month is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to challenge church leaders about the practices of the church.  All month, we will have bulletin inserts and posts on our website telling the stories of Martin Luther, his challenge to the corruption of the church in that time, and his courage and conviction to follow only the word of God as witnessed in Scripture, even at the risk of his life. On Sunday, October 29, we will have a special worship service remembering and celebrating the beginning of the Reformation.

 

But why should we care?  A lot of faithful followers of Jesus have stood up for their convictions and challenged corruption over time.  Why do we especially remember Martin Luther?

 

I want us to remember Luther’s acts of faithfulness because what he said and did speaks to our time.  Many denominations, including our own Presbyterian Church (USA), require clergy to study church history as a part of the academic preparations for professional ministry.  The clergy then teach the whole church about the conflicts of theological understandings and practices in the past, how those conflicts were resolved, and how we can avoid going down the same paths in the present and future of the church.  But there are many people and many churches who dismiss the value of learning our history as boring, irrelevant, and a waste of clergy’s time.  And from what I see, the old proverb plays itself out time and time again:  those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

 

Three truths of faith Luther and his followers asserted based on his study of the witness of Scripture which we need to be reminded of today come to mind:

  • God’s grace alone saves us. Luther was anguished by a question:  How do I know I have done enough good to merit God’s love?  The answer he found in scripture which finally relieved his anxiety was simple:  we cannot be saved by anything we do but only by what God does.  These days, I hear a lot of people saying they are loved by God because of their works.  Some are physical works, such as following a particular moral code or work ethic.  Others are intellectual works, such as simply “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”  Those are not necessarily bad things to do, but they do not win us God’s love or save us from anything we need to be saved from.  God alone saves us, entirely on God’s initiative, because God’s love is greater than anything we can do.
  • All believers are priests. Every one of us is called to have one foot in the realm of the holy and one foot in the realm of the everyday.  This truth helped the people of Luther’s congregation to understand that their work was every bit as holy as that of the priests.  It also helped those who have followed Luther to understand that they share in the responsibility of running the church and promoting the mission of Christ through the church.  Many people today seek teaching and preaching from the church which is “relevant” but appears as little more than self-centered advice.  Some people look for pastors who will drive the vision and the mission of the church so that all the members have to do is show up to programs and “be fed.”  For Luther, the work of the church is never self-centered.  The teaching of the church is always centered on Jesus Christ alone as witnessed through Scripture.  All believers are called and equipped to discern how to live faithful to Jesus Christ in their jobs, family life, and civic engagement.  All believers are also called and equipped to provide leadership in serving Christ together with their neighbors through the church.
  • The church is always being reformed. Luther did not seek to start a new church, but thought that, with his reasoned reflection on Scripture, the church would correct its errors and reform itself.  While that did not happen in Luther’s time, his daring challenges reminds us that we are always called to humbly open ourselves to being reformed by the Word of God.  That means we do not simply accept what we have always been taught or what others have told us to believe, but as the world changes, we constantly examine scripture for truth which speaks to new circumstances.  Some people want the church to be a place which shelters them from change and bolsters their long-held prejudices and traditions.  To be faithful to God’s Word, the reformers and their followers have taught that we are ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is, “a church reformed and always being reformed” according to the Word of God.  We do not preserve the past simply for the sake of preserving the past, and we do not change simply for the sake of change.  Instead, Luther and his followers taught us with their courageous acts that we always must be open to change in order to preserve and restore what is most authentic about our faith and life as the followers of Jesus Christ.

I look forward to hearing what you think as you encounter the stories and the ideas which drove the Reformation beginning 500 years ago this month.  I look forward to worshipping with you in our special service on October 29.  And I pray that we may all open ourselves in humility to God’s grace, to God’s calling, and to always being reformed according to God’s Word.


Doors

August 2017

Column for September, 2017

When we were on our honeymoon in California, my wife and I found our way into an art gallery where we were struck by a series of photographs of doors.  Ever since then, I have found myself taking photos of doorways when I travel.  In early August, I had the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic to work with Habitat for Humanity on a trip sponsored by Thrivent Financial, a non-profit financial services company.  And while I was there, I once again found myself contemplating doors.

 

Some of the most fascinating doors are in the Zona Colonial in the capital, Santo Domingo, where we stayed when we flew in and out of the Dominican Republic.  Those doors are characterized by beautiful colors, fascinating textures, and even some intricate carvings.  Heavily fortified wooden doors date back to the decades after Christopher Columbus made his first landing in the New World at Santo Domingo.  At the ruins of a Franciscan monastery, stone carvings framing the doors evoke the simple ropes which belt the robes of the monks who lived there.  Plain doors of simpler residential and commercial buildings were nonetheless decorated with tiles and paint in yellow, pink, turquoise, rust, and other tropical hues.  Even the Denny’s restaurant up the street from our hotel had rustic wooden doors which clearly communicated the history of the building.

 

But we spent most of our time in the smaller city of San Juan de la Maguana, tucked in the mountains near the border with Haiti.  From San Juan, we went into the countryside to a small village called El Capá, where we helped complete construction on a house and poured two concrete floors for existing houses.  There, the doors were remarkably different.  Many of the houses were built of sticks and mud, with palm leaves layered to form the roofs.  In those houses, the doors were thin and wooden, and many of them barely covered the openings in the walls.  Some openings didn’t even have doors hung on them; the frames were draped with fabric, or they were simply left open.  The houses we were helping to build were made of concrete blocks, and they had sturdy steel doors which could withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.  Still, they were simple, plain, and functional, rather than the more colorful doors surrounded by tiles or sculpture in the historical city.

 

In scripture, among other functions, doors represent passageways between contrasting realities.  Besides serving as the passage between the public world of work and social life and the private world of the home, they are the threshold between the everyday and the holy.  In the psalms, pilgrims and priests leave the routines of everyday life to enter the most sacred spaces through gates and doors.  For instance, Psalm 118 commands, “Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.”  These gates refer to doors in the temple where a grateful person who is making an offering might get as close as possible to the place where the glory of God dwelled.  In the Gospels, doors marked the boundary between the greed, cruelty, and death of the Roman Empire and the eternity and abundance of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus advised that his followers seek the narrow door; the wide door seems like it leads to an easy way, but that is the way of destruction and death (Matthew 7:13-14).  Jesus himself showed that he had passed from life through death to life again by repeatedly walking through a door which the disciples had locked in fear after his crucifixion (John 20:19-29).

 

These images from scripture help me understand how I experienced the doors in the Dominican Republic.  In El Capá, we got to know Señora Nina, who was one of the grandmothers of the village.  On the first day we were there, there was a distance between us:  we were the American volunteers, and she was one of the people we were there to help.  The next time we came, though, we were pouring a cement floor for her, so we went through her door to enter the three-room home where she and her family cook, eat, sleep, and do all of the other things of domestic life.  And we knew her better then because we passed through her doorway.  We saw the oregano broom she used to sweep her home.  We saw the posters and religious pictures she chose to hang on her walls.  We saw the colorful fabrics she used to cover her tables.  And we saw how her simple home of concrete with a roof of corrugated sheet metal was nonetheless far more safe and healthy than the mud and stick structure of her neighbors just a few feet away.

 

Throughout that day, we passed through her door again and again with wheelbarrows full of cement.  We saw her flirtatious joy as she insisted on giving friendly hugs to all of the men in our group.  We saw her desire to communicate with us, so that our little bits of Spanish could meet her little bits of English to make a deeper connection.  We saw the ways she cared for the children of the community while their parents were at work; I never did figure out which of the children were from her family and which were parts of the other families, but it really didn’t seem to matter much.  By crossing that boundary of her door, we forged a relationship with her, and in that relationship, we discovered something basic and human, yet filled with holiness and life.  She was no longer only someone we were there to serve, and we were no longer only people she was supposed to be grateful to.  We were all just people who are different in many ways but share the need to keep house and raise children and appreciate what we have, even while we seek some greater sign of God’s promises of abundance and eternity.

 

Jesus told his followers that the abundance and eternity of God’s kingdom are available; all they have to do is to knock, and the door will be opened to them (Matthew 7:7-8).  I find myself in the weeks since I returned from the Dominican Republic praying that I will accept Jesus’ invitation and keep knocking.  I pray that I can continue to travel between the everyday streets and the holy spaces where I can encounter God and other people in new ways.  And I pray that I can continue to bear witness as the power of God overcomes the power of fear, so that I can see Jesus Christ himself come walking through the doors which we have closed and locked that keep us from understanding the abundant joy and eternal beauty of the life God wants for us.


Impact

July 2017

Column for July, 2017

A couple of months ago, Katrina Bostick stopped by my office.  Katrina is the Executive Director of Family Promise of Greater Savannah.  As I hope most of us know, Family Promise (formerly called Interfaith Hospitality Network) is an organization which helps homeless families with temporary shelter and support to find long-term stability.  We are a founding congregation with Family Promise, playing an important part in the organization for almost 20 years.  As a part of our support, about three times each year, we host up to 3 families for a week in our Education Building, providing them with a meal each night and a safe and comfortable place to stay as they search for permanent housing.

 

Katrina brought with her a wonderful gift for our congregation.  All non-profit organizations have to keep detailed statistics to show that they really make an impact on the lives of the people they serve and on the whole community.  Donors, especially organizations which give grants, insist that every agency has to prove their worth using those numbers.  Because churches are key to much of the services they provide, Family Promise had broken their numbers down to show the impact each congregation has on our community through our work with Family Promise.

 

Did you know that in 2016 alone, our congregation provided:

  • 3 weeks of shelter for families (or 21 “bed nights”)
  • 294 volunteers
  • 1281 volunteer hours
  • 796 meals
  • $17,353 in services

 

Surely some among you will ask how they reached that total value.  They assume that one “bed night” is $35, one “meal day” is $17, and a volunteer’s time is worth about $10 per hour.

 

Just imagine that:  our congregation made a total contribution to Family Promise of over $17,000 last year.  And that is just one program we do as a congregation.  Imagine putting a value on our total contribution to our community:  our service at Inner City Night Shelter, our Tutoring Program, our Scouting programs, and more.  And what if we add to that the value we contribute to groups which meet in our building and don’t have any money to pay us, such as the Neighborhood Association, scouting groups, various civic groups, and others.  Our contribution to our community is astounding!

 

We do good, faithful work here.  Sometimes the work is frustrating.  Sometimes it is exhausting.  Usually it does not reap easy harvests.  After the work is done, we still look around to see fewer people in worship each Sunday than there used to be, smaller Sunday School classes and groups, and a precarious bottom line on our financial statements.

 

Most of those things are related to factors which are out of our control.  But the factors which we control, like how we use our time, our effort, our buildings, and our money, show our ongoing faithfulness.  In addition to the abundant and eternal value of simply worshipping our God, we continue to seek to follow Christ’s commands.  We continue to love our neighbors, to welcome strangers, to share our bread and open our homes to the poor, and to build the kingdom of heaven so people can experience the peace and the joy which God intends for them, even in hard times.  That work has both spiritual and material value.

 

I am grateful that Katrina gave us this little glimpse of the numbers, and I pray that we will continue to seek ways to have an impact on the lives of our neighbors and our community!


Mountains

July 2017

Column for June, 2017

In early May, many of you know that I had to go to a meeting in Denver, Colorado, for a committee I am on for our General Assembly.  I decided to take a couple of days after my meeting to go to a small town high in the Colorado Rockies called Gunnison.  My family moved to Gunnison when I was six, and we moved from there to California when I was ten.  I had not really spent any time there since about 1983 when we moved away, so it was a trip through some old memories I didn’t even know I had.  But it was also a chance to see a landscape which is very, very different than what we have around here in coastal Georgia.

 

There are a lot of really big mountains in Colorado.  Looking at the map before I went, I saw the mountain ranges with peak after peak after peak stretching high into the atmosphere.  There is really only one direct way to get to Gunnison from the east, and that is by crossing the Continental Divide on Highway 50 over Monarch Pass, which tops out at 11,312 feet above sea level.  The town itself is in a valley with an elevation of about 7,700 feet, and within a 45-minute drive, you can get to vistas of mountains which top 14,000 feet.

 

Like many people of their time and place, the ancient Hebrews believed that the mountains are pillars which hold the sky in place.  The mountains are strong and sturdy, giving structure to our world.  When God gets angry, the pillars shake, and the whole of creation threatens to collapse (see Job 26:11).  The Hebrews’ neighbors believed that some of their gods lived in the highest of the mountains, which served as natural palaces.  But the Hebrews, as God’s own people, had no reason to see the mountains that way.  God’s presence was not restricted to any particular place, but filled God’s whole creation at all times, and so they were called to worship everywhere.  When the Psalmist says in Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where will my help come?” he is mimicking those neighbors, who would expect their gods to come down from the mountains in order to help them.  The Psalmist answers his own question:  “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!”  He does not expect his help to come from the mountains, but from the One who created the world and everything in it, including the mountains.

 

When we look at the mountains, we see that God is in charge.  Everything is under God’s control, even the mountains themselves.  God uses the mountains to protect us; the sky will stay in place because God put the mountains in place to hold it up, and even when God gets angry and the mountains quake, they never fall, and we are safe.  Because they are under God’s control, the mountains reverberate with the glory of God, showing God’s people that even in our toughest times, God leads us, protects us, loves us, and welcomes us home.

 

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, God’s people were far from home, exiled into Babylon after their own cities and homes were destroyed or seized from them.  But the prophet still spoke to them on behalf of God.  He said that things are rough now, but in the future, “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  The mountains are not too big, too sturdy, or too strong that they are unable to sing praises to the God who made them, echoing with their own chorus and the applause of the trees as the people take the road back home.

 

And so on my quick journey, I found myself praising God “in the heights,” as the Psalmist encourages:  “Mountains and all hills…praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven!” (Psalm 148:1, 9, 13)


Christ Is Risen!

May 2017

Column for May, 2017

Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Each year, we greet each other enthusiastically with that traditional reminder of Easter.  We begin in our worship for the Great Festival of Easter on Easter Sunday.  This year, it was during the children’s time that I taught the call-and-response.  When I said the first phrase, “Christ is risen!” many of the children just looked at me blankly.  I was heartened, though, when I heard many of you in the congregation respond enthusiastically, “Christ is risen, indeed!”  I said it again at the end of the sermon, and by the end of the service, when I said it as part of the benediction, everyone in the room seemed to get it.

 

The greeting is traditional in Eastern Orthodox churches.  Often in those traditions, it is spoken in Greek; you can see it in the Greek letters above, although I couldn’t figure out how to get the right accent marks to work on my computer.  It is called the Paschal greeting; the word “Paschal” just means “Easter.”  There is even an article on Wikipedia which lists how it is printed (and, if you can pronounce the letters, how it is spoken!) in scores of other languages.  That article notes that in Russian traditions, you follow the Paschal greeting with three kisses on alternating cheeks.  We Presbyterians don’t tend to be that familiar with each other, so we don’t usually practice that part of the tradition.

 

The greeting is not just exchanged for the one day, though, because Easter lasts for an entire season.  The season of Easter will carry us all the way through May this year.  It goes for a total of seven weeks, beginning with Easter Sunday and ending the week before Pentecost.  I usually try to integrate the Paschal greeting into the Call to Worship, the sermon, or some other part of the service throughout the whole season.  I will be honest:  it gets a little tough by the end of the season.  By then, it feels like we are so far away from Easter Sunday that the whole rest of the world has moved on.  The fact is that the whole rest of the world has moved on.  By the end of May, the stores have long ago put away their chocolate bunnies, pastel baskets, and those Cadbury eggs filled with gooey, rich, sugary filling that is supposed to look like the egg yolks and whites.  They have replaced Easter with the beach-themed decorations for summer, or even their red, white, and blue tchotchkes out for the Fourth of July.  But not the church.  In the church, the good news of Easter is at the center of our faith, so we keep the white and gold cloths on the pulpit and communion table through the whole season.  It is the best news the world has ever heard, so we take our time with it:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!

 

This year, I am going to make an effort to keep the Paschal greeting in worship all the way through the seven Sundays of Easter, no matter how far it seems like we are stretching the season.  I will do that because we have some wonderful celebrations coming up to help us understand the meaning of Easter for our lives.  May will be a full month in our worship life!  You will see more information about what is going on in the rest of this newsletter, but a couple of highlights:

  • Sunday, May 7, we will have our Graduation Sunday, the Church Picnic, and Communion
  • Sunday, May 14, we will recognize all of the women who provide, protect, nurture, and otherwise “mother” in our church, whether they have children or not
  • Sunday, May 21, we will have a special presentation from Thornwell about Building Families
  • Sunday, May 28, we will celebrate Ascension Sunday (if you don’t know what that is, see Acts 1:1-11)

All of these special days will help us understand the meaning of that phrase:  Christ is risen!  They will help us to celebrate and feel festive.  They will help us to know what it means to be a part of the community of people who come together around our faith in Christ’s resurrection.  They will help us to perceive God’s call to us, too, to love and to serve our neighbors with the same love God has shown us.

 

I hope you will join us for all of these special celebrations!  And mostly, I hope you will join us in celebrating the best news the world has ever heard:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!