Top 5 Christlike acts in 2013

crossSome want to go back to the “good ‘ole days.” Count me out. These are exciting times to be alive and to see what God is up to right now. Here are my “Top 5 Christlike acts of 2013”-

5. Nine-year-old swimmer gives trophy to hospitalized rival – Josh Zuchowski and Reese Branzell are rivals, with Reese usually coming out first, and Josh a close second. When Reese was hospitalized with a bone infection, Josh won the Florida swim meet, then sent his trophy to the hospital, a gift for Reese. The attached note?  “I won this trophy for you today,” said Josh, “and I hope to see you back in the pool.” What parent wouldn’t be proud of such a son?

4. Wrongfully imprisoned man has kind words for friend whose testimony put him behind bars – Ryan Ferguson, 29, spent more than 9 years in a Missouri prison for a crime he did not commit. When he gave a news conference the day of his release – cleared of all charges – he promised to do what he could to work for the release of Chuck Erickson, whose police-coerced testimony had put Ryan behind bars. Ferguson’s humble spirit and refusal to walk down the path of bitterness have gained him more than 90,000 followers on FaceBook, the “army” that – in addition to the efforts of his family and lawyer, Kathleen Zellner – he credits with having produced the judicial review that ultimately resulted in his release. Thanks, Mr Ferguson, for your positive model to everyone.

3.  Teammates create an unforgettable moment for fellow player with special needs – In a story worthy of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Keith Orr – a young man with a learning disability – scored a touchdown for his team, the Olivet Middle School. His teammates left their coach in the dark, working for weeks in secret to devise a play that would allow Keith to score from within the 5 yard line. When the play worked, they carried Keith off the field in triumph. Looks a lot like Jesus to me.

2. Freed prisoner walks the way of peace – O.K., this one happened before 2013, but the movie – “Long Walk to Freedom” – came out this year, so I’m counting it. Nelson Mandela had every reason to strike back after having spent 27 years in prison. Even his wife, Winnie – who had suffered 16 months of solitary confinement – was ready for battle. Yet in a broadcast that many credit with averting civil war, Mandela committed himself to reconciliation between long-term enemies in South Africa. The rest, as they say, is history.

1. Pope Francis sets new tone for the Roman Catholic Church – With his emphasis upon reaching the hurting and marginalized, Pope Francis is leading the way, not with law but with grace. Even those not usually inclined to applaud Christianity have noticed, including Time, which named him Man of the Year.

How about you? What would be your vote for the top 5 Christlike acts of 2013?

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Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth

These rice harvesters outside Antananarivo model good teamwork.
These rice harvesters outside Antananarivo (Madagascar) model good teamwork.

In two weeks, members of the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene will vote on a new pastor. Here is the sermon I was honored to preach there this morning, in slightly modified form.
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SCRIPTURE READING: Ephesians 4:1-16 (Common English Bible)

I.  INTRODUCTION

There’s something about the word “secret” that draws attention. Marketers know this. Take KFC for example. They draw us in with talk of the Colonel’s “secret recipe” made from 11 tasty herbs and spices. Or what about the website, WebMD? A recent article spoke about “10 Diet secrets for lasting weight loss success.”

If a marketer had been assigned to the Apostle Paul, what might she have labelled Ephesians 4:1-16? Perhaps she would have spoken of “Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth.” And here they are:

1) Keep the focus on Christ.

2) Find your niche and fill it.

3) Above all, let us love one another.

II. KEEP THE FOCUS ON CHRIST

When you read Ephesians 4:1-16, there’s no question about who the star of the show is. It’s Christ!

v. 1 – Paul was a prisoner for whom? The Lord Jesus Christ

v. 7 – our gifting is from Christ

vv. 9-10 – It is Christ who descended to earth and who ascended to Heaven

v. 12 – We are the body of Christ.

v. 13 – As his body, we are striving for the standard of the fullness of Christ.

v. 15 – We are to “grow in every way into Christ.”

Theologians like fancy words. They would say that our faith must be Christocentric. In other words, Jesus must be at the center.

By no means do I agree with all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches. However, one of things that I really like is the sanctuary. When I go into a Catholic church, very often there is a cross at the front, in the center, a cross depicting the crucified Christ. The old hymn says it well:

Since my eyes were fixed on Jesus

I’ve lost sight of all besides.

So enchained my spirit’s vision

Looking at the crucified.

It is far too easy for us as the church to be distracted by minor things and turn our gaze from Christ. We are tempted to put our eyes on minor things:

Why did our pastor not do that? Isn’t that her job?

Why would sister so-and-so say such a thing?

Why was the music too loud this morning? Why was it too soft?

And when we start down that negative path, our eyes are diverted from the One who brings us together and the One in whom we find our unity! I’m glad that I’m part of a denomination that has chosen to put Jesus in our name. We are the Church of the Nazarene. Who is the Nazarene? The Nazarene is Jesus Christ.

Yet what kind of a Christ do we preach? We preach a Christ who reaches out to the marginalized, the forgotten of our society. Because Jesus loves people, he is never content to leave us where we are. Rather, Jesus is all about setting us on a new path. We serve Christus Victor, the Christ who is victorious over the unholy Trinity of sin, death, and the devil. Because Jesus loves us so much, he can never be satisfied to leave us mired in our sin.

As the Church of the Nazarene, we’ve understood that historically. For example, in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early decades of the 20th century, we started a rescue mission for alcoholics, and to this day the churches of the Kansas City area support that rescue mission, loving the poor and homeless, many of whom are caught in the trap of substance abuse.

But who are the other marginalized people of our day, right here in South Africa? If someone stood up among us and admitted that he’s addicted to drugs, asking for God’s help and ours, would we not help him? Yet I wonder what our reaction would be if someone stood up in church and admitted being attracted to the same sex, then asked for God’s help and ours? Would we distance ourselves and reply: “No, there’s nothing to be done for that one”? Would we not welcome them with outstretched arms?

And so we keep Christ the Saviour, the one victorious over sin, death, and the devil, at the center of all we do. It is this Jesus that will draw people to himself and to his church.

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Confessions of a Protestant lost in a sea of Catholicism

giotto_crucifixMy friend, Jim, pastored in small-town Missouri. “Greg,” he once confided, “you can’t swing a dead cat in my town without hitting a Baptist.” Apart from whether dead-cat swinging is advisable, I understood what he meant. What is true in Missouri is even more pronounced in Oklahoma (my adopted state), where there are not just Baptists but as many choices of church “flavors” as ice cream flavors at Coldstone Creamery.

Yet my roots are in the Northeast, where most of my growing up years were in Rochester, New York. While Syracuse is dominated by the Irish, Rochester and Buffalo were more heavily settled by Italian immigrants. In my high school, there were wonderful Italian last names like Dallasandro, Cervone, and Arcuri, to name a few. With a strange, decidedly un-Italian name like Crofford, at times it seemed like I was one of the few whose last name didn’t end with an “i,” “o,” or “e.”

Italian ancestry brought with it Roman Catholicism. In elementary school, the cafeteria never served hamburgers on Fridays, only fish sticks, a concession to old-school Catholicism and its fasting practices that endured in the early 70s, Vatican II notwithstanding. On the bus, students talked about their Saturday “religion” classes and later about taking “first communion” or “confirmation.” In 10th grade chemistry, I chatted with my friend, Greg, who asked me what I wanted to do with my life. “I’m going to be a pastor,” I answered. Shocked, he asked: “But don’t you want to get married and have children?” Since Roman Catholic priests (pastors) are celibate, he couldn’t comprehend that as a Protestant I could purse the ministry and  have a family.

As I look back on my public school experience, I realize that in many ways I was a Protestant lost in a sea of Catholicism.

As incredible as it now seems, as a child I believed that Catholics were all bound for hell. Maybe it was the Chick Tract that said the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Perhaps it was a stray comment here-and-there from adults, asking prayer for good Catholic church attending individuals, that they would be “saved.” Whoever it was that wrote on the wet cement of my young mind, the etching soon hardened.  We were “in” and they were “out.” Others told me that we should “have a burden for the lost,” that we should pray and “witness” to them. Throughout 3rd grade, I was determined to tell my friends at school about  Jesus, but at the end of the day, always felt guilty that I hadn’t had the courage to do so.

High school ended, and I’ve never gone back. College at one of the liberal arts institutions sponsored by my denomination meant I was no longer religiously isolated. Rather, I was one of the “birds of a feather who flock together,” surrounded by individuals of like faith. Later years brought marriage, family, and work as a pastor and missionary in my denomination.

As I’ve grown older, I’m able to reflect more objectively on my experience as a lonely Protestant. Here are some of the things I’ve concluded:

1. I needlessly distanced myself from my peers. I wonder how many friendships never blossomed because I was convinced in some way that I couldn’t articulate at the time that association = religious compromise? When Catholic girls flirted with me, I didn’t flirt back, but how could I tell them it wasn’t because they weren’t pretty but because they were Catholic? In retrospect, my aloofness was overkill.

2. Some of my prejudices are inherited. As one in the Anglican/Methodist tradition, I was surprised to find anti-Catholic sentiments in the writings of two of my heroes, John and Charles Wesley. They speak of “Papism” as shorthand for their distaste of all things Roman. Some of that bigotry has been passed down to their ecclesiastical descendants, myself included, and we would do well to challenge it.

3. Roman Catholics love the Church. Whereas my own tradition does well speaking of the importance of being born again, being “saved,” and having a relationship with Jesus Christ, too many of the “saved” don’t have a good grasp of how church fits into the scheme. Sadly, faith then becomes an individualistic endeavor. On the other hand, Roman Catholics by-and-large respect the importance of the Church as the community of faith. Sure, they can be openly critical of it and sometimes will only attend a few times a year (as do some Protestants), but when outsiders attack the Church, watch out! They circle the wagons. Church is not a “tack on” for the Catholic; it is at the center of their faith, and there is something alluring about that. When former Catholics join Protestant churches, I’ve noticed that they often conserve their high view of the Church. What Protestant pastor isn’t thrilled to have loyal members like that?

4. The liturgy and architecture point us Godward. Does the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus during Eucharist? That’s a hard one for me to swallow, yet there is a majesty to the old rituals of Catholic worship that make the evangelical fad of “seeker sensitive” worship seem shallow by comparison. Protestant church buildings – at least lately – look more like office complexes. There is something worshipful, on the other hand, about a vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, and pews that are bolted down. Cathlolic architecture says: “Do you need a place for dinners? That’s in the adjoining building. This space is for worship, and that’s enough.”

5. Socially, Roman Catholics care about many of the things I care about. Family is vital, and abortion is to be avoided. These two conservative tenets overlap with the thinking of many Protestant evangelicals.

6. I like Pope Francis. His tenure has started off with him garnering respect from a wide spectrum of Christian leaders as he lives a simple life and radiates love to all with whom he comes in contact.

Purposely, this essay has not dwelt upon where Roman Catholicism and Protestantism part ways. That list includes the place of Mary and the saints, but I have learned that non-adherence to the overall beliefs/practices of a particular religious group does not mean that we must paint with a broad brush, calling what is good, bad. We can celebrate the ways that God is working in other groups, and hope that they will in-turn celebrate the ways that God is working among us, warts and all.

Jesus said to Peter in John 21 not to worry about the so-called “Beloved Disciple,” that he was not Peter’s concern. Instead, he simply said to Peter: “You must follow me.” As Christians, let us affirm one another where we can, but most importantly, keep our eyes upon the One whom we are following. Doing that, how can we go wrong?

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Image credit: Artchive.com