Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Bookmarks

I like movies. I have mentioned that before. On any Top 10 list of movies of all time, one would expect to find Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or Notorious (by Alfred Hitchcock). However, most people today would never watch them. Why? They are all black and white. Today, any film not in color or HD for that matter is readily dismissed as “less than.”

Why is it we think everything modern is best and the past has nothing to offer us? Can we so easily toss aside Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, just because they are old? The same goes for our faith. Some of the most brilliant Christian theologians, preachers, and scholars lived long before the internet. It is hard to imagine sometimes that life really was rich and profound even before Google or Apple.

A friend of mine gave me a set of bookmarks a couple of years ago for Christmas that reminded me of that. There are printed quotes on them from some of the greatest Christians voices of any time. Things like John Bunyan (1628-1688) saying, “Prayer will make a man cease from sin or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer.” John Owen (1616-1683), “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.” And, my favorite which is from, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), also known as Saint Augustine. Augustine is considered to be one of the most important Church Fathers. Augustine was a theologian, philosopher, and bishop in Roman North Africa. The quote on my bookmark could have been written for the twenty-first century just as easily as the fifth. Augustine says, “If you believe what you like in the Gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself.”

Wow. I encounter this nearly every single week. Even though the Bible speaks clearly about numerous moral and ethical dilemmas we face, and have been facing for millennia, we still appear free to reject whatever we do not like. Never mind God tells Israel, “Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:2), or “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5), or even Jesus Himself reminds those in the Temple, “…you know that the Scriptures cannot be altered” (John 10:35). So many people today still think the Bible is just a book and we get to be the editors.

Just because something is old, say two-thousand years old, does not mean it no longer matters. Does not contain truth. The Bible is truth. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Timothy 3:16). It does not go out of style and we do not know better. Augustine knew it then, and we should listen to him now. He may be old, but he is still right. “If we believe what we like in the Gospels and reject what we don’t like, it is not the Gospel we believe but ourselves.”  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Do Not Fear

Way back in 1989, New York Magazine published an article by journalist Eric Pooley titled “Grins, Gore, and Videotape – The Trouble with Local TV News.” I mention this, because it is the first verifiable use of the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Eric meant, the stories that get the most attention are disasters. Whether they are natural like hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, wildfires, or manmade like shootings, robberies, rapes, riots, etc. Tragedy sells papers. Gets ratings. Rarely does a story about a man who collects broken down cars and fixes them so he can then give them away to people who really need reliable transportation like single moms or someone trying to find work. That’s a true story, but front page? Sell papers? No. It’s not “sexy” enough. For whatever reason, calamity, heartbreak, misfortune, fear gets our attention.

Since we are still trying to recover from a pandemic, let’s talk about fear. Over the past eighteen months or so, we were all afraid of being infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Otherwise known as Covid-19. Did you know the only reason it’s called Covid-19 is because it broke out in 2019? Now, I remember the year RenĂ©e and I were married, 1981, was the first time AIDS really came to National attention. At the time, we had no idea if it was the next Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, which killed some 200 million people (60% of the European population) or not. Everyone was afraid of contracting AIDS. At the beginning, we did not know how it was transmitted. Similarly, early last year, we were still not sure if Covid-19 would be like the seasonal flu or smallpox. During the 20th century, smallpox killed 300 to 500 million people. Our first minister Rev. John Whiting died from smallpox in 1689. So, fear is understandable. 

Fear is also not always a bad thing. Fear of contracting AIDS led to widespread use of condoms. Fear of getting into a car accident makes us put on our seatbelts. Fear of getting Covid-19 led us to social distance and wear facemasks. Fear of hell can motivate one to seek forgiveness in Jesus. However, fear can also be destructive and incapacitating. It can stop us from applying for job. Asking someone on a date. Entering a talent contest. Going for our driver’s license.

The Bible is clear. “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). When David was facing a powerful Ammonite army, God told him, “…be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Paul reminds us, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). 

We need to be smart. As we have been over the past eighteen months. We cannot live recklessly thinking, “Oh, I have nothing to fear. God will protect me.” That’s arrogance. When Satan tempted Jesus to jump off the Temple saying, “[God] will order his angels to protect you.” Jesus responds, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God’(Matthew 4:7). There is a difference between believing and testing the Lord. Between trust and plain stupidity.

Look, I promise you. Even in the midst of these variants, we can survive Covid-19. Just as we did smallpox and AIDS. What we cannot do is live in fear. God has our back, and our front, and our top, bottom, left and right. Yes, even though, at times, we are walking through a valley of the shadow of death, we should fear no evil: for God is with us. He comforts us. He anoints our heads with oil until our cups run over. Be smart, but trust Him with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength. He will never let you down.  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Faithlift

Here at South Church, we are in the midst of an upgrade to our historic Meeting House. We are calling it a “Faithlift.” This is our third Meeting House, built in 1827. Our first was in 1670. Our second in 1754. We have a beautiful Meeting House worthy of keeping it in good shape. We are repainting, putting in new rugs, refurbishing the original doors, installing Livestreaming equipment and finally air conditioning! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

As beautiful as our building may be, we do remember that in 2 Samuel, God says to the prophet, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord has declared: Are you the one to build a house for me to live in? I have never lived in a house, from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until this very day. I have always moved from one place to another with a tent and a Tabernacle as my dwelling. Yet no matter where I have gone with the Israelites, I have never once complained to Israel’s tribal leaders, the shepherds of my people Israel. I have never asked them, “Why haven’t you built me a beautiful cedar house?”’ (2 Samuel 7:5-7) 

Yes, God was okay with a tent. He did not need a palace. Nonetheless, the crowning achievement of David’s son King Solomon’s reign was the erection of a magnificent temple in Jerusalem built to honor the name of the Lord. We have been building them ever since. 

There are many magnificent cathedrals all over the world. Regardless, of your faith tradition, one of the most beautiful churches is St. Peter’s Basilica (otherwise known as the Vatican) in Rome. I was blessed to be able to visit the Vatican in 2001. It is a truly stunning structure. Really breathtaking. So is St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Actually, I believe St. Patrick’s is larger than St. Peter’s. Why such structures? Cathedrals are built to inspire awe. That’s what the Vatican did to me. In medieval times, when many monumental cathedrals were built, they were meant to symbolize great faith, as well as to display the creative gifts God had given to artisans of the day.

When Cain killed his brother Abel, it was because God had rejected Cain’s offering. Why? Because Cain had not brought his best to the altar. Abel had. God wants us to give Him our best in all areas of life. He wants us to be the best believer/Christian, and the best son/daughter, brother/sister, husband/wife, father/mother, friend/coworker that we can be. The premise was the same in the Middle Ages when constructing a church. The Master Builder designed ribbed vaults, buttresses, clustered columns, ambulatories, wheel windows, spires, stained glass windows, and richly carved doors. As an artisan, you wanted to offer God the very best of your gifts and talents. As a result, still today, we are able to enjoy the beauty and splendor of some of the most magnificent buildings humans have ever constructed. 

Now, this does not make cathedrals any more holy or sacred than any humble, plain, New England Meeting House. Remember, God said He never complained about a tent. In the end, it is not about the structure. It is about the hearts of the people inside. Remember the story of the Widow’s Mite? Jesus was sitting near the collection box in the Temple watching as people dropped in their money. Many rich people were putting in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in only two small coins. Jesus remarks, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).

We do love our Meeting House and I hope you can visit someday, but remember, it is not about the amount of your offering or the size of your church. It is about giving God your very best. It is about the heart. It always has been, and it always will be. For, God also told Samuel, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A Pilgrim Funeral

I have been a congregationalist since 1989, which makes sense, I guess, as I pastor South Congregational Church. The Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in 1620. You know, the first Thanksgiving Pilgrims. They were Congregationalists too. We practice a pretty “normal” Christian faith. I believe in the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and that the Bible is true. I believe humankind is sinful by nature. That Heaven, Hell, and Satan literally exist, and that salvation is given to us not through works but by God’s grace alone. Our Sunday worship would look very familiar to you, as would weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Interestingly enough, what I do for a funeral service today, would be unfamiliar to pilgrims like William Brewster or Priscilla Mullins. Funerals were exceedingly simple during the first few years after the Pilgrims’ arrival in North America. There were no unique funeral rites. Normally at burials, nothing was read, nor any funeral sermon given. The community would just come together by tolling of the bell, carry the dead solemnly to the grave, and then stand by while the grave was filled back in. The ministers were most commonly just present. In fact, families or small communities often shared the same grave.

When a “pilgrim” died away from home, the burial took place wherever the death occurred. They would dig a shallow grave for the remains and then place a large flat stone on top to keep the site from being disturbed by wild animals. This stone, by the way, was called the “wolf stone.”  

I mention all this funeral talk because I officiated two funerals this past week. One in Pennsylvania, and the other here locally.

Sadly, in my twenty-four years of pastoral ministry, it seems to me the sacredness of a man and a woman becoming one before God has faded quite a bit. Most weddings nowadays have become all about the “show.” The flowers, the dress, the reception, or what we can do that might go viral on YouTube. I actually “enjoy” funerals. Please do not misunderstand. Maybe “enjoy” is not the right word. Perhaps appreciate is better.

At a funeral, people are not thinking about the reception. They are reflecting on the loved one they have lost, and perhaps even their own mortality. Even better, maybe they are considering what their eternity might be. That’s what I appreciate. Funerals make one think about what comes next. That’s why I always share the gospel at a funeral. Just to let people know. This person is in heaven, not because of any of the wonderful things you have heard that they did, but because of the one wonderful thing that Jesus did on the cross. Their faith in Christ led to their salvation, and that is why we can be sure of where they are now.

Everyone, much to the surprise of many, does not go to heaven. Only those who believe in Jesus do. After all, Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father, except through me.” All faiths do not lead to salvation. All roads do not go to heaven – only one – Jesus. “No one can come to the Father, except through [Him].” 

Truth is, not even all those who proclaim to be Christian will get there. Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws’” (Matthew 7:21-23). Talk is cheap. Actions are what matter. Am I truly a Christian? Has my heart been transformed? Can you find any evidence to support my claim of being a Christian?

Today at funerals, we are not silent. We talk about our loved one. The life they lived. How they blessed ours. It is a sacred time when we get to remember someone special, and maybe even ponder, “What will my future be?” Will Jesus say, “[Welcome!] Well done good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23), or “I never knew you.” 

You see? Funerals make one think, and I do enjoy that.  

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Remember to email your praises and petitions to southchurchprayer@gmail.com. We lift them up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 4:00 pm on Facebook Live.