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From Scattered to Gathered: Part 2

This Sunday at Central will mark the tenth consecutive Sunday we have worshiped together online only. One more time we’re going to livestream the “assembly” from a nearly empty worship center to our scattered church participating in their homes via the marvel of the internet. We’ve added stage lights and changed the camera angles, we’ve manipulated the sound of the praise team  and paid careful attention to start and stop times, we’ve incorporated more videos of our own people from their own settings and been as interactive as we know how.

But it’s just not the same.

Christian author Brian Zahnd writes: “Virtual church is like a virtual beach vacation — it’s just not the same thing. A real beach vacation means sand between your toes. And real church means human contact and sacraments.”

Our online offering is pretty good. But it’s no day at the beach. As a church, we’re not gathered right now. We’re scattered. And, I’ll tell you, it’s not my favorite thing. But it’s not the worst thing, either. Because the Church is God’s scattered people, too.

Yours is not the first church that’s ever been forced to scatter. And this is not the first time in history the Church as a whole has been unable to gather. In fact, it happened early on. The very first church, that Pentecost church in Jerusalem, got scattered pretty quick. Stephen was stoned in Jerusalem for preaching the resurrection…

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church (assembly) in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church (gathering).” ~Acts 8:1-3

Randy Harris says if the Church only knows how to be Church in mass gatherings, then it was never really the Church in the first place. And I agree.

We are, all of us, each of us, saved by God in Christ and called by God in Christ for the sake of others. The Church of God exists as people on a mission, men and women saved and called by God to join God’s acts of salvation for others. And sometimes our assemblies have to be broken up by outside forces, we’ve got to be dispersed in order to remember that the Church is God’s scattered people, too. And he can work in powerful ways whether we’re worshiping together in the same rooms on Sunday mornings or not.

“Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” ~Acts 8:4-8

Think about those followers of Jesus in Jerusalem who had witnessed amazing demonstrations of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. The worship services at that church must have been over the top awesome. Peter’s preaching the Word as an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ. People are being healed. People are speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit is there in visible pillars of fire. They’re singing 19-verses of Just As I Am because hundreds of people are being baptized every Sunday. And no announcements! That’s an awesome worship experience!

And they were forced to give it up. But the church didn’t shut down. The church actually expanded.

“Those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch… telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” ~Acts 11:19-21

During the early weeks of the Covid-19 shutdowns, the most loving thing we could do for our neighbors and our community was to stay apart. To not meet. Which is so strange because God always calls us to community, to be together, to be present with each other — bodily, physically, face-to-face present.

But look what’s happened to us. All of us have been forced to not just talk, sing, and pray about the mission. We’ve had to live it. You can’t lean on the crutch, “Well, of course I’m a Christian! I go to church!” No, you don’t. Not right now. And our hearts and our lives have been refocused for the past ten weeks on the mission. We’ve been given the time, space, and circumstances to actually do what we claim to do, what we really want to do. We’re serving our neighbors, we’re checking on the elderly, we’re providing money and meals to the needy, we’re reaching out to folks we know who live alone.

Your church has not been closed, it’s been expanded into all of your neighborhoods. We’re paying closer attention to the vulnerable and weak, we’re all thinking more about the marginalized and compromised. And the Bible says if we’re not doing those things, then our worship stinks and it’s not doing us or God any good anyway.

Worshiping online from our homes has brought other unexpected blessings. Some of us have become more acutely aware that Christians all over the world are doing the exact same things we’re doing. We’re all singing awkwardly by ourselves in our homes. We’re all eating and drinking the communion meal with whatever we can find — Cool Ranch Doritos and a bottle of Pedialyte? Sure! It works! All disciples of Jesus are doing the same things right now, every Sunday, and we feel more closely connected to the global Church.

God has done some very surprising and glorious things while we’ve been scattered. And we praise him for that. He’s helped us be creative. He’s opened our eyes to people who need the Gospel. He’s stirred our hearts to be more generous and kind.

But God’s Church is at a handicap when we’re not meeting together. It’s part of our essential nature.

So how do we make the transition from scattered to gathered? And do we even want to?

If Sunday morning worship is a beach vacation and online worship is not — no sand between the toes; it’s not real — then what’s it going to be like May 31? Or whenever your church reopens for in-person worship? With all the distancing and masks and weird communion kits and a lot of our older brothers and sisters staying home, it’s not going to be a day at the beach. It might be more like sticking your finger in a jar of sand you brought back from South Padre four years ago.

That’s not great. We need to anticipate that it’s not going to be the same for a while. It’s going to feel very different. So do we even want to do it?

Peace,

Allan

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 1

Most churches are beginning to reopen for in-person Sunday worship. Church leaders are taping off pews, sanitizing doorknobs, and trying to figure out what to do with the kids. There are many questions that come as a church transitions from scattered to gathered in the middle of a global pandemic, some of them seemingly unanswerable. All of us are doing this for the very first time, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But one question that must be answered is this: Why bother?

Central is reopening for public worship next Sunday May 31. And it will not be like it was in February. In fact, it won’t be like it’s ever been in the 112-year history of this congregation. We’re asking our people in the at-risk categories to stay home. We’re blocking off two out of every three pews so we can maintain nine to twelve feet of distance between us. We’re wearing masks. We’re using those individually packaged “Rip n Sip” communion kits (yuk!). No Bible classes for a while, no children’s programming.

What is that going to look like? How is that going to feel?

Eric Gentry is a CofC preacher in Memphis, Tennessee and he wrote an article a couple of weeks ago asking this question: “Is there something about God, church, worship, or community that we are not experiencing now online that we will experience once we return, even under the restrictive conditions? If so, what is it?”

That’s probably the question we need to answer. Whatever “it” is, if we’re eager to experience “it” together at church, we should probably be able to define “it.” I keep hearing how desperate we all are to be back together in the same room, how we can’t wait to meet again as a church. But do we know why? Because when we do come back together, we’ll do so at the risk of compromising the health of our members and guests. It’ll cost us more money in utilities and cleaning than we’ve been spending for the past two months. And with all of us spread out so far apart and wearing masks and the weird communion, it’s going to be a diminished worship experience. It won’t be the same.

So, let’s work through this.

I believe the desire in us to assemble together on Sunday mornings is so deep and so strong because it is the very essence of who we are as God’s people. The Church is God’s gathered people.

In the account of the inception of the Church of Jesus Christ, the Bible makes clear that the people in Jerusalem that day had come from all over the known world. Acts 2:8-11 lists all the foreigners who were there the countries from where they came. The author doesn’t want you to miss it. God had brought these people together from all over and that’s when he established the Church.

Peter preaches that God’s Holy Spirit had raised Jesus from the grave and that Jesus is alive and reigning at the right hand of God and that the crucified Jesus is indeed both Lord and Christ. And three thousand people were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and they each received the gift of God’s Spirit living inside them. And they responded. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, guided by the power of the Spirit, notice how they lived and worshiped and served together.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:42-47

Our God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, has saved us and called us to be a gathered together people. Staying away from each other goes against our nature as Christians. It’s like a bird trying not to fly. It’s like Ted Nugent trying not to cuss. It’s not going to last very long. We must be together.

The literal definition of Church in the Bible is an assembly of people. The original Greek word is ekklesia. It means a gathering or assembly of people. You find it 111 times in the New Testament. Everywhere you see the English word “church,” it’s a translation of the Greek word for assembly.

David Watson writes, “The word ekklesia always speaks of the coming together of God’s people in answer to his call, in order to meet with God in the company of each other, and to meet each other in the presence of God.”

Meeting together — it’s the very definition of who we are. We are first and foremost a gathered people.

The Christian faith is an embodied faith. Coming together to share the same space, to breathe the same air, and to eat and drink the same meal embodies our incarnational God. In Christ Jesus, our God joins us in physical bodily form and calls us to also come together in community in one another’s physical, bodily, face to face presence. The things we do together like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and congregational singing are communal acts meant to be shared and experienced in community. We don’t baptize ourselves. We break bread together. We believe the Church, the assembly of God’s people, is a spiritual reality that is manifest and given its power in physical acts done by physical people in physical proximity.

Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I’m right there with them!”

I think that’s the “it.”

That’s what is so special about Sunday mornings together. It’s the unique presence of our God with us when his people all physically come together. It’s the powerful presence of God with his people on the Day of Assembly. It’s God himself eating and drinking with his people when they come together at Mount Sinai. It’s the Lord’s glory appearing in the midst of his assembled people during the appointed times. Being together in the same physical space in the presence of God — that’s the deal! That’s what we’re craving.

And you can’t get it online.

Peace,

Allan

Dear Valerie & David

Your wedding in the nearly-empty Central chapel Friday night was a beautiful event. It wasn’t the wedding we had been planning and paying for and praying about for the past several months, but it was sweet. And wonderful. And memorable. And I am so grateful to you both for the magnificent honor and great joy of presiding over the ceremony. Thank you for that blessing.

 

 

 

 

The way you two have handled the past three months together has been admirable. The way you’ve navigated the uncertainty together has been really beautiful. The wedding week and the ceremony itself are not what either of you had hoped for. But that’s just like marriage. Your lives together are never going to be exactly the way you plan. Things happen. Things change. Marriage is typically what happens while your plans are falling apart.

 

 

 

 

So much of this has been so up in the air. Where are you going to work? Where are you going to live? Tulsa? A third-floor apartment in Tulsa, Oklahoma? Nobody plans that! And the wedding dates and the changes and the three different sets of invitations and you two being apart and the government changing the rules in Texas and Virginia every two hours and trying to get the marriage license from the closed down Randall County Courthouse — it’s been completely nuts! Everything’s been on-the-fly and mostly out of your personal control.

 

 

 

 

But you two have handled all of the uncertainty and chaos so well because your love for each other is so rock-solid. Your love and commitment to each other is so stable and permanent and good.

 

 

 

 

I’ve done maybe 30-35 weddings in my life and I’ve never once read from 1 Corinthians 13. I think it’s overdone, personally. And if you’re not careful, it can sound cliche and expected and it loses its punch. But you two have been living this foundational passage, you’ve embodied it together, in front of everybody who knows you.

 

 

 

 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

 

 

 

 

That’s what God’s love is like for us — this committed, unshakable, sacrificial love that our Father in heaven has for all of us. And you two have demonstrated that same love. The way you’ve dealt with the past three months or so is going to serve you well in your marriage. Because life is mostly out of your control. Because your plans will sometimes fall apart and tough times are going to happen.

 

 

 

 

People get sick, people change jobs and move, people die. Cars break down, the economy tanks, kids talk back. The water heater breaks, the roof leaks, the toilet overflows — basically everything that has anything to do with water has the potential to wreck your life. And you two are going to have disagreements. It’s always something.

But when you come together on the same side to tackle a thing — that’s the way you do it. Your love for each other and the commitment to your relationship that we’ve all seen is going to serve your marriage very well.

 

 

 

 

God bless you both. And God bless you as one.

I’m looking forward to doing it again in two months.

I love you,

Dad

Goin’ to the Chapel

Wedding bells are ringing today for our daughter Valerie and her soon to be husband David. At 6:00 this evening, in the historic chapel at Central, we’re going to tie the knot in what is the first in a series of wedding ceremonies. Yes, two weddings. No one should be surprised. Valerie’s always been a little extra.

David’s parents and brother and sister and a couple of David and Valerie’s closest friends are defying the travel restrictions and breaching a few social distancing and masks protocols to be here for this important event. The “little” wedding. The official wedding tonight is the “little” wedding and the repeat wedding, the fake wedding in July, is the “big” wedding. So strange. There are going to be less than 20 total in attendance this evening, we’re saving the wedding dress and tuxedos for July,  no dance, Rosa’s for dinner, and the cake is coming from Walmart, not from Sugar Mama LeeAnn Clark in Marble Falls.

 

 

 

 

 

But it’s still going to be really sweet.

We practiced a little bit late yesterday afternoon. Valerie grabbed one of those over-sized flowers from the arrangements in the chapel foyer and we walked up and down the aisle a couple of times to “Wise Men Say” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” I think we worked through the awkwardness of me walking the bride down the aisle, giving her away, and then switching places with David’s dad on the stage to perform the ceremony. And I’m still a little worried about David’s friend, Anthony, not tripping and falling down.

Tonight David and Valerie are promising to give their lives to each other and to give their relationship to God. And we’re joining them in prayerful support as they share with us their love and joy and expectations. It’s going to be a special night. We’re very proud of these two, so blessed by God to have Valerie as a precious gift from heaven and to now have David as a permanent member of our family. May the love of God guide this relationship and all their relationships together. May the peace of Christ crown this marriage with great joy. And may their hearts and lives be forever united by the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

We’ll see everybody for real at the “big” wedding July 24.

Peace,

Allan

A Covid-19 Lament

Our church Communications Director, Hannah McNeill, and I took our church family through a lament exercise on this week’s Central Podcast. We looked at lament from a biblical view point and then walked our congregation through writing a personal lament prayer. I believe lament is the biblical and historical way God’s people have always worked through suffering and injustice. Lament is a holy way to process what’s happening in the world and in our own worlds so as to be both honest with God and honoring of God. It’s a mostly neglected form of prayer that feels especially appropriate and helpful during this season of suffering and loss. You can listen to the podcast here, download the worksheet here, and learn how to write your own psalm of lament. This is the prayer I wrote and shared at the end of the podcast.

Father God, you are the Holy Creator of Heaven and Earth,
you are the giver and sustainer of life;
you are our protection and provision,
you are the healer of all diseases.
You, O God, give life to the dead and call things that are not
as though they are.

So, where are you right now?

How can you allow the older saints among us to suffer so —
those with already debilitating issues,
those with compromised immune systems,
those who already struggle with so much —
how can you allow them to suffer even more with the fears and the realities
of this new virus?

Why are you allowing the socio-economic minorities to bear the brunt of this new disease?
Why do the refugees in the camps,
the orphans in the homes,
and the homeless in the streets
carry the weight of this worldwide pandemic?
Why are the people who need their jobs and the income the most
the only ones losing their jobs and income during this crisis?

How long is this going to last?
Our sons’ graduations have been canceled,
our daughters’ weddings have been postponed,
and our church hasn’t worshiped together in the same room for nine weeks.
Lonely people are lonelier,
sick people are suffering by themselves,
dying people are being buried without songs.
How much longer, O Lord?

This disease is making the division in our country worse, not better.
Our politicians are more on the attack and less willing to compromise
for the sake of the people.
We don’t have any answers.
We don’t know what to do.
We can’t make any decisions. Nothing is stable.
We can’t make any plans. Nothing is certain.
Everything feels out of control and up in the air.
Why do you just stand there, God, and do nothing?

Lord, in your kindness, would you intervene?
God in heaven, would you please do something here on earth?

Heal us, loving Father.
Drive this virus away from your creation, powerful Healer, and give us a break.
Have mercy on us, O God.
Show us your compassion and grace and destroy this disease
that is causing so much heartache and pain.

It is hard to feel your presence, Lord.
It is hard to know that you care.
This doesn’t feel like love.
This doesn’t seem very fair.

Good people are suffering, Father.
Don’t you see them? Don’t you care?

But, God, you are Emmanuel; we know that you are always with us.
We know that you suffer with us and care deeply for every part
of your creation.
We know that you are near.
We know that you listen to our cries for rescue and that you hear
our prayers of petition.
And we know that you care.
You are faithful and good, Father.
You have answered our prayers in the past,
and we know you will answer our prayers today.

Our trust is in you, O Lord.
We see you at work in the middle of our discouragement and despair.
Our society is paying more attention to the vulnerable and the weak,
our culture is celebrating acts of sacrifice and service —
you are the One causing that.

Our hope is in you, O Lord.
You are keeping our church family together
and working in us and through us to bless others.
Orphans in Kenya are sheltered and safe,
students at Bivins Elementary have food,
Amarillo heart doctors have masks,
our city’s needy have meals and money —
you are the One behind that.

Our faith is in you, O Lord.
You have revealed yourself to us in our Savior Jesus Christ,
and our faith is in you.
You have provided everything we have ever needed
and you have promised to provide for us today and forever.

Praise the Lord.
Amen.

Two Weddings and a Hexagon

Our middle daughter, Valerie, is getting married this Friday and it won’t be the kind of wedding we’ve been paying for and planning for the past several months. Social distancing and travel complications mean there will be fewer than two dozen of us  in the Central chapel. It’ll be a very small affair, just our immediate family, hopefully David’s immediate family from Virginia, a couple of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and our church Covenant Group.

Our great friend Dale Cooper was commissioned by Valerie several months ago to construct the wooden hexagon-arch-thing that will frame the stage for her wedding. And, of course, he did a fantastic job. He delivered it to the church building on Friday and it’s just perfect. Valerie even helped Dale screw it together.

This is where I’ll stand when I tie the knot for Valerie and David in four days. And then on July 24 we’re going to reconstruct the hexagon and do it again, this time with a much bigger crowd in a longer ceremony with music, dinner, and a dance; and grandparents, college friends, and people from Marble Falls, Mesquite, and Legacy we haven’t seen in years. This second wedding is the one we’ve been paying for and planning. This is the one we’ve been gearing up for and anticipating. This is the one Whitney’s been counting down every day for a year. But it won’t happen until July 24.

And that makes this week’s wedding kind of strange. It’ll also be weird to do it again in July.  Both of these weddings present their own unique challenges for the principle players and the families. But both of the ceremonies are very important. This week’s wedding is the official one with the solemn vows and the marriage license.  This one sets the foundation for their marriage:  the Word of God, the promises we have in Christ, the vows to love and serve the other in the name and manner of Jesus. The second one, two months from now, will be a repeat in some ways, but it’s just as important. David and Valerie need to celebrate with the people in their lives who have loved them and shaped them into the wonderful man and woman they are. They need to thank those good people and acknowledge the role each of them has played in nurturing them and caring for them through critical times in their lives. And those faithful people need to witness this ceremony and make their own promises to love and support this new couple. David and Valerie need to feel that, the weight of their vows in front of God’s gathered people.

So, it’s two weddings.

I’ve been worried about how I’m going to hold up doing this once, but now I’m doing it twice. I think I’ll charge Valerie double. And no matter how much fun it turns out to be, I’m not doing it again in September.

Peace,

Allan

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