Category: Church (Page 1 of 58)

Formed in Community

I was looking through my closet this week for a 56-year-old piece of paper I want to read to our church this Sunday when I came across the first Bible I ever owned. My parents gave it to me on my sixth birthday, almost fifty years ago. This is the Bible I had when I was a kid growing up in the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ in Dallas. I wrote a lot of notes in the margins of this Bible. Back then it was two Bible classes and three sermons per week – no children’s worship. We sat through all of it. And I looked up every Scripture and I wrote a lot of notes. You can read the notes in my Bible and tell how I was raised.

Next to Psalm 51 I wrote, “This is not original sin.” In a couple of places that describe the musical instruments in the tabernacle and the temple I wrote, “Doesn’t mean we can use them now.” Every single page of the New Testament in this Bible is highlighted, marked up, or underlined. There are also lots of handwritten notes.

“When we work God’s plan, God’s plan will work.”
“You can’t kill time without injuring eternity.”
“You can’t die in Christ unless you live in Christ.”
“A fellow wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.”

There’s a picture of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and I’ve circled the Lord’s long blonde¬† hair. On the other side of the page is a picture of Jesus standing before Pilate. I’ve circled his long hair there, too, and written, “I Cor. 11:14 – God wouldn’t go against his own writings so Jesus must have had short hair.”

I don’t make fun of the notes in my first Bible. I’m not ashamed of them. Everything in this first Bible reminds me of growing up in that Pleasant Grove church and brings to mind really happy memories for me. This Bible reminds me that I was raised by people who loved me and taught me and cared about me and passed the Christian faith on to me.

This excellent reproduction of a Joe Malone sermon illustration, drawn when I was fourteen, reminds me of the sayings he would repeat on rotation at least every four or five sermons. Little ditties like, “Let one drop the sidewalk smirch, and it’s too wet to go to church.” I also remember the good-natured teasing he gave me when I wore that arrowhead necklace from Avon when I was eleven or twelve. I remember bugging him in his office during those summer days while my mom was working as the church secretary. I don’t remember him ever being annoyed.

I wrote, “Mike made me mess up” next to a really crooked underlining. That reminds me of my friend Mike Cunningham. His dad, Chuck. They hosted our youth devos. I traded a magic kit to Mike for his ELO “Time” album in 1981.

I remember Aaron Welch. He’s the guy who picked people to pass the Lord’s Supper trays. He always did it the same way. He’d come up to you before church started and say, “Old man, you wanna help us with the Lord’s Supper?” It didn’t matter that I was twelve. He thought it was funny to call Todd and Mike and me old men.

Jim Martin was one of our regular song leaders and I can still see him leading “Trust and Obey” as I walked down the aisle to be baptized when I was eleven. His middle finger was always oddly set a little lower than the rest of his hand.

Tillie Prosser was a high school music teacher who taught us boys how to lead singing in an upstairs classroom at 5:00 on Sunday afternoons. Her favorite song was “He Keeps Me Singing” and we all led it together at the start of every class. When we sing it today, I still hear Sister Prosser’s voice, counting the beats, reminding us to hold it out, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know, two, three, four.”

Kayla Casebolt was the Sunday School teacher who had a giant sandbox in her room where she used little plastic people and animals to tell the stories.

Van and Laura Simpson drove us to youth rallies and Summer Youth Series.

Glen Burroughs taught our high school class and taught me how to drive a stick.

The first time I ever led a prayer during Sunday night church I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach the microphone. It was the closing prayer and I was extremely nervous. I must have been eleven or twelve. I couldn’t see anything over the massive podium. When it was over, Johnny Cobbler approached me in the long hallway from the worship center to the south parking lot doors. Johnny Cobbler was one of the cool teenagers. He had a car and I perceived him to be the alpha leader of the youth group. I was both obsessed with him and frightened of him. He laughed at me and said, “Did you lead the closing prayer? Somebody said you led the prayer, but I couldn’t see anybody up there!” And then he shook my hand and said, “It was a good prayer.” There must have been four dozen people who told me I led a good prayer that night. But I remember Johnny Cobbler.

I remember one Sunday night during my senior year of high school when I accidentally wore a Huey Lewis and the News t-shirt to serve the Lord’s Supper to the reprobates who had been providentially hindered that morning. One of the elders, Kenneth Lybrand, told me after church that it wasn’t right. I shouldn’t wear a shirt like that to serve the Lord’s Table. And I remember Elaine Titus overhearing Brother Lybrand and telling me a few minutes later that it was fine. She told me she could tell I was up there to serve the Lord and it didn’t matter what I was wearing. That meant so much to me. I also remember that Brother Lybrand is the one who gave my parents the money to adopt my little sister Sharon. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

That church raised me. Those people shaped me. A lot of my ideas about God and Christ, a lot of my understandings about salvation and love, a lot of what I believe and some of what I push back against goes back to the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ. A lot of who I am in Christ today goes back to that community of faith at P-Grove that raised me and shaped me in Jesus.

You’ve got a lot of little kids in your church. I know you do. Lots of boys and girls between the ages of five and fifteen who will never forget the things you say to them. The attention you pay to them. The way you make them feel. The time you went out of your way to assure them they are an important part of your church family. Or those other times. Those other things you said.

They’re all paying attention this Sunday. And they remember.

Peace,

Allan

Life, Light, and Love

“What is good for us always comes by three unequivocal words: life, light, and love. Defending life, witnessing light, living out love; these remain forever. They are the specific duty of anyone who calls upon God, following Christ’s unmistakable example.

An assembly where people do not love each other, where they accuse each other, where there is rancor or hatred, cannot call itself Christian.

A person who keeps silent about the truth, who hides the light, is not Christian.

A people which kills, which deteriorates the quality of life, which suffocates the poor, which is not free, is not a Christian people.

This is terribly costly. It is drawn from the silence of God. It calls for swimming against the stream. It demands lengthy prayer. And no fear.”

~ From The God Who Comes, by Carlo Carretto

God’s Not Finished Yet

The little kids’ T-shirt is right: “Be patient, God’s not finished with me yet.”

We could/should all wear those shirts. All of us. Everybody. We should repeat the phrase to ourselves and declare it out loud to anyone who is listening. Be patient, God’s not finished with me yet. He’s not. Be patient with your church, God’s not finished with it yet. Be patient with your elders, your preacher, your small group leader, the people in your Bible class – God’s not finished with them yet.

The Bible says we are in a continual process of being transformed. We are being transformed into Christ’s image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord. It’s an on-going act upon us, something being done to us. We are being transformed. And we know this. God is patiently working to transform us into the image-of-God people he saved us and called us to be. So we can afford to be patient with each other because we know we’re not done yet.

I can’t walk into the kitchen and pull Carrie-Anne’s lasagna out of the oven and criticize it because it’s watery or flat if it’s only been cooking for three minutes. How can I criticize it if it’s not done yet? How can I make any judgment? We don’t put baseball players in the Hall of Fame after just one season. A graduate from medical school isn’t doing open heart surgery the next morning. Lance Armstrong didn’t win the Tour de France the first time he rode a bike – he had training wheels!

How can I ever judge you? It’s not like God is finished with you. He’s still very much at work. How can we fuss at each other or get frustrated with people in our churches? God is still changing you. He is still changing me. We are always becoming who we are meant to be. But certainly none of us has arrived.

So, let’s cut each other some slack.

Peace,

Allan

Pray for Kharkiv

I know you are aware of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the death and devastation unfolding on the streets and among the people of its cities. I know your heart is heavy. And I know you are in prayer. Me, too.

All war is sinful and tragic. All violence is decidedly against God’s will. The right thing to do today is to pray for God’s peace, to pray for the people on all sides of this unholy conflict, to ask God to intervene and stop the madness.

As you are doing that, would you please pray for some very specific people in Kharkiv whom Carrie-Anne and I love?

Back in 2010, my wife and I spent eleven days in Kharkiv, a fairly major eastern Ukrainian city about 20 miles from the Ukraine-Russia border. We were there to visit and encourage David and Olivia Nelson, a sweet missionary couple we were supporting from the Legacy Church. We love David and Olivia. We missed them terribly in Fort Worth and were very anxious to spend the time with them. What caught us off guard was how much and how quickly we grew to love the Ukrainians there.

I don’t know where any of these people are today. I don’t know anything about them or their families. But I am talking to our Lord about them today and I hope you will join me. I can’t get some of these people out of my head today. Or my heart.

I’m thinking about Andrei, a funny little guy who looks like Billy Crystal but who thinks and talks like he just stepped out of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Super smart. Whoa. Andrei had only been baptized about seven months before we arrived and he was on fire for our Lord. He took off work one day to walk Carrie-Anne and me around Liberty Square and through some of the 500-year-old cathedrals. Andrei also drew blood when he beat my back with a ceremonial branch at a Ukrainian sauna. I think it was meant to honor me. Maybe.

I’m praying for Valerie and Julia. Valerie was my interpreter when I preached and taught during our time in Kharkiv. I remember having to wait on him while he came up with the Russian words for my American phrases like “wrapped around her finger” and “jump for joy.” He told me there is no Russian equivalent for “compels” as in “Christ’s love compels us.” A big red-headed dude who looked like he could suit up and play for your college alma mater right now. Very gentle and kind. He wanted to become a preacher. I have no idea if he did.

I’m thinking about Alexander, a dentist and oral surgeon. He told me in front of everybody that drinking diet soda was bad for my teeth. He spoke really good English except when he said the word “naked.” When we were reading Genesis 1 out loud he kept saying “nak’d,” just one syllable.

I’m praying for Yelena, David and Liv’s Russian language teacher. She taught Carrie-Anne and me the only Russian we know. We still say “lublu” sometimes, the Russian word for love. And Victoria, the elementary school teacher. Robert, the preacher at the Baptist church on the west side of town. Sergei, who once served hard time in a Ukrainian prison, preaching at a Christian church of about nine souls on the northeast side of Kharkiv.

I could write more about Vitali and Galina, Nikita, Masha, and Kevin.¬† I taught Kevin how to throw an American football with a spiral – I don’t think his real name was Kevin. I learned to tolerate chicken-flavored potato chips. I nearly threw up when David forced me to drink a glass of Kafir. We laughed when we learned the local beautification ordinance meant that everyone had to paint their houses and sheds the same color of gray. I could spend a whole post recounting our worship times together, listening to my Eastern European brothers and sisters sing “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Lamb of God” in Russian. About sharing the bread and the wine together at that tiny church building near Aptarski Lane and in the Nelsons’ living room.

We rode the subways where, today, people are huddling together and hiding from the tanks and the missiles. We hung out at the coffee shops that, today, are boarded up and abandoned. We shopped and laughed with the Nelsons’ neighbors at that massive downtown Kharkiv market that, today, is empty.

That was almost twelve years ago. I don’t know where any of these good people are today – if they are still living in Kharkiv, if they are safe, if they are scared, if they are okay. I am praying for them and their families today and for all the people of that great city where I witnessed first hand our God saving people and advancing his Kingdom.

You might be connected to Ukraine through Our House and the Gospel work done for so many years in Donetsk by Tony and Shanna Morrow. I know the Morrows came back to Abilene a few months ago. I found out today that Bill Hayes got out three weeks ago. But I don’t know anything about the community of teenage orphans they established there.

Maybe you’re connected to the people of Ukraine by Eastern European Missions. Maybe you’ve sent Russian and Ukraine language Bibles there.

Pray for the people of Ukraine today. Pray for our Christian brothers and sisters over there, six thousand miles away from Texas, and in so much danger and peril. Pray that the war would end, that all hostilities would cease, that all pain and death and demonstrations of power and force would disappear from that whole region. Pray that God’s will would be done in Ukraine and Moscow just as it is in heaven.

Do not put your trust in politicians or their positions, in armies or their weapons, in generals and secretaries or their strategies and plans. Put your trust and offer your prayers to the One Sovereign who alone can stop the senseless violence against innocent people.

“God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations;
God is seated on his holy throne.’
~Psalm 47

Peace. Seriously. Peace.

Allan

An Invitation to Ash Wednesday

This post is mainly for all us Church of Christ lifers.

Our resistance to liturgy is ironic; we are a highly liturgical people. We are comforted by the words “separate and apart,” we draw strength from “guide, guard, and direct,” and we believe the sermon will be better if God will only give the preacher a “ready recollection.” We must hear Acts 2:38 in church at least monthly. We must eat and drink the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. And we have our hard-held creeds. We “do Bible things in Bible ways and call Bible things by Bible names.” We know “the church is not the building, it’s the people.” We have our five steps of salvation. We know 728B. Three songs and a prayer, to us, feels like church. I could go on and on and so could you. We have a liturgy. We have our creeds. Yet, we’re so uncomfortable with liturgy. And creeds.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We come by it naturally. Our movement has traditionally and, largely uncritically, rejected almost all forms of Christian liturgy as symbols of religious excess and tools for clerical abuse. As non-Scriptural innovations. As rote formulas and meaningless ritual. Most of us can’t help the way a memorized creed or a written prayer makes us feel. We were raised to believe it wasn’t real, it didn’t come from the heart, unless you made it up on the spot.

Let me invite you to participate in an Ash Wednesday service somewhere next week.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, the season of repentance and prayer and fasting before Easter. In the early decades of Christianity, this 40-day period was observed by candidates for baptism, which was typically reserved for Easter Sunday. In the third and fourth centuries, people who were separated from the Church because of sin – the early “backsliders” – observed a season of Lent as they were restored to fellowship. Then, over time, the Church recognized that it would be good for all Christians to practice regular seasons of repentance, prayer, and fasting. All Christians need to be reminded that repentance is a daily exercise, not a one time event. Every day is a dying and a rising, a dying to self and a rising to new life in Christ. All Christians need the assurance of the forgiveness and salvation that is promised in the Good News, that was accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. So, I would encourage you to find an Ash Wednesday service next Wednesday and go.

It might be a brand new thing for you. It might be a little strange. It might be really beautiful. You might learn something, you might see something, you might hear something or experience something that could really bless you and increase your faith.

They’re going to put ashes on your forehead. Let them. Be open to it. See what happens.

The ashes serve as a physical reminder of the Gospel. They remind us that we are human – ashes to ashes and dust to dust. We are fallen and frail, we are sinful creatures in dire need of a Savior. They also serve as a physical manifestation of the repentance and sorrow we feel in our hearts because of our sin. In the Bible and throughout world history, ashes have always symbolized repentance. Why not participate in that godly practice? The ashes also remind us of the centuries of burnt offerings sacrificed by God’s people and point us to the Promised One of Israel whose once-for-all sacrifice on the cross surpasses in glory anything ever offered by a priest. The ashes are merely a physical representation, a practical proclamation of everything we believe in our heads and hold dear in our hearts.

Here in Midland, our Church of Christ at Golf Course Road is partnering with our brothers and sisters at First Presbyterian Church in a joint Ash Wednesday service next week. As it turns out, their pastor Steve Schorr and that congregation are just as passionate about tearing down the walls between Christian denominations as I am and we are at GCR! (I’ll write more about this in the next day or so.)

If you’re a CofC’er out here in West Texas, I’m inviting you to join us for the Ash Wednesday service at First Pres. If you’re reading this from somewhere else, I’m inviting you to find a church in your town that observes Ash Wednesday and join them. Go with a group of people so you can process it together afterward. Ask God to speak to you during the service, to reveal himself to you, to grow your faith in him, and to strengthen the bond you have with all disciples of Christ throughout all Christian denominations. And as you leave the assembly, be resolved to remain in the Word, to continually self reflect, and to be in constant prayer.

Nothing will be off the cuff. It will all be carefully scripted. And maybe, just maybe, by God’s grace and power of his Spirit, it might be exactly what you need.

Peace,

Allan

A People People

The dinner parties with Jesus remind us that we are living the way God created us and saved us to live, not in solitude or isolation, not by ourselves, but in community. We are saved by God and called by him to live in deep connection and relationship with others.

Think about it: Every single time anybody asked Jesus, “What’s the single most important command?” he refused. No, no, there’s not one important command, it’s two! Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbor the same way. Jesus made it clear that you can’t do one without the other.

We need God, yes. And we so desperately need each other. Jesus Christ is a people person and the Kingdom of God is a community of people people. The research bears this out. Especially in light of the global pandemic, the studies are showing that people are much healthier – physically, emotionally, mentally – when they live and work and play in tight connections with other people. You’re going to live longer, you’ll have fewer issues, if you do life with other people. It has very little to do with diet or exercise or health habits. According to the data, you’re better off eating donuts with a group of close friends than eating broccoli by yourself! Now, that’s a theology I can embrace!

That’s what Jesus is showing us with these dinner parties. The Kingdom of God is lived and practiced and experienced in community with other people.

Peace,

Allan

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