Giving thanks

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

Psalm 118:1

 

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to remind ourselves what we’re thankful for. Some years I make a list. It gets long, including family, good health, friends, plenty of comforts of life, and many other things.

I am thankful for all of that. I never want to take any of those people, including you, and things for granted.

This Bible verse gives a slightly different take on thanksgiving. It reminds us where all of our blessings come from.

So often we keep our eyes on things of this world. That’s a downer for me. It’s easy to see the divisions, crimes, political correctness (in every area of life, including sports) and self-centeredness that dominate American culture.

Children and teens abuse cell phones. The internet features judgmentalism and pornography. Television shows off plenty of flesh and violence. So do the movies, adding cussing as routine language far too often.

But phones, computers, TVs and movie screens are inanimate objects. Technology itself is neither bad nor good.

What we do with them determines their usefulness to us.

Can we be thankful for our technology?

I’m thankful for my laptop, because that’s how I connect with many of you. I value your friendship, even if it’s primarily online.

I don’t have to agree with you politically or in other ways to keep you as a friend. I look for common ground, even if we see life differently.

How can I do that? Because the God of the universe created us both. You are my brother or sister, really. We have the same Father, even as we have different fathers.

I am thankful for that this holiday season. More unites us than separates us, if we choose to see life that way.

Every one of us entered this world the same way, and each of us will return to dust. We do many things to prolong our lives, but the end is inevitable.

That’s not morbid. That’s fact. Indeed, that’s a good thing, from my perspective. I often see this world as a downer; heaven is the opposite. I’m excited to get there one day.

The LORD is good, the verse from Psalm 118 says. Many of us don’t believe that, but I do. When looking solely at this world, we can’t trust anyone anymore, can we? No one is good.

But the living God is.

How do I know? Because his steadfast love endures forever. That wonderful sentence is repeated throughout the Psalms.

Steadfast: Not subject to change.

Love: Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.

Endures: To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.

Forever: For a limitless time.

Aren’t those definitions worth giving thanks for? They came from the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1991.

The sentence came from God, the definitions from a secular dictionary. They go together, don’t they? That’s the way God works.

Steadfast

With people, change is good – because we know we have messed up our lives. Even if we won’t admit it to each other, we know it’s true. To worship a God who never – never – messes up is beyond our comprehension, really.

No temptation affects Him. No anger forces Him to lose His temper. Judgment, yes; condemnation, no.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Jesus was around before time began (John 1:1), and He will be around after time ends (read the book of Revelation). As our creator, He knows our deepest needs and wants to meet them – if we let Him.

Love

Love takes many forms, of course – most of them selfish. We give hoping or expecting to receive something in return. That’s why we hurt each other; there’s no way another person can meet our deepest needs and desires.

That’s why we need to look up. I give thanks to the God who loves me the way I need to be loved.

And because His love is steadfast, it’s there even when I don’t feel it.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus, in Mark 3:35

Kinship is bestowed on those of us who do what God wants us to do. As kin, we will receive an inheritance one day.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ …

Romans 8:15-17

We are adopted children. Parents who adopt choose to do so; in the same way, God has chosen us. The inheritance He offers us is far better than anything our parents can bestow on us, because material things won’t last forever. Neither will we, on Earth.

We know this, don’t we?

Endures

The dictionary definition of endure is eye-opening: “To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.”

It’s not keeping the same job for 40 years, or the same marriage for 50. Endurance requires suffering.

A good friend has had debilitating headaches since he was 14. He’s in his early 80s now. Several of you endure chronic pain with no end in sight. I cannot imagine that kind of endurance.

When Jesus Christ suffered taunting, a crown of thorns, 40 lashes and death by crucifixion, He suffered in ways we can’t begin to understand.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Jesus, in Luke 22:42

To willingly accept suffering on our behalf, even when He knew it would kill Him, is steadfast love that endures.

Forever

We don’t think of the afterlife this way, but we should. Our time on Earth is finite; again, we know this, if we’ll stop and think about it.

Then what?

Is this all there is? Really?

Such a downer that would be.

There is more. So much more.

“… he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

John, in Revelation 21:4

This is only the beginning of what heaven will be like. It’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

This is what I’m thankful for this week.

Bonus: I’m now ready for Christmas.

Re-thinking church in an inner city

I’ve never been involved in a church plant before. There’s plenty of hope and excitement, but we don’t even know all the challenges we will face.

Our multi-campus church is planning to open a new campus in Lorain, Ohio, a self-described “international city” of about 63,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie about 30 miles west of Cleveland. As of 2016, whites comprised 51.7 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 29.1 percent, blacks 14.5 percent and “two or more races” 3.1 percent.

http://www.city-data.com/city/Lorain-Ohio.html

I’m interested in this because my wife and I raised our three sons at an inner-city church in Saginaw, Michigan, with similar demographics to Lorain. Now that they are grown and on their own, I have more time to devote to this.

To learn more about planting a multi-ethnic church, the Lorain campus pastor and I attended a three-day conference on the topic in Chicago. It was eye-opening.

As a former newspaper guy, I took lots of notes. Here is a summary from the plenary speakers and workshop leaders I heard:

Church and society

If we want to be a multi-ethnic church, then the dominant culture cannot be more than 80 percent of the church. Research shows that if visitors see at least 20 percent of people in their ethnic group attending, then they feel like “members” and not “visitors.”  We should be strategic about seeking 20 percent of an ethnic group if we truly want to be multi-ethnic.

For some people, society does not work – economically, medically, socially, religiously, etc. These people do not trust any institutions. Church plants will take a long time for these people to trust. They may reject institutionalism, even if they hunger for God. To reach them, we might need to change the way we do church – why 11 a.m. services? Why does communion happen weekly or monthly? Etc. These are not wrong, but they are not in the Bible. What’s Biblical, and what’s cultural?

The new national divide is achiever vs. non-achiever. Achievers value the individual; non-achievers value the society. Most non-whites (as well as whites) are achievers. Achievers are mainstream; non-achievers live in the sub-culture.

Doing church

One speaker said white pastors are excellent at “three-point sermons with seven sub-points.” That’s fine, but that’s not how black preachers preach. If we want to reach black people, this might become an issue. Another example: Hispanics will show up late, then they will stay late. That’s their culture. We might need to re-think the way we do church.

moody4

The traditional church model: Meet Jesus, attend church, connect/serve/give, go into the world. This isn’t working; it’s too shallow.

The new model: Meet Jesus, attend church, deep change, go into the world.

How to accomplish deep change? We need to meet emotional, social, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs – all of them.  Which means all of those needs in my life, as a leader, must be met as well, or I will not be an effective leader. The Mary-Martha struggle: When are we focused on our actions at the expense of spending time with Jesus?

This is not a quick fix. It’s hard. It takes time.

Most people in our cities aren’t thinking about repentance, but about where their next meal is coming from. We must disciple them to conversion. We must offer Bible nuggets that people can relate to. “There’s a guy in the Bible who understands what you are going through …” (This means we have to know the Bible well, of course.)

Value in all cultures

Whites frequently will not get involved in a church (or any other organization) unless they lead it. Several speakers made this point. Whites often don’t leave room for other ethnic groups to lead – or if they do, they must follow the examples of whites. We often do this unconsciously.

There is no assimilating into one true culture in heaven. All cultures are good. Faith brings out the best in all of them. Every culture has stories to tell.

How much of church planting is led by whiteness? Most of it. It’s a strange mix of benevolence and oppression. This has become the only story. How do we liberate from whiteness (or any dominant culture)? According to the Bible, we die to it. We are not to assimilate, but to create a new story.

Jesus’ blood is the new story, for all cultures. His death and resurrection is the great equalizer for all of us. Jesus didn’t ask us to become Him. Instead, He became one of us.

Those of us in the dominant culture often forget that we have a culture. Everybody speaks with an accent except me, for example.

Marginalization happens when people are minimized in different ways. Marginalization often leads to oppression, which is defined as sin plus power.

Jesus went to the margins. He was surrounded by sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and women and children. All of us need to go there, too.

Jesus gave us a table, and all the chairs around it are on the same level. No high chairs and low chairs. Everybody drinks from the same cup, and we share germs. All ethnic groups are equal before God.

History is not over

Blacks’ history is slavery. No other immigrant group can say that. We heard first-person testimonies from several ethnic minorities who have experienced racism in their lifetimes. My wife has a co-worker whose boyfriend is black. He recently was talking with several friends in the parking lot of the apartment complex in Lorain where he lives. Another resident of the apartment complex called the cops on him. His crime? Being black and talking with his friends. It happens still today, even in Lorain.

As white people, we cannot deny that these things happened, and are still happening. If we want to reach this population for Christ, we need to meet them where they are.

Perceptions

lasalle street

Another cultural difference: Whites often see themselves as a collection of individuals. Blacks see themselves as a community. This is crucial to understanding how we communicate differently.

For example, a white police officer in Houston recently killed a black man in his own apartment. Blacks wanted the world to feel his suffering and pain. They wanted pastors to talk about that the following Sunday. Our reaction as whites? We want more facts. Give us the details of what happened before we react.

This is huge. We must understand this difference.

Critique the culture

Cities – with density and proximity – amplify the opposition to the gospel.

There is little social pressure anymore to attend church. There are four basic religious beliefs, but some Americans don’t even have these:

  1. There is a god.
  2. There is moral truth.
  3. There is sin.
  4. There is an afterlife.

How do we evangelize in this setting?

We must critique the culture. The standards our culture offers don’t work. If your career is your primary motivator in life, what happens when – not if, but when – you lose it? If it’s to be a good person, you’ll never be good enough (maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you lusted? This is Jesus’ standard.) If it’s freedom, you aren’t, and you know it. If you live for money, you’ll never have enough. If you seek beauty, you’ll never feel beautiful. And on and on.

But if you serve Jesus, you’ll get forgiveness when you fail.

There are no merit-based scholarships in heaven. Only grace.

Also, there is no defense against:

  1. Prayers of the saints.
  2. Love of the saints.
  3. Wise application of the word of God to your concerns.