A friend of mine, a music teacher in Indiana, is working on a master’s degree in his field. Recently, he talked with me about what he is reading and learning in his studies: specifically, the importance of posture.

For an orchestra conductor, posture is extremely important. Every arm movement, every change of stance, even the most minute of gestures can communicate messages instantaneously to the members of the orchestra. Bad posture leads to bad conducting, because the messages communicated by the conductor are confusing and inappropriate. Good posture requires the coordination of many muscle groups throughout the body, which in turn requires exercise and discipline. Conducting is no simple task, and conductors must learn how to pay attention to their posture at all times.

I am concerned that Christians have bad posture when it comes to the LGBT issues that we are facing these days. Continue reading

This week, we conclude our brief look at forgiveness, the theme of our sermon series during the season of Lent.  In Ephesians 5:8-14, we find a clear call for people who have been forgiven:  that we should live as children of light, having nothing to do with the deeds of darkness.  What does this look like, and what does it all mean?  Listen in to Pastor David’s message on this passage:

Listen now!

Changing Colors

It’s that time of year again – those few weeks, here in central Michigan, during which millions of leaves change color and fall to the ground.  This could cause a number of reactions within you:  anticipation of the winter months that lie ahead; excitement for the prospect of earning money by raking leaves; or simply amazement at the colorful beauty of the earth.

photo by Knowsphotos

I have been struck by this beauty in the past week or two.  Even on my short walk from home to the church, I can see many shades of red, yellow, orange, and purple – all signs of the changing seasons.  Have you ever wondered about why leaves change color in the fall?  It has been a while since I studied trees in elementary school, so I Googled the subject and found 38.7 million results.  It’s a popular subject!

As you may remember, leaves are green because they contain chlorophyll, a pigment  crucial to the process of photosynthesis.  Chlorophyll helps plants create energy from sunlight; it absorbs light with wavelengths in the red and blue areas of the spectrum.  But chlorophyll reflects green light, which is why living leaves look green.

The trouble is that chlorophyll constantly decays, so it must be constantly replaced by plants.  All spring and summer long, chlorophyll helps plants store up energy so that they can survive the winter.  But when the days grow shorter in the fall and sunlight becomes less readily available, plants stop producing chlorophyll.  At that point, leaves begin to die, slowly lose their greenness, and change into colors that really have been there all along but were covered up by the green pigment.

If you are sensing that I might turn this into an analogy about our spiritual lives, you are figuring me out:  there’s a sermon in everything!  However, I don’t want to compare our lives as believers to the changing colors of leaves for two reasons:

  • Spiritual life is not cyclical.  While trees go through this process year in and year out, we are not guaranteed regular, recurring periods of “spiritual dryness.”  There may be seasons in which we wander in the wilderness, but the light of God does not take a winter-long vacation from us.
  • The sin nature is not always lurking, buried deep within us.  If we think of “green” as “life in Christ” and “red/yellow/etc.” as “sinful living,” then we might reason that our sinfulness is always buried just beneath the surface; if the greenness ever fades away, our “true colors” will show.  But this is not the case.  Salvation is about the gift of a new identity; our sins, red as scarlet, have been washed away by the blood of the Lamb, making us white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).  We may turn from Christ and return to sin, but it is not as if sin were lurking inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to take over.

Take a minute to read John 15:1-17, in which Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches.  One thing is for sure:  leaves (branches) do not stand a chance of surviving if they are disconnected from the tree (vine).  Let’s stay green (bear fruit); let’s remain connected to Christ and to each other.  Let’s continue to find new ways to love each other during the changing seasons of our lives!

–Pastor David

The Institution of the Church

What does the title of this article mean to you?  Does it bring to mind any images, people, or customs?  Does it evoke feelings in your heart, either positive or negative?  Or is it a foreign term to you because of the vagueness of the term “institution”?

When I use the phrase “the institution of the church,” I am referring to the necessary structure that develops among Christians of similar theology, history, and practice.  Let me unpack that a little bit:

photo by foje64
photo by foje64
  • “Necessary structure”:  Just as people gather to live in neighborhoods, villages, towns, cities, regions, and nations, so do all human organizations.  Any organization, if it is going to maintain its identity and purpose, must develop some kind of structure to keep itself going into the future.  Over the course of time, the earliest Christians developed a structure to keep themselves afloat in the world; today, we call this structure the Roman Catholic Church.  Even our brand of Christian faith, the Church of God Reformation Movement, has developed structures and systems that support the identity and purpose of this movement.  That development began back in the 1910s and really flourished during the mid-1900s.
  • “Similar theology, history, and practice”:  Christian groups vary widely in these three categories, and perhaps others.  But when believers have these in common, they tend to stick together.  They have campmeetings and conventions; they have unity services and missionaries; they trade pastors and, all too often, church people.  They might even work together on joint projects, like we did in Guatemala with Meridian Church of God earlier this year, and like we did with two other Church of God congregations for the Global Gathering last month.  The structures we develop support and protect our investments (material and spiritual) in our beliefs, our shared history, and our shared experiences.

This is all well and good.  But many people today have been driven away from God because of the problems in the institution of the church – whatever its label.  And this isn’t good.  In our humanness, we create issues that cause people to turn away from God.  We argue among each other; we criticize those who disagree with us on political issues.  We discriminate against those who aren’t like us; we harbor jealousy of those who are successful.  We distrust those in power; we fail to consider the needs of “the least of these.”  And all these things can occur within one particular church group – I know, because I have seen them in the Church of God itself!

Yet I do not run away.  I remain committed to the Church of God (and to the Mt. Haley congregation in particular) because I believe in the Church of God’s theology, history, and practices.  I find the institution frustrating at times, but I also find it incredibly valuable because it connects me to something bigger than myself.  And at the same time, I constantly work to remember that the Church of God is connected to something bigger than itself as well.  We speak openly about salvation, unity, and holiness with Christians in our own fellowship and those in other backgrounds.  We do so because we share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6 NIV) and we take seriously Jesus’s prayer that we might all be one (John 17:22-23).

With all this in mind, I invite you to read two more articles, these written by good friends of mine, Joe Watkins and Jael Tang.  They are two of my “people” – the group I’ve mentioned to you before, my seminary friends who form for me a special community of support, inspiration, and challenge.  Please take a few minutes to read what they have to say; I promise it’s worth your time.

Read Joe’s blog here: http://www.noggingrande.com/2013/07/10/three-reasons-its-cool-to-love-the-institution-of-the-church/

Read Jael’s blog here: http://akandatang-luke5.blogspot.com/2013/07/where-we-come-from-institution-and.html

–Pastor David

At the Name of Jesus

The italicized hymn lyrics found below were written by Caroline M. Noel (1817-1877).  I invite you to meditate on them with me.

At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him King of glory now;
‘Tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning was the mighty Word.

Philippians 2:1-11 teaches us that one day every knee will indeed bow at the name of Jesus.  The one whom we remember in the current seasons of Lent and Resurrection is the very Word of God (John 1:1), who has existed with the Father and the Spirit from the beginning.

At his voice creation sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces, all the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations, stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders in their great array.

We frequently remember Jesus as the creator of all things that we can see:  the sun, moon, and stars; the trees, flowers, and oceans; the horses, dogs, and cats.  Yet scripture teaches (Colossians 1:15-16) that Jesus is the creator of all things, both visible and invisible.  This Jesus is the one who holds all power and authority in his hand.  Nothing in this universe has power to do anything outside the scope and wisdom of the authority of Christ.

Humbled for a season, to receive a name
From the lips of sinners unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious when from death he passed.

This season is crucial for us as believers.  We take special care to tell the story of Jesus:  from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, to Resurrection Sunday and beyond.  Yet what a mystery it is that this is the same Jesus who created the universe!  “Humbled for a season,” he took a human name through his life, death, and resurrection.

Bore it up triumphant with its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,
To the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.

Soon after his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven, where he now sits at the right hand of God the Father.  Can you imagine what that ascension might have looked like?  We often think of heaven as a “perfect rest”; read Hebrews 4 for a beautiful passage on that topic.

Name him, brothers, name him, with love as strong as death,
But with awe and wonder, and with bated breath;
He is God the Savior, he is Christ the Lord,
Ever to be worshipped, trusted, and adored.

“Love as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6) is exactly the type of love that Jesus showed for us (John 15:12-13).  Let us always remember to approach our Lord with humility, respect, and sacrificial love.  The above verse is, I believe, my favorite of this hymn’s seven verses!

In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
All that is not holy, all that is not true.
Crown him as your captain in temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you in its light and power.

In the Church of God, we call this “holiness” or “sanctification.”  Those who come to believe in Jesus as Savior still have something left to experience:  the complete removal of “all that is not holy/true” by the power of Christ.  Our complete hearts and minds are to be turned over to the Lord, so that his will becomes the course of our lives.

Brothers, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
With his Father’s glory, with his angel train;
For all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow,
And our hearts confess him King of glory now.

Until that day, when Jesus will return in his glory, we remain faithful.  Be encouraged, brothers and sisters:  the story of Jesus is true, and it is Truth.  Confess Christ as “King of glory” (Psalm 24) every day, and allow him to continue to transform your lives!

(Here’s a video of a choral arrangement of this hymn.)

–Pastor David

Ash Wednesday

photo by Sarah Korf

Today is Ash Wednesday, which falls forty days (excluding Sundays) before Easter Sunday.  Traditionally, this begins the season called Lent, an intentional time of prayer, fasting, repentance, contemplation, and meditation on Jesus’s death and resurrection.  A broad majority of Christians begin that season today.

You may notice some folks with smudges on their foreheads; those are ashes that have been applied to believers’ foreheads as a sign of their repentance and humility before God.  I remember seeing a college student of mine some years ago come into math class with ashes in the shape of a cross on her forehead.  She was always kind and respectful in class, but her demeanor seemed even more sincere and thoughtful on that day.

The Church of God does not always make a big deal of Ash Wednesday.  In fact, this will be the second year that our movement engages in a new program called “Focus 40,” which begins next Wednesday and counts forty days (including Sundays) through Easter Sunday.  You will hear more about Focus 40 very soon!

Why is Ash Wednesday so important?  What’s the big deal about ashes on the forehead, anyway?  The whole practice has to do with a correct understanding of ourselves.  All of us have sinned, and we all fall short of God’s glory.  The death and resurrection of Jesus is an event to celebrate, to be sure, but it also encourages us to be mindful of ourselves as sinful people who have been redeemed at great cost.

Just after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, God sent them out of the garden and explained the curses that would follow them for the rest of their lives.  In Adam’s curse, God states that the man will have to toil and labor as he works the ground for food.  This is because Adam was taken from the ground; “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19 NIV).

Friends, remember that our need to work hard in this world is a result of our sinfulness before God.  Our sins have real consequences that affect our lives.  And our sins had real consequences for Jesus, as well, who went to the cross on our behalf so that our sins might be forgiven and that we might live holy, God-pleasing lives.

Perhaps it would be good for us to wear ashes on our foreheads all the time, if that would help us remember our position before God.  Be blessed in this season of preparation for Easter.

–Pastor David

Cleaning up the mess…again

One of the joys of dog ownership is cleaning up after the dogs when they’re sick.  Wait, did I say “joys”?  I meant “trials.”  This time the culprit is our girl, Lindy – I think she may have picked up a bit of a bug, or perhaps she ate too many blackberries from our back yard.  In any case, the past week or so has been less than pleasant for all of us.  But as I cleaned up after her for the third or fourth time, I thought to myself, “There’s a sermon in this.”

No matter how many times Lindy makes a mess in her crate or in our mud room, Tara and I will clean it up.  We’re certainly not happy that she does it, and after a while we’ve come to realize that she doesn’t do it on purpose.  That helps to reduce our anger toward her; in fact, when I was cleaning up after Lindy this week, I found myself feeling sorry for her that she felt so sick.

Theologically speaking, the correlation between my relationship with Lindy and God’s relationship with any of his people is pretty weak.  In fact, the analogy breaks down at a fundamental level.  We often do make messes of our lives:  not simply through mistakes, but through something quite displeasing to the Lord – sin.  I imagine that our propensity to sin again and again smells pretty rotten in God’s nose.

But sin isn’t quite like Lindy’s sickness.  While my dog might get sick because of something she ate, we sin against God willfully, deliberately, on purpose.  And to our shame we find ourselves continuing to sin even after we initially accept God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.  (Remember my understanding of holiness:  we do not become “perfect” in the sense of never sinning again; our perfection lies in wholeheartedly loving God and other people.  Sin is still a possibility for those who have been saved.)

How amazing God’s love and forgiveness are, given this recurrence of sin in our lives!  I willingly clean up after my dog when she has an accident; God willingly forgives our sins even when we offend him intentionally.  I love my dog and remember that she does not mean to make my life difficult; God loves us even though we make his life difficult.  God cleans up our messes time and time again – thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Friends, remember that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in love (Jonah 4:2).  Remember that the Lord calls us to live holy lives and that he desires for us to live free from the power of sin.  And remember God’s words of comfort and challenge found in Romans 6, which is your reading assignment for this week.

–Pastor David

On the Earthquake in Japan

Nearly a month has passed since the massive earthquake off the eastern coast of Japan, and the situation there has shown few signs of improvement in recent days. Not only are the people dealing with the loss of life and destruction due to the fifth-strongest earthquake in recorded history (and the subsequent tsunami), but they are also struggling to contain enormous amounts of radiation from various nuclear reactors in the area. What are we to make of these events? How should we as followers of Christ respond? We have a number of options:

Response #1: This is a sign of the end times. I don’t believe this is the case. Although Jesus did mention earthquakes and wars and famines in Matthew 24, we also read in 1 Kings 19 that God is not always to be found in natural phenomena. God created this world, but he created it to be constantly changing: seasons, tides, warming and cooling periods, and even earthquakes. If anything, Jesus’s words in Matthew 24 challenge us to remain faithful to him even when tragedies and suffering occur in our own lives – not just in the world around us. The technological advances in our culture allow us to see events all over the world almost instantaneously; I do not believe that the events themselves are any more significant than they have been throughout human history.

Response #2: We should spiritually support the people of Japan through this crisis. This is certainly a reasonable response, especially for people of faith. We have brothers and sisters in Christ in all parts of the world, so our extended family has been affected dramatically by recent events in Japan. We should mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice; we should lift up to the Lord those who are suffering through grief, destruction, and radiation poisoning. Prayer is a powerful tool, and we should not limit our application of prayer to our own personal needs.

Response #3: We should financially support the people of Japan through this crisis. This brings up the issue of stewardship of resources. The Lord has blessed us tremendously, whether we realize it or not. Consider this: have you thrown away edible food in the past month? If so, then you are quite rich when compared to the rest of the world. We have the ability to give to charitable organizations when disasters occur; last year’s earthquake in Haiti is a prime example. However, we need to take into account the financial situation of the people who are suffering. Haiti and Japan are in two very different financial positions. Japan is much more likely to be able to take care of its own needs; our charity and financial support will be more useful in other situations, even those in our own communities.

Response #4: We should prepare for the unexpected in our own lives. I think this is the most healthy response for us today. I don’t mean that we should stock up on canned goods and medical supplies, just in case the unthinkable happens in our part of the world. What I mean is this: we should be in constant relationship with the Lord, continually turning from sin and pursuing holiness. We should be ready to stand before the Lord as a result of tragedy or sacrifice at a moment’s notice. And we should make the most of every opportunity to share the message of Jesus Christ with those around us who are not in relationship with him. Even helping with the real-life issues facing people in our community is a way for us to witness to the reality of Christ, as long as we do these things in his name.

Your reading assignment for the week is 2 Timothy, the second letter written by Paul to Timothy, the young church leader. It’s only four chapters long, so see if you can read it all in one sitting. As you read it, ask yourself this question: what does this letter say our response should be to a world that is falling apart?

–Pastor David

Is Christ’s Mission Our Mission Also?

During the past several weeks, our Sunday morning sermons have focused on the mission of Christ as revealed in the first few chapters of Matthew.  Why did Jesus come?  What did he preach?  What was important to him?  Now that we have finished that series, it’s time to pull these pieces together and see how our Lord’s mission relates to our own.

  • Christ’s mission was to fulfill the Old Testament expectations of the coming Messiah, the Savior for all people.  This truth gives us exceedingly great joy as we do our work in the kingdom.
  • Christ’s mission included human participation:  Jesus was baptized by John as a sign of his alignment with God’s purposes.  In the same way, each of us is essential to the work that God calls us to do in today’s world.
  • Christ’s mission was to preach a short, simple message of repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of God.  At the same time, he established the faith community that has grown into a worldwide enterprise today.  Our mission is the same: to preach a simple yet powerful message, and to live in a community marked by repentance and discipleship.
  • Christ’s mission included powerful healing acts so that the message of the kingdom of God might continue to expand.  We are called to proclaim the God who can do the impossible: even to be crucified on our behalf and to rise from the dead in victory over sin and death.
  • Christ’s mission was to show us that “the good life” is found in our connection to something greater than ourselves: namely, the very life of God himself.  Our mission is to live the truly blessed life – and to invite others to join us on this journey.
  • Christ’s mission showed us what true obedience to God’s law looks like: authentic obedience without legalism.  We are called to live the same way, as salt in a flavorless world and as light to reveal truth to a world living in darkness.
  • Christ’s mission was to bring about unity and holiness in the church, because the stakes of disunity and sinfulness are frighteningly high.  Our mission is to live in such a way that the world can see these two principles through our fellowship and community.
  • Christ’s mission was to challenge the people of God to be perfect as their Lord is perfect.  This perfection is not restricted to moral choices, like we often think today; instead, it has more to do with God’s completeness and his ability to love those who do not love him.  Our task is to grow into this image every day.

Is Christ’s mission our mission also?  Absolutely!  Jesus changed the world through his years of ministry and his self-sacrifice on our behalf.  And he would not call us to do something that he is not willing to do himself.

Brothers and sisters, as we consider the mission of our congregation, let us keep the mission of our Lord directly in front of us as we walk together in faith.

–Pastor David