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BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Accepting Hardship
Mar 30, 2020

I fret like a child when things are not going my way; (Psalm 37:1). I whimper and whine in my discomfort. I complain and cry out with indignation. Why me, O Lord?

This present crisis in my life is exactly that sort of time. Enforced separation from friends and family, canceled or postponed activities, and physical pain distracts me from my purpose. I feel cut off. It is hard to see outside of my own discomfort. It is challenging to see this hardship in a positive way.

I am not meant to be a baby or a little child all my life. God called me to a life of broader meaning. My mother and father enjoyed my precious infancy (I’m told). They were proud and amused by my toddler antics. But they did not want me to stay that way. They supported God’s will for me that I would pass through the fretful, colicky days of childhood and grow into a mature and godly man. God means for me to be transformed from a physical and emotional obsession into a spiritual and sanctified image of Him.

The hardships of life are demanding. They cry out for my full attention. They exert relentless pressure to attend to their demands. They are small demons of distraction that take my focus off the path of purpose, (the straight and narrow way).

But these hardships are not the evil that blocks my way. That evil is the one who bets with God against my soul (Job 1:8-12). Will I grasp and rely on the promises of God, or will I take a convenient remedy for my pain? Will I allow the difficulties to strengthen me, or will I give in and despair?

O Lord, will you activate your Spirit in me to see this present crisis as a benefit to my soul’s development, my mind’s transformation into the mind of Christ? Will you help me to look up into heaven and see that this physical world is unworthy of my best efforts? Will you enable me to devote my sorrows to motivating my renewal of faith in service to you? Thank you! I know you will, Lord, amen!

“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:2

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Home-Based Worship
Mar 23, 2020

With the current coronavirus concerns, we are meeting in house assemblies until further notice.  Changing the forum for our public worship can be enlightening, but also challenging!  We experience that church is the people––where before we only knew it.  But having experienced it, we may have some practical questions about how to conduct a home-based worship assembly. 

Most of us have not had much experience in home-based worship.  I want to offer some suggestions or observations from experience for your consideration.  I offer these thoughts as suggestions, not as mandates.  If any of my ideas clash with your theological views, adapt or ignore the suggestions as you wish.

Q:  Should we have a set start and finish time?

A:  Yes, and no.  Yes, you should have a set start time, but one of the advantages of a home-based meeting is that you do not need to be as strict with time because you know all the participants.  If someone is running late, wait for them.  As you can imagine, such a rule would be unworkable for our larger corporate assembly!  In a smaller setting, however, we can set a 10:00 start time and then wait for the one person whom we know is coming but for whatever reason is late. 

As for the finish time, I must give an ambiguous answer.  You do not need to have a set finish time, but it's probably good that the finish is clear.  In other words, I don't think we need to say “we're done at noon,” but we probably do need to be clear that the “assembly” has ended, whether that be 11:00, 11:30 or 12:30.  A closing prayer or a clear statement like “God be with you as you go in peace” can be helpful.

I don't like a clear finish time because I see what it has done to our gathered assemblies.  People start glancing at watches and squirming in their seats as we approach noon.  If there's not a preset finish time, that can be lessened. 

At one time, I liked the idea of the assembled time blending into a meal or other “post-assembly” activity.  I loved the idea that we experienced our lives as worship because the worship service never really “ended.”  As much as I still love that idea, some people crave clear borders.  Therefore, my experience says that it's good to have a clear finish, but not a preset finish time.

Q:  What about the kids?

A:  Ah, the perennial small group question!  Children are a wonderful addition to home-based groups with flexible structure and time expectations.  They are a little rougher on groups with a clear structure and preset time expectations.  My advice is to incorporate them the same way you do when company comes to your house.

When another family comes to visit us, I expect the children to gather with us while we share a meal.  I also expect that they will not hang around as much once adult conversation begins.  This does not mean they are shunned.  In fact, they may (often) interrupt that conversation.  The point is that there is no expectation that they will engage that conversation, nor is there great angst if they interrupt that conversation.  In a home-based worship assembly, we can pause to interact with dirty diapers, requests for drinks, and to admire artwork.  This is not practical in a larger assembly, although I still think we should show great patience with our younger congregants.  In a home-based worship assembly, we can sing children's songs and even have a side table for communion.  They can learn about God the same way they learn about other adult subjects:  by hanging around.

Bottom line:  don't run your home-based worship assembly in a way that makes your kids dread the assembly happening.  Instead, allow it to feel like any other time when good friends come over to share time with you.  The kids are being taught how to socialize and have good manners, but they are not expected to turn into little adults.

Q:  What should women be doing?

A:  Here, there may be some who do not share my theological convictions.  I ask you, though, to consider whether a home-based worship assembly might provide more freedom.  When visitors come over to your house, and weighty discussions take place around the table, do the women stay silent?  In the day when women were denied education, one would often hear statements like “this is a subject for men.  You don't understand this.”  Would anyone say that today?  About anything?

Similarly, Paul's injunction to Timothy in 2:11-15 is that women should learn.  I'm convinced that the point is that people who don't know what they're talking about shouldn't be teaching authoritatively.  (lots of discussion points here, but trying to paint the large picture).  So what would Paul have written years later presuming the women had been taught and had learned?  Again, if you don't buy this, I'm just asking that you consider it and think about it.  Why do women vote now?  It's not just that it seemed the right thing to do; it's that education was no longer the province of the male, and it just became untenable to deny that right when the logical basis for the bar no longer existed.

Think about all that and consider one more thing: most of us are comfortable with women speaking up in Bible classes.  Is a home-based worship assembly more like a Bible class?  Or a formal worship assembly?  And regarding that formality, where did it come from?  Were our assemblies ever to be formal?  Decent and in order, yes, but formal?

Bottom line:  I think a home-based format provides more opportunities for women even for those who would not do the same inside our auditorium.  I also do not think that anyone who does so “concedes the point” on the issue of what happens in our assemblies.  Homes are smaller, more intimate, and more personal.  I can understand why someone might persist in sincerely held beliefs that practices at home should be different than practices in the larger assembly.

Q:  What about singing?

A:  If you're like some families I know, make a recording and sell it once you're done.  If you're like other families, be kind to your animals and put them in the garage before you begin.  Seriously, the way we sing at home is largely affected by things like talent and personality.  Understand that the apostles did not sing in four-part harmony.  One of my faith heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, did not believe in four-part harmony.  He believed in unison singing.  For many home-based groups, this will be a practical necessity.  Everyone simply sings the tune.  For other groups, you may want to consider the way the early church sang:  by responsive or united readings of the psalms, and by sharing new words of new songs written by members.

You have a wide range of options.  You can use this as a time to dive deeply into the hymnbook of God's people (Psalms) with what we today would call corporate reading, or you can move to sing the melody together, or flat-out four-part harmony.  Instruments can be involved or not, according to your talent and convictions.  The point is this:  make music in your hearts to God.  Make him the Lord of your life and let your words flow out of that reality.

Q:  Can we do communion as a meal together?

A:  Absolutely.  Jesus established it as one course in a larger meal, and the early church celebrated it that way.  This is precisely why Paul needed to speak about people getting full and, or drunk at the Lord's Supper.  If you wish to have a meal together and have one course of it be the celebration of the Lord's body, you are simply returning to early practice.  The main point is, as often as you do this, do it in memory of Jesus.

Grace & Shalom,

Steve Kenney

 

 

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

God's Own Peacock
Mar 16, 2020

A few weeks ago, right after very difficult cancer surgery, I had a dream that has not faded and that has become more and more meaningful as the treatments continue.

In a fever-sick dream, I was walking to the doctor’s office and I didn’t want to go. I was very weak and sick. It was important for me to go even if I didn’t want to. It is odd that I was walking. It is also odd that I was in my pajamas and I felt afraid. The day was cloudy and calm, and I felt warm even in my pajamas.

As I walked along, I thought something was catching up to me on my left side. I was afraid to look. The first thing I noticed was the head of a giant bird. It had a fierce eye and I thought it was an eagle as tall as me. I was afraid to turn my head and draw its attention. It caught up with me and I saw that it was actually an enormous black and white Peacock. I turned my head and saw that it was at least twenty feet from its head to its tail. It was bowed way down so it could look me in the eye.

I know peacocks. Peacocks usually make a loud call like kids screaming on a playground, or like your basketball coach. This one was not like the peacocks I have known. He did not strut. He did not fan his tail feathers, and he was bright white and black as an orca. This peacock made no noise and he was a dreadful sight.

I kept walking. He kept up with me and looked me in the eye. I began to relax and feel more comfortable with “My Peacock." I noticed he had on white socks and black shoes with straps, not the usual four long toes with sharp claws. He walked almost silently but I could hear a soft rustling of those enormous feathers on his wings and tail, and his crest waved like six-foot feather flags.

I began to feel safe or even protected as we got to the doctor’s office, but the peacock stayed outside.

I had a very bad and uncomfortable time in the doctor’s office. It was painful and embarrassing. I was glad to get out of there. I could hear dogs barking outside. My peacock was standing there silently waiting for me with scared little dogs all around.

We were quiet and confident as we walked away together, leaving the noisy dogs and troubles behind.

Dreams are funny things. They create feelings that remain long after I wake up, sometimes. I can’t always remember the details in a dream, and they fade with time. This dream is still vivid, and I remember a little more each time I think about it, such as spiritual reasons for the walking shoes instead of the usual running, scratching and perching feet of a natural peacock. Maybe the shoes signify that the Spirit of God is always with us.

It seems like there’s something I’m trying to remember, but I don't recall it yet. It seems like the peacock did say something that I just can’t quite remember. Today it became more clear to me that the Peacock represents the protective nature and role of the Holy Spirit in my life, and even if he didn’t actually say anything out loud, the peacock gave me the strength to go where I did not want to go and confidence to do what I did not want to do.

God-dreams are like that.

O Lord, will you activate your spirit in me, not only for my comfort and protection but so that I may be a comfort and an encourager to others? In Jesus’ name, Amen!

 

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

How to Pray ...
Mar 02, 2020

How to pray for self, for others, for an end, for God’s will, for peace and acceptance of God’s purpose in suffering and trouble, acknowledging that his wrath is just, but his mercy is sure and his promises do not fail.

At this very moment, plagues almost biblical in their magnitude and terror for humankind confront us. Famine looms in Africa and Asia as locusts swarm in astronomical numbers, devouring whole crops before our very eyes. There are wars and rumors of wars.

A dreadful disease threatens millions with illness and ancillary hardships; cities quarantined, schools closed, travel curtailed or prohibited, markets disrupted, production suspended, medical facilities overwhelmed and unburied dead lying neglected for fear of contamination.

Furthermore, every evil devised by the devil seems to be bearing down on us. We are under relentless assault politically, economically, and socially. It is a spiritual assault by the powers of darkness. Our faith is being challenged. Is there anything we can do?

If by that you mean––anything we can do to save ourselves, I think not, but that is not our business anyway. That is God’s own purpose. He will take care of us as He always has. We are His treasured possession, and nothing at all can separate us from His love. Renew your hope, and do not lose heart.

During the black plague of 1630, Cardinal Federico Borromeo counseled his flock to “Be prepared to abandon this mortal life. Go toward the plague with love, like a prize if a soul can be saved for Jesus Christ. Stand fast and be faithful so that others might be comforted in their affliction. Provide solace to the church and in the church. Offer spiritual direction to others wondering how to confront crisis.” (The Betrothed, 1827, Alessandro Manzoni).

We may be the spiritual presence for others who are caught in the fearful agony of despair, not knowing what might happen to them. They need us, and God has prepared us to help them.

Let us pray for those who are sick and those who are afraid––that they may turn to Jesus for hope and a home in the kingdom of heaven. Does that sound trite to you? Try this; pray confidently with someone that you know is afraid. Let them know you have the assurance of your faith. You may be surprised by the impact of your faith. It isn’t the preaching or overt bible study that you’re offering now. It’s the shared hope of believers who have the confident assurance of eternal life.

You will meet people with all sorts of earthly concerns and commitments. Help them to understand that their death will certainly leave those matters in others’ hands. There is little you can do to save your stuff when the plague strikes you.

In hard times it often has been our highest mission to comfort others. Let us pray with them and for them. Many do not know how to pray, and they won’t have time to learn if they get sick. Pray for them.

You are a peculiar people, a holy priesthood, prepared by God to be His ministers to a lost world.

Thy kingdom come, Lord! Amen

Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:9; Psalm 135:4

BLOG––Encouraged by Faith

Draw Near
Feb 23, 2020

This week begins the liturgical season of Lent. It is a contemplative time of waiting for Easter, the glorious Sunday of Jesus’ resurrection. Although our group does not observe strict Lenten practices, there are benefits to preparing our minds and hearts toward God at this time. It can be a time of repenting, reorienting and refocusing ourselves toward the one we call the Savior. These remaining cold, barren days of the year may help us to renew ourselves so we may rejoice fully in the beauty of Easter.

In this spring renewal, as the natural world is full of death and dormancy, we can refocus on our own death to self and give ourselves over to the God who is able and willing to re-enliven us. Fallen brittle branches and leaves long shed in various stages of decomposition gaze back at their source, knowing new buds are straining through newly formed shoots. They are waiting to be renewed. Cold, weary hearts search for their source of love and life.

In a dormant time of year, when I no longer feel productive, I am more willing to approach God and ask him to take me back. I need him to refocus me. I feel the need at this time of year to be centered in him. Just as nature is revitalized in slumber and annual Sabbaths, so I can use this time to reorient myself to God’s voice. 

“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your

hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

James 4:8

God moves in closer when we make the smallest gesture. What an astounding truth! My prayer life may be dry and sporadic, but God will meet me there every time. My Bible reading may be hurried and cursory, but God leans in next to me until I learn to do better.

I cannot cleanse myself like James urges in the verse above, but I remember my baptism as the day of Christ’s death and resurrection. He is the one who purifies me, helping me to change into something new. This is where the grace of God constantly draws near to us. Just as the Father in the parable ran in full expectation of the son’s return (Luke 15:11-32), so God descends, whispering the Spirit’s kindnesses and reassurances. It is not enough for me to meet God like this one time. I must return. Again and again. It is part of my repentance and reorienting myself in Christ. I repeat it year after year, or hour by hour. God never wearies of leaning down to meet me.

Soren Kierkegaard says, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Here he is reminiscent of James, warning us of being “double-minded.”  For me, being “double-minded” might be an improvement. I tend to be “multi-minded,” fractured, which is probably why I can’t sleep at night. Purity of heart, single-mindedness, is to seek out and crave God.

As I approach the coming Easter, can I begin by drawing near to God, and waiting for him to bless me with a single-mindedness? He will deliver the renewal of the world and the joy of all of our resurrections. 

 

 

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