January 27, 2015

Please Adopt this 'People Group'

I want to share with you the story of (and request your prayers for) a people group that has been on my mind for some time, and that is desperately in need of the good news of Jesus. Actually, they would not technically qualify as an official people group according to the definitions of missiologists. But they are a specific community of folks who are urgently in need of the gospel. Read their story, and pray. And who knows? Perhaps God might call some who read this to go and minister among them!

According to one Christian man, who has spent over twelve years of his life among them, there are over 9,000 people living in this gospel-needy community. And, while there are some poor and downtrodden among them, many of the people are quite well educated and financially stable – so much so that perhaps their basic ease of life makes it that much more difficult for them to see their need of the gospel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is only one small gospel church within the community’s geographic bounds. And, while there are certainly true believers in the community who travel to other places to attend church, the aforementioned observer has only ever met a very small handful of them in his decade-plus living among them. Most of the people, according to his anecdotal observations, seem to have very little interest in eternal things. Door-to-door evangelism and occasional community events at that one little church have yielded very little apparent fruit. And so the community remains needy, and its inhabitants largely “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2.12).

And so might I ask you to pray regularly for this community, and for the little church that needs to be a city on a hill in the midst of it? And maybe some of you would actually considering going to live among them – not as official missionaries, but just as Christians. For it does seem that relationships among neighbors might be the way communities like this one will best be reached. So would you pray? And would some of you considering moving … for the sake of the gospel?

And I guess if I am going to ask you to move to this community, I’d better tell you where it is! Is it some neighborhood in Paris? Perhaps some suburb of Seattle, or some gospel-starved village in New England? It could be. But the community I’m talking about is called Pleasant Ridge. And the little church is our own. And the 12 year observer and resident is, of course, me!

And, O, brothers and sisters … I want you to realize that our church meets every Sunday in what seems to me one of the most lost communities in America! It’s not a bad community to live in, by any stretch. But it is largely a Christ-less one! For I scarcely ever meet another Christian in Pleasant Ridge, save for the handful of our own congregation who live inside it! And so I want to plead with you to pray earnestly for this 2-aquare miles of the city of Cincinnati in which our little church meets – that people from our very own neighborhood would begin to come to Christ and to fill these pews!

And (without at all laying a guilt trip on anyone) I want to ask some of you if you would consider, for the gospel’s sake, moving to this gospel-needy community.*  How might we be better able to reach this neighborhood if the majority of us lived within its bounds? How much easier might it be to invite your neighbors to church if they (and you!) lived only a few blocks away? How much more impact might our outreach efforts have if the folks who are on the receiving end actually recognize one or two of the faces among those who have come to sing Christmas carols, or to give out hot chocolate on St. Patrick’s day? And how much more likely might we be to pray for this neighborhood if it were our own?

So please, every one of you, pray for this ‘people group’ that is the neighborhood of Pleasant Ridge. Pray that our church will be a city on a hill to it! And ask the Lord if He might have you sink even deeper into the gospel needs of this community by coming to live among us!

*As the sentences after the asterisk probably make plain, this plea to move to our community is primarily addressed to members of my own congregation who, at present, travel into this neighborhood to attend church.  However, if there is anyone out there who might want to move from much further afield, be in touch!  And of course ... if that is not how God is leading you (to move to Cincinnati to work with us), would you consider moving a little closer to the meeting place of your own church, so as to be a more accessible witness in all the ways described above?

January 19, 2015

E Pluribus Unum

You’ve surely seen it written on the coins jingling in your pocket – this unofficial motto of the United States: E Pluribus Unum. It means, very simply: out of many, one. And it’s an apt description of what our nation has (imperfectly) sought to be.

But it occurs to me that this designation – E Pluribus Unum – is also a description of what the church of Jesus Christ ought to be, to an even greater degree than any nation state. In its worldwide scope, the church of Jesus Christ is (or at least is becoming) far more diverse than even the most cosmopolitan city or nation could ever be. For the church of Jesus Christ is destined to include “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5.9). The corridors of heaven, in other words, will make even the crowds at the Frankfurt airport seem slightly monolithic!

And yet the church is not simply made up out of many. It is also designed to be one. Across national, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, educational, and any other background … the church of Jesus Christ has been designed by its Maker to bring all these folks into “one body” with “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” and “one God and Father of all.” And we are one in all those ways, even with people we do not yet know! We are one with every true believer in the Lord Jesus, the world over!

And yet that does not mean that it is always easy to function as one, and to live as one, and to love as one. That often requires much more effort – especially on the local, week-to-week level; and especially when the only thing we seem to have in common with some of our fellow believers is Christ! He should be more than enough, of course! But sometimes it is hard to flesh that out.

And I write all this because I want to address an area of real blessing and opportunity (but also concern) in our own little local church. We at PRBC are not, of course, anywhere near as diverse as the worldwide body of Christ. But we are more diverse than the average congregation of our size, I’d imagine. Just in the last two Sundays, we’ve had seven different nationalities represented in our services! And I am counting only those who were born overseas! And have you noticed that we have also begun, in recent years, to have a wider demographic spread when it comes to things like age, education, income, career, Bible knowledge, church background, and so on. And then there is the geographic spread of where we all live, scattered far and wide across this large metropolitan area.

All of these things combine to make us quite an eclectic gathering of folks – which can be (for both pastor and congregants) a bit unnerving … but also glorious!

I lean heavily toward glorious! I think it is a marvelous thing that our little church is growing, more and more, to reflect the diversity that we will see in heaven. I consider it a complement to our long-time members that so many people of such diverse backgrounds have felt welcomed in our midst. And I am certain that it is the power of the gospel, and the solid food of the word of God (and not our ‘style’), that has made it all happen. And that is quite satisfying, too.

But I have to tell you that the diversity of our congregation is also unnerving to me. Not in and of itself … but because I know that E Pluribus Unum is a difficult reality to hold together on the most practical levels. Because isn’t it easier for the long-time members to still mainly gravitate toward the other long-timers that they already know quite well? And isn’t it most natural for the young to congregate mostly among themselves? And isn’t it hard, sometimes, to know what to talk about with someone whose background is so different from your own? Maybe not because you’re prejudiced, but just because you honestly have no idea what sorts of things you might have in common. And I fear that for our church. I’m a little worried that we could slip into a handful of cliques that worship together, but little else. Or that we could become largely a preaching station where many people come and get fed, but have fairly little real knowledge of or fellowship with the nice folks just down the pew.

So what am I saying? I’m saying that, by God’s grace, we have the E Pluribus part working pretty well. Our little church really is composed out of many. But I’m concerned that we don’t just presume upon the Unum – the oneness! And I want to urge you not to presume upon it yourself. In fact, as you read this, I want you to get up from where you are sitting and deliberately go sit next to someone whom you don’t know that well. Maybe you don’t even know their name! Find it out today. And find out a little about them. And make sure you pull out of them at least one way in which you can be praying for them in the days ahead. And then do the same next week, and the next.

And especially do so at the fellowship meals! These can be some of the best times for getting to know people! But they can also be some of the loneliest and most discouraging if you are one of the people whom no one seems to want to get to know. Do not let that happen – either to yourself, or to your brothers and sisters in Christ! Sit with someone you don’t know all that well – every. single. time. – until there is no one left that you don’t know, and don’t know how to pray for!

And if, as you sit down, you’re nervous that you won’t have much in common, and that you won’t know what to talk about … remember that there is at least one thing (one Person, really) that we all have in common. Jesus!  And so, if you don’t know what else to talk about, you can always share with one another how you came to know Him! And you’ll realize, more than you did before, that you really are family. And you’ll begin to be able to converse about other things, and what’s important to you, and how they and you relate to God. And the Unum will begin to happen … “on earth as it is in heaven.” Aim for that in 2015. E Pluribus Unum!

January 13, 2015

The Colors of Winter

Some days I look out my window, and absolutely love the winter time! When the ground is blanketed with snow, and that whitest of carpets is muting the sounds of the world round about, and all is quiet, and still, and bright … on those days, I am certifiably in love with winter! Especially with a warm mug of apple cider in hand!

But then there are other days, when the snow is gone away, and the landscape is a barren brown, and the sky is a lonely gray, and the scene outside my window is frankly hard to look at. Sometimes it can tempt the soul to morph into the same cheerless tones.

But the varying colors of winter all have their place. Both the sparkling white and the desolate brown of winter have their place in God’s plan.

The white we contemplated on a Wednesday night a few weeks ago – as a picture of the forgiveness of our sins (Isaiah 1.18), and as a reminder of the radiant glory of our God (Daniel 7.9-10, Revelation 1.12-16). Read those passages again … and think about them the next time the yards begin to be filled with snow. Do not look on the falling flakes merely as an obstacle to your commute, but as a real-life illustration both of the glory and of the gospel of our God!

But what about winter’s brown? What’s the point of that? Is there a point to all this bleakness? Well, the prophet Isaiah would remind us that the browns and beiges of the winter scene are there to remind us of our own mortality (Isaiah 40.6-7):
“All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.”
With Isaiah’s explanation in mind, I’m not sure the browns and beiges of winter are supposed to necessarily be beautiful. We should still see the handiwork of God in them, of course. And there is always a splendor in that! But the darker tones of winter are in total contrast to the verdure and green of the spring and summer! And they are meant to be! For they are the colors of withering, and of death. And God included them in His color pallet, and paints them onto the canvas each winter, to remind us that there will be a winter for us someday, too. There will be a time when our own bodies will wither just like the last roses of autumn. “All flesh” – your flesh and my flesh – “is grass”. And the fact that this is so should motivate us to hope in something more permanent; something that will last; something that is evergreen amidst the barrenness and russet of winter. And Isaiah tells us what that something is (Isaiah 40.8):
“The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.”
Here is our hope in the midst of a world in which everything will eventually fade to winter – “the word of our God”, which is ever green, and never languishing through a winter season, and always producing fruit! And for those who put their hope in that word – and in the incarnate Word about whom it is written – well, for them, the winter will indeed be only a season. The grass of our flesh will indeed wither. But in the springtime of Christ’s return it will sprout anew, never to fail again.

So, if you belong to Christ, you need not fear the withering of your flesh, nor close the shades to the barren colors of winter that foreshadow it. For your sins have been washed “as white as snow”; and your flesh will someday sprout afresh from the earth like the flowers of spring. And the grey of winter will forever give way to the full light of the Son.

January 5, 2015

The Hobbit, the iPhone, and the Gospel

One of the pleasures of our family holiday time was working our way through all three cinematic volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien's (and now also Peter Jackson's) The Hobbit – the third and final one in the theater. But I finished the series feeling a little out of sorts. ‘There’s no adventure anymore,’ I said to Tobey. Most of our lives are just pretty routine, aren’t they? No quests or battles, no great stories to tell. Just day-by-day stuff. But ‘I need some adventure’ I said to my wife after the third movie was complete.

Well, little did I know that adventure was waiting for me the very next morning! I was on my way home from the gas station on New Year’s Eve morning when I realized that my phone was not in my pocket. Perhaps I hadn’t taken it, I thought. But I got home as quickly as I could just to make sure. It was nowhere to be found. So I sped back over to the gas station to see if it had turned up there. ‘I’m sorry … but I haven’t seen a phone’ the girl said. So back home I went … to pull up the phone’s location on Apple’s handy-dandy Find My iPhone feature. You punch in your password and voila, up comes a map, complete with street names, satellite imagery … and a little green dot hovering right where your phone happens to be!

And here is where the adventure really begins. The little green dot was not hovering over our house, nor over the gas station property which had been my only stop that morning. It was several blocks away from the station, outside a fast food restaurant … and resting still. Stolen! So I snatched up Tobey’s phone (so I would have email capability while on the go), stationed her in front of the Find My iPhone page on the laptop, and gave her instructions to send me emails updating me on any movements. And off down the road I went again … this time into the restaurant parking lot where I began to look in garbage cans and along the street outside. Nothing. But then an email from Tobey … the phone was moving! ‘Heading down this direction on such-and-such a street, toward so-and-so avenue. Now turning left … left on X street … four houses down from the corner of X street and Y … now five.’ I tracked down the address (now several blocks away from the restaurant), got out of the car, and knocked on the door in question. No answer. Then more emails. ‘The phone is moving again … this time apparently on foot … across the street and a few houses down. Now it looks like the assailant is in the backyards, moving back and forth between X and Z streets.’ I made way toward the new location, and began stopping pedestrians to ask if they’d seen a lost phone (really, to see if any of them began acting nervously when I asked them about it!). No one claimed to have seen anything. Eventually I began making my way through three backyards that were unfenced and bordering a little cut-through between streets. I dialed my number, and heard the phone ringing! And there it was, resting on a little tuft of grass at the base of a tree trunk in someone’s backyard. I snatched it up, very happy, and headed home … thanking the Lord for His mercy in restoring my phone.

I had asked for adventure, and now I had gotten it! A little miniature private investigation (or a quest, as I like to think of it!) … with me playing the part of Tolkien and Jackson’s heroic characters, and taking back what had been stolen!

I was satisfied.

But I got to thinking about what spiritual lesson there might be in this quest; in my ardor to regain my phone. And first I thought about how, if I can pursue something so trivial as a phone so avidly (even to the place where it could have gotten dangerous … for a thief may also be a ruffian!); if I was willing to pursue a cellular telephone with such gusto, what about perishing souls? And what about God Himself? And those are good lessons!

But then it occurred to me that the better parallel might be the connection between my little quest, and the parables in Luke 15 – the shepherd looking here and there for his lost sheep, and rejoicing when it is found; and the woman turning the living room inside out until she finds her lost coin. And the lesson behind those stories of Jesus? That this is what God is like – dogged in His quest “to seek and to save that which was lost.” And that is the lesson of my New Year’s Eve adventure. My little quest gave me just a tad more insight into the parables in Luke 15, and thus into the passion of our heavenly Father to track down lost souls.

And mine was, I say, a little quest. For I only had to drive a few miles to track down the missing phone. But Christ left heaven itself, and came all the way down to this creaking old planet of ours, in order that He might track down lost sinners and bring them home. I spent maybe an hour altogether, looking for that phone … but Christ spent 33 years living without sin that He might save me, and the Father has been at work in this grand plan since Genesis chapter 3! And, of course, though the assailant may have been a ruffian (and I contemplated very briefly that getting the phone back might lead to a scuffle), Christ came “to seek and to save that which was lost” knowing that it would cost Him His very life’s blood! And He did it! 

His was the great quest … the one that makes all others, in life and in fantasy, pale in comparison. May God give us grace to love Him for it!