Here’s the poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that I recently shared at the Memorial Service of a member of our congregation. It’s titled, “Two Kinds of People.”
“There are two kinds of people on earth today,
Two kinds of people no more I say.
Not the good or the bad, for it’s well understood,
The good are half bad, the bad are half good.
Not the happy or sad, for in the swift-flying years,
Bring each man his laughter, each man his tears.
Not the rich or the poor, for to count a man’s wealth,
You must know the state of his conscience and health.
Not the humble and proud, for in life’s busy span,
Who puts on vain airs is not counted a man.
No! the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, the people who lean.
Wherever you go you’ll find the world’s masses
Are ever divided into these two classes.
And, strangely enough, you will find, too, I mean,
There is only one lifter to twenty who lean.
In which class are you? Are you easing the load
Of the overtaxed lifters who toiled down the road?
Or are you a leaner who lets others bear,
Your portion of worry and labor and care?”
Here’s to a great day of living as a lifter!
“In his Pulitzer Prize winning book on leadership, James McGregor Burns offers advice to those faced with this dilemma: “No matter how strong the yearning for unanimity…(leaders) must settle for far less than universal affection… They must accept conflict. They must be willing an able to be unloved. The recognition that they will not be universally loved despite their best efforts may trouble leaders initially; however, once they come to accept that truth, it can be quite liberating.”
–from Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, by Richard DuFour and Rebecca DuFour
Each of us have experienced the pain that comes into our hearts when someone we love passes from this life. We are too familiar with the experience of mourning: black clothes and black cars; hushed voices that whisper in solemn tones; flowers whose brilliant colors are drained as we view them through an endless flow of tears. It is hard to let go and hard to say goodbye.
The school bus drives down the street but no longer stops in front of the house.
Rush hour traffic dwindles into twilight, yet no car arrives in the driveway.
Busy feet rush through the back door, yet there is no kiss of welcome.
And worst of all, there’s an empty place at the table.
Death brings questions. We should not be surprised that there were questions raised surrounding the death of Jesus. Three such questions were offered at the dawn of the first Easter.
The first question was “Who will roll away the stone?” (Mark 16:3)
In rural areas of the country, many country folk have a simple tradition. One the calendar its called Memorial Day. But for an older, more agrarian culture its called Decoration Day. It’s a time when people got to modest cemeteries and place flowers on the headstones of friends and family. Those marble monuments, tombstones we call them, stand on bright green grass, freshly awakened from winter’s sleep. To the right, there is a stone that marks the separation of a husband and wife. To the left, a stone that marks the separation of a parent and child. Across the well measured row stands another that marks the separation of a friend who took the time to share the joys and sorrows of life.
When the body of Jesus was taken down, it was laid in a borrowed tomb. A stone was rolled across the entrance, symbolizing the separation of our Savior from his family and followers. As the women prepared to make their way to the garden tomb, they were well aware that a stone of separation would block the way. “Who will roll away the stone,” they asked?
And it’s a fair question for us even today. Who will roll away the stone, and end this great enemy of life? Is there anyone who can roll away the stone?
The second question offered was “Why seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:6)
Imagine that! The body of Jesus was missing! He had told them he would rise again, yet in their grief they are not thinking of the promises of God. They’re thinking of their present problem. A graveyard seems like an illogical place to look for life. It is a place representing the mortality of our lives. But if you pause and think for a moment, isn’t that exactly what so many are doing today?
Some seek meaning in life through relationships or in other people. Some seek purpose from obtaining a promotion or a position of prominence. Others seek life by obtaining possessions or acquiring enough wealth to secure their futures. For others still, life is best found through pleasure or some new experience.
Trying to find the meaning and purpose of life among these things is like seeking the living among the dead. It’s like sticking a plug into a dead outlet. It looks good, but there is no power. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. The problem is, they never were intended to deliver what we hope they will. We find ourselves bored and disappointed when they don’t deliver, and then it’s on to the next thing.
The final question was “Why are you weeping?” (John 20:11-13)
It’s interesting that this question was not asked on Friday.
On Good Friday, Jesus was
On Friday, it appeared as though all was lost. On Friday, there was bad news. There was suffering, death, sorrow and fear. Friday was the day for tears.
But the good news of Easter is that Jesus only needed the tomb for the weekend!
On the first day of the week, the one who laid his life down willingly took it back up again and rose victorious over sin, death and the grave! Jesus died our death so we could live his life forevermore!
Who will roll away the stone? God rolled away the stone, not so that Jesus could get out, but that the world could see in. That stone of separation was moved so that we would come to understand that our earthly separations are not final. They’re only temporary.
But what about the other questions? Are you seeking life among things that were never designed to deliver it? It’s always easier to see it in someone else that in ourselves.
Why are you weeping? We may weep in this life, but we do not weep as those who have no hope.
I recently received my copy of the National Congregations Study due to my participation in the process. The NCS was directed by Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religious Studies, and Divinity at Duke University. The study gathered information from 3,185 congregations from across the religious spectrum. What follows are some of the important results from the research.
1. The number of congregations claiming no denominational affiliation increased from 18% in 1998 to 24% in 2012.
2. White mainline congregations, and the people in those congregations, are older than the congregations and people of other religious traditions.
3. Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations. The average congregation is getting smaller, but the average church goer attends a larger congregation.
4. People in smaller congregations give more money to their churches than do people in larger congregations.
5. Worship services have become more informal and expressive.
6. 10% of church goers worship in a multi-site congregation.
7. American solo or senior pastoral leaders are more ethnically diverse and older, but not more female than they were in 1998.
8.Food assistance is by far the most common kind of social service actively pursued by congregations, with more than half listing food assistance among their four most important social service programs.
9. 13% of all congregations are led by a volunteer solo or senior pastor.
10. Women could, in principle, serve as a senior or solo pastoral leaders in 58% of American congregations. However, only 11% of those same congregations have a woman serving as a solo or senior pastor.
What do you think? Any surprises?
For years I had thought of compassion as a feeling or attitude toward someone who was in a difficult if not reversible situation. As I observed the person’s plight, I could easily be moved to feel something sympathetic. If you were to ask me if I thought I was a compassionate person, without hesitation I would have said, “Of course.”
As I have matured through the years I have learned that compassion is a word that calls us to act, not just feel. This is clearly exemplified in Jesus’ healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4.
Lepers in Jesus’ day were societal and spiritual outcasts. Because they were regarded as contagious, Levitical law required them to tear their clothes, cover their mouths, and declare themselves “unclean” to any non afflicted person who may be near. They were required to abandon family and friends and live in colonies outside of the community. Because they were ceremonially unclean they were forbidden to participate in worship or attend synagogue. The Bible doesn’t say how long this particular leper had been sick. One wonders how many birthday parties or little league baseball games he had missed.
In his desperation he approached Jesus for help. Jesus’ response chronicles what true compassion looks like. First, Jesus touched the untouchable. Verse 8:3 states that Jesus “reached out his hand and touched the man.” Who knows how long it had been since he had been touched by anyone? Then, Jesus worked to resolve the present problem by alleviating his suffering through healing his disease. One would think that would have been sufficient. But Jesus took one more step. He recaptured his future potential by restoring him to society and faith. He instructed the cleansed man to show himself to the priest in order to be declared clean.
I’m sure Jesus felt sympathy and care for the leper. More than that he behaved compassionately. In order for us to live compassionately we have to begin with Jesus’ example. We have to be willing to touch the untouchable, resolve the present problems by alleviating suffering, and help recapture their future potential. That is a workable strategy on any scale.
Yesterday I posted three observations about the Magi’s visit to the Christ child that reminded me of Jesus’ mission and subsequently our mission on Earth. But there’s a fourth reality in the story. This is the part we seldom discuss. It’s a good news/bad news reality. Because the gospel is good news, I’ll begin with the bad.
Darkness will always work to oppose light (Matthew 2:16-18).
In an unanticipated turn of events, Herod becomes enraged that he has been deceived, resulting in his murder of all male children under the age of two in the region in order to eliminate the potential threat of a rival king. It was an evil act of brutality. He didn’t want light, so he sought to extinguish it.
Here’s the bad news. The “spirit of Herod” will always be at work in our world to oppose light. It’s a unilateral reality that dates back to the beginning of time.
From Cain and Abel, to Daniel in the Lion’s Den, to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other, to The Apostles in the book of Acts, to the year 2016.
Anytime a person or a congregation begins to have Great Commission conversations, Satan will take notice and flex his muscles. Anytime we have a renewed commitment to reaching our community and serving our world, all hell, literally, will break loose. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can be affirmed that we are being guided on the right path! I believe Satan could care less about much of what goes on in today’s American Church. But when the Church begins to discuss mission and vision and start having Great Commission conversations, that church can plan on a counter attack. His attacks are a sign that we are pursuing worthy goals.
So what are we to do with this fourth reality? We can shrink from it, opting for quiet co-existence in the world, or we can work in the midst of satanic oppression and shine the light by centering people on Christ.
Who are you lighting the way to life and centering on Christ in 2016?
Who do you know living in darkness that needs help finding the way to life?
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16, NLT).
The church I serve just finished up an extensive vision process with Auxano last year. Part of the project involved the painstaking task of developing a new mission statement. After hours of meetings spanning two months we settled on “lighting the way to life by centering people on Christ.” There’s a lot of backstory as to why we settled on the imagery of light and centering which is related to our particular context. But one can’t deny the metaphor of light as a key element of any church’s mission.
Today is Epiphany, when Christians around the world celebrate the visitation of the Christ child by the Magi. That story is familiar, and I must confess that I never thought of the story in the framework of mission until this past week.
Here are three of the observations from the story that I related to our congregation this past week.
First, the purpose of the star (the light) was to reveal God (Matthew 2:1-2). Light is an important image in the Bible. It was the first thing God created in the creation story. It’s important to us, too! When you walk into a room, chances are the first thing you do is turn on a light. We also use it metaphorically, as in “let me shed some light on the subject.” Light is important because it reveals. It clarifies. In the Bible, light reveals God. It provides guidance so we can see God. Light guides our steps to Him.
God did not hide himself at advent. Angels announced his arrival to shepherds, and a star guided the magi from the east to see him as well. The light of the star was for everyone. Pagan kings and ceremonially unclean shepherds alike were welcome to Christ. Light is also important because it reveals something about us. It is to those of us walking in darkness that we discover God through his light.
Second, the star revealed God so the Wise Men could worship Him (Matthew 2:1-2, 9). Light reveals God so we too, may worship Jesus. Everyone is a worshiper. Christ alone is the valid object of our worship. Every lesser object of worship is an idol. In the Bible those idols are clearly identified. Strange gods such as Ba’al, Asherah and Molech existed in the Old Testament. The New Testament is filled with gods from the Greek pantheon. Our idols today are a bit more sophisticated and subtle. But their threat is equally real.
The light that reveals God is designed to draw all people to Christ in worship. John Piper said it best, “Missions exists because worship does not.” The responsibility of any Church is not to create more attendees, but more worshipers of Christ.
Third, when the Wise Men worshiped Jesus, he changed the direction of their lives (Matthew 2:12)
Genuine worship will be a transformative experience. Last week we celebrated the start of a New Year. Resolutions were made and goals were set with the idea that through will power we can accomplish the things we need to accomplish on our way to self-improvement. There are habits to break as well as habits to begin. But we don’t need reformation. We need transformation. Reformation works from the outside in, while transformation is an inside job. Transformation doesn’t come by setting our jaw and looking in the mirror. Transformation comes by looking into the face of Christ. It comes when we see God.
Tomorrow I’ll post the final observation from the darker, lesser discussed part of the story. Happy Epiphany!
Giving USA recently released their report on Philanthropy for the year 2014. Among the items reported was a disturbing trend regarding giving to churches and religious organizations. While religious organizations still lead the way with receiving 32% of all charitable donations, giving in 2014 was static compared to the previous year. Numbers can be deceiving and we can read what we wish into any statistic. Giving to churches and religious organizations in 2014 increased 2.5% from 2013. However, when you adjust for inflation, that number diminishes to 0.9%.
Churches usually think of contributions in two ways. One, of course is to encourage committed members to increase their contributions. The second is to create additional giving units through new members. Somehow we are barely holding our own.
One of the challenges pastor’s face is preaching stewardship sermons. There is a fear that people will accuse the pastor in specific and the church as a whole as “only talking about money.” I believe stewardship sermons are important and usually preach two or three a year. But we need to rethink our education and broaden it beyond the reach of the pulpit. Last year we incorporated a letter to the congregation, Sunday School lessons for children, youth and adults, testimonies from members and more. Sharing the load in stewardship education will ease the tension and the pressure from the pulpit. And among the many positive messages about stewardship we need to acknowledge that yes, even the church needs a cost of living raise.
Andrew Blackman has published some research in the Wall Street Journal on the relationship between charitable giving and tax deductions. There is some interesting stuff here, and if you’re interested in philanthropy this is a good read. You can find the article HERE.
Here’s the latest research from Barna Group on the reading habits of Americans. You can find the report by clicking HERE.