October 19, 2017


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Signs of God's Kingdom

- Pastor Erwin

August 28, 2013


I confess. I love the Church. I know; it's messed up. Everything the Church's "cultured despisers" and its alienated children say about the Church is at least partially true. We're broken, self-righteous, out-of-touch, hypocritical, irrelevant, and we have a long history of doing really bad things.

(Which, b.t.w., is why we need to say a Prayer of Confession every week. Although I defy anyone to point to any human institution those words don't apply to.)

But I still love the Church. In part - to be honest - because my life is invested in the Church. But on a deeper level, I love the Church because "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her"(Ephesians 5:25)!

I also love the Church because it's the main way God has chosen for the world to know the "good news of the Kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14). The fact that we do that very imperfectly doesn't change the fact that the Church is the "foretaste and signpost of the Kingdom of God"; in precisely the same way that the fact that I am a sinful man doesn't change the fact that I am created in the image of God.

I can preach a half dozen sermons on the role of the Church in God's plan for the world (and I plan to starting this week!). But on a personal level, I've experienced the good news of God's Kingdom through the Church over the past month in the wake of my mother's death. In the form of local congregations (NPC and my parent's congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota), in the voice of friends in Christ from many places, and even through the beurocratic entity known as the Presbytery of Cincinnati, the Church has prayed for, shown sympathy, provided hands on care, and spoken hope to me and my family in this time of loss.

So, how could I not love the Church? And especailly this church, NPC, which has proven once again to be "an extraordinary community of believers, in love with Christ, with one another, and with the community in which we live." I'm grateful to be with you again this Sunday.



Pastor's Report ("A holy mess" ... continued).

July 29, 2013

(I entitled my last post here, "a holy mess," which became the basis of my reflection on the past year in in my annual report to the congregation.)


“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”  John 3:8


A holy mess.  That's how I recently described life at North Church to a friend.  I'll admit that's a deliberate echo of Dr. Bruce Larson, famed pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, who once described his congregation as “out of control and knee deep in miracles!”  That might be saying too much about us.  But “holy mess” works.


Some church buildings look pristine or preserved.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.  Carpets are new, everything sparkles. There's no clutter anywhere.  Usually that means this congregation is blessed with abundant resources or that their main mission is maintaining their heritage.  Others look neglected, almost abandoned.  Rooms are closed off and accumulate unused furniture and supplies.  Congregations like this have run out of steam or lost their mission.  And then there's messy, a sign usually, that there's more going on than the church can keep track of or account for.


Messy, if not downright chaotic, is how the past 12 months have felt to me at North Church.  Chaos is not inherently bad.  It's the stuff out which God formed creation in Genesis 1 and also fittingly describes the hidden depths of the womb where the Lord knits together new life (Psalm 139).  The process of formation—of a people or of personal faith or character—is often messy.  Think of the formation of Israel through the turbulent waters of the Red Sea and the troubled wanderings in the wilderness.  Think of the disorderly birth of the Church on that first Pentecost, and the struggles to incorporate Gentiles and charismatics and former slaves and aristocrats as the church was pushed beyond its boundaries by the Holy Spirit and lurched into becoming multi-cultural and global.


We aren't starting from scratch as a congregation, but there is a lot of activity—it's fair to call it ministry—and a lot God-formation going on in and among us.  And a lot of it feels messy, and looks that way too.


There's often a mess in the walkway right outside my office, which seems to serve as a staging area for a “youth department” that relates to so much more than youth.  Styrofoam noodles, Coleman lanterns, WhizKids supplies, bicycles, a portable sound system, and goods left for CAIN come and go.  Much of the rest of the building also has this appearance of things-in-process, and in some cases under-repair, as visiting college groups move into  newly renovated classrooms, and YouthWorks takes over for the summer, and AA groups move from one room to another, and the sanctuary set up changes from week to week.  My desk too, is often a mess, which is evidence to me of more activity than I've planned for or been able to check off my to-do list.  In terms of how the church is run, we have some rhythms, some procedures.  But every week, sometimes every day, some opportunity or need arises that challenges that order.  And what I've noticed is that we're more interested in responding as Jesus' hands and feet in that moment than in keeping the order.


I think often of my Confirmation Class this past year, which seemed to be in a constant state of “under construction,” both literally as walls were spackled and painted, and figuratively as my unruly junior high students wrestled with self discipline and the meaning of the Apostles Creed and the purpose of the Church.  I think of the presence of the younger children in worship, often squirmy, sometimes clueless, but often wide-eyed during the children's message, and eager to be there every Sunday.  It was messy … especially during snack time after the service!  But God is at work.


Where 2 or 3 are gathered, things inevitably get messy.  But where 2 or 3 are gathered in Jesus' name, Christ is also present (Matthew 18:20).  And so, a holy mess. It is the presence of God and the evidence of God at work that makes something—an event, a place, a congregation—holy.  And only that makes it holy.  This year has felt not only messy to me, but also holy.  I have sensed strongly God's presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our congregational life.

  • Consider the spontaneous and sustained response to families in our congregation who were in crisis or just needed encouragement.  “Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”  (Galatians 6:2).
  • Remember the 12 baptisms this year!  Six on profession of faith.  (This is likely more than any other church in our Presbytery.)  Baptism, in which the water represents the living water of the Holy Spirit poured out in new birth.  “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
  • I've heard testimony time and again of God speaking and moving hearts in worship, not just through the sermon, but through the offering!  And during prayer and in the children's message, and through the singing and special music and in the time of communion.  “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”  (Luke 24:35)
  • Look again at how many members are serving in so many ways, in so many ministries. The level of participation in our congregation is extraordinary.  And yes, many of us are tired.  But also energized and committed and eager.  “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” (1 Peter 4:10).
  • The connection we have with World Outreach Christian Church is significant.  Working together to host the block party made a strong impression on our neighbors.  Our shared Lenten Bible studies stirred a desire for deeper fellowship.  Our joy and celebration of Christ' resurrection was magnified by our joint Easter services.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”  (John 13:35)

There are many other signs of God at work, perhaps not so obvious, perhaps known only to a few: in conversations, in the manifest increase in prayer, in new commitments of faith and faithfulness.   And I believe that many, if not all of you who are reading this report, can bear witness to the saving, sustaining, shaping activity of God in our midst. (We need to do that, by the way; bear witness to one another.)


I claim no credit for the holy mess of this past year.  It's clearly not the result of a strategic plan, and much of it happens without any involvement from me.  I believe it comes from the Holy Spirit “who blows where it chooses.”  That is not to say that we should simply let happen what may, that we should not strive for excellence, nor seek God's specific direction for the coming year.  “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving,” Paul exhorted one of his congregations (Colossians 4:2).  And so we must as we look toward 2013-14. But we can also celebrate and receive as God's gift, this holy mess of a year.  



A holy mess!

March 19, 2013


I meant to begin my note last week by mentioning that I have a preacher friend who has a Monday morning blog called "What I wish I had said..." I love the honesty and humility of that. It recognizes that we pastors-teachers don't say everything that needs to be said in our sermons on Sunday mornings, nor do we necessarily say it just right.

What I wish I had said last Sunday in my message about the way The Holy is part of the Way of Christ, is that holiness is not just about being "always tuned in to any possibility, any hint, that an ordinary moment might suddenly open itself up and give us a glimps of The Holy"; but that holiness also means being different. . In fact, that's the root idea of holiness - to be set apart, consecrated, for a divine purpose. An essential part of the Way of Jesus, then, is this ongoing awareness that we are called to be different. To be "In the world but not of the world," is what Jesus prayed for his disciples.

The way we live our lives, the things we care about, how we treat other people, where our loyalties lie, should always raise an eyebrow and raise questions for those who are not part the church. And the Way of Jesus means we're okay with that!

Speaking of holiness, someone from another church asked me last Saturday how things are going at North Church. My off the cuff answer was, "It's a holy mess." It's a mess, because so much of what happens around here is unplanned, unscripted, last minute, and even chaotic at times. But it's a holy mess, because I'm hearing people "give glory to our Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16) through it all. That was highlighted by inquiring and positive responses we had from two of the college groups that were here - one with students coming from a non-Christian perspective, and one where they students were in service to Christ. Ask Gary, or Joann, or me if you want to hear more about that.

When I described life at North as being a "holy mess" to my friend, I realized that the perfectionist, part of me immediately wanted to apologize or make excuses for the "mess" part. Even after all my sermons on "experiencing God" and trusting the leading of the Holy Spirit.   Hmm... maybe that's what God is trying to teach me during this Lenten season.


How about you?



Wait a minute!

March 6, 2013

One of my devotional readings this week included a line from a John Milton poerm, "they also serve, who only stand and wait."  That word came as a gentle corrective to how I've been approaching this season of Lent -- which is largely to attack my spiritual disiplines in typical Protestant work-ethic infused fashion, like a set of calisthenics designed to strenghten me for the rigorous calling of doing great things for God; or worse, as a to-do list to get done.


It's amazing to me (although it shouldn't be), that even in the process of striving to serve the Lord, we can so easily take our eyes off the Lord and become fixated on the mechanics of serving and how important, glorious, or effective our service is.  


Doing great things for God is a worthy endeavor.  "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" continues to be my life verse, and I encountered it again in my gospel reading from Luke this morning.  But we have to careful - at least I know I do - not to make the subtle shift in our service from seeking God's glory to focusing on our performance.  In The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson warns agains perfectionism, "a most ruinous deviation from the way, a detour from the way of Jesus.  It is unlikely that it will plunge us headlong into damnation, but it certainly makes us most undesireable company with others on the pilgrim way."  


I'm afraid some who are on the way with me could glance sidelong at me and say "Amen." 


The Scripture often counsels us to wait.  "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" I happened to read in Psalm 27 this morning.  And then I turned to my Gospel reading for today and heard Jesus tell his disciples, "Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet."  (Luke 12:36).


As we continue through this season of Lent, don't give up on your spiritual dsiciplines; keep "pressing through" in other words.   But don't also get so engrossed in polishing the silver that you miss the Master's voice.  God is not so impressed with all that we accompish for him, or with our percentage of success in reciting our 40-Day prayer.  What God cares about is whether or not we're wating on Him.  



Pressing through

February 27, 2013

     "Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical

     training is of some value, godliness is valuable in

     every way, holding promise for both the present

     life and the life to come."  

     (Advice from the Apostle Paul to his young trainee,

     in 1 Timothy 4:7b-8). 


That's a good description of the spiritual disciplines you may be practicing in this season of Lent - "excercises unto godliness" in the poetic language of the King James Version.  


We're now into the second week of Lent, long enough for the initial enthusiasm for these disciples to begin to wear off.  Like the run I took yesterday, after about 4 months of almost no physical exercise.  About a mile in, I began to settle into a comfortable, steady, almost mindless rhythm.  But after about another mile, my run transition from exhilarating fun to determined effort to agonizing work, and I seriously thought, "Maybe I should walk the rest of the way."  


I'm in the rhythm of praying the 40-Day Prayer Covenant now, but Monday I missed a step.  I had left my prayer card at church on Sunday.  No problem, I've got it memorized by now.  So I went through the prayer from memory and felt good about that; until later in the evening when SuzeAnn and I sat down to pray together, and she shared that she had been reminded of the importance of praise in our prayers.  I told her that I had a similar thought in my morning devotional time.  And that's when I realized I'd skipped the fourth phrase of the 40-Day prayer: "I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart."  I was thinking about praise, but had missed praise in the prayer!


As we hit our rhythm in our spiritual disciplines -- whether it's prayer or service or scripture reading or journaling -- it's important to stay focused.  And when you get to that point where it starts to be nothing more than a chore, or even agonizingly hard work, and you're tempted to give up, that's when it's most important to push through and keep going ... and pay attention to why you're thinking of quitting.  That's part of the value of these exercises unto godliness.  In fact, that may be the moment God has been waiting for, to speak to you most clearly! As Paul said to Timothy, "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.  For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the savior of all people, especially those who believe."  (1 Timothy 4:9-10)



Wash me clean, Lord!

February 20, 2013


Yesterday, as I came to the 3rd phrase of the 40-Day Prayer Covenant, "Wash me clean from every sin," I had a sudden new insight into how confession and forgiveness works.


Basically, it's like daily hygiene. 


Every day, we take a bath or shower or wash up in some way.  We wash away the day's accumulated dust and grime and sweat.  Most of it, others wouldn't even notice.  But we know it's there.  We can feel it.  And if we miss a day of washing, or if we repeatedly do only a half-way job, it only gets worse, and eventually others can smell it on us too.  


How wonderful it feels to start and end the day fresh and clean!


Most of us don't set out to get dirty during our day.  In fact, many of us are quite careful - meticulous even - to avoid contact with whatever might soil our clothes or skin.  But it's unavoidable.  It's in the dust of the air, the fibers of our car seats, the tools or utensiles we use, even the food we eat.  And even if were to sit perfectly still in a sterile room all day, our own bodies would exude ... substances that need cleansing. 


There are some people who have bad hygiene, who don't care if they get dirty and don't bother to get clean, who maybe even flaunt their grunge.  We would say they need to change their ways.  That's not us, of course.  But still, we need to wash every day.


If you wonder why we have to confess over and over ("Isn't once enough?"  "Aren't we already forgiven?"), just remember that sin is like dirt "that clings so closely" (Hebrews 12:1).  And even if we don't go about jumping into mud puddles of sin or wallowing in dens of iniquity, sin is in the air.  It's in our hearts, and we need to be washed clean of it every day.  Otherwise, we begin to stink and may even catch some infection of the soul.  


When it comes to sin, though, we can't wash ourselves clean (although we would like to, maybe even claim to).  Only God can do that for us.  "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow," David prayed (Psalm 51:7).  "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness," promises the Apostle John (1 John 1:9).  


It's a little embarrasing, or maybe more accurately humbling, but imagine yourself coming before God and saying, "Wash me clean from every sin," and then imagine the Lord washing you.  The way Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  


Ooh, it feels so good!



Why we need Christmas this year

December 20, 2012

When something ugly happens in the midst of a beautiful place or time, it seems all the more ugly.  That's surely why the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School has hit us so hard and left us gasping for breath in shock and horror and anger and pain. 

What happened in Newtown would have sent us reeling no matter what. But in this season of expectant joy, wrapped up in preparations and presents, reflected in twinkling lights and the twinkling eyes of children, the shooting of a roomful of children (How is that possible?) takes on new dimension of malevolence. It feels like a direct assault on joy itself. Like a malicious repudiation of hope. Like a deliberate attack on everything Christmas means to us.

Bad things happen. But when they happen in stark defiance to all we hope for and celebrate, we find ourselves talking not just about sadness or loss or tragedy, but about Evil.

The Gospel, and especially as we receive it in the message of Christmas, is the very opposite of this Evil, because it's the opposite of what happened in Newtown.  The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is the story of something beautiful happening in the midst of an ugly time.  We are reminded just how ugly the world of Mary and Joseph was by Herod's slaughter of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger” (Matthew 2:13-18). But against this violent and dangerous backdrop, God comes to us in the complete vulnerability and innocence of a new born baby, who is in fact the hope of the world.

And this timing and setting of the Christmas story is no accident. In fact, it highlights the very essence of the good news of salvation: God reaching into the brokenness of a sin-soaked world and bringing new life; God hearing the cry of his people in Egypt and in exile and leading them out of captivity into new freedom; God working “all things for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28); God coming to us in our own brokenness or weariness or rebellion and sin and offering us the gift of life; new life in Christ.

And that's why Christmas is more important than ever. Gathering with family and friends to exchange love, taking time in worship to ponder the story and renew our faith, sharing gifts or prayers or acts of kindness – do you realize all these have gospel significance?  Especially this year. Because every candle we light, and every carol we sing, is testimony that “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it,” (John 1:5 New Living Translation), for “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, New Revised Standard Version).  


Getting Political

October 3, 2012

The first of the Presidential debates is tonight.  Anyone want to watch them together in church?  


Just kidding!  


But why should I be kidding, really?  Why  do we avoid talking about or tackling politics or contentious issues in church?  Just mention immigration or economic systems, social justice or abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage, gun control or capital punishment, global warming or the upcoming presidential election, and watch people visibly stiffen up and look for a quick exit from the conversation; or the room.  


I know, I do it too, sometimes.  


We all know that outside the church there is lively, vigorous and even intelligent discussion about these subjects.  And, I know that we even participate in that discussion. Outside the church. 


What a shame.  These issues that stir our blood undeniably shape the world we live in for better or worse.  We have to deal with them whether we want to or not.  And the one place where we ought to be able to work out God's Kingdom perspective on these aspects of our world, is the one place where they seem to be taboo subjects.  The result is that all too often our views on the important matters of the day are formed by the very things we ought to keep out of the church: our personally held political commitments and our private interpretations.


Our core Christian confession, "Jesus is Lord" is a radically political statement.  It was a direct response to the required test of political loyalty, "Caesar is lord."  And the Lordship of Christ is still a challenge to the political loyalties of our time.  Our faith in Christ, the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, and our daily prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" has everything to do with how we live our lives in every arena of life, including politics.  


What am I suggesting?  Divide up the sanctuary into red pews and blue pews and slug it out?  No, exactly the opposite.  We need to be willing to check our red or blue ID cards at the door and seek together what God's Word says about these tough topics.



My favorite compass

September 19, 2012

I've always had a pretty good sense of direction. I don't know if it's instinct, or because I have a few more crystals of magnetite in the ethmoid bone behind my nose, or because I learned from my dad who was always pointing out which way North was, based on shadows and sunsets and where we just came from. I do know that the most treasured relic of my boyscout days is my official compass. I loved my compass. The precision ruler lines and central direction arrow, the elegant clear acrylic base, the dial you could twist to determine your heading, the red arrow that responded to a mysterious force greater than my own, the soft mauve felt case that made it seem all the more precious.

That compass was empowering, even if I wasn't “lost in the woods” or orienteering with my troop. Just to know which way I was facing, and which way home, or Madrid, or Ralph's Dairy Barn, was from here made me feel like I was in the right place now. It gave me a sense of confidence and security.

I feel extremely blessed to have had that same sense of direction – knowing where I am right now, or at least where Home is, and where I should be headed – throughout my life. Even when the way was not clearly marked out, the general direction generally was.

I believe knowing God has a purpose for us and learning what that purpose is – in other words, our calling – is what gives us that sense of direction. Faith in our hearts, maybe, is like magnetite in our nose. But it also helps to have a compass to check our bearings along the way. My life compass has been my mission statement, which was crafted for me (by the Holy Spirit, I believe) out of Jesus' words in Matthew 6:33: “To seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and to live and minister out of the integrity of my relationship of Christ.” Having that compass always with me is as empowering and comforting and precious as my old boy scout compass ever was. And I still use it almost every day.

As I was writing these words, I received a phone call from a friend and Christian leader, now in his 80th year, and officially “honorably retired,” who continues to inspire me to press on toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus by his own strong sense of direction. “My own sense of God's leading,” he told me, “is as deep as any time in my life.” He went on to tell me the book he was writing about a practice of prayer that he believed could be “a catalyst for an awaking to Christ as Lord in the nation and the world.” He knows exactly where he is in his life, and where he needs to go, and that continues to give him and energy and exuberance and joy in his life.

If you have a compass that keeps you headed in the right direction, I'd love to hear about it. And if you don't, I'd love to help you find one.


Setember 5, 2012

Long before the TV show Survivor, you probably played the “Desert Island” icebreaker: “If you were stranded on a desert island, what five things would you bring with you?” It's a way of getting at priorities, values; what you consider most essential in life.


For some people, this question isn't just a parlor game. Last week in places like Plaquemines Parish and St. John's Louisiana, flood waters from hurricane Isaac rose so fast, homeowners barely made it to safety with just enough time to grab a few clothes, and maybe their pets. What do you take? What do you leave? Earlier in August, one of our own North Church families had to make those split-second decisions when fire consumed the top floor of their home. (Click HERE to read Deb Coffey's reflections about that on her blog.)


Last Sunday, I asked the children during the message for young disciples, “If you were going on a really, really, really, really (lots more reallys) long trip, what would you take with you?” They gave good answers: food, water, a change of clothes. Kool-aid. Gotta have kool-aid if you're going on a really long trip. Then I suggested that following Jesus is like setting out on a really, really (etc.) long trip, and wondered what we should take with us for this life-long journey.


My fall sermon series, “For the Long Haul” is one answer – my answer – to that question. In my Christian journey, I have been steadied and sustained and strengthened by things like friends and community, a personal mission statement and times of solitude, adventure and God's intervention, old books, and new horizons. So those things are precious to me. Your survival list might be different, which is great because it makes our conversation more interesting and we learn from one another.


But the point isn't to come up with the “right” list of essentials. The truth is, whether or not you survive on the “Desert Island” depends little on whether you pick the matches or the water purification tablets, whether you bring a cell phone or a crossbow with you. It has a lot more to do with whether you get saved in time.


The point in considering what you would take with you on your Christian journey, is to make sure you are on that journey. And the good news is that if you're on the life-long journey of following Jesus, you've already been “saved.”  

Serving Another Church

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In the summer of 2005, seven years ago, Abe and Joni Brandyberry were brand new youth ministry interns here at North Church. They had just graduated from Mt. Vernon Nazarene College, gotten married, and were taking a year to learn the ropes of urban youth ministry under the direction of our Youth Director, Gary Loomans, and Urban Missioner, Joann Ashley. By that time, Gary had been on staff at City Cure (now known as City Gospel Mission) for 18 years and was (and still is) director of CGM's Internship program. Joann too, was working in partnership with that intern program, as Site Coordinator for the Presbytery's Young Adult Volunteer Program.




They had a good year. It was a delight to have them here, and a year after their internship, Abe and Joni planted a new church here in Northside, Covenant Church of the Nazarene, now known as Cincinnati Urban Promise. They moved into the former home of St. Philip's Episcopal Church on Kirby Road and this May they celebrated their fifth anniversary of ministry. Abe is the pastor. Joni is the Volunteer Coordinator. Their congregation is a thriving little community (like ours), with many children and neighborhood folks. They are faithful members of CAIN, active in Community Council and other neighborhood activities and our ministry paths cross and coordinate frequently.




But that's not the main reason I'm writing about them this week.

This summer, Abe and Joni's church is running Summer of Promise, a 6 week day camp designed for learning, fun, and spiritual growth for urban students, in partnership with Whole Again International. Children from 1st through 6th grade participate in arts and learn about nature and music and gardening and cooking and are loved by mature followers of Christ. It's a wonderful program, but here's the part I really love. Gary and Joann, who once served as Abe and Joni's mentors, have been serving as volunteers at Summer of Promise under Abe and Joni's leadership. Gary is in charge of games. Joann stops in whenever she can and lends a hand, wherever she is needed.




That's Kingdom of God thinking and a Kingdom of God heart.




In a world fixated on success or survival, so much energy and effort goes into worrying about who gets the credit, who's in charge, how does this benefits us, how does this “enlarge our borders?” etc., etc. Sadly, churches are not immune from these calculations and posturing. But, as Jesus said to his disciples after James and John were caught jockeying for favor and position, “Among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).


God's people together

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I got to watch God show me what God's kingdom looks like and how God's kingdom works, three times this week. Well, more, actually, but three times where I found myself almost stepping outside of the moment to observe and marvel at what God is doing.


The first was this past Sunday's joint worship service at Word Alive Christian Fellowship. Who but God could have arranged that Lucy Gacheru would “just happen” to be here on this special Mission Sunday, which was planned months before we even knew she was coming to the U.S.? And then there was worship - I actually saw North Church members clapping their hands on the upbeat and one even playing a tambourine(!) during the songs of praise! The generous offering our two congregations were able to raise for Hope Community Center was an unexpected blessing and the warmth of fellowship we enjoyed with one another in the air-conditioned sanctuary and over heaped plates of good home cooking afterward just felt good. 

On Wednesday evening, the Board meeting of Partners for Hope met with Lucy again. We introduced ourselves to Maury Loomans, Libby's grandfather, who was there representing Evangelical Community Church in place of Bob Cload who is singing and dancing and probably even painting praise to the Lord in heaven right now. I saw folks from eight different churches who probably wouldn't be spending a lot of time together otherwise, but who have been drawn together by this shared call to partner with and for the children of Hope Community Center. And we listened to Lucy report on her 3 months here. “It's been the best trip to America and Canada ever. So many new connections, and churches. And soon they will be working with Partners for Hope. All for the sake of the children. And we raised $153,000 towards the building of the new Baby House.” God has used this ministry in Kenya not only to save and transform the lives of hundreds of children, but to change us and to “enlarge our borders,” to help us to see and relate to a much larger part of the Body of Christ. 

Thursday morning I was at yet another, and very different gathering. It was a meeting of pastors and other passionate Christ-followers to hear an update on the struggle to stop Western and Southern, a major corporate power player in Cincinnati, from bullying and stealing the property of Anna Louise Inn which has faithfully provided housing and ministered to women in downtown Cincinnati for over a hundred years. (If you don't know the story, you can be informed by clicking here and here.) Beside me sat Sister Janet, a tiny, bubbly Franciscan nun, who turned out to be principal of the school Ashley Thompson attended in 3rd grade. A few chairs down was Dr. Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost Old Testament scholars in the world. The leading Assemblies of God pastor in the city was there, as well as the pastor of St. X's Bellarmine Chapel, and several of my colleagues in the Presbyterian Urban Pastor's Network, and several other nuns and pentecostal preachers and the lead organizers for Ohio Prophetic Voices, the AMOS social justice group, and a local labor union and the head of the Cincinnati Homeless Coalition … and more. Black and white, Protestant and Catholic, theologically “liberal” and theological “evangelical” united around the biblical vision and call for justice. And when Pastor Nelson Pierce of Beloved Community Church read the story of Ahab and Jezebel's plot to take Naboth's vineyard in 1 Kings 21, we fell silent because we were hearing God's word narrate our circumstances. And when Pastor Chris Beard of Peoples Church (Assembly of God) read Isaiah 59:7-8 it sounded like God's thunder tell us we could not remain silent. And when we held hands and prayed along with Bishop Dwight Wilkins the words of Psalm 48, Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is known in her palaces for a refuge,” it felt like the Kingdom of God.


One of the most powerful signs of God's Kingdom for me is God's people, together. Working, together. Drawn, together. Worshiping, together.


And whenever any of that working connecting worshiping happens in a way that surprises or delights or stretches or strengthens us, in a way that increases the togetherness and the impact of God's people, I get excited! Because I believe that's God at work. This unity, this synergy, these moments of discovering shared purpose and passion – it's a signature theme of the Kingdom of God. It's part of what the Apostle Paul calls God's secret plan … a plan centered on Christ … to bring everything together under the authority of Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10 New Living Translation). 

Running Out of Sausages

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I didn't have my camera with me yesterday at the pre-parade Red, White, and Blueberry Pancake Breakfast so let me share a few verbal snapshots with you.



11 year old Karly Miller, who is looking forward to being baptized in August, with sweat running down her nose, and a happy look of concentration and significance on her flushed face as she flips pancakes in the kitchen. “I have to get these done!” she announced, when I asked how it was going. 



A young man from either a Methodist church in central Ohio, or a Nazarene Church in North Dakota, or a Presbyterian Church in Illinois, or a Baptist Church in Michigan, or a Community Chapel in Minnesota – there's no telling which of the five different youth groups who are spending the week here at North Church on a Youth Works Mission Trip he was with – working with Nick Callahan and serving up coffee, milk, juice and a line or two of various praise songs,at the beverage table. 



Joann and Gary, who were responsible for this breakfast happening, quietly providing behind-the-scenes leadership: making sure there were supplies at hand, answering questions, giving words of encouragement to North Kids, visiting yout and Youth Works staff alike, who looked like they were the ones in charge.


People looking at Marla in surprise when they came to the table to pay for their breakfast. “How are you?” they would ask. “Amazing!” she replies enthusiastically, and then they pause and say, “Well. I guess I'm doing pretty good too!” 



Having an in depth conversation with 4-year old Rowan, grandson of Lucy C. who just started attending North Church. “I came out of my mommy's belly,” Rowan told me, just after we met, waving his syrup dripping fork for emphasis.  “When I was zero, I was inside my mommy.”  Which, of course, gave me a chance to talk to his mommy too.



Running out of sausages at 10:45 am; and plates and strawberries, blueberries, and whipped cream at various other times. Because, even though supplies had been stocked up, there were a lot more people than expected. But no one seemed to mind, because guests seemed to sense that something more important than breakfast was happening here.



A man who gladly paid his $5 for breakfast, as he said, “You guys are from Happen, Inc? I love what they do!” There was no time—or need, really—to explain, that “Well, No, we're not from Happen, Inc. Brian, here, is from a church in Newtown, and volunteers with our youth group here through City Gospel Mission, and Marla attends a different church, but her daughter goes to the youth group, and I'm the pastor of this church, and this young man is actually from Michican, a recent graduate with a degree in movie production, who's been giving Marla advice on how to make a movie on a powerful teaching on forgiveness.” No time to explain that the people serving up this breakfast were from all over the place, but really all from the same place – part of the Body of Christ – not interested in profiting from or taking credit for this event, but simply wanting to show the love of Christ in a practical way by serving others … but “Yes, the proceeds from this breakfast are benefiting Happen, Inc. Thank you for coming, sir.”




Thursday, June 28, 2012

You mighmight think that a typical meeting of the Session is a dry, boring affair. It is, after all, the “council for the congregation” which has “responsibility for governing the congregation,” as the Book of Order so poetically explains. Approve the previous minutes. Review the finances. Receive the pastor's report. Set the date of the Annual Meeting. Discuss building repair. Etc, etc.

We do those things, of course. But it's like saying the experience of owning a car is about cleaning the windshield, checking the tire pressure, and changing the oil. You have to do those things, but cars are for getting you places, and session meetings are for “guiding [the congregation's] witness to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that the congregation is and becomes a community of faith, hope, love and witness.” (Also from the Book of Order.)

At our meeting on Monday, we spent a minimum of time on one of the potentially most tedious tasks session undertakes each year: approving an Annual Budget for the coming fiscal year. (Thanks to the good work our treasurer Dave Woellert did in preparing a draft beforehand.) Instead, we spent most of our time thinking together about how we can help some of our younger children who attend worship understand and appropriately participate in Lord's Supper; and how we prepare our young people for baptism; and the meaning of “confirmation” and “membership” and even “communion.” Stories were shared. Scripture was read. Points of view were considered. And at the end of that time, there was a settled feeling that the Lord had spoken to us about our practice of communion, about our commitment to children, about our mission to live the love of Christ, even if it didn't always seem “decent and in order.”


The Kingdom of God at a Session meeting. Who would a thought? 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of leading a CAIN leadership retreat. We were in a great setting. Grailville Spiritual Retreat Center, just past Loveland, is a place of organic gardens, meandering paths through uncultivated fields, white farm buildings—barns and chicken coops and storage sheds—transformed into sacred spaces. It's a place that invites extended reflection on busyness and earthiness and food and the need for beauty and the presence and activity of God in all of life; a perfect place for us to do the core-strengthening work of relationship-building and re-focusing CAIN's mission.


CAIN points to God's Kingdom in so many ways.  It's very existence is testimony to unusual cooperation among wildly different churches. It's current composition – board, volunteers, staff, supporters – testimony to the attractive and embarrassingly undiscriminating power of the gospel in Matthew 25 lived out. And to be immersed in that ethos, in that setting, was in itself an experience of God's Kingdom. But Karl's story gets to the heart of why CAIN is a sign of the Kingdom.


As part of our retreat, Karl had been asked to share a “ministry moment,” an inspiring story that comes from the day to day of what CAIN does. Almost apologetically—“because this is really not a big thing”—Karl told about one CAIN's guests, a woman who had come in for food, who noticed some decorated cakes on display. “Could I possibly have one of those for my granddaughter? She really wanted to have a cake for her birthday, and I can't afford to get her one.” “Of course,” said Karl, and helped her pick one out. “And it was such a little thing, I wouldn't even think twice about a cake,” Karl continued with a quivering voice, “but she couldn't stop thanking me. For her it made a world of difference, to be able to give her granddaughter a fancy cake for her birthday. Such a little thing...”


Before we could move on to the next exercise, Karl said he had to tell another story. This was about another guest, also there for food, with two school-age children, who was worried because she was so tired all the time because she could not longer afford her iron pills. Karl took her to Cathy, who “somehow the next day came up with some iron pills, I don't know where she got them, and I saw her a month later and she was doing so much better.”


But wait,” chimed in Hilda (a member of North Church). “There's more. Through our relationship with Abe and Jonnie's church (Covenant Church of the Nazarene, on Kirby Road), “I was able to get that woman's daughters enrolled in their Summer of Promise Camp,” a 6-week day camp for learning, fun, and spiritual growth which also provides meals for her children through Whole Again International, the summer enrichment ministry of World Outreach Christian Church, which has its offices here at North Church and is the newest member church of CAIN.


That feels like the Kingdom to me!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How have you seen God's presence, God's glory shine into your day recently?


The other day, I remembered a morning from a year or so ago. It just popped into my head out of the blue, it seemed, as I was pulling into my driveway and looked over to the corner of our house. I remembered sitting there, outside, with my Bible and journal. It was day a like this one – a porcelain blue sky that sharpens the senses. And what I remember especially from that morning was marveling in my journal over a cluster of stalks of grass at my feet that had gone to seed, waving in the breeze like a miniature forest of aspens, and glowing – literally glowing – in the sun's slanted rays, and thinking, “This is light from heaven.” It is as if God was reminding me of his radiant presence. 


It happened to me again this morning, and last night as I was driving into the city, just after the sun had dropped below the horizon. Crossing the Daniel Carter Beard bridge from Newport, seeing the glowing cityscape, I heard God speaking to my spirit, “This is your city. This is where I called you to serve me.” And a provocative question: “Do you have my heart for this city?”


And this morning, I woke, alert, long before the alarm went off. It felt like one of those mornings from long ago when I was a child and, and my dad, full of energy and expectation, was shaking me awake, “Come on sleepy head! We've got a lot to do today!” Except this morning it was my heavenly Father rousing me, inviting me to a day filled with adventure planned out by him. And to be sure I knew it was him, the words of the morning Psalm danced with possibility for me.


This kind of thing doesn't happen to me all the time – where the ordinary experience of a blue sky, a recalled moment, a clump of grass, a city view, an early morning awakening, a daily Scripture reading, seems suffused with the glow of God's presence and with holy meaning and Divine intention. But when it does, it's a reminder to me of God's upholding, directing hand upon my life … and a sign that God's kingdom, God's sovereign and redeeming rule, is real and with us.


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