Can Christianity survive in the Middle East? Christianity is growing globally, but declining in the Middle East. ISIS, yes, but elsewhere as well. This week right wing Jewish groups vandalized a Greek Orthodox Church. Saudi Arabia prohibits Christianity altogether.
Gulf Coast Leaders,
This Fall we’re encouraging our congregations to give this series a try.
Robert Schnase’s “Five Practices” are radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity. Schnase is a Methodist bishop.
The centerpiece is the book, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.” The leadership team reads this in advance of the series.
The five booklets to the left of this photo each have three sessions for leaders of the ministries that oversee these areas. Session 1 is a Bible Study on one of the five practices. Session two delves into the practice. Session 3 is “What Can We Do?” Each session has a worksheet to evaluate the practices in your congregation and make a plan to move forward. I would envision the stewardship doing the generosity sessions, evangelism doing the hospitality sessions and so on.
The “Cultivating Fruitfulness” participant book is a five-week all-congregation study, one week for each practice. The idea is you invite everyone in the congregation to participate in a short, 5-week small group experience. They key is finding and prepping the small group leaders.
There are 35 daily devotions (5 weeks times 7 days). Congregational members are invited to engage in daily prayer and reading for 35 days.
The notebook contains a Leadership Manual and six DVDs. The leadership manual has a timeline that starts six weeks before the series begins and extends through Celebration Sunday. It has job descriptions for each team. It includes a congregational work day and a pledging component. The DVDs contain videos, teaching sessions, presentation slides and publicity materials. This leadership package (one of everything) costs about $100.
I remain convinced that life groups are the key to deepening a congregation’s spiritual life and also to closing the back door. People who have life-long friends don’t quit easily. They will weather hard times and tough conversations.
This is different than the catechumenate because it involves the entire congregation, or all whole are willing to participate. Increase your small groups by a factor of 10. If you have 3 small groups, prep for 30, by recruiting and training 30 leaders. Think of Jesus’ sending of the 70 in Luke 10.
If new members of a church don’t connect to a group and make friends, they will leave within six months. Worship alone simply doesn’t provide enough opportunity for people to interact beyond a introductory level. Growing a congregation in depth and breadth requires intentional ministry in groups.
Finally, there is tremendous synergy in getting a whole congregation doing the same thing at the same time for a couple of months. It seems we only do this for capital campaigns. What if we spend that amount of time, energy and organization on spiritual growth?
If you’ve used these materials before call me. I’d love to know how they worked in your context. If not, consider a mid-fall series this year. More to come.
Disponible en Español: http://www.cokesbury.com/forms/ProductDetail.aspx?pid=794593
Exodus 20:1-17 - Moses’ covenant (age 80?). Ten Commandments. I brought you out of the land of Israel.
Psalm 19 - Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You…
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 – The gospel is foolishness to those perishing, but to us the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. God chose what was weak and despised in the world…
John 2:13-22 - Cleansing of the Temple. Early in John’s gospel. Then resurrection prediction. Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.
The Covenant on Stone
Just a reminder that our Hebrew Bible readings are focused on the covenants during Lent. The first Sunday of Lent we had God’s covenant with Noah, who we are told is 600 years old. The epistle text from I Peter references Noah. Last week we read about God’s covenant with Abraham who we are told is 99. The epistle text from Romans references Abraham. This week and next week we will cover God’s covenant with Moses who is apparently 80. Lent 5 culminates with God’s promise in the prophet Jeremiah, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
Paul picks up this thread in his second letter to the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians). The new covenant is not written on stone like Moses’ Ten Commandments, but on hearts: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.“ He goes on to say God has made us:
ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!
Exodus: The Mosaic Covenant. The Ten Commandments form the center of the Mosaic Covenant. In all there are 613 commandments in the Torah, a contract between God and the Israelites. “I brought you out of the land of Israel.” Moses was purportedly 80 years old when he ascended Mount Sinai. The Covenant consisted of laws, holiness codes, cleanliness codes, and dietary codes to protect the people and maintain their holiness before God. It also had punishments for those who broke those codes. This is a conditional covenant. Follow my laws and statutes, and I will go before you and be your rear guard.
1 Corinthians: Gospel foolishness. The message of the cross is utter folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. The idea that we find our lives by losing them, that we save them by giving them away, must seem idiotic to those with a zero-sum view of life. “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die!” “Life is short. Grab all the gusto you can get.” Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach this unexpected message of Christ crucified. The weakness of God is greater than the strength of humans. The epistle for Lent 3 does not reference the Mosaic covenant as the epistle from Lent 1 mentioned Noah and the epistle from Lent 2 mentioned Abraham, but there is a clear proclamation of the gospel that transcends all human forms of religion.
John 2: The Cleansing of the Temple. This is one of the few stories that appears in all four canonical gospels. In John’s gospel, the Cleansing of the Temple happens early in Jesus’ ministry, rather than at its culmination, after his arrival in Jerusalem. Rather than being the catalyst for his crucifixion, in John the Cleansing sets the tone for his ministry from the outset. It also sets up tension in the plot.
John’s gospel is a challenge topographically. Jesus is baptized in Jordan (down near Jerusalem). Then he chooses his disciples (up in Galilee, probably at Capernaum where we are told Peter’s house is). He turns water into wine at Cana. No one really is sure where Cana is, but John says it’s in Galilee. There’s a town about 10 miles WSW of Tiberias called Kafr Kanna. That might be it (See the red pin on the map). Jesus then makes a brief stop in Capernaum before heading to Jerusalem for Passover.
Capernaum can’t be seen on this map. It’s at the top of the Sea of Galilee. Permit me a brief excursus.
Locate Tiberius, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. There is a nice Sheraton Inn in this town of 40,000. Tiberius is mentioned only once in the Bible, in John 6. Drive north out of Tiberius along the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Sea of Tiberius or Lake Gennesaret), and you will come to Migdal, the home of Mary of Migdal, the Magdalene. From Midgal it is only six miles further north to Capernaum.
On the north side of Capernaum you will see the Mount of Beatitudes. Our guide tells us Mount Sinai gave us the “Don’ts.” On the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus gave us the “Do’s.” Christianity is a religion of do’s. Mussolini built an octagonal church at the top of this hill. Further down towards the lake is the Bread and Fish Church. You can guess what they think happened there. Capernaum is about the same latitude as Dallas, but it has a bit warmer climate. Save your continuing educations dollars. At some point in your career it is worth a visit.
So, in John, Jesus goes like this: Jerusalem > Capernaum > Cana > Capernaum > Jerusalem > Samaria > Galilee, and so on. This is, of course, quite possible, but it would be grueling (many several-day trips on foot), and it is a bit different than the itineraries of the other gospels.
In John, Jesus goes into the Temple and uses a whip to drive out the moneychangers, giving this event more force. In the synoptics Jesus says it’s written, “My house shall be a house of prayer [for all nations, Mark adds], but you have made it a den of robbers.” In John, Jesus doesn’t mention the “house of prayer,” but simply says, “Stop making my Father’s house a house of trade.” The word here is οἶκον ἐμπορίου, oikon emporiou. You can see the word “emporium.” One might translate this, “Stop making my Father’s house an emporium.” The NRSV chooses, “marketplace.”
“Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will rebuild it.” In a play on words, Jesus substitutes himself for the Temple, and predicts the resurrection for those with ears to hear.
Last week we had a crucifixion prediction; this week we have a resurrection prediction.
Some see Jesus calling for an end to the temple system. Perhaps so, but don’t miss the economic reforms implied here. John wants us to see Jesus as a reformer, like Nehemiah who drove out Eliashib’s grandson and turned over Tobiah’s furniture for leasing out the Temple storeroom in Nehemiah 13. Jesus is unhappy with what the Temple has become, an emporium. His anger is righteous indignation. Luther’s anger at the sale of indulgences comes to mind. It bothered him that Rome was being built on the backs of the poor, by the sale of forgiveness. The temptation to coopt religion for financial gain is great.
As an ecclesiam semper reformandum (a church always in reformation) we are called to evaluate and critique our religious systems, which can easily become so mired in the economic realities of resourcing organizations that they lose their primary purpose. This is as true of congregations as it is of denominations. We may want to look at others and reform them, but more in the spirit of Jesus is looking at the log in our own eyes. How do we need to change, reform?
There is a deeper meta-message here. For the early church, Temple worship eventually became House worship, Church worship. A building as God’s dwelling place was replaced by Jesus as God’s dwelling place. God’s locus shifted from a building to a person. Animal sacrifice as a central act of worship (in many religions) was replaced by Jesus as the final sacrifice.
There is a danger of preaching supercessionism here. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that for Paul, faith brings life and salvation that the law cannot. Jesus transforms the water of all our human religious systems to the wine of faith, which is trusting in God’s promises. For the gospel writers, Jesus is the new Moses, ushering in a new covenant not written on stone tablets, but on hearts.
This new covenant finds its strength not in the supremacy of Israel, but in the supremacy of humility and sacrifice. This all is nonsense, of course, by the world’s standards of power and privilege, but for those who have discovered in it a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, it is the very power of God.
How might our congregations encounter God through the humility of the cross? Might we not encounter Christ by seeking out those who are suffering most in our world?
Those who are studying prayer this Lent, reading one chapter a day in Learning to Pray Again, are likely around chapters 15-21. After a short chapter on making time for prayer, which we discussed earlier, we cover walking, music, journaling, confession, table prayer, and praying for the world.
Walking has become my favorite ways to prayer in this season of life. It amazes me how different forms of prayer work in the various stages of life. For most of my life, journaling didn’t work at all. Then, at some point in my early 40’s I was stuck in my prayer life, and I began writing. As I mention in the book, I simply began each day by writing, “Yesterday…” I committed to only writing one sentence, but most days I poured out a page. The journal became the place I collected thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams, and confessions. Many sermon ideas found their way onto those pages. I processed conflicts. The best thing was I could return to these pages and recall quite poignantly the feelings and issues at stake.
In a journal you can hand write a memory verse or prayer you are trying to memorize. Sometimes I would spend a week on a passage and memorize it in several languages. In my journal I would write my prayer concerns and those given to me by others. This became for me a treasure and ushered in a period of time where my prayer life was the most rich it had ever been in my life. I commend it to you. If you do nothing else, purchase a blank book. If journaling isn’t your way of praying this year, it might be next year.
One note about table prayer. If “Come Lord Jesus” is your only prayer time during the day, your family is missing out on a lot. But table prayer is sacred time. This chapter encourages the use of table prayers and offers options. I encourage reclaiming the table as a place of faith, scripture, and caring conversation. Turn off the television and make this time sacred.
Praying for the world is a holy enterprise. The world is in many ways smaller than ever. In this day of global telecommunications, what happens on the other side of the globe is known to us instantly and can affect life here in dramatic ways. It is easier than ever to be in relationship with people of other countries. Our companion synods in Peru and the Central African Republic feel closer than they did even 16 years ago when I made my first trek to Lima. Consider putting up a map of the world in your home or setting out a globe. When a country comes up at school, at work, or in the news, pray for it visually and tacitly.
As you experiment with these very different forms of prayer during Lent, I hope you’ll gather people for discussion. Listen to the stories. Share them. I would covet knowing that the time I spent writing this helped in some small way to bear fruit in someone’s spiritual life. Hearing these stories might encourage others to experiment in prayer.
May your continued observance of Lent be prayerful.
Father Bishop George
St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Bellaire
Father Younan William and Father James Gendi
St. Mary and Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church in Houston
Father Youstos Ghaly
St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in New Orleans
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
It was only four short years ago that we grieved the New Year’s Day bombing of the Egyptian Coptic Church in Alexandria. The violence continues constantly. It is so dangerous to profess Christ in Egypt. The stamina of Egyptian Christians amazes me.
The violence continues constantly. It is so dangerous to profess Christ in Egypt. The stamina of Egyptian Christians amazes me.
This recent atrocity grieves me deeply. The martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya at the hands of ISIS terrorists saddens all of us in the Lutheran community here in the Gulf Coast Synod.
As our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said to His Grace Bishop Serapion, “May they find eternal rest, and may their loved ones experience God’s comfort and peace in this time of mourning,”
“Even in the brutality of their tragic deaths, they remained steadfast witnesses to Jesus Christ in a world consumed with hatred and violence,” she said. “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will continue to hold these martyrs in our prayers, even as we ask God to redeem those who have fallen prey to the evils of terrorism. We will also pray for those in your community in the United States and worldwide who live in fear and despair.”
I have asked our congregations to remember Coptic Christians in our Sunday prayers this month. With deepest affection we remember the martyrs and you, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Salem in Southwest Houston celebrated their 60th anniversary today. Founded in February of 1955. Pastor David Roschke came in May of 1982, the second of only two senior pastors in 60 years.
Salem worships in the round, so you’re missing in this photo the folks to my right, left and behind, but here’s a shot of the folks at the early service.
I’m not sure, but I don’t believe I’ve ever had shrimp and grits for breakfast between services before.
Carolyn Streich, the only remaining charter member!
Pastor David addressing the group:
La noche en que fue entregado,
nuestro Señor Jesús tomó pan y dio gracias;
lo partió y lo dio a sus discípulos, diciendo:
“Tomen y coman; esto es mi cuerpo, dado por ustedes.
Hagan esto en memoria mía.
De igual manera, después de haber cenado, tomó la copa,
dio gracias y la dio a beber a todos, diciendo:
Esta copa es el nuevo pacto en mi sangre,
derramada por ustedes y por todo el mundo para el perdón del pecado.
Hagan esto en memoria mía”.
In the night in which he was betrayed,
our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks;
broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.
Do this for the remembrance of me.
Again, after supper, he took the cup,
gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying:
This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.
Do this for the remembrance of me.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 – Abraham’s covenant (age 99).
Psalm 22:23-31 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Romans 4:13-25 – Abraham wasn’t saved by the law. His trusting God’s promises is reckoned to him as righteousness.
Mark 8:31-38 – Peter’s confession and rebuke. Crucifixion prediction. Take up your cross and follow me.
Genesis: The Abrahamic Covenant. Last week we read the Noahic covenant. This week we hear God’s covenant with Abram now Abraham, age 99: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. Sarai/Sarah also receives a promise, that she will bear a son and give rise to nations. Kings shall come from her. Like the rainbow in the story of the covenant with Noah last week, this covenant also has a sign: Circumcision. Throughout all generations, on the eighth day, all children shall be circumcised, even your slaves, both those born in the house and those purchased. The covenant is good for the offspring as well. It is an “everlasting” covenant.
Romans: Righteousness by faith has been God’s plan all along. Paul puts forth his classic argument that God’s promises (salvation) came to Abraham and his offspring, because he believed and trusted God, not because he kept the law. The Mosaic Law would not come around for another half a millennium. Hoping against hope, Abram trusted God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Paul wants the church in Rome to understand that justification by grace through faith has been God’s modus operandi all along. The law, Paul says in Galatians, was our babysitter until Christ came.
Mark: Passion Prediction. This text, Peter’s confession and rebuke, has parallels in Matthew 16 and Luke 9, though Luke does not report Peter’s rebuke. Some early writers suggest that it was precisely because of Peter’s confession (which takes place prior to this in all three synoptics) that Jesus can now reveal the mystery of the cross. The Son of Man must undergo “great suffering,” then be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and after three days, rise. Peter is shocked, and begins to rebuke Jesus (ἐπιτιμaν, epiteeman, to chide severely). Bede says Peter speaks with the voice of a man who loves… We can understand his reluctance to accept this jarring new information, that his beloved leader must suffer and die.
Jesus rebukes back. “Get behind me Satan.” He senses that his life and calling are hurling inexorably in this direction. He would probably love to hear a word absolving him of this destiny. “Remove this cup from me,” will be his prayer in Mark 14. He is, however, staying focused on divine things, not human things.
What Jesus says next must be of great importance, because it’s the same, word-for-word, in all three synoptic gospels, with just a couple of unimportant variants:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves [Luke adds “daily”] and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
Matthew and Luke omit “and for the sake of the gospel” which Mark has in some early copies, like Papyrus 45. Matthew prefers “will find it” over “will save it.” Matthew likes the concept of “finding,” as in “seek and you shall find” and stories such as finding a coin or a treasure in a field. For Mark, nothing less than salvation is at stake.
Faith is not assent to an intellectual proposition. It is trusting God, in life and in death. For Abraham, faith means trusting in God’s promises enough that he is willing to leave home and family and kindred and go wandering about to a place he does not know. It means trusting that his descendants will number as many as the stars, even when all hope of any descendants seems lost. Faith is not theoretical, it calls us to act. It calls us to put our lives on the line. Paul understands that faith gives life, and brings us into relationship with the living God in a way that the law can never do. For Paul, Abraham is the model for faith.
Faith may even call us to put our lives on the line. If the highest good is saving my skin, then my life is self-centered rather than God-centered, other-centered. If saving his own skin was the highest good, Bonhoeffer could have stayed in New York at the behest of his American colleagues, and not risked his neck returning to Nazi Germany to witness to the light. It is to have our minds set on divine things, and not just human things. It means trusting God enough that we choose to do the hard thing, and not always the easy thing.
This text drives us to ask the question of the congregation: Upon what are our minds set? Truth be told we have to admit that our minds are often set on acquisition of wealth. We want money, comfort, and privilege. In short, we must confess in this season of Lent our minds are set on the earthly things. What would it look like to set our minds on the things of God? What are the things of the Spirit of God?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
For Paul, the things of the Spirit are spiritual fruits: “… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…” (Galatians 5:22)
The good news sounds like bad news. In order to find our lives we must lose them. In order to save them, we must give them away. It’s a counterintuitive gospel. God saves us, from our self-consuming gluttony. Life is found in self-denial that can only come through trusting God’s promises.
Those delving into prayer during the Lenten season probably read chapters 7-14 of Learning to Pray Again. Having set aside a time to pray, and a place, many find that just going to that place begins to calm them down after a week of this practice. Their prayer zone represents a place to quiet the “shoulds” and listen. Like Pavlov’s dog, just going to that same place automatically starts to put us in an attitude of prayer.
If you’re like me, the first thing that happens when you quiet the soul is you begin to think of all the things to have to do. Write them down and let them go. They’ll be waiting for you after your prayer time.
Chapters 7-14 focus on some traditional patterns of Christian prayer: oratio, lectio divina, meditatio, contemplatio. To these I have included Luther’s addition of tentatio. Luther mentions this as a way of doing theology, not prayer, but his point is important. Chapters 13 and 14 focus on fasting and almsgiving. The goal of prayer is communion with God. Silence is our best tool, but many of us have trouble being silent. We are so hyperactive, we find it difficult to sit and pray without help. Our minds are abuzz. “Even at night their minds do not rest.” (Ecclesiastes 2:23)
Tools like lectio divina, prayerful reading of Scripture, help to focus the mind and allow the frenetic nature of our thoughts and activities to settle. We need to empty ourselves. At its core, prayer is a process of kenosis, emptying, so that we might be filled. As you and your folks pray, I believe you will experience a deepening of the spiritual life of your congregation. I’m convinced that individuals will experience powerful things as they make time for prayer. When this happens I would love to hear the stories.