Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lifting Burdens Hard to Bear

This weeks Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Question is from Luke 11:46.

“Jesus says to the religious authorities of the time, ‘You load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.’  What burdens does the church carry or load on people today that it needs to ease?”

The major burden that the church often lays on people is focusing on its own needs instead of the needs it is designed to serve.  The church is extremely important, but the church thrives as it gives itself away in mission and ministry (both to "members" and to "non-members").  When our church focuses on others, we can trust God will give us what we need for that work.  When we focus on ourselves, we do not serve those who need us and we facilitate our own decline.  

Here are a few examples:

Stewardship.  We often find congregations linking budgetary needs and giving.  God, however, is perfectly capable for sustaining any truly worthwhile ministry.  All the money is, after all, already God's.  We, as individuals, need to tithe for our own faith and financial well-being.  We need to learn to trust God even with our bank accounts, and we need to put God first on our priority list in a way that happens more completely with first-fruits giving than with any other single spiritual discipline.  Nobody needs the burden of keeping their church's heat on or roof repaired. We need the joy of tithing, along with the confidence that the church is there to generously aid those with emergency needs.  The church's disciplines of stewardship can be a vehicle to exuberant generosity and financial freedom, not stress and anxiety.   

Children's Formation.  Too often, churches are try to shoehorn parents living 21st century lives in mid-20th century children and youth programs.  A lot of energy and reminder emails are sent to round up the little ones for 9:00am Sunday School or a youth outing.  While these can still be valuable, they do not work for many families.  Instead of guilt, these families need resources that help them grow their own spiritual lives and form their children in ways they can access.  The website Grow Christians is one way that family spiritual disciplines are being shared to reach people who aren't able to bear the burdens of traditional "family ministry."

Buildings. In the old days, church activities filled up every nook and cranny of the building, with new education wings built and basements transformed into classrooms and meeting rooms.  Many of those spaces in our facilities are no longer used consistently, or used beyond once a week.  Too often we still expect a declining number of people to maintain this property.  Yet, as many churches have discovered, the community often has need of spaces like the church's.  Various schools can use our Sunday school wings, families need places for graduation parties, showers, and other events, healthy eating groups need commercial kitchens to teach classes, and any number of non-profits need accessible meeting rooms with adequate parking.  Smaller churches and church plants are also looking for worship space (often at a time that isn't Sunday morning).  We can open up our churches to others, but not with an eye toward rental income.  Ideally our goal is allowing people to be served by the church such that they become part of our extended church community.  Instead of an income stream, we are offering people a chance to be part of our overall ministry -- loving God and loving neighbor.  As we allow others to have a piece of ownership in our facilities by being part of who we are, we give people the opportunity to contribute and take responsibility our physical plant in whatever ways God prompts them.  As we give away our buildings (at least for a scheduled time), we allow others to help us maintain them. When we burden our congregations by holding them tightly, we weigh them down with a very heavy load.

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Jesus Teaching Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

In Luke chapter 11, Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. He responds with a slightly condensed version of what has become known as the Lord's prayer.  Then Jesus  relates the parable of the guy pounding on his neighbor's door for bread in the middle of the night.  He writes the lyrics to the second verse of Seek Ye First ("ask and it shall be given unto you; seek and ye shall find").  Finally, he says that when our children ask us for good things, we don't give them bad things, so, if we ask, God will give us the Holy Spirit.  

This week's BLOGFORCE question only deals with the Lord's Prayer, but since Jesus didn't stop there, neither will I.  These instructions of Jesus tell us four important things about prayer.

1. While the Lord's Prayer could be expounded line by line at great length, the basic format tells us something important.  We can have a short, easy to memorize, rote prayer that covers the most important bases and can be used as often as we wish.  We can't spend fifteen seconds, rush through Our Father, and be done with our prayer for the day.  Yet we also don't have to spend fifteen minutes finding the exact right words to say.  If we are uncreative, if we don't know what to say, if we don't even feel like praying, Jesus gives us a simple way to come before God and enter into his presence through prayer.

2. Jesus also says something about the opposite situation, when we really know what we want to pray for.  In the parable of the guy who finally gets up to throw a loaf of bread out the door at his neighbor in the wee hours of the morning, Jesus tells us to be persistent.  Keep asking, keep praying, keep the angels of God up all night until the Almighty sends them down with whatever we need.  Make clear to God what we want and that we really want it.

3. The parable moves seamlessly into Jesus' next point, which is that we only have to ask and we will receive.  The stress seems different, however.  Seek and you will find feels a lot different to us than bang on the door all night.  In reality, however, it may not be.  Part of this instruction is that God wants to give us what we want, especially when what we want is good.  We may have to tell him what that is, however.  Part of prayer can be clarifying our desires, since we often want different, and even contradictory things.  We want nothing to change but we want a better job.  We want to lose weight and eat more ice cream.  We want to support a charity and to go on a cruise.  God is inviting us to ask for what we really want so he can give it to us.  Maybe we need to knock on God's door repeatedly until we are clear in our own minds.  Our persistent prayer is more for our sake than for God's.

4. Jesus says that our heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  Since no one had been talking about the Holy Spirit so far this chapter, Jesus' must think this point is particularly important.  In the midst of all our other prayers, we should ask God to give us his Holy Spirit.  As we receive the Holy Spirit, we activate our spiritual gifts to build up the church and reap the benefits of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  If we want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control and the other fruits of the Spirit, we need to ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says he will.

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