What Others Say

Your article appeared in our local paper, the Ventura Star. We live in Thousand Oaks, CA. What an outstanding article – so detailed and comprehensive. - Bob Fitch

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why Go To Church

Given the secular focus of our culture with football dominating Sundays and Black Friday overshadowing Thanksgiving, it is easy to conclude that very few people still attend church. But, according to the best research, that is just not the case.  More people attend church than we might think. 

Estimates of church attendance on a given Sunday vary.  If you ask Americans, as Gallup has done for the past 70 years, 4 out of 10 will tell you they attend church each week, roughly the same percentage that said they did so in 1939.  Attendance rose to 49% in the 1950s, but otherwise has remained fairly constant through the decades.   If you ask The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, it will tell you less than 20% actually attend church on a given Sunday.  The Pew research estimates attendance at 37% of the U.S. population with only one-third who seldom or never attend.

This, it seems to me, is remarkable.  What other voluntary activity could attract this many people on a regular basis?  According to the most extreme estimates, between 50 million and 125 million people attend church every week.  By comparison, the average attendance per week to all NFL football games combined totals a little over two million. Although the percentage of those attending church has declined over the years, church attendance is still a huge part of our lives. 

As I have thought about it, I have asked myself the question, “Why do I go to church?”

I go to church because, down deep, I believe in Jesus Christ.  I think it is what He would want me to do.  Even though the Jewish authorities turned against Him, it was always Jesus’ custom, or “habit” to attend the synagogue each Sabbath.  (Luke 4:16).  And even though churches are seldom what they ought to be, I need to follow Jesus’ example.

I go because I need to be encouraged in my faith and I want to encourage others.  While I have been disappointed by some pastors and church leaders over the years, I find that going to church lifts my spirits.  Other believers take an interest in me and pray for me.  And I seek to do the same for them. (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13; 10:25).

I go to church because churches make the world a better place. All churches, as we know are flawed. Someone once asked me if I knew of any churches that did not have any problems.  I asked if he knew of churches that didn’t have any people.  Where there are people, there will be problems. But most churches seek ways to feed the hungry, help the poor, comfort the grieving and care for the aging.  Churches pull us outside ourselves and call us to a higher and better world.

I go because I want my children to go.  Even though my children are grown and gone, I still want to be an example to them, as I sought to be when I was raising them.  Going to church is a discipline. Sometimes I don’t feel like it. But I have learned over the years that the best things in life require effort.  Worship, Christian fellowship and service are disciplines that I believe are worth passing on to the next generation.  

I am sure there are many other reasons why people attend church.  There are other reasons why I do as well, but these are the three that stand out the most in my mind.

If you haven’t been attending church.  I hope you will do so this week. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Heaven

I recently assisted in the funeral for a close friend.  He was older by almost twenty years, and became my mentor more than thirty years ago.  He was a take-charge kind of guy and I always imagined him going out like John Wayne in The Shootist.  Consistent with his personality, he left specific instructions for his funeral, including the passage he wanted the pastor to preach and the three points he wanted him to make.  To his friends he wrote, “I want there to be more laughter than tears.  After all, I will be in Heaven.”

I watched him age like I have watched others, the same process I am beginning to see in myself.  As he entered his eighties his strength and vigor began to slip.  The last time we went out to eat he needed a walker to make his way to the table.  Aging is an inescapable experience for all of us who live long enough.  But in the end, in the “twinkling of an eye … we shall all be changed.”  (1 Corinthians 15:52).

When my mother was young she was a beauty and a fast runner who won several ribbons in track meets.  But in her last years she was feeble and almost blind.  When she was 89 years old and dying, we talked about what it would be like when she woke up in Heaven, able once again to run through the meadow as she did in her youth.  Her body once again characterized by energy, strength, beauty and grace. 

I have often thought about Heaven and what it might be like.  Someone once said that we might think of everything that is beautiful and good on this earth and multiply it by two.  That of course is a small number, but anything more defies imagination.  I like to think about the sun rising in the east, its light filtering through the leaves warming my shoulders on a cool morning; the birds calling to one another as the day dawns; the scent of freshly cut grass and new turned earth; the fragrance of lilacs in spring and roses in summer; the laughter of children on the playground; the crack of a baseball bat and the smack of a ball in the glove; the weight of a sleeping baby in my arms.  On this earth and in this world, they are enough.  But multiplied by two, or a thousand?  Incomprehensible!

Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  (John 14:3). “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” (John 11:25-26).

The Bible says, “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2). “If we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection.”  (Romans 6:5).

Monday, November 3, 2014

What You Won't Do For Yourself

 Left to myself, I will sit around and vegetate. I know that other people don’t do this, but I do. When I look across the room at my dog who follows me from room to room and is happy to be wherever I am, I know that he needs to walk. So, I get up, put on my shoes, find his leash and off we go. It is good for him and it is good for me. What I won’t do for myself I will do for my dog.

This little act highlights an important point I have discovered. We all need to be motivated for someone or something outside ourselves. I have heard it said, “If you won’t do it for someone else, do it for yourself!” But I have discovered that doing it for myself is the lowest and weakest motivator in my life.

Some have assumed that our democratic system works because it is based on self-interest. If everyone looks out for himself, seeks to make the biggest profit and accumulate the most wealth, it all just seems to work out for everybody. But that isn’t true. Our democratic system works because people are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest in the interest of others. The key to American democracy is selfless altruism. Not greed.

Life is not like Monopoly. We don’t win by owning the largest number of properties, raising the rent and amassing stacks of money on our side of the board until we drive everyone else into bankruptcy. That might work for a board game, but even then the players seldom feel good about it. In life we win by giving ourselves away.

We are made in such a way that we must be called to something higher. We will endure great pain, hardship, discipline and even death for people we love and causes that challenge us.

When we live our lives and make our decisions based upon self-interest and self-gratification we are led into dead end tributaries, into a shallow existence that results in isolation and loneliness. When we choose to orient our lives around serving and helping others, we launch out into the deep where we discover meaning and fulfillment.

Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest men of the twentieth century who spent lavishly to indulge his whims and idiosyncrasies, died a recluse, lonely, isolated and mentally deranged. The FBI had to resort to fingerprints in order to identify his body.


Mother Teresa, who was penniless, spent her life caring for the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. When she died in 1997 the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded, had over one million co-workers serving the “poorest of the poor” in 123 countries. In 2010, the 100th anniversary of her birth, she was honored around the world.

This is why the Scripture urges us to put others first. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Jesus said, “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom.”  (Luke 6:38).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween

This Friday miniature ghosts, goblins and super heroes will emerge at dusk to comb the streets in search of candy.  It is a long tradition in America, one I grew up with as a child and one I enjoyed as a parent. It is, perhaps, one of the few traditions we still celebrate outside with our neighbors. Manicured lawns are transformed into a mystical world of floating cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and tombstones.

Watchful parents huddle at the curb and visit while their little ghouls cheerfully threaten their neighbors with tricks for treats. Expectant children hold open hopeful bags and peer into their dark recesses trying to determine what luck they might have had at the door. 

I always enjoyed taking our kids trick-or-treating. We had fun dressing them up and entering, at least for a night, into their fantasy world.  I liked watching them celebrate their growing assortment of candy gathered from well-wishing neighbors, until a costumed spook jumped from the bushes and convinced our five year old he had enough candy for one night.  

I still look forward to answering our door bell on Halloween night.  I enjoy trying to guess who is hiding behind the princess mask, what little boy is growling in the Ninja Turtle costume.  I like it when ET and Yoda drop by for a visit with their pet ghost-dog. They are polite ghosts and witches and extra-terrestrials. They almost always say, “Thank you.” 

Halloween, of course, has its dark side. Our nightly news reports of abducted children and maps dotted with sexual predators have erased the na├»ve world of Halloween past.  We are more aware that we live in a dangerous world where evil is real and present.   

Many churches are more than a little uncomfortable with Halloween.  After all, it has definite pagan roots.  On the one hand, it is enjoyable to celebrate community with imagination, fantasy and neighborly generosity.   On the other hand, there are demonic and destructive forces at work in the world that kill and destroy.  It is one thing to celebrate fall and harvest and indulge in imagination.  It is another to celebrate the occult, witchcraft, the devil and demons.

Many struggle with addictions and impulses they seem unable to control.  They find themselves on a collision course with destruction.  Our world needs deliverance from evil.

Jesus once met a man filled with destructive demons.  He lived among the tombs of the dead, often cutting himself with sharp stones.  Local citizens tried to control him by putting him in chains, but he broke the chains and escaped back to his home among the graves.  When Jesus ordered the demons that were destroying the man to leave him the demons entered a nearby herd of swine that immediately rushed into the sea and were drowned.  The man was healed.  When his neighbors found him, he was in his right mind, sitting with Jesus, no longer a threat to himself or to them. But it scared them. They asked Jesus to leave their country and not to come back.  (Mark 5:1-20). Forces that we cannot understand or control always scare us.

This Halloween we will celebrate an occasion to enjoy our children and their imagination. We will celebrate the turning leaves, dry corn, pumpkins and harvest.  Halloween can also serve as a reminder that in our struggles with the unseen forces of  good and evil, both in our hearts and in the world, we have a deliverer.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Trees

Last week I was in Minnesota. As winter draws near, the maple and oak set the distant hills ablaze with yellow, orange, red and rust.  I walked beneath a gold and crimson canopy of color and was struck with the majesty and the beauty of the trees that surround us.  

Trees are majestic, mysterious and essential to our existence on earth.  They sprout from tiny seeds that can be held in the hand.  They send their roots deep beneath the earth and extend their limbs to the sky as if in prayer, transforming soil and light into substance.

They bear the snow of winter and explode with blossoms in the spring. They whisper in a gentle breeze and howl when the wind whips their branches.  Their life-giving leaves filter the air to produce the oxygen that we breathe. 

They give shelter to the birds that build their nests, perch among their leaves and sing their songs.  Their forests form the homes and habitat for wildlife. For thousands of years the trees have provided the wood with which we build our homes, fashion our furniture and produce the paper to preserve our written records.  They feed both man and beast with their nuts and fruit.

Trees remind us of those who have gone before, those who planted them and those who lived among them. We sit in their shade in summer as our mothers and fathers sat in an earlier day. And we walk among them as I did today, struck by their beauty.

The oldest trees date back more than two millennia. The “Arbol del Tul,” a Montezuma Cypress in Mexico has the widest trunk on earth and may be 3,000 years old.  The “Cotton Tree” in Sierre Leone marks the place where freed slaves gathered beneath its branches to give thanks for their freedom in 1792.  “General Sherman,” the Giant Sequoia, one of the largest trees on earth is believed to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. The 500 year old “Treaty Oak” in Austin, Texas was once the sacred meeting place for Comanche and Tonkawa Indians. Stephen F. Austin met with them beneath its branches to form the first peace treaty for his colony.

The redemptive story of the Bible begins and ends with trees.  It starts with the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” in Genesis and ends with the “Tree of Life” in Revelation.  Psalm 96 proclaims, “Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord, for He is coming!”

In the fullness of time God chose a tree in the form of the Cross to accomplish our redemption. The Bible says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles.” (Galatians 3:13-14).

Trees remind us of God’s goodness and grace by which he created the beauty of the earth and redeemed us for his glory.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When God Seems Far Away

When we experience God’s nearness we feel his forgiveness, acceptance, comfort and peace.  Our hearts are filled with joy and songs of praise for His goodness and beauty. But what about the times when God seems far away?

King David sometimes felt this way.  Repeatedly he asked, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?” (Ps 42:5, 11; 42:5).  “O Lord, why do you reject my soul? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps 88:14).  After confronting the prophets of Baal, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life … he went a day’s journey into the wilderness … and prayed that he might die.  ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors.’” (1 Kings 19:3).

Going through times when we feel God is far away is a normal human experience. The prophets felt it.  God even allowed his own Son to experience it. At the moment He paid the penalty for our sins,  He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). So, when those times come, what are we to do?

We are to remember that the feeling of God being distant is temporary. This is what sustained King David in his dark times. In every case, he declared, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him.”   When we feel God is far away, we are often filled with worry, uncertainty, doubt and despair.  But this will not last.  We will yet feel His presence again and praise Him.

We must rely on God’s promises and not on our feelings. Even when we don’t feel His presence, He is near. Repeatedly God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6,8; Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5).  Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).  David wrote, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.”  (Ps. 139:7-12).

Monday, October 6, 2014

Finding God's Vision


For several years I led an organization that asked two questions:  “What is God’s vision for your life?” and “How can we help you fulfill God’s vision?”   Some churches are beginning to ask these questions regarding those who attend.  They are, I believe, the right questions.  Unlike the institutional and program oriented question, “How can you help our church?” these questions help people discover the transforming dynamic of God that changes their lives and the world.  Most people have an innate sense that God has a vision and purpose for their life.  At the same time, most people have difficulty finding God’s vision and living it.

Next week I will lead a Peer Learning Group for pastors in Wisconsin. One of the pastors in the group is a young man I met twenty years ago when he was 23.  When he graduated from Bethel Seminary in St Paul, he sensed God’s vision to start a church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Today that church averages more than 2,000 in attendance.

When I visited that church a few years ago, I met a woman who was obviously very involved and comfortable at the church.  I asked if she was a staff member.  She laughed and said, “No, I am a volunteer.”  I later learned that two years before she had been addicted to drugs and battling depression. When we follow God’s vision for us, we enable others to find God’s vision for their lives.

Ten years ago I answered my cell phone and listened as a young woman with a speech impediment introduced herself.  “I’m Heather.  I have cerebral palsy.  God has called me to India.  How can you help me?”  That brief conversation started a long friendship.  I drove to Waco to visit Heather and found her confined to a wheel chair with limited use of one arm. In spite of her disabilities, she radiated the presence of Christ. She said God whispered in her ear, “India.”   Since that time, she has been to Bangalore three times to help people who have similar handicaps to her own.  Later, she wrote a popular children’s book entitled “My Friends and I.”  Heather recently became a volunteer at “FaithAbility” in San Antonio, a non-profit that seeks to “make known the gifts of people with developmental disabilities, revealed through mutually transforming relationships.”

God has a vision for every life.  It is just a matter of finding God’s vision and living it out.  Here are some clues I have discovered that help people get started on that journey: 1. Trust Jesus Christ and welcome Him into your life, 2. Study the Bible, 3. Pray, not just for yourself but for others, and 4. Listen to other believers who seek to encourage you.  Get involved in a healthy church and a small group of authentic followers of Jesus Christ.

When Paul neared the end of his life, he said, “I have not been disobedient to the vision.” (Acts 26:19).  He followed the principles in the previous paragraph.  When he got stumped, he looked for God’s vision for the next step on his journey. (Acts 16:6-10).