Where Ministry Comes From

On Sunday our worship featured the ordination and installation of officers. This service always thrills me, for it makes explicit our belief that the church’s ministry is God’s gift, not our work. As elders laid hands on those being ordained as deacons or elders, we prayed for God to endow these servants with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church. As earnest and faithful as each of these officers is, their character, talents, and experience are not the necessary component to their ministry: Christ’s Spirit is.

I was blessed to be reminded of this fundamental fact even more vividly the week before, when these officers-elect were examined by the Session. We invited each new officer to share a brief testimony of his or her Christian faith and call to ministry. This season of fresh witness blessed us all, each speaker unveiling a view of God’s gracious reclamation in the landscape of his or her life. These witnesses mapped out the turning points in their lives—away from self-directed living toward God’s purposes; through deep crises and challenges that reveal each one’s incapacity for faithful living; moments of stunning discovery that, amidst the threats and danger, God’s arms are under and around us. Through laughter and tears we heard a rich variety of God’s saving ways in our lives.

Spiritual sharing in authentic community: surely this must be a necessary component for deep and lasting service in Christ’s name. When we succumb to the temptation toward superficial connection with God or others, we hinder God’s access to his desired vehicle for ministry: our selves. God made us for communion with God and each other, and in Jesus Christ he shows his desire to inhabit human existence with saving love. The deeper, healthier, and richer our communion with God and each other, the better we are as agents of Christ’s love.

Communion is not our work; rather, it is God’s gift. But we can purpose to seek this blessing and to use it well, so that our church’s life and ministry may partake as fully as possible of God’s love. For our ministry is not our own: it comes from God through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. May our life together invite this Spirit and seek Christ’s saving rule, the source of any true ministry.

Gordon Turnbull

Marking God’s Territory

As we read the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family, the early episodes present the itinerant quality of their life.  We are introduced to Abram and Sarai toward the end of Genesis 11, as they migrate from Ur to Haran; a few verses later, in Genesis 12, they are headed from Haran to Canaan.  Then a famine drives them to Egypt, but a fairly significant misunderstanding between Abram and the Pharaoh turns the couple back to Canaan soon enough.  If we notice it, the moving about clearly portrays the nomadic nature of the people of God before the gift of the land as part of God’s covenant.

A closer look at all this moving reveals an important dimension to the movement—the worship of God.  As Abram and Sarai enter Canaan at Shechem, the Lord appears to Abram, saying, “To your offspring I will give this land”; Abram responds by building there an altar to the Lord (Gen. 12:7).  As he moves to the hill country between Bethel and Ai, he builds an altar to the Lord as well (12:8).  This action continues throughout the story of the patriarchs:  from Noah disembarking after the Flood to Jacob’s dream of a ladder at Bethel—places of particular significance, especially of God’s revelation, become worship sites.

The impulse to praise God marks those moments and places in which we attend to God’s presence and provision.  By setting up altars and offering worship, the patriarchs marked a place as belonging to the Lord.  It is to say, “See, this pivotal moment has revealed God’s plan; this location has proven to be the place of God’s presence.”  The worship of God in that place acknowledges God’s rule, essentially declaring this “territory”—this time and space, this moment and place—for the Lord.

As we travel on our own pathways, it is good to ask whether we have marked sufficiently the times and places of our encounters with God.  What are those places in the landscape of your life?  Where did God reveal a significant insight or resolve an insoluble problem?  With what time and place do you associate your clearest experience of God’s grace?  Maybe it is the family table of an earlier generation, or a special tree in the yard, or a Sunday school classroom, or a camping trip.  In remembering and claiming these places worshipfully, we hallow the ground and mark it as territory in God’s rule.

The more clearly we ascribe God glory in the worldly here-and-now where real people live, the more credibly we present to others our faith.  May we be as generous with our praise as God is with His grace, marking our world and our lives for God’s rule as we sojourn on paths of faithful living.

Gordon Turnbull

I Love to Tell the Story

Our church is a couple of weeks into Epic, our yearlong Bible read-through. As a basis we are using The Jesus Storybook Bible, inviting our youngest members to join in the same life-giving experience as the rest of us. We hope that families will claim this opportunity of reading together, establishing the practice of Bible reading and faith discussion that can make each home the seedbed of faith in Jesus Christ.

While I am excited about this year’s Bible read-through being accessible to all ages, I must confess that it is not only the youngest that I have in mind. My years of pastoral ministry have taught me how vital it is for adults as well as children and youth to grow in our faith. Too many grownups believe that they have the essentials of Christian faith in hand and hence have nothing important to learn. In their minds, they have “graduated” from Christian learning! To see our faith this way reduces it to mere information and diminishes our discipleship to mere cognitive assent to Christian ideas.

I lament such a one-dimensional view of Christian life. Instead, I find that the claim of the gospel—that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself—challenges me from every angle. A life that follows Jesus Christ reads each new situation in light of this promise of the gospel. When I read the news of the world or consider the challenges in our community, I must reckon how the gospel engages these realities. When I look within and survey the sketchy landscape of my own faulty living, I ponder how and why God would sacrifice so much to redeem me. Thoughtful Christian living never stops asking these questions, and so thoughtful Christians never stop learning from them.

Just as we don’t stop living when we become adults, we don’t stop learning and growing. Part of the excitement of growing in faith is discovering how the Word of God and the faith of the Church strengthen and equip us for living and thriving in even this complex and challenging world. All of us need and deserve the support, encouragement, and wisdom God imparts to us as we study God’s Word and seek to follow our Lord, Jesus Christ.

And so we read the Bible again this year . . . following the story of God’s sovereign, saving love from the very beginning to its victorious fulfillment. And we read these stories this year from a children’s Bible storybook. I believe that disciples of all ages can learn from the disarmingly simple telling of these vibrant stories from scripture. Jesus himself said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2). May God give each of us the trusting, eager faith of a child, making us receptive to learn “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

Gordon Turnbull

FPC Session Letter to the Congregtion

August 25, 2014
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In June of this year, two significant actions were taken at the most recent gathering of the General Assembly (GA) of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). These actions are summarized as follows:
1. The 221st General Assembly (2014) approved pastoral discretion to perform “any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform,” where legal by state law. This action is effective immediately and permits pastors to conduct same gender weddings and Sessions to approve the use of church property for such ceremonies.
2. The GA also approved a proposal to change language in the Book of Order to indicate that “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” thereby proposing a new definition of marriage. This proposal requires approval by a majority of presbyteries, a ratification process that takes about a year.
A copy of the GA’s letter in its entirety, additional information, and answers to frequently asked questions are available through the church office.
When these GA proceedings were announced the Session of FPC entered a time of prayer, study, and discussion. Our conclusions and discernment from these discussions, based on reference to Scripture and guidance by the Holy Spirit are as follows:
• Your Session recognizes that there will be differing opinions within our congregation, just as there have been within our society. Whatever your position, know that you are deeply loved in Christ’s name in this congregation.
• Since 1978 the GA of the PC(USA) has been asked to consider action regarding same gender sexual behavior. In 2010 the General Assembly (GA) initiated a change in the Book of Order, ratified by a majority of presbyteries, which amended the standards of ordination relative to candidates’ sexual behavior. This change eliminated the requirement that “an officer live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” Your Session at that time went on record as opposing the amendment by voting to affirm the previous ordination language, and this position was communicated by letter to the congregation.
• We recognize that the laws of our country reflect the culture and the values thereof. However, God’s Word is the authority on which the Session is called to make decisions concerning the church. To this end, your Session affirms the clear witness of Scripture for all decisions, but especially the current issues:
o We affirm the Biblical definition of marriage (between a man and a woman).
o We will limit our consent for wedding ceremonies within FPC to those that reflect this Biblical definition.
• There are wise, faithful witnesses within the PC(USA) who have chosen to address the GA’s action. The Fellowship of Presbyterians, whose attitudes and response resonate with the Session of FPC, stated: “We grieve these actions by the General Assembly. We believe we will look back on this day and see the error of these decisions. But an Assembly of our denomination has spoken, and now we must move ahead without compromising compassion or conviction.” We are encouraged to move forward without fighting or division, but in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and testifying to the transforming power of his love that is available to everyone. Wisely, we are reminded to refrain from actions, attitudes, and language that would mar the image of Christ in our response to the Assembly’s actions.
• Without compromising either compassion for all people or conviction for Biblical standards, First Presbyterian Church will move ahead with the work that Jesus Christ intends for our congregation, edifying Christ in our community and the world.
• Through prayer (our connection to Christ), through a committed and sharing community (His Church), and through the study of His Word, we trust in God’s Almighty power to illuminate our path and to keep us safe, in the center of His will.
As Christ’s church, we are committed to remain steadfast witnesses of God’s saving grace through His Son Jesus Christ, both to people inside and to those outside our local congregation. As we do this together, our congregation will turn this threat of discord into an opportunity to be further strengthened in the body of Christ as we stand in His Word and are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
To the Glory of Jesus Christ,
The Session of Elders

Before and After

It’s one of the most familiar—and compelling—tropes in advertising: Before and After. The message is immediate and obvious. This product works wonders; see for yourself! The photo on the left shows some slob with bad posture, grimacing; the photo on the right—always brighter and in better focus—shows the same person, upright and smiling, enjoying all the benefits.

The second chapter of Ephesians offers the same split-screen comparison in thinking about those called into Christ’s Church:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived . . . But God . . . made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . (2:1, 4-6)

Before and after: once dead, now alive together with Christ. It is an amazing claim of spiritual transformation for those who claim their identity in Christ by God’s grace.

This pattern of reflection continues as Paul thinks particularly about the Gentiles who have come into the Church:

remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (2:12-13)

Before and after: once you were far away, but now God has brought you near through Jesus Christ.

This awareness of the before-and-after does not merely pertain to the first-century Church of Gentile and Jewish Christians. This insight can enrich our own lives of faith in the Church today. All of us can benefit from “remembering” our lives without God, whether or not we truly recall a time in which we were not aware of God’s love. To remember is to recognize our utter need for God—our lostness without God’s grace, the great distance of our alienation by sin. When we think of our lives as Before and After, we recognize the rich gift of Now in Christ.

The before-and-after view on Christ’s work for us also helps us see others more graciously. Paul reminds us in this passage that “all of us [Gentiles and Jews alike] once lived among [our trespasses and sins] in the passions of our flesh . . . and we were children of wrath, like everyone else” (2:3). Since our spiritual origins are mutually grim, and our current spiritual status is “not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God,” then truly “no one may boast” (2:8-9). No group or individual in the Church can lay rightful claim to a higher status than another. Whether we started out as insiders or as outsiders, all of us are equally dependent on God’s grace. Our honest reckoning of our own prior need conquers any instinct we may feel toward our self-elevation.

No split-screen magic can do justice to the transformation that God enacts by saving us through Jesus Christ. Our grateful response for the gift of salvation depends on always remembering our lives Before. Only by doing so can we truly reckon the blessing we enjoy After, as those sought and saved by our loving God.

What Kind of Church?

As we read scripture, one helpful—and exciting–question we can keep in mind is this one: if we truly believe and live out this Word, what kind of people would we become?

If I subscribed to every cooking magazine, read all the classic cookbooks, and watched the Food Network daily, my reading would not necessarily make me a good cook. But if I followed the premise of the 2009 movie Julie & Julia and recreated every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the discipline would almost certainly move me to a new level of culinary comfort, if not mastery. The difference, of course, is the practice—embodying and expressing what we read and understand.

As our church reads together through the Letter to the Ephesians, it would be exciting and hopeful throughout the endeavor to ask this question: what kind of church would we become if we truly believe this Word and apply ourselves to living it out?

Consider what practicing the promises of Ephesians 1:1-14 produces. Those who know themselves to be abundantly blessed by God—already equipped with every spiritual blessing needed to live our lives before God. Assured people, secure in their identity as God’s children and freed from the burden of earning God’s favor. Grateful and gracious people because they are the beneficiaries of God’s lavish grace, knowing themselves to be forgiven of our sins and redeemed by Christ’s saving work. Worshipful people, attuned to the glory of God because of their deep consideration of what God has done for them through Jesus Christ.

What kind of transformation does God seek for our congregation? What kind of people might we become? What kind of church does our Lord call and equip us to be?