Monday, May 02, 2016

May Morning

It was wonderful to hear the Magdalen College Choir sing from the top of Magdalen Tower in Oxford two years ago at 6 am on May 1. This is a tradition that has been going on for 500 years. But now you can see it from the choir's perspective in the video above. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Vision Statement

After reading through The Purpose Driven Church over the course of the past few months, and after our Strategic Planning Committee met for several weeks, we developed this Vision Statement for Stowe Community Church. We welcome the comments and questions of people in our church as well as those outside on our new vision....

We have a dream
  1. Being a church at the center of our community where all people will find a welcome, a place where all people—including the hurting, the depressed, the frustrated, and the confused—will find love, acceptance, help, hope, forgiveness, guidance, and encouragement.
  2. Sharing the good news of Jesus with the thousands of people in our community who currently claim no religious affiliation.
  3. Developing a positive awareness of our church in our community through advertising, events, participation in community activities, and a vibrant social media presence.
  4. Welcoming hundreds of new members into the fellowship of our church family where they can love, learn, laugh, and live in harmony together.
  5. Developing people to spiritual maturity by offering classes for all ages about: knowing Christ (membership), growing in Christ (maturity), serving Christ (ministry), and sharing Christ (missions).
  6. Spiritually caring for our members and the people of our community through fellowship events and a network of small groups for: youth, children, parents of young children, parents of youth, empty-nesters, singles, men, women, retirees, people in recovery, and others.
  7. Offering multiple worship services with many different styles (traditional, contemporary, contemplative, etc.) throughout the week.
  8. Serving our community by working in conjunction with other churches and households of faith to offer food, shelter, clothing and other ministries to those in need.
  9. Offering outreach events throughout the year that will minister to the spiritual needs of our community through music, fellowship, teaching, and other means.
  10. Renovating and expanding our existing building to accommodate a church family of five hundred people or more.
  11. Building a staff that will minister to the children and youth of our community, leading families into a personal, and life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ.
  12. Supporting and sending both short-term and long-term missionaries who will share the love of Jesus with those in need in our community and around the world.
  13. Preserving the history of our church with its roots in the early 1800s, and sharing this heritage with the Stowe community.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Our New Purpose Statement

I know I haven't written a blog post in a while, and I haven't written anything about our church's study of The Purpose Driven Church in even longer. We have continued our study of Rick Warren's book over the past many weeks. We have had two groups studying the book together. One meets on Sunday morning in our church building. The other meets on Monday night in our home. In both groups we have found much that we appreciated from this book, and sometimes we have found points we disagreed with. But the most important thing this book has done for us is to help us re-define our purpose as a church.

After meeting for many weeks, our Strategic Planning Committee developed this new purpose statement based upon Acts 2:42-47....

Stowe Community Church
develops followers of Christ who
celebrate through worship
grow through teaching
connect through fellowship
care through service and
share through outreach
to our community
and world.

In the coming weeks, we plan to share with our congregation some other statements we have developed which flow right out of this new purpose statement. We have written a one page Vision Statement and several pages covering our new Strategy and Goals as a church. We welcome your comments.... 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Resurrection of Jesus

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio

In The Apostles’ Creed the Church confesses her faith in Jesus who “on the third day … rose again.” In that same creed we say that we believe in “the resurrection of the body”. But why should we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and our own future bodily resurrection? After all, isn’t such belief terribly antiquated in our own scientific age?

I imagine that believing in the resurrection of Jesus was just as hard in the first century as it is in the twenty-first. After all, people in the first century knew just as well as we do today that when someone dies and you put their body into the ground, that body doesn’t come out again. It would seem that St. Thomas had at least as many questions about the resurrection of the body as any modern doubter of our own day.

So, if we have doubts, we are in good company. And to my mind, former atheist C. S. Lewis offers much helpful explanation about the resurrection of Jesus in his book, Miracles....
In the earliest days of Christianity an ‘apostle’ was first and foremost a man who claimed to be an eyewitness of the Resurrection. Only a few days after the Crucifixion when two candidates were nominated for the vacancy created by the treachery of Judas, their qualification was that they had known Jesus personally both before and after His death and could offer first-hand evidence of the Resurrection in addressing the outer world (Acts 1:22). A few days later St Peter, preaching the first Christian sermon, makes the same claim—‘God raised Jesus, of which we all (we Christians) are witnesses (Acts 2:32). In the first Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul bases his claim to apostleship on the same ground—‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord Jesus? (1:9).

As this qualification suggests, to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. Thus people who had heard only fragments of St Paul’s teaching at Athens got the impression that he was talking about two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (i.e. Resurrection) (Acts 17:18). The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels’, the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it. Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection. If they had died without making anyone else believe this ‘gospel’ no gospels would ever have been written. 
It is very important to be clear about what these people meant. When modern writers talk of the Resurrection they usually mean one particular moment—the discovery of the Empty Tomb and the appearance of Jesus a few yards away from it. The story of that moment is what Christian apologists now chiefly try to support and sceptics chiefly try to impugn. But this almost exclusive concentration on the first five minutes or so of the Resurrection would have astonished the earliest Christian teachers. In claiming to have seen the Resurrection they were not necessarily claiming to have seen that. Some of them had, some of them had not. It had no more importance than any of the other appearances of the risen Jesus—apart from the poetic and dramatic importance which the beginnings of things must always have. What they were claiming was that they had all, at one time or another, met Jesus during the six or seven weeks that followed His death. Sometimes they seem to have been alone when they did so, but on one occasion twelve of them saw Him together, and on another occasion about five hundred of them. St Paul says that the majority of the five hundred were still alive when he wrote the First Letter to the Corinthians, i.e. in about 55 AD.

The ‘Resurrection’ to which they bore witness was, in fact, not the action of rising from the dead but the state of having risen; a state, as they held, attested by intermittent meetings during a limited period (except for the special, and in some ways different, meeting vouchsafed to St Paul). This termination of the period is important, for, as we shall see, there is no possibility of isolating the doctrine of the Resurrection from that of the Ascension.

The next point to notice is that the Resurrection was not regarded simply or chiefly as evidence for the immortality of the soul. It is, of course, often so regarded today: I have heard a man maintain that ‘the importance of the Resurrection is that it proves survival’. Such a view cannot at any point be reconciled with the language of the New Testament. On such a view Christ would simply have done what all men do when they die: the only novelty would have been that in His case we were allowed to see it happening. But there is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits’, the ‘pioneer of life’. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.

I do not mean, of course, that the writers of the New Testament disbelieved in ‘survival’. On the contrary they believed in it so readily that Jesus on more than one occasion had to assure them that He was not a ghost. From the earliest times the Jews, like many other nations, had believed that man possessed a ‘soul’ or Nephesh separable from the body, which went at death into the shadowy world called Sheol: a land of forgetfulness and imbecility where none called upon Jehovah any more, a land half unreal and melancholy like the Hades of the Greeks or the Niflheim of the Norsemen. From it shades could return and appear to the living, as Samuel’s shade had done at the command of the Witch of Endor. In much more recent times there had arisen a more cheerful belief that the righteous passed at death to ‘heaven’. Both doctrines are doctrines of ‘the immortality of the soul’ as a Greek or modern Englishman understands it: and both are quite irrelevant to the story of the Resurrection. The writers look upon this event as an absolute novelty. Quite clearly they do not think they have been haunted by a ghost from Sheol, nor even that they have had a vision of a ‘soul’ in ‘heaven’. It must be clearly understood that if the Psychical Researchers succeeded in proving ‘survival’ and showed that the Resurrection was an instance of it, they would not be supporting the Christian faith but refuting it. If that were all that had happened the original ‘gospel’ would have been untrue. What the apostles claimed to have seen did not corroborate, nor exclude, and had indeed nothing to do with, either the doctrine of ‘heaven’ or the doctrine of Sheol. Insofar as it corroborated anything it corroborated a third Jewish belief which is quite distinct from both these. This third doctrine taught that in ‘the day of Jahweh’ peace would be restored and world dominion given to Israel under a righteous King: and that when this happened the righteous dead, or some of them, would come back to earth—not as floating wraiths but as solid men who cast shadows in the sunlight and made a noise when they tramped the floors. ‘Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust’, said Isaiah, ‘And the earth shall cast out the dead’ (26:19). What the apostles thought they had seen was, if not that, at any rate a lonely first instance of that: the first movement of a great wheel beginning to turn in the direction opposite to that which all men hitherto had observed. Of all the ideas entertained by man about death it is this one, and this one only, which the story of the Resurrection tends to confirm. If the story is false then it is this Hebrew myth of resurrection which begot it. If the story is true then the hint and anticipation of the truth is to be found not in popular ideas about ghosts nor in eastern doctrines of reincarnation nor in philosophical speculations about the immortality of the soul, but exclusively in the Hebrew prophecies of the return, the restoration, the great reversal. Immortality simply as immortality is irrelevant to the Christian claim.

There are, I allow, certain respects in which the risen Christ resembles the ‘ghost’ of popular tradition. Like a ghost He ‘appears’ and ‘disappears’: locked doors are no obstacle to Him. On the other hand He Himself vigorously asserts that He is corporeal (Luke 24: 39–40) and eats broiled fish. It is at this point that the modern reader becomes uncomfortable. He becomes more uncomfortable still at the word, ‘Don’t touch me; I have not yet gone up to the Father’ (John 20:17). For voices and apparitions we are, in some measure, prepared. But what is this that must not be touched? What is all this about going ‘up’ to the Father? Is He not already ‘with the Father’ in the only sense that matters? What can ‘going up’ be except a metaphor for that? And if so, why has He ‘not yet’ gone? These discomforts arise because the story the ‘apostles’ actually had to tell begins at this point to conflict with the story we expect and are determined beforehand to read into their narrative.

We expect them to tell of a risen life which is purely ‘spiritual’ in the negative sense of that word: that is, we use the word ‘spiritual’ to mean not what it is but what it is not. We mean a life without space, without history, without environment, with no sensuous elements in it. We also, in our heart of hearts, tend to slur over the risen manhood of Jesus, to conceive Him, after death, simply returning into Deity, so that the Resurrection would be no more than the reversal or undoing of the Incarnation. That being so, all references to the risen body make us uneasy: they raise awkward questions. For as long as we hold the negatively spiritual view, we have not really been believing in that body at all. We have thought (whether we acknowledged it or not) that the body was not objective: that it was an appearance sent by God to assure the disciples of truths otherwise incommunicable. But what truths? If the truth is that after death there comes a negatively spiritual life, an eternity of mystical experience, what more misleading way of communicating it could possibly be found than the appearance of a human form which eats broiled fish? Again, on such a view, the body would really be a hallucination. And any theory of hallucination breaks down on the fact (and if it is invention it is the oddest invention that ever entered the mind of man) that on three separate occasions this hallucination was not immediately recognised as Jesus (Luke 24:13–31; John 20:15, 21:4). Even granting that God sent a holy hallucination to teach truths already widely believed without it, and far more easily taught by other methods, and certain to be completely obscured by this, might we not at least hope that He would get the face of the hallucination right? Is He who made all faces such a bungler that He cannot even work up a recognisable likeness of the Man who was Himself?

It is at this point that awe and trembling fall upon us as we read the records. If the story is false, it is at least a much stranger story than we expected, something for which philosophical ‘religion’, psychical research, and popular superstition have all alike failed to prepare us. If the story is true, then a wholly new mode of being has arisen in the universe. (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, New York: Macmillan, 1978, pp. 143-148)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep--as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church, the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. This also is characteristic. In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. its pretensions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d'├ętat. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People--the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He Himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God's last words are "Why hast thou forsaken me?" 
You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked. 
As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be Man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need? And if so, why? I sometimes wonder if we have even begun to understand what is involved in the very concept of creation. If God will create, he will make something to be, and yet to be not Himself. To be created is, in some sense, to be ejected or separated. Can it be that the more perfect the creature is, the further this separation must at some point be pushed? It is saints, not common people, who experience the "dark night." It is men and angels, not beasts, who rebel. Inanimate matter sleeps in the bosom of the Father. The "hiddenness" of God perhaps presses most painfully on those who are in another way nearest to Him, and therefore God Himself, made man, will of all men be by God most forsaken?... perhaps there is an anguish, an alienation, a crucifixion involved in the creative act. Yet He who alone can judge judges the far-off consummation to be worth it.
I am, you see, a Job's comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don't regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.
C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, end of Letter VIII

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday. The word "Maundy" comes from the Latin "mandate" which means "commandment". On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gave to his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them (John 13:34). Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated his love for his disciples, on that same night, by taking off his clothes (taking the form of a servant) and washing his disciples dirty feet. Afterwards, he tells his disciples that he has given them an example to follow.

I like what C. S. Lewis says about this in a letter to a Catholic priest, Don Giovanni Calabria who lived in Verona. The letter was written in Latin during Holy Week in 1948. I will give the lead in to the key statement so that you can understand the context. And I will also quote from the English translation....

Everywhere things are troubling and uneasy--wars and rumours of war: perhaps not the final hour but certainly times most evil.
Nevertheless, the Apostle again and again bids us 'Rejoice'.
Nature herself bids us do so, the very face of the earth being now renewed, after its own manner, at the start of Spring.
I believe that the men of this age (and among them you Father, and myself) think too much about the state of nations and the situation of the world. Does not the author of The Imitation warn us against involving ourselves too much with such things?
We are not kings, we are not senators. Let us beware lest, while we torture ourselves in vain about the state of Europe, we neglect either Verona or Oxford. 
In the poor man who knocks at my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks my advice, the Lord Himself is present: therefore let us wash His feet. (Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II, pp. 843-844)
I like the way Lewis turns around the image of Jesus washing his disciples feet and pictures us as washing Jesus' feet. This follows the idea of what Jesus said in Matthew 25; when we serve "the least of these", we are serving Jesus.

Lewis was apparently writing this letter on Holy Saturday, for later on he says:
Tomorrow we shall celebrate the glorious Resurrection of Christ. I shall be remembering you in the Holy Communion. Away with tears and fears and troubles! United in wedlock with the eternal Godhead Itself, our nature ascends into the Heaven of Heavens. So it would be impious to call ourselves 'miserable'. On the contrary, Man is a creature whom the Angels--were they capable of envy--would envy. Let us lift up our hearts!
I think Lewis' statements here provide good food for meditation in Holy Week. Lewis' words raise the questions: Whose feet does the Lord want me to wash this day? And how might I rejoice more in the resurrection of Jesus, not only on Easter, but every day?

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Life Development Process

Chapter 8 of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren deals with applying what we say is our purpose as a church. One thing I really like in this chapter, and have used before in one of the churches I served, is what Warren calls "The Life Development Process". Warren illustrates this process using a baseball diamond. Each base represents a different class that helps people in the church grow in their relationship with Christ. First base is the membership class. Second base is the maturity class. Third base is the ministry class. And home base is the missions class.

The way I applied this in a previous church was to use this as the format for adult education on Sunday mornings. When I went to the church in question they had only one adult education class. We expanded to as many as four adult ed classes going at one time on Sunday mornings. The way Rick Warren's baseball diamond helped me was to maintain balance in our adult ed. I found that without the  baseball diamond as a model, we tended to focus completely on "maturity" type classes in our church. These consisted mostly of Bible studies of one type or another. We really needed to add to this type of class other classes where we trained people for ministry and for missions or personal evangelism. So, following Warren's model, I tried to make sure we were offering all four types of classes on a regular basis.

For our membership class I designed my own curriculum and we offered this class on a single Saturday morning several times throughout the year.

Our maturity classes took place on Sunday morning during a fully graded Sunday school hour. We used a variety of curricula for these classes.

For our basic ministry (3rd base) class we used "Network" from Willow Creek that helps people discover not only their spiritual gifts but what they are passionate about in life.

For our home base missions class we used another teaching tool from Willow Creek, the "Becoming a Contagious Christian" course. This course really helped our people learn how to practice friendship evangelism.

I have been thinking and praying a lot about how to implement this Life Development Baseball Diamond Process at Stowe Community Church. Currently we have one adult education class offered at 8:30 on Sunday mornings. We could use the baseball diamond model and begin offering classes covering all the bases on Sunday morning. Or we could offer classes for each of the bases on a Saturday morning quarterly basis. I am not sure what is going to work best yet for this church. Sometimes it takes experimentation to find out. But one thing is for sure, all Christians can benefit from all of these types of classes, and the baseball diamond model helps to keep adult education in the church balanced.

What do you think?