Category Archives: city

prayerless words – weak fool

I have spoken many prayerless words in the past 24 hours.  Words matter.  Hard reminder when I see the effect of my mouth on my family.  God have mercy.

When I consider that my words can wound as they do… I am suddenly struck by the words of the Ecclesiastes passage I am working through – “What is crooked cannot be made straight.”  Sometimes that’s how I feel about the parts of myself that don’t add up.   When I am angry, why do I speak.  I know not to.  I do anyways.  What a crooked part of this fallen world.  The things I don’t want to do I do…

Crooked words point to a crooked heart in a crooked world that I can’t make straight.  Once again, weakness as the catalyst for a gospel prayer, hope, dependence and love. 

Today I feel like a crooked pastor because I can’t make things straight in my home… and yet, somehow by grace (in spite of all I said last night) there was a familial experience of peace this morning.  Could it be the peace that God, in his time, will straighten what is crooked.  Will bend my words into obedience and blessing for his glory?  Please do O God.

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A kingdom of humility, contrition and trembling

“But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2

Smack in the middle of a vision of the New Heavens and Earth – the beautiful restoration of God that includes his judgment and justice and KINGDOM – is a beautiful description of the people to whom God’s grace and righteousness will rest.  THOSE WHO HUMBLY AND CONTRITELY TREMBLE AT HIS WORD.

Here we are, on the verge of planting a church in the Lehigh Valley of PA.  The thoughts (and methodological books) pour into my head.  Be relevant.  Be faithful.  Be risky.  Be patient.  Be holy.  Be original.  Be missional.  Be Spirit-led.  Be this or that or this or that.  Many of those things I DO want!  But O God, I want  most for us to be your kingdom on earth! 

What will that be like, I wonder.  One thing is clear according to Isaiah’s kingdom vision.  The kingdom on earth WILL be a place where the Word of God revealed to man is CENTRAL to life and ethics and obedience and worship.  We are to be “West Valley Presbyterian Church that trembles contritely at the word of God.”  Nice.

Whether I am seeing this because I am on the heals of a workshop on biblical exposition, or I am resting in it because it is God’s purpose for me to discover the centrality of his Word while outside of a bunch of crazy Word-centered preachers… I am not sure – except I love the Word.  Yes, it is hard to read.  Yes, it is often uninteresting to our visual and emotive culture.  BUT, it is the living Word and revelation of the Creator of the universe and Redeemer of my soul.  Is it not a powerful gift of grace around which ALL of our church plant should center?!

One thing I humbly had to confess at the workshop was this: I generally try to discern how the text of Scripture applies to me, or the congregation to which I preach.  But the problem with such a philosophy is that I am making myself, or others the center point of relating to God.  “How does this apply to ME?”  It is egocentric (though normal in our Western culture)!  The question is rather, “How do I apply my life to the Word?”  “How do I relate to the TRUTH of the text?” rather than “How does this text relate to my perceived reality?”

All I can say is that I can’t possibly imagine being in the New Heavens/Earth of Isaiah 66 and thinking, “How does this Kingdom fit into my reality?”  No, my reality will be defined by such a kingdom!  This is the reason that the kingdom is for those who humbly and contritely tremble at the Word – because IT IS the bar.  IT IS the barometer of reality.  IT IS the density of the gravity by which things float or fall.  How does my reality square with TRUE, GOD REVEALED REALITY?  That is humbling… it induces trembling.  What a grace – that those who are humbled and contrite and trembling at God’s Word are the ones to whom he will look in his kingdom (66:2)! 

SO, it must be Word-now, because it will be Word-then!!!  The kingdom is thus here and then through the Word revealed!

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the kingdom of heaven on earth – on city streets

My friend Terrence will love the fact that my trek through the Book of Isaiah brought chapter 58 into my world with crushing force.  This morning’s reading is impacting and leaves me (and most of the evangelical Christianity I have known) in a posture of repentance.  This morning I also began reading Tim (ahem “Timothy”) Keller’s NY Times best-selling bookThe Reason for God.  In the intro, he acknowledged that as a young Christian, “I seemed to see two camps before  me, and there was something radically wrong with both of them.  The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world.”

OK, so social justice has a bad rap among evangelicals who are supposedly missional and reaching out to our broken culture.  I get that some churches/individuals are intentionally missional over seas (thanks be to God for his Great Commission) and others are missional in their local community.  But Isaiah 58 calls us to missionalism ON OUR OWN STREETS.  Compelling for the suburban isolated – but passionate believer.  Convicting for the church planting pastor.  Convicting for the rural farmer who loves the Lord. 

Who are we to be for the sake of the kingdom of God intersecting with our world around us? 

I give to you from Isaiah 58 – and if GOD has it on your heart to be involved in the West Valley Church Plant, I PRAY this will be knit into your soul with urgency as we ask him to make us “restorers of the streets” in Emmaus and Lower Macungie and all of the west side of the Lehigh Valley.

Isaiah 58:5-12 – God speaking through Isaiah:    

“Is such a fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?  Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?  (actually sounds appropriate… BUT…)

Is it not (rather) to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house;  when you see the naked (or divorced or indebt or addicted or whatever), to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (other image bearers are, in a sense, my own flesh as I am a sinner broken and likewise in need)

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ 

If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out FOR the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.  And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

O God, may your WORD guide what we think a church should like on our city streets and FOR our neighbors.

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West Valley Presbyterian Church, PCA mission

Last night I enjoyed the presence of 33 friends and good coffee at our first West Valley PCA (mission church) gathering in Emmaus PA.  I am excitedly silent… or is it, silently excited.  (which makes you more excited?)  In sum, we hung out, went through the demographic gospel-needs of our target (East Penn area of the Lehigh Valley – specifically Lower Macungie and Emmaus) and I took the privilege to convey a bit of my philosophy of ministry – you know, that bit about being a church of weak people who depend on a strong gospel.  Otherwise said like this: Would that God create a church of the broken, for the broken in our community, before the One who binds up the broken

We talked about being a church that DOES CHRIST’S KINGDOM among our community, rather than just doing church among the churched and calling it kingdom.  What that will look like in human flesh (incarnate), we are yet to really know.   We trust these upcoming months will reveal gospel-opportunities where the kingdom is as stunning in Emmaus/Lower Mac as it was in Acts 2.

The cry is that the 33 people present would pray and begin to do neighborhood church planting as the gospel heals their brokenness and moves them into the brokenness around them.  A high calling.  Sacrifice.  (Yes, last night was as much about getting people excited as it was setting the bar of churchplanting high for the sake of surrender!  This is way too big for all of us, and only those whom God truly calls from the beginning should be involved)!  We said it like this: May this be a church plant of church planters (plural), rather than just a church plant with a church planter (singular) with a core group…  O God, would you call church planters out!  My friends in the West Valley – CALL them out to humble sacrifice, O God!

We also walked next door to the new office space of West Valley Presbyterian Church… we prayed.  Some wept.

I think I’d like to be quiet now. 

Stunned.

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west valley church plant update

OK, I’m not sure if I should provide you with the less-complicated or more-complicated version of this update…

Thank you to those who prayed for the Cornerstone session meeting on Saturday morning.  By God’s grace, the unity and anticipation toward planting this Fall was evident and encouraging.  Long story short, we have decided to pursue a “temporary session of elders” daughter-church model.  I won’t catalogue for you the similarities/differences with other models that we bantered about, but I can somewhat fill you in on how this will look. 

In early 2008 (yes, 2 months) –  formally at our Vision Dinner on Jan 26th – I will be veeerrryyyy slllloooowwwwlllllyyyyyy weaned off of some of my Cornerstone responsibilities to direct my attention to the “West Valley churchplant.”  Areas of attention will include (first) pursuing some ruling and teaching elders in local PCA churches to form a “temporary session” that I will moderate; a body of men called and commissioned to keep the churchplant accountable to God and his Word and to provide support and oversight from its inception.  This is integral in the early stages, so that the budgeting and gathering and vision casting can be done in the context of ecclesiastical oversight.  I am praying and consulting now about who these elders should be.  This temporary session will include some of the present Cornerstone elders.  This temporary body will remain in oversight until such time that the church-plant has trained its own session of elders (usually a year or two in) who will then take the helm under Christ the King.  It will be a large commitment for these men – so please pray that God will raise up the right “session.”  Under this model, the church that is planted will be a bonafide sister PCA church to Cornerstone.

I will also soon need to get a non-profit tax ID so that we can begin fundraising to complement the giving of momma church (Cornerstone, Center Valley).   Good thing my mentor is a former lawyer – as John will be guiding me in how to create bylaws, etc. for accomplishing the task.   Of course, to do this – a name of the church is necessary.  More on that some day.  Right now, West Valley PCA is on my heart because THAT is the target area of the Lehigh Valley in which we live and breath and experience God’s kingdom.  THAT is the place for which we (the launcher-outers) need to be regularly praying and weeping for God’s kingdom mercy on our neighbors and classmates and friends.   THAT is where we long for “thy kingdom to come to earth as it is in heaven.”   THAT is the place where we long for every biblical description of God’s people to fit (terms you often find in the name of churches): grace, mercy, Christ the Cornerstone, fellowship, kingdom, hope, truth, love etc.   I will never forget the first day when – while driving and looking out over the Valley’s lights – I felt tears on my face.  NEVER before have I cried for a people in a place…  The West Valley is my Jerusalem, and it may be yours depending on where you live.   So for now, expect to hear the church plant called as such.  

Then will come the gathering of PRAYERS.  I anticipate that in February, we will begin weekly praying kingdom prayers with one another – that God will check our hearts and motives and move in the west valley in ways we cannot imagine (Eph.3:20-21).  This time of prayer will not be vision casting…  it will be the heart-surrendering.  We will be praying that God will plant a gospel centered church that perpetually serves his kingdom purpose in that place (with or without any of us who are there in the beginning – even me).  This may or may not be in conjunction with the Cornerstone small groups already on the west side of the Valley.  Of course, I HOPE that any of you who will be with us have been and are continually praying for the target and a gospel-church.  Praying for a location to worship.  Praying for people outside of Cornerstone who are curious and gospel-driven who will perhaps be a part of our prayer times as well!  The praying together will only be as powerful as our praying has already been on our knees beside our beds.

Sometime in the Spring, the gathered prayers will (some of them) become vision dreamers. The prayer meetings will likely morph into community Bible studies.  The summer will probably bring any number of “vision barbecues or parties or whatever” to which we invite our friends.  But we don’t need to go there now.  Just pray and see the season of scattering new ecclesial seeds coming soon! 

It shouldn’t be that hard to think about what to pray:

What will the vision of the plant be?  Where will the worship be located?  How will we minister to the needs of the community?  How will it be a churchplant committed to faithfully declaring the gospel to believers and making it relevant to nonbelievers?   How will it – to the glory of God – pursue excellence to reach the “professional valleyman” without being tripped up with performance and cultural entertainment?  How BIG of a work will God do through this churchplant such that YOUR life in YOUR neighborhood in YOUR city on YOUR west side of the Valley will never be the same due to the gospel of the King of mercy and truth?  How big of a commitment is required for my family and your family?  How much do you and I believe the gospel in the first place, such that we are burdened by the need of our community for a new gospel-declaring and incarnating church?  How will we be excited and yet patient at the same time, letting Christ the King through his Spirit plant the church in his time?  How will God preserve Cornerstone PCA in its faith risk of planting a church that will undeniably shake up its gospel-community as it “releases and faithfully multiplies”?  How can we make sure it is God doing the work and not our pursuing human strategies apart from his guidance?  How will we be a church that ministers mercy and justice in sectors of our Valley that are underpoverished?  How will we be a church of the broken and the weak that lives out the power of the gospel because we NEED it so desperately?  How will God raise up people to lead new ministries from “scratch?”  How will we honor and support the gospel-work of other churches in our target area?  How will we plant a church in our community and not just in our heads?  How will we keep from becoming the “cozy Christian couch” and rather be the sacrificial cultural transformers that we ought to be?  How will we uphold a commitment to the purity of God and his kingdom without showing disdain toward the stained and broken in our world who are circumstantially poised to receive the good news?!  How will we be in the world but not of it?  How will Satan try to infiltrate a gospel-work with disunity and pride and competition and vision-distractions – because we KNOW he will?  How will you and I become shepherds of our weak community, and not just colaborers in the church who solely minister to each other in the church (as regular and important as that is)?  How do we become an authentic people of transparency without just wallowing in the reality of our fallen world?  How do we give ourselves to something and yet hold it so loosely that God can do whatever he wants with it? 

How will we do this without crying out in prayer?! 

Please pray with me!  Please tell others you know to read this post and join us in prayer.  Then open your ears for more news from the west side.

covet your prayers

I covet your prayers.  Though shalt not covet, except for things that God himself is zealous for. 

This Saturday, the session of Cornerstone PCA (elders) will be meeting for the express purpose of seeking clarity from God in regards to our specific strategy for launching out to plant a west valley church in the Fall of 2008 (Emmaus, Lower Macungie… East Penn School District and beyond).  We all covet your prayers.  Kingdom prayers.  Gospel prayers.  Unity prayers.  Fervent prayers.  Maybe, if any of you would be so able, some of you could simultaneously gather in community and pray together that we would sense God’s picture of a church plant in his place in his time with his gospel for his glory.   Yes, this has been in the works and discussed for some time (it is why we were called to PA in 2006).  But, this meeting is about specific structure and strategy and timing and vision.

Here’s the thing.  Cornerstone has never done this before – the whole ‘release a limb’ kind of a thing.  So pray not only for this church plant in embryo, but for the entire model by which we approach this plant – as it could be reduplicated time and again (probably tweaked time and again).  Pray for a church that is 6 years old, has no building, has only 200ish people and is still compelled by God to plant other gospel-centered churches in our Lehigh Valley even now.   I praise God to be a part of a church that does not want to be a big church, but wants to promote a BIG saturation of the Lehigh Valley with the gospel through numerous healthy and strategically placed church plants.

The gospel-need is great.  The gospel’s power is greater.  The Lehigh Valley cultural church-need is great.  The local church’s missional power in Christ is even greater.  So please PRAY!

please pass this on.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH [through your church] as it is in heaven.

Thanksgiving prayer…

I read this today…  What a prayer for a pastor on Thanksgiving.  May what I hope for when I declare the message of the gospel be the same thing I am thankful for when I consider my heart and its need – Christ!  

I do not ask that crowds may throng the temple,
That standing room be priced;
I only ask that as I voice the message
They may see Christ!
I do not ask
For churchly pomp or pageant,
Or music such as wealth alone can buy;
I only ask that as I voice the message
He may be nigh!
I do not ask
That men may sound my praises,
Or headlines spread my name abroad;
I only pray that as I voice the message
Hearts may find God!
I do not ask
For earthly place or laurel,
Or of this world’s distinctions any part;
I only ask, when I have voiced the message,
My Savior’s heart!
-Ralph S. Cushman (1939)

community of weakness

“Community” is not just a loaded postmodern word.  It is biblical and should be life for believers – “for we are members of one another”(Eph. 4:25).  Thought I’d share a quote or two once again.  Challenging to be sure, and right up the weakness alley for good reason.

  

   

“Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egoism are revealed to us.  We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective or sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy…  An experience in prayer and the experience of being loved in community, which has become a safe place for us, allows us gradually to accept ourselves as we are, with our wounds and all the monsters.  We are broken, but we are loved.  We can grow to greater openness and compassion; we have a mission.  Community becomes the place of liberation and growth.”Jean Vanier

   

  

“We grow as we commune.  Because information has been the sacred cow of the Protestant tradition, we have minimized the importance of community growth out of fear that the information will be compromised.  Sadly, in doing so, the church has allowed the greatest stumbling block to be put in the path of the believer – the demand for growth without the support of community.”  – Kyle Strobel

The church in a position of cultural weakness

This is long.  But please read all of it slowly.  Chew the cud with me.   

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I was cleaning up my office last Friday, going through the papers and magazines I had set aside months ago… and I found the February/March 2007 edition of byFaith magazine.  The cover caught my eye: Finding Strength Where We’re Culturally Weak.  Interesting, I thought. 

I have wrestled, written and preached so much about weakness as a theological concept, that I inadvertently have found myself considering weakness to be the position of strength in ministering to our weak culture.  But this article took a different tact: we must not simply think about the weakness of the culture, but about the fact that in today’s culture, the church is in a culturally weak position (as regards influence compared to yesteryear). 

The article was written by Sam Wheatley, pastor of New Song Salt Lake Church (PCA).  His thesis was poignant: “In most of the United States, the Christian church is in denial.  We played such a vibrant role for so long that it’s impossible now to believe that our respected position is eroding – and that a generation is growing up around us without even a basic understanding of our faith.  The reality is that North America is now a mission field, and this is a fact we can no longer ignore.”  In other words, the church is no longer in a position of cultural influence and prominence (except maybe in the Bible belt, but even that is questionable) – we are in a position of cultural weakness.  According to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey: 30% of all regular churchgoers are over 65, while only 11.6% are between 18-30.  Yep, cultural weakness.

So, I guess we put it together like this: The church is called to minister to a weak culture enslaved to sin and pain, and we are to do so from the reality of our being in the position of cultural weakness.  This is money, and here’s why:  How in the world are we to show the culture its weakness and need of the gospel if we deliver our message from the angle of cultural superiority or influence?!  We can’t – not effectively anyway.  Try as we may, it won’t be as effective as our humbly being the beggars at the table (the positionally weak) who serve the culture of this world to expose its weakness. 

Here’s how Wheatley puts it for all of us (not just his missionfield in Utah): 

“Utah matters because it is a preview of America’s future – where historic Christianity exists as a minority faith – where our tried and true ministry approaches are suspect; where something more solid than pragmatism is needed; and where we must determine how to salvage the essentials, retool the important, and jettison what doesn’t matter.”  (Nice writing.)

“Being an outsider, the church regains its role as servant.  When Christianity is not the dominant faith – as in Utah – when it’s forced to take the lowest seat at the table, it renews its understanding of service, and rediscovers the promise that the greatest is least (Luke 22:@3-30).  From a position of cultural weakness, the church renews her dependence on the Lord.”

This has HUGE implications!  I told someone recently that I see myself as a missionary as much as a pastor (and I need more work at being a missionary than a pastor, to be true).  He responded almost inquisitively… So you actually see yourself as a missionary.  Yes I do.  I must, because times of have changed!  I cannot presume that my neighbor or grocery clerk thinks highly of God or the gospel or the church, let alone understands such things!  And then in THAT place, where there are no presumptions about my cultural influence, there is such ministry freedom!   I no longer try to minister the gospel with a ‘tried and true’ mentality.  Rather, it is a no holdsbar mentality – just engage the weak culture through my position of weakness!  Freedom.

According to Wheatley, here are the advantages for the church that is “culturally weak.”

The church becomes a praying congregation.  “Being an outsider drives us to pray, not as a duty to be checked off the list, but as a means of survival.  The church that grasps the human impossiblity of its task will become a praying congregation.”  “Prayer is not the icing for the ministry, it is the bread.”

The church becomes a listening congregation.  “Being an outsider gives us power in evangelism because it forces us to listen.  When we are not driving the cultural agenda, we have the luxury of being able to listen, and to do so with genuine curiosity.” [Why would we ever trade the privilege of listening to individuals in a broken culture for being the aloof drivers of some cultural/political agenda? Never!]

The church has to rethink its practices in light of Scripture alone.  “Because our worship and behaviors are not like those of the normative culture, we regularly have to explain and defend our positions.  The servant church finds only one source sufficient in guiding these interactions – the Word of God.”  In other words, from a position of cultural weakness, the fact that we have “always done it this way” doesn’t gain much creedance.  (This is not to say that church history and practice doesn’t matter.  Integrating history with redemptive cultural creativity is a whole other topic.)

Thank you Pastor Sam.  What truth.  What privilege.  What preference (for me).   We (the church) should not lament being in a culturally weak position!  

Because when we are in the position of weakness, we – as persons and churches – have to rely on the gospel. 

Because when we are in the position of weakness, we get to serve those who think they are strong (culturally, anyway) while we teach them about their weakness. 

For the sake of the gospel, could it be that it is a good thing that, in today’s culture, “our respected position is eroding”?  Well, maybe it’s not a good thing.  But if we are the missionaries we are called to be in this culture of weakness, it most certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing.    

a culture crying out for the gospel

All truth is God’s truth.  Do we believe that to the extent that we look for the truth of the gospel in all things?  One of my favorite places to look for God’s truth is in the cultural mediums of our society.  For example – music (or the whole broadway play bit is another post).  One of my joys is being free in Christ to cautiously engage the music our culture promotes… and what I often find is that the gospel is everywhere in the secular music scene.  Not so much in the words of the lyrics but in the answer to the life-questions the lyrics prompt.  It never ceases to amaze me how keenly our culture knows that it is in desparate need.  Even more, the more authentic and honest the lyrics – the more the albums sell (if its good music).  I think we could go so far as to say that the subliminal articulation of gospel-need is what sells most culturally hip tunes.  Seriously. 

Check out the lyrics of “Wreck of the Day” by Anna Nalick.

“Wreck Of The Day”

Driving away from the wreck of the day
And the light’s always red in the rear-view
Desperately close to a coffin of hope
I’d cheat destiny just to be near you
If this is giving up, then I’m giving up
If this is giving up, then I’m giving up, giving up
On love, On love

Driving away from the wreck of the day
And I’m thinking ’bout calling on Jesus
‘Cause love doesn’t hurt so I know I’m not falling in love
I’m just falling to pieces
And if this is giving up then I’m giving up
If this is giving up then I’m giving up, giving up
On love, On love
And maybe I’m not up for being a victim of love
When all my resistance will never be distance enough

Driving away from the wreck of the day
And it’s finally quiet in my head
Driving alone, finally on my way home to the comfort of my bed
And if this is giving up, then I’m giving up
If this is giving up, then I’m giving up, giving up
On love, On love

OK, so its a song about love gone bad.  But is that a weakness that connects?  Yep. In relationships gone bad, how weak do we get: “desperately close to a coffin of hope.”  In layman’s terms what does most of our world feel numerous times a day?  “If this is giving up, then I’m giving up.”

And then she penned some lyrics that overtly scream gospel.  The gospel in weakness. 

“Driving away from the wreck of the day and I’m thinking ’bout calling on Jesus.  ‘Cause love doesn’t hurt so I know I’m not falling in love I’m just falling to pieces.”  All truth is God’s truth because that is the gospel.  When we are weak and falling to pieces, we call on Jesus.  To Anna Nalick, what is it to call on Jesus?  It is not a repeat of the cycle of love… it’s not about falling in love at all – just knowing where to turn when we have fallen to pieces.   That’s the gospel, and people in our world get to hear it whenever they listen to Nalick’s album that begins with her famous song “Breathe” (which by the way, screams gospel as well).

All truth is God’s truth.  Listen for it in our culture’s cries (and in the process enjoy the music).