Identity

Some of my favorite worship services are those that include baptisms. Through the water of baptism, “God reminds and assures us of our Baptism graphic found with Googleunion with Christ in covenant love, the washing away of our sin, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Everyone who is baptized – regardless of denomination or tradition, regardless of the language or culture – is united in Christ. As someone who was baptized, my primary identity comes from knowing that, together with the rest of God’s people, I am united to and belong to Jesus.

That means for those of us who are baptized, we find our identity in Christ even before we see ourselves as…

  • a daughter or son, father or mother, husband or wife
  • a banker, farmer, mechanic, nurse, salesperson, teacher, or truck driver
  • straight, gay, bi, or other
  • wealthy, middle class, or poor
  • American, Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, First Nations, Guatemalan, Mexican, Native American, Romanian, or Venezuelan
  • a Democrat or a Republican; or a Conservative, Green, Liberal, NDP, or Bloc Québécois supporter
  • a member of the NRA or the ACLU.

Baptism welcomes us into God’s family and makes us citizens of His Kingdom before we identify with or pledge any other allegiance.

As a male, I personally have more in common with a woman who is among God’s people than I do with another guy who is outside the faith. If you are a Kingdom-minded blue collar worker, you have more in common with a professional in a suit submitting to Christ’s rule than you do with a guy in grease-stained coveralls outside the Kingdom. If you are a straight person who loves Jesus, you have more in common with a gay person who professes Jesus than you do with a husband and wife who profess nothing. If you are an American who follows Jesus, you have more in common with a Palestinian or Iraqi Christian than you do with a fellow American who does not yet know Jesus. If you are a Republican who loves Jesus, you have more in common with a Democrat who dedicates their life to Jesus than another Republican who does not yet live for the Lord.

Author Lee C. Camp writes: “There is, for those who have been clothed with Christ in baptism, a new identity, an identity that transcends economic class, ethnic grouping, and citizenship.”

In these divisive times, I especially need to touch, see, and hear the water of baptism to remind me that more fundamental to anything that divides me from other believers is the foundational union I have with Christ and with one another.

This repeats some things I said Sunday evening at Trinity CRC.
It’s also what I contributed to the Perspectives column
in this week’s
Rock Valley Bee, in which I noted I’d like
the date of my baptism included in my obituary some day.

Gifted

We’ve been learning at Trinity CRC how the Holy Spirit gives us gifts to glorify God and build up the church. (This connects with what we believe about the priesthood of all believers, that all believers are gifted by God to serve him and one another, which, in turn, connects well with Reformation Day today!) Usually when Christians talk about Spiritual Gifts logo from Trinity CRCspiritual gifts, things like administration, creative ability, serving, and wisdom come quickly to mind. Those are indeed important gifts Christ gives the church and it’s a great idea to discover, celebrate, and use the gifts God has given you.

But when the apostle Paul talks about gifts in Ephesians, he doesn’t begin by listing things. Paul emphasizes that the gifts God gives the church are first of all people! The gifts Christ gives the church to help it grow in unity and maturity include “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” It’s a diverse mix of people – and I personally do not take it to be an exhaustive list of the kind of gifted people with which Jesus fills the church. What’s more, I’d dare say you can see yourself somewhere in this list of people.

Yes, on one level, apostles were those who saw the resurrected Lord and were commissioned by Him to tell others what they had seen. But, as Ben Aguilera writes, if you’re the kind of person who creatively thinks about the future and builds bridges over barriers, you are like “the apostles” listed in Ephesians 4, “helping others see, feel, and touch the love of God” (this and the rest of the non-Bible quotes in this paragraph come from Ben Aguilera’s devotional). When Paul says “prophets,” imagine deep thinking Christ-followers (perhaps like yourself) who “encourage” – even challenge – more people to follow Jesus instead of just going with the flow of culture, sometimes even church. When Paul says “evangelists,” think of words like “recruiter” or “inviter,” which might be you if you have ever “welcomed a stranger, helping them get involved in the life and work of a community.” Among the synonyms for “pastors” in the original Greek are “caregiver” and “guardian;” if you have “deep compassion for the needs of people,” you have a pastoral streak in you. Some people reading my blog are already “teachers,” so that one’s not a stretch, but even if teaching is not where you get your paycheck, you may have biblically grounded wisdom that “makes the Gospel understandable and clear” in everyday life, in your words and actions.

At this point, some people might be tempted to say that these are roles only for men. Would you be surprised to learn that the Bible shows both men and women serving in each of the categories of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers?

Or you might say you’re too old or too young to serve like that. Would you be surprised to learn that John received the visions that became the book of Revelation when he was an old man? Would you be surprised to learn that some of the disciples were likely teenagers (maybe even tweens) when Jesus called them and that Paul needed to remind Pastor Timothy not to let anyone look on him because he was young?

Just within the categories of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher there is diversity in the Bible. There is diversity within the roles themselves and, on top of that, all sorts of different people – male, female, young, old – have filled these roles since the time of the early church. And we haven’t even touched on how early Christians differed in marital status (Peter was married; Paul single), blue collar and white collar occupations (Levi worked in finance; other disciples fished for a living), and polar opposite political convictions (Levi collaborated with the Romans while Simon the Zealot came from a group plotting the overthrow of the Roman regime). Yet they grew in unity and maturity as they worked together.

My point is this: The gifts God gives the church are first of all people – including you and me – even in all our diversity and differences. No one in Christ can say, “I’m not a gift to the church.” On the contrary, God is at work in all who are in Christ. We each have something unique to contribute, and the church is lacking when any one person holds back. As God’s people, we are called to see ourselves and one another as God’s gifts to the church.

Bibles in the church

Graphic found at Groundwork.ReframeMedia.com

Once upon a time there was a church that found itself in a global pandemic. In addition to physical distancing and mask wearing, health officials recommended removing items that could transfer germs from one person to another. So the church leadership reluctantly agreed to remove the Bibles from the sanctuary.

The devil on his dark and lonely perch took an interest in this development. And a smile cracked his pale, dry lips. “A church with no Bibles?” he laughed. It’s just what the devil had long hoped for – a place of worship (where people worshiped his archenemy) without the Story and Guide directing that worship.

The pastor and church leadership, however, remained confident. They knew that God’s Word is not contained to typed letters in justified margins on thin leaves of paper bound between two covers. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Word works in the minds and hearts of those committed to that Word, helping God’s people recall specific verses and general principles. Moreover, the congregation remained free to bring their own Bibles, whether in print or in pixel. It helped people get in the habit of carrying a Bible with them, adding to their public witness of their allegiance to the divine Author.

Realizing these things erased the smile from the devil’s flinty face. But he took solace in his expert ability to watch for another opportune time.

Eventually the pandemic began to subside. Physical distancing and mask wearing were still encouraged, but the Bibles could return to the sanctuary.

From his perch, the devil watched each Bible carefully placed back in its spot. And a new smile cracked through his otherwise stern and joyless face. “A church filled with Bibles again?” he laughed. This too turned out to be a dream come true. No longer did members have to carry Bibles with them to worship. No longer would their allegiance to his enemy and the Word be so obvious to the world. No longer would biblical truth be easily at their fingertips with their Bibles in hand.

The pastor and church leadership, however, remained confident. They knew that God’s Word is not contained to typed letters in justified margins on thin leaves of paper bound between two covers. The same Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets and apostles also spoke through the words from the pulpit – memorable words that the congregation carried in their minds and hearts into the week. Moreover, the congregation was equipped by that same Spirit to live in light of the Word even in moments it wasn’t open in front of them.

Realizing these things erased the smile from the devil’s face and he looked a little less cunning than before. He would watch for yet another opportune time. But he found those opportune times were becoming more and more ineffective.

::– –::– –::

This is a little parable based on the decisions we’ve been making at Trinity CRC due to COVID-19. It was initially strange to see all the Bibles removed from the sanctuary. In the end, however, I would have been fine with them remaining out for longer: It encouraged people to bring their own Bible, to get used to having a Bible on hand. Granted, it was easy to forget and sometimes it feels awkward carrying a Bible in public. (We did begin keeping some in the back for people to pick up and return.) But I remain encouraged knowing that God’s Word works in the lives of the members of Trinity CRC regardless of whether they happen to have a Bible in their hands or under the seat in front of them in the sanctuary. The Bible is in the church (God’s people) even when the Bible isn’t in the church (the building).

Falling down with my enemies

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus gives the encouragement to keep holding on. They have little strength left from enduring rejection and persecution from the leaders of the local synagogue who deny Jesus is Lord. But they can indeed hold on knowing their current situation will not last forever. Jesus promises He is coming soon, giving the church hope that the time is coming when wrongs will be righted.

More than that, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church they can look forward to the day when those who hurt them will “come and fall down at [their] feet.” Those opposed to God and His people will one day experience the return and victory of King Jesus. At that time they will hear Him say He is on the side of His people and He loves them.

But as Lou Lotz once noted, this talk of enemies groveling at one’s feet smacks of triumphalism and vengeance, and seems to be out of character with Christ’s command to love our enemies. True, but the picture of poor souls who have always resisted Jesus and harmed the church bowing down to Jesus’ followers helps me in two ways: 1. I’m given hope: Ungodliness will not endure forever. One day, to quote Pastor Lotz, “the tables will be turned, and God’s people will be vindicated.”

2. This picture also offers inspiration: Christians desire to love their enemies, to love their enemies to Christ. The more Christ’s reconciling grace is in me, the more I want no one being punished at my feet. I’m not saying there won’t be anyone; I’m just saying Christians love their enemies and the church’s enemies with the dream that all of them will change and love Jesus today and in eternity.

I’m fascinated by the actual words used in Jesus’ letter to Philadelphia, that those who oppose Jesus and His church will one day “fall down.” This is the same language used elsewhere in the Bible (in Revelation 4, as one example) for falling down in worship! I think I’m supposed to love my enemies, praying that they’ll fall down in worship with me and all God’s people.

Graphic found with Google

Morning star

Photo found with Google
In his letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus gives that church and the church today one of the most encouraging promises you’ll ever receive. To the church that, by grace, repents and holds on, Jesus promises “the morning star.”

One of my favorite professors at Regent College was Darrell Johnson. He taught me that the morning star is the star that “appears at the darkest time of the night… It usually emerges at that point when the night is as dark as it’s going to get. When it appears, there is no sign of the dawn. But when it appears, very faint and small at first, you know that the night cannot withstand the dawn; it is just a matter of time until the dawn wipes the night away.”

Even when things are the darkest, Jesus assures me He is with me – and not only with me, but also ruling over all things and caring for me until the last bit of darkness in my life has dissolved forever.

I said that in a sermon at Trinity CRC a couple weeks ago. And people said “Amen!” I’m glad they were encouraged too.

COVID-19 and creation

With all the devastating health and economic impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has brought (which I do not wish to minimize), it’s a relief to hear about one positive effect the pandemic is having: In some ways, the pandemic has been good for the environment.

Less traffic, grounded airplanes, and decreased production in factories have improved the air quality in many places. In India, for example, people are seeing mountain ranges in the distance they haven’t seen in decades due to pollution. Satellite imagery over China shows reductions in nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide being pumped into the air. Cities such as Rome, London, Los Angeles, and New York are Average NO2 concentration in northeastern US. From theconversation.comalso reporting improved air quality.

I’m aware there have also been environmental setbacks. For example, cities report the collection of more garbage (including personal protective equipment like disposable masks).

I nevertheless remain encouraged by the news of improved air quality. Again, I recognize COVID-19 has resulted in lost jobs, economic chaos, illness, and death, and I do not downplay those. But I do wonder whether the pandemic is giving humanity a little preview of how, when it comes to the environment, things could be better.

As a Christian, I believe God calls me to care for his creation. It is among the first tasks he gives to the first humans in the first garden. And it’s a recurring theme in the Bible. In addition to mandating a weekly sabbath rest, God also commanded his people to give creation a Sabbath rest: “In the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest… Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines.” God promised that if his people obeyed this command, their land would produce enough in the sixth year to provide for them through the seventh year and beyond. God designed creation so that when we care for it, he will direct it to care for us. I wonder if COVID-19 is forcing us to give the land and sky an overdue sabbath rest.

And that leads me to wonder whether instead of trying to go back to normal, we can investigate ways to create a “new normal” in which we can restore jobs and improve the economy while also carefully tending the land and keeping the air clean. Can leaders in government, industry, agriculture, and business find innovative and profitable ways to run things both so people can work and so creation is respected? I ask myself where in everyday life I can recognize and change my greedy and consumeristic tendencies that harm creation. Can I buy a bit less? Can I reuse things more? Can I travel fewer miles? Can I conserve energy?

In the middle of the pain of the pandemic, there has been an unexpected blessing of the environment faring better than six months ago. Can we receive that as a fresh invitation from God to care for creation? I for one would like the air we breathe to not go back to what we called normal prior to COVID-19.

I wrote this article for Perspectives column
in this week’s
Rock Valley Bee.

Deep darkness

I read this meditation earlier this year
and its call to humble joy even in gloomy times
still echoes in my mind. I’d like to share it here too…

::– –::– –::

There are four little goings-on that universally create joy, making even the gloomiest heart smile:

  1. hearing your name called because you won,
  2. being chosen for the job,
  3. someone else picking up the tab, and
  4. being rescued from danger.

So why is it sometimes so hard for the people of God—called and chosen, redeemed and delivered—to feel incredible joy and give God the glory he so deserves? Jeremiah says it is our pride, lamenting, “If you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride.”

John calls it the “pride of life” and the Amplified Bible elaborates, “pretentious confidence in one’s resources or in the stability of earthly things.”

Jeremiah tells the people of God if they take credit for the wealth and beauty around them and take responsibility for their own security, God will allow darkness, stumbling, gloom, and deep darkness to overtake them.

Today, we have light to see the mountains ahead. They may be steep, but we need not stumble around in the dark because…

  1. Our names were called.
  2. We were chosen for the job.
  3. Our debts are paid.
  4. Our rescue is complete.

Graphic found at npr.org

As you pray, consider what God has done, lay down pride, and dare to feel the joy of it all.

This meditation was written by Amy Clemens
and published by
Words of Hope on 12 Jan 2020.

Helping kids worship

People are gathering again in person at Trinity CRC. We’re doing our best to make our facilities and procedures as safe as possible to prevent the spread of germs. I must say it’s wonderful to sing, pray, listen, and talk together again irl (in real life)!

As more families begin attending services again, it’s a good time to consider how to help our children engage in worship. Standing to sing songs or sitting still to listen to the Bible reading and message might be a bit harder after getting used to watching the services from the comfort of home. These ideas from the CRC’s Faith Formation Ministries might be helpful for your family as they have been for mine.

1. Be positive.
Instead of saying, “We have to go to church,” say “We get to go to worship.” Worship isn’t a place we go, it’s something we do with God’s family, and when we’re not there, God’s family isn’t complete. You can create patterns to help you and your family anticipate going to worship such as choosing clothes the night before and setting the alarm a little earlier so that you can arrive at worship in a peaceful state of mind. As you get ready, play worship music and maybe even sing together.

2. Take along worship tools.
Worship tools available from jane.comBring along tools that will involve your children in worship rather than simply keep them busy. Some ideas: a storybook Bible or a Bible geared for teens, a small notebook, and colored pencils or pens for drawing or writing quotes, questions, impressions, and prayers. Older kids may like to decorate a blank journal to use as their own weekly worship journal.

3. Let kids choose the seats.
With four people in our family, we sometimes have four different preferences for where to sit on Sunday! Parents with young children often feel most comfortable sitting toward the back of the worship space, but children might prefer the front so they can see, hear, and participate better. Can a different family member choose each week where to sit?

4. Be a “church whisperer.”
Help kids stay engaged during worship by discretely asking questions and making observations. During a song, whisper, “My favorite verse of this song is the third one. Which part do you like the best?” As Scripture is read, ask your child how it would feel to be living in that story or what they think the pastor will focus on in the message.

5. Talk about worship on the way home.
Ask kids about what they saw and heard in worship. Affirm their insights and encourage them to learn more. Ask if they wonder about anything that was said. As you talk, use words you heard in the worship service to build your family’s biblical vocabulary.

I put this together for last week’s Rock Valley Bee.
A similar article will also appear in the next issue of
News & Views
at Trinity CRC. You can purchase the Kids Bible Study Journal
pictured above at
jane.com.

New normal

I hear people say they are looking forward to things returning to normal after the pandemic is over. Me too. I wonder, though, if things won’t so much go back to normal as we will enter into a “new normal.” Sort of like after 9/11 – you can still fly, but new security protocols have changed your experience in the airport and on the plane.

Here’s my wish list for what I hope part of the “new normal” will be like after COVID-19 is over.

In the “new normal” we no longer take our ability to gather with others for granted. Or, put positively, we are more grateful for opportunities to spend time together with other people. Handshakes, high fives, and New Normal greeting card available at emilymcdowell.comhugs mean a bit more than they did before. We’re more intentional about deepening friendships and connecting with the neighbor up the street we’ve never met. Gathering weekly with others for worship, fellowship, and growing in faith is a higher priority.

In the “new normal” we better manage our schedules. We continue having meals together as a family and spend less time racing around from one event to another. There’s time in our day to check in on the family who just had a baby or the acquaintance who is homebound. We take seriously our need to rest body and mind on a regular basis, choosing to do so ourselves before having a pandemic force it upon us again.

In the “new normal” we are quicker to say Thank You. Some of us can work from home. Some of us are doing a decent job of keeping our kids on task with their online schoolwork. Others of us, though, have no choice but to work at the hospital or the grocery store, to continue manufacturing or driving truck. And some of us are receiving abundant confirmation that we’re not cut out to be teachers. So we begin to intentionally express gratitude to hospital staff, store cashiers, shop workers, truck drivers, teachers, aides, principals, and anyone else who serves us and our community.

In the “new normal” our eyes and hearts are open wider to God’s provision and grace. We’re quicker to talk to him just because he loves to hear from us and we love to be in his presence. We continue prioritizing prayer instead of waiting to pick up the conversation with God until the next crisis hits.

What are you going to do or prioritize differently in the post-COVID-19 “new normal?”

This column appears in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
You can purchase the greeting card pictured above
at emilymcdowell.com.

How this Easter will be a bit more like the very first Easter

The coronavirus pandemic that’s wreaking havoc around the world and disrupting our lives is forcing churches to celebrate Easter very differently this year. I appreciate these reflections suggesting how that might not be an entirely bad thing. This has been making its way around the internet and I do not who originally wrote it.

::– –::– –::

The very first Easter was not in a crowded worship space with singing and praising. On the very first Easter, the disciples were locked in a house. It was dangerous for them to come out. They were afraid. They wanted to believe the good news they heard from the women, that Jesus had risen, but it seemed too good to be true. They were living in a time of such despair and such fear. If they left their homes, their lives and the lives of their loved ones might be at risk. Could a miracle really have happened? Could life really had won out over death? Could this time of terror and fear really be coming to an end?

Alone in their homes, they dared to believe that hope was possible, that the long night was over and morning had broken, that God’s love was the most powerful of all, even though it didn’t seem quite real yet. Eventually they were able to leave their homes, when the fear and danger had subsided. They went around celebrating and spreading the good news that Jesus was risen and love was the most powerful force on the earth.

This year we might get to experience a taste of what that first Easter was like, still in our homes daring to believe that hope is on the horizon. Then, after a while, when it is safe for all people, when it is the most loving choice, we will come out, gathering together, singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say!

This year we might get the closest taste we have had yet to what that first Easter was like.

Artwork of Jesus appearing to His disciples found with Google

The disciples desperately needed to hear
Jesus’ words to them that first Easter:
“Peace be with you.”
Those are Jesus’ words to us this unusual Easter season, too.

Prayers for the pandemic

Coronavirus graphic found with Google

It’s hard to find words to express what’s in my heart in light of the illness and anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve come across numerous meaningful prayers offered by others. Here are two of the shortest and simplest and (in my opinion) profoundest.

Prayers with Children
God of love and hope,
you made the world and care for all creation,
but the world feels strange right now.
The news is full of stories about coronavirus.
Some people are worried that they might get ill.
Others are anxious for their family and friends.
Be with them and help them to find peace.
We pray for the doctors and nurses and scientists,
and all who are working to discover the right medicines
to help those who are ill.
Thank you that even in these anxious times, you are with us.
Help us to put our trust in you and keep us safe. Amen.
– from the Church of England


Prayer for the Christian Community
We are not people of fear:
we are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed:
we are people of generosity.
We are your people God, giving and loving,
wherever we are, whatever it costs
for as long as it takes wherever you call us.
Barbara Glasson, Methodist Church (London)


More prayers:

:: Prayer for a Pandemic by Cameron Bellm

:: A Pray to God in Anxious Times by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

:: Prayers for People Affected by the New Coronavirus
:: by Kathryn Reid, World Vision

:: CRC Centre for Public Dialogue

Why do I preach?

Attending Pastors Day at Inspiration Hills was definitely a highlight of my week. Led by Reformed Church in America pastor Seth Sundstrom, it focused on honing our sermon preparation skills.

At one point Seth had us all take 20 minutes to answer this question:
Why do I preach and what do I hope to accomplish through it?
It took me 5-10 minutes to come up with this response:

1.
I preach
to give the Holy Spirit a forum –
fallen and broken,
yet willing and available –
to grow my listeners (starting with me)
into people who follow Jesus
more closely,
more loyally,
and more lovingly.

Because I still had time left over, I decided to try writing more responses. There is some overlap between them, but I think they each express something unique getting at why I preach:

2 (option A):
I preach as part of God’s work of changing me,
changing my listeners,
and changing the world
to be more like Christ.

2 (option B):
I preach as part of God’s work of changing me,
changing my listeners,
and changing the world
to align more with His Kingdom values and purposes.

3.
God uses my preaching to grow His beloved church
into the beautiful bride and effective ambassador
that He knows it is and made it to be.

4.
I preach because God reveals glorious things in His Word
that the church and world need to hear
and that I cannot keep to myself.

When we reconvened and were asked to share what we wrote, I chose to read 2B.

::– –::– –::


The following day, I decided to do a little research into how other theologians and preachers have answered Seth’s question through the ages. Here are some responses that resonated with me and contribute to the reasons I’ll get up to preach tomorrow morning:

I preach to restore the throne and dominion of God
in the souls of my listeners.

– Cotton Mather (1700s), quoted by John Piper

I preach to humble the sinner,
to exalt the Savior,
and to promote holiness.
– Charles Simeon (1800s), quoted by Peter Adam

I preach in order to explain and apply the Word of God
to the people of God
in order to prepare them for service,
unite them in faith,
and foster maturity and growth.

Peter Adam (1990s)

God uses my proclamation of the Word
to comfort, challenge, correct, inspire, and deepen
the faith and life of God’s people.
The Worship Sourcebook (2000s)

I preach to make the spiritual bones of God’s people
more like steel,
to double the capacity of their spiritual lungs,
to make the eyes of their hearts dazzled
with the brightness of the glory of God,
and to awaken the capacity of their souls
for kinds of spiritual enjoyment
they didn’t even know existed.
John Piper (2000s)

I preach because through it
the Holy Spirit effects change,
gives grace to weak and weary sinners,
and elicits faith in the hearts of God’s people.
The goal of my faithful preaching of God’s Word
is none other than the holistic conformity
of God’s people into the image of Christ.

Leah Baugh (2010s)

Preaching graphic found at challies.com