Monday, May 30, 2011

Child-like Faith

"And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  -  Matthew 18:2-3

It is often said that as followers of Jesus we must have a "child-like faith".  Sometimes this is taken to mean that we should have a child-like trust in God; just as a child must depend on their parents to provide for them, so we should depend upon God to provide for us.  Other times "child-like faith" is interpreted as a kind of innocence. Still others might say this means our faith should be simple and not too complicated.  

While there might be a number of ways we can compare our faith to the life of a child and some of those comparisons might even be instructive for our spiritual health, there is one aspect of children to which Jesus is drawing attention here; their lack of status.

Even in our own 21st century American culture, children are more or less powerless.  They can not vote or hold political office.  They usually do not have the means to acquire wealth or wield influence.  And yet, they are at least recognized as people with certain rights.  As a result, there are numerous laws to protect children from harm or abuse by those more powerful than them.  By contrast, children in the first century Greco-Roman world had no such laws to protect them.  They were essentially the property of their parents, equivalent to or of barely higher status than slaves, who could treat them however they pleased without any legal repercussions.  It was not an uncommon practice for female babies to simply be abandoned to die because they were not seen as bringing any value to the family.  In the ancient world, children had no rights, no power, no status.

It is in response to the disciples' question "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" that Jesus places a child in front of them and says that they must become like children.  Then to make the point even more plain, in v.4 Jesus says "Whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."  Matthew doesn't tell us this story to show us that Jesus was good with kids or to call us to a simple, trusting, innocent faith.  This is a point about Jesus' kingdom and those who participate in it.  This is an upside down kingdom where the first are last, the least are greatest, and the crucified is king.  When Jesus' calls us to child-like faith it is a call to humility, to emptying ourselves, to being a people of no status.

And Christian humility means much more than simply being modest (and certainly something other than having a low self-esteem).  It means actively receiving, caring for, serving these "little ones".  Jesus says in v. 5-6 "Whoever receives one such child in my name  receives me but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."  Obviously, "these little ones" refers to the children to which Jesus has just been referring.  However, many scholars believe this might be a reference to "little ones" within the congregations to whom Matthew's gospel is addressed.  In other words, Matthew is calling upon those in his churches to humble themselves to the point of caring not only for children but to humble themselves by caring for anyone who has been marginalized, anyone who is of low status like a child.  Jesus says whoever receives these marginalized outcasts is receiving Jesus himself and whoever does not receive them would be better off being dragged to the bottom of the sea by a large stone!  I think it is safe to say that Jesus means for us to take this admonition seriously.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Way, The Truth, and The Life

"Jesus said to him, "I am the way and the truth and the life."  - John 14:6

Some of the most well known words in the Bible.  But what do they mean?  If you had to put these words of Jesus into your own words, what would you say?  I think for many people these words are synonymous with...

"Believe in Jesus and you'll go to heaven when you die."
"Christianity is the one true religion."
"If you don't live like Jesus then you are going to hell."

Before I say anything else, let me make a few things clear.  I believe Jesus with all my being when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life.  I have committed my life to that belief.  I believe heaven is real.  I believe in the resurrection, the new creation, and the coming of the kingdom of God and longingly await them in hopeful expectation.  I believe that something awful, whether we call it hell, Sheol, hades, the lake of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, or the second death awaits those who oppose Jesus and his kingdom.  I believe it is only through Jesus that anyone can receive salvation.  I believe Jesus is the image of the invisible God and that it is only through him that we can truly come to know God.  I believe that the Church is the body of Christ in the world and that we are called to follow and imitate Jesus and that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so.

But I also believe in nuance.  I believe, not in making things unnecessarily complicated, but in appreciating inherent complexity when it is there.  I believe in paying attention to what the writers of scripture actually said and paying attention to the context in which they said it.  I believe in holding our doctrines, opinions, worldviews, and practices up to the Word of God and seeing where they need to be reformed rather than making Jesus' words fit into our preconceived notions.  I believe that sometimes we think we know exactly what Jesus is saying so much so that we actually stop listening to his actual words and as a result we substitute our own thoughts where the Word of God should be.

So when Jesus says "I am the way and the truth and the life" I think it is important for us to hear what Jesus is actually saying as well as what he doesn't say.  Jesus doesn't say Christianity is the way, the truth, and the life. He doesn't say that he came to bestow a new set of doctrines on us that will get us into heaven or four spiritual laws that will keep us out of hell.  He does't say go to church and pay your tithe and live a good life and you'll be set for eternity.  He says "I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one come to the Father except through me"  This is a statement about knowing Jesus himself, about being in relationship with Jesus, about being personally led by Jesus and thereby coming to know the God he calls "Father".

If somehow we make this into a statement about one particular religion over others then we are actually hearing the very opposite of what Jesus intends to say to us.  Jesus isn't calling the disciples to a new religion but to a new relationship.  He doesn't say "I'll show you way" but "I am the way".  It's not "I'll teach you the truth."  It's "I am the truth."  He doesn't promise us the good life.  He promises that he is the resurrection and the life.  He is the good shepherd.  He is the bread that came down from heaven.  He is the light of the world.  He is the true vine.  Jesus is the one who reveals the nature and character of God, the heart of the Father to us.

It is this truth around which the rest of the conversation in John 14 revolves.  In v.8, Philip says to Jesus "Lord show us the Father and it is enough for us."  Jesus responds "Have I been with you so long and you still do not know me, Philip?  How can you say 'Show us the Father.'  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?"  Jesus didn't come to establish a new religion or moral standard.  He came to show us the Father in his own life, in his own person, his very existence in human flesh revealing God to us.  The way is not a path but the guide.  The truth is not the teaching but the teacher.  The life is not a cure but the great physician himself.  The way, the truth, and the life is not a thing, a practice, or a belief that can be possessed or mastered but a person, namely the person of Jesus Christ.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Gate Is the Shepherd

In John 10, Jesus proclaims "I am the good shepherd."  Clearly, this image would have had immediate significance to those who lived in the agrarian society of Jesus' day.  All kinds of apt comparisons can and have been made throughout Christian history between the shepherd/sheep relationship and that of Jesus and his followers.  However, it is important for us to recognize that when Jesus chooses to describe himself in this way, he is not pulling just any old metaphor out of the culture that surrounds him.  He is using imagery that has been central to Israel's thinking about itself, its leaders, and its relationship with Yahweh.

Of course, Psalm 23 stands out with the well known "The Lord is my shepherd"; a reminder that God is ultimately the shepherd of his people.  However, shepherding imagery was also used to describe the kings and priests of Israel.  These leaders were meant to be God's shepherds of his people as well.  In Jeremiah 23, God says through the prophet "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!".  God promises to remove these shepherds and replace them with new ones who will care for his people.  Again in Ezekiel 34, God accuses the shepherds of Israel of feeding themselves instead of feeding the sheep and of allowing the sheep to be carried off by wild beasts.  Therefore, God promises to rescue his sheep from the very shepherds who are supposed to be rescuing them from these wild beasts.

Jesus' declaration "I am the good shepherd" is not only a metaphor drawn from agrarian society, nor is it only an image drawn from Israel's history.  It is also said in response to the action of the Pharisees in John 9.  Jesus statement in John 10 follows immediately on the heels of the story about a man who was born blind whom Jesus had healed.  Throughout chapter 9, the Pharisees are trying to make sense of how it is that Jesus, whom they regard as a sinner, could possibly have healed this man's blindness.  When the man who has been healed of his blindness refuses to change his story about Jesus, they cast him out of the synagogue.

It is easy for us to hear this story and regard the Pharisees and "the Jews" (John's name for those who oppose Jesus even though Jesus and all of his followers are Jewish as well) as legalistic.  After all, John doesn't spare any trouble to paint them in an entirely negative light.  However, we should recognize that the Pharisees are simply carrying out their role as Israel's shepherds.  They didn't set out to be legalistic.  (I've yet to hear anyone proclaim that as a personal life goal.)  But they have heard those passage from Jeremiah and Ezekiel all their lives.  As the religious leaders, the "pastors" of their day, they see themselves as the shepherds of Israel and they take that responsibility very seriously, as they should.  After all, it was the shepherds of Israel whom God faulted for Israel's previous collapse when they were taken into exile.  They are simply trying to avoid the mistakes of their ancestors by making sure that God's Law is lived out in Israel and that means casting false prophets (like Jesus) and their followers (like this blind man) out of their midst so that Israel may remain pure.

It is in response to these actions by the Pharisees that Jesus says "I am the good shepherd".  Actually, Jesus uses two metaphors to describe himself in this chapter.  He also says that he is the door or gate by which the sheep enter the fold.  On one hand, we can see this as a very confusing mixture of metaphors.  In one verse, Jesus is the gate and in another he is the shepherd.  On the other hand, this mixture of metaphors is a very accurate theological depiction of Jesus; he is both the way into the flock and the one who leads and cares for the flock, both images are appropriate.  In fact, Jesus may even be drawing on a common practice of the day in which the shepherd would lay down in the opening of the sheep pen, thereby actually serving as its gate.  Either way, we have an image here of what Jesus says later in the Gospel of John: "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."  The purpose of this statement is not to declare one religion better than every other.  Its purpose is to say that the way to God is not a religion or a morality or a belief system or a set of practices; the way to God is a person; namely Jesus Christ.  The gate is the shepherd.  The way is a person.  The essence of the Christian faith is nothing other than knowing, following, and being in relationship with the God made flesh in Jesus Christ and having our lives transformed by that relationship.  All of our doctrines and practices only serve the greater purpose of guiding us in that relationship; they are not a replacement for the relationship itself.

The Pharisees mistake isn't that they are legalistic while Jesus is lenient.  It is isn't that they take sin and holiness and the Law too seriously and that God doesn't really care much about those things any more.  The Pharisees mistake is their failure to recognize that the Lord who is their shepherd is standing right in front of them in the person of Jesus.  The religious leaders became so accustomed to functioning as shepherds and even gatekeepers that they forgot their own role as sheep.  They were so busy "caring" for the sheep that they forgot to listen for the voice of their own shepherd and they eventually became so deaf to that voice that even when he stood among them they no longer recognized him as shepherd.  Jesus proclamation of himself as the good shepherd is at least in part a challenge to the Pharisees to recognize that in their attempts to be good shepherds they have failed to be good sheep.

This is the danger for many life-long Christians as well.  As we grow and mature in Christ, we are rightfully expected to take on roles of leadership and discipling others.  We become shepherds to others in the faith.  As we spend more time and energy teaching others the beliefs and practices of the Christian faith, we become accustomed to our role as shepherd, so much so though that we forget we are also sheep.  In all the shepherding of others, there is a danger that we will fail to listen for the voice of our own shepherd and so eventually become deaf to the sound of his voice.

This is part of the beauty of Psalm 23.  David is the shepherd of God's people.  He is the king.  He has reached the pinnacle of earthly power and he knows that it is God who has put him there.  He knows he has been appointed by God as shepherd and yet he still says "the Lord is my shepherd".  There is a recognition that even as the ultimate earthly shepherd he is still a sheep and there is still a higher shepherd for whose voice he must listen.  As followers of Jesus, we are first and foremost a people who hear and follow the voice of our shepherd.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

2011 Annual Report

My annual report as delivered to the Clinton Church of the Nazarene on Sunday, May 8, 2011.  

My brothers and sisters in Christ,

It is truly an honor to stand before you today and give my fourth report as your pastor.  I know it is customary for me to begin my report by saying how much I love and appreciate all of you but I hope that you know that it is more than just a custom.  My appreciation for all of you, for your faithfulness and dedication to Jesus Christ, continues to grow.  
My appreciation for you has grown much in the same way that a young couple’s love might grow for one another after a few years of marriage.  After all, the relationship between a pastor and a congregation can be a sort of marriage; my family has been wed to this church family for a time being.  And while this relationship is certainly not of the “until death do us part” kind that a real marriage is, we do promise to share life with one another “for richer for poor, in sickness and in health”.  We have bound ourselves to one another promising that we will be there for each other in the good times and the bad because we believe it is not just our own preferences but the will of God which has brought us together. 
Of course, we all know that honeymoons are not marriages.  There comes a point where the sheer bliss and joy of being newlywed begins to fade and the couple must get about the nitty-gritty, everyday challenge of being in relationship with one another.  That love which at first was reflected mostly as emotion, must now be manifested in the hard work of compromise, sacrifice, patience, and faithfulness. 
After four years of ministry together, I think it is safe to say that the honeymoon is over for us.  While there may be a bit of sadness with this reality, it is also a good sign that our relationship is maturing as it should.  It means we now trust each other enough to be honest with one another.  It means we can be less concerned about whether or not this relationship will work and more focused on how we will continue to work within it for the mission of the Church and the glory of God. 
It is in that deeper, fuller, more mature sense of appreciation that I wish to say to you this morning that it is a privilege to minister with all of you, to live along side of you, to see the parts of your life that perhaps few others get to see simply because I am your pastor.  The more I minister with you and the more I reflect on our relationships with one another; the more God reveals to me that He knew what he was doing when he brought us together.  In short, it is not just a blessing to be a pastor but specifically to be your pastor.  I continue to give thanks to God for allowing me to be a part of the ministry of the Church of the Nazarene in Clinton, IL. 
It is also a blessing to be a part of this church family because of the ways that God is continuing to work among us.  Over the past year, we have successfully given a maintained focus to two areas of ministry: (1) Greater involvement in the lives of our children and teens and (2) outreach. 
            Our focus on involvement in the lives of our children and teens began with Baby/Children’s day last year which also served as the kickoff to our VBS which was every Sunday throughout the summer instead of just one week.  I personally thought that VBS was a huge success this year both in the discipleship of our children and in meeting this goal of greater involvement.  Many of us who might not otherwise be involved in VBS or children’s ministry participated in VBS this year and many of us who had participated in the past gave even more time this year.  In addition to VBS, several people have also stepped up to help out with Children’s Church as well.  Over this past year, several of our kids have memorized Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, and Philippians 2:5-11 in Children’s Church.  The scriptural knowledge of our children and teens has also been enhanced through Bible quizzing.  In March, several of us stepped out of our comfort zones and into children’s and teen’s Sunday School classes in order to be more involved in their lives.  In addition to all of this, there have been children’s events and several teen outings which many of us have hosted or chaperoned.  And perhaps the largest contribution of all to the lives of our teens hasn’t even happened yet.  In just a few months, Lance and I will be going with three of our teens to Louisville, KY for Nazarene Youth Congress; an event which was important for me when I was a teen as I wrestled with my own call to ministry.  This would not be possible if it were not for the generous contributions of time and money by many people in this room. 
These acts of discipleship are not small or inconsequential things.  I know that visiting a child’s Sunday School class or hosting a teen event may not seem like world-changing stuff but when it is done in the Spirit of Christ, it can be.  Making disciples of Jesus Christ is our mission as the Church, it is what God has called us to.  We do that when we spend time with our children and teens and show them what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.  I have no doubt that the things our kids and teens have learned over the past year, the examples of Christ-likeness they have been shown will stick with them for many years to come, enabling them to be faithful disciples of Jesus themselves. 
            The other area on which we focused this past year was outreach.  Once again, the outreach committee has done a tremendous job of organizing events to give us opportunities to reach out to others.  We repeated some of the events we had in the past such as block parties, refreshments for the 4th of July fireworks viewing, the Kid’s Carnival, handing out water at Apple and Pork,  and Trunk or Treat and those events have continued to be successful ways of interacting with our community.  We also participated in several events for the first time this past year such as May Days, the 175th anniversary of our town, and the concerts on the square. 
In addition to reaching out in these community events, we also did several new things here at our church.  We’ve started having fellowship nights on the second Sunday night of every month, not only as an opportunity for us to fellowship with one another but also as an opportunity to invite others who do not attend church to come and fellowship with us as well.  We’ve also hosted three “friend days” throughout the past year as specific opportunities to invite someone who does not attend our church regularly.  In December, we hosted “A Taste of Sunday School” after our children’s Christmas musical which gave the opportunity to socialize and connect with a large number of visitors, thereby planting a seed for Christ.  And just in these last few weeks we have started a new outreach ministry open to anyone but designed specifically for those who attend our 4th Wednesday meal.  These are workshops which will teach a series of life skills such as cooking, gardening, managing finances, and other similar topics.  In addition to teaching these skills, it also gives us a chance to get to know some of those who can get lost in the crowd of 4th Wednesday on a more personal level, hopefully beginning a redemptive relationship that may ultimately lead them closer to Christ.  I believe we have continued to take some very significant and positive strides as a church in the area of outreach over this past year. 
Of course, the most obvious change in our church over the past year in the area of outreach has been our change in service times.  A year ago, we decided to place Sunday School after Worship in hopes of making stronger connections with our visitors.  The thinking in this change was that a visitor might make a stronger connection with a small group of people in a Sunday School class than they would in a crowd of people during worship and therefore would be more likely to return the next week.  Obviously, we have already participated in evaluating this change together to some extent this morning in the poll that we took together earlier.  However, I would like to share with you just a few of my own very brief observations.  This is not necessarily an attempt to persuade you to share in these opinions.  It is simply to share my perspective with you as a part of my report. 
First, while the change in service times may not have had precisely the impact for which we were hoping, it has been statistically positive nonetheless.  In comparing Sunday School attendance for the 34 Sundays from May – Decemeber 2010 to the same Sundays in 2009, there were nineteen Sundays which had an increase of five or more in attendance from the previous years.  There were eight Sundays that had little or no change and only four Sundays which had a decrease in attendance of five or greater from the previous year.  In other words, Sunday School attendance saw a significant increase on well over half the Sundays in that time period without a corresponding decrease in worship attendance.  Obviously, these numbers are not the whole story or even the most important part of the story.  I only share them so that we can be aware of them.
Second, I think the change in service times has been positive simply because it has broken up some of our routine as a church.  I remember when the grocery story that I worked at when I was in high school changed the layout of the store.  Of course, at first all the customers were confused because they couldn’t find the products they were looking for where they had always found them in their years of shopping at the same store.  However, the reason the store did this was because research had found that this caused shoppers to see new products that they normally didn’t notice. In other words, when you know where everything is, you go right to that spot and get it and don’t pay any attention to anything else along the way.  But if you actually have to look for what you need then you notice new things along the way and might buy something you otherwise would not have noticed.  I believe our change in service times has worked like that for us as well.  We had a set routine when we came to church.  For many of us, that meant heading straight to our Sunday School classes as soon as we walked in the door and then straight to our seats in the sanctuary.  As a result, we were so stuck in our routine that we often failed to notice anyone new.  I believe that now, even though we might feel a bit more confused and out of sorts ourselves, our eyes are more open to when someone new walks in our doors. 
My third and final observation has very little to do with the change itself and more to do with our attitudes about the change.  I trust that we all recognize that the health and future of our church does not rest on something as insignificant as when we meet for worship.  So whether we continue as it is now or at some point decide it would be better to go back to the old way doesn’t really matter a whole lot.  After all, it is God who is building his Church, not us by deciding when to meet for worship.  However, what does matter a whole lot is the kind of attitudes we exhibit as we discuss these matters.  Essentially, what I am getting at is what Jesus was getting at when he said “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”  Likewise, the Church is not an institution that exists to serve us and our preferences.  We are the Church called to serve the Lord in reaching our lost world.  We are not here to simply consume a religious product and to have our needs met.  We are here to carry out the mission that God has given us.  We can have vigorous disagreements about the best way to carry out that mission but we must settle those disagreements not based on our desires and opinions but by seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness and trusting that all of these things will added unto as well. 
Finally, however, I cannot give a complete and meaningful review of this past year without sharing with you what God has been doing in me personally.  It is difficult to describe exactly what it is that God has done and is doing except to say that it is undeniable that God is teaching me to trust him in new ways.  Of course, most of you know how much of a theology nerd I am so it will come as no surprise to you that this transformation began with a book.  About a year ago I began reading The Works of John Wesley.  While God has often used study as an important spiritual discipline in my life, God was especially present somehow in my reading of Wesley.  As I read Wesley’s journal, where he records the significant episodes of his years of ministry, I was struck by Wesley’s remarkable trust in God.  Wesley exhibited this amazing confidence that as long as he did his part, he knew God would act.  So he preached, no matter how small or how large the crowd, whether it was an attentive crowd or a mob, even when he got hit square in the forehead by a stone, Wesley kept preaching because he believed that if the Word of God was proclaimed then it had the power to change people in any circumstance. 
While I was still reading Wesley, we also started to work through the book of Ezekiel here on Sunday mornings.  Similar themes arose out of this prophetic book as well.  God calls Ezekiel to proclaim the message God has given him while also telling him that the people won’t listen to what he is saying.  Ezekiel’s job was simply to proclaim the message regardless of the results.  In chapter 37 especially, we get this incredible image of God’s Word at work so powerfully that it can raise up an army of audience to hear Ezekiel’s message where previously there had been only dry bones. 
Throughout this same time, God had also been speaking to me about having more accountability and consistency in my prayer life.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t praying.  I just wasn’t making it a consistent priority; it wasn’t central to my identity and ministry as a pastor.  Janet Crawley was the first to help move me in this direction by meeting with me on Monday mornings for prayer.  Last fall, I also committed to having a time of prayer and scripture every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as well.  I know that many of you cannot make these times because you work and several others have attended these prayer gatherings at some time or another and I thank you for your presence there.  However, this morning I would like to specifically recognize Shirley DeJaynes, Myra Stroud, and Marie Blue for their continued faithfulness in meeting with me for several months now for this time of prayer.  Their faithfulness has helped to bring me closer to Jesus and I believe it will yield fruit for this church as well. 
Even in more recent months, God has continued to remind me of this same theme.  After reading Wesley, I began to read a theologian named Karl Barth who was one of the few pastors in Germany who opposed Hitler’s regime.  Wesley and Barth are not at all similar theologically and yet Barth’s systematic theology began with this same theme I had seen in Wesley; the power of the Word of God.  Barth wrote forcefully about how all our words and actions as the Church are basically useless unless God himself is at work among us revealing himself to us.  However, if God is revealing himself to us then we cannot be left unchanged.  Around the same time, I was preaching from the first chapter of Ephesians and the first five chapters of 1 Corinthians and those chapters seemed to be stark reminders as well that it is God who is building his Church.  It was not Paul or Peter or Apollos or the Corinthians and it is not us but God who calls his people by his Word and his Spirit.  On Sunday nights, in the book of Revelation we have seen over and over again that it is God who sits on the throne and only asks that we be faithful; indeed, we are conquerors and overcomers not by bigger and better accomplishments and ministries but simply by being faithful.  Even in this recent season of Lent, God spoke to me about trust through the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, and again Ezekiel. 
When I look over this past year, I am utterly astounded by the singularity of this theme.  Whether it has been through Wesley or Barth, Paul, John, or Ezekiel, or even through some of you in this congregation, It is as if God has been saying the same thing to me every week for the past year.  God’s single message to me has been this: “Just trust me.  My Word and My Spirit are enough.  My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  My brothers and sisters, this is my testimony to you this morning; that God has done a gradual but undeniable work in my heart over this past year.  I testify to you this morning that God’s Word and God’s Spirit are still enough to transform us as his people. 
With all of that in mind, I have known for several months now that God is calling us to something new and radical as a congregation.  For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what it was but I knew that God was going to call us to really take a step of faith and place our trust in him in ways that we had not before.  God kept saying to me over this past year “Trust me.” And I kept asking “Trust you for what?  What is it that you want us to do?  What is this huge step of faith you are going to call us to, Lord?”  But God just kept saying “Trust me.”  I thought maybe God was calling us to some new ministry we had never done before or to do something completely new and unexpected, maybe even something we would think was crazy. 
Finally, all of this came into clearer focus for me just about a month ago at a district event in Sherman, IL.  At first, I wasn’t even sure I really had time to go to this event but I eventually decided I needed to be there and so I made the time to go.  The speaker at the event turned out to be a man some of you know from a summer internship he did here at this church several years ago.  His name is Corey Jones and he now pastors a church in Texas.  He spoke that day about the struggles that he had been through with his church.  It was a very small church with just a few families and Corey had been the pastor there for three years and things were just going nowhere.  To make a long story short, Corey went away on a trip one week thinking that when he came back he would resign as the pastor of this church but when he got back he felt like God was calling them to commit themselves to prayer in a new way.  Corey shared this with his church and when he did the last tithing family in the church walked out saying that they prayed enough already.  Nevertheless, those who stayed committed themselves to simply seeking God together and today Crossroads Tabernacle is a thriving community of faith.  Don’t get the wrong idea.  They still aren’t the largest church in the neighborhood.  This wasn’t about just finding another church growth strategy.  They sought God simply for the purpose of drawing closer to God and Corey shared with us story after story of lives that were transformed as a result. 
I left that event feeling like God was saying to me “This is an example of what I’ve been talking to you about.  This is how I have been calling you to trust me; to trust me enough to just seek me as your God and know that everything else will be taken care of.”  So, my brothers and sisters, we have only one goal, one focus area for this coming year.  We will seek God through corporate prayer and the reading of God’s Word. 
Now maybe your first thought is similar to what mine was: we already do that.  Maybe you are thinking this isn’t that radical at all, this isn’t anything new or crazy.  How is just praying and reading our Bibles some amazing act of trust in God?  Or maybe you are wondering “How this is going to help our church at all?  What difference is praying and reading our bibles going to make?  How is this going to get any more people in our church’s doors?  We need to be out doing more outreach and getting people to come to church!” 
But I think that is part of the irony of what God is calling us to.  God is calling upon us to stop worrying about all that other stuff, to stop worrying about whether or not we have “enough” people in our pews and to just seek him because he is God and he is worth seeking regardless of how many other people are seeking him with us.  And that is how things as simple as prayer and reading scripture can become radical acts of trust; because in prayer and scripture we are simply seeking God for the sake of seeking God and we are trusting that God will provide everything else.  We are trusting that God’s Word and God’s Spirit are enough.  We are trusting that it is God who is building his Church and not us. 
This morning I am calling us as a congregation not simply to more prayer and Bible reading in some general sense but specifically for us to commit to times of corporate prayer and individual study of Scripture.  (If the ushers would come forward, I have two sheets of paper I would like them to pass out to you.) One of the two sheets you are receiving says “Seeking God through Corporate Prayer”.  I know that we all pray individually and that we pray corporately for a few minutes when we gather for worship.  However, I believe the time has come for us to set aside an entire service in which we pray together as a body of believers.  By that, I don’t mean that we will sing some songs and then pray for a few minutes at the end or have a devotional and then pray.  I mean that we will come and do nothing other than seek God in prayer together during that time.  You can see there are several options from which to choose.  I encourage to mark as many of these time as you will commit to attending but please do not circle a time unless you plan to be here at that time on a regular basis.  You can give these sheets back to me after we have concluded service this morning and I will present them to the church board and we will discuss together where God is leading us from there. 
The second piece of paper you are receiving says “Seeking God through the Reading of His Word”.  This sheet has several different Bible Reading plans listed on it to help you stay in the Word over the next year.  I would encourage you to prayerfully consider which of these plans will work best for you. You don’t have to turn this into me today if you need more time to think about it.  If you would like to follow one of the plans on this sheet, you can circle it and print your name on the back of the paper and give this paper back to me and I will get the details of that reading plan to you in the next week or two.  You’ll see there that  you can also go online and find reading plans over the internet or for your smart phone if that is easier for you. 
This is only the beginning.  In addition to these two initial steps, I will be working with our newly elected leadership to make sure that prayer plays an even more central role in our workings as a church board than it has up to this point.  I will also work with all of our leaders in the coming year to see how we can make seeking God through prayer and scripture more central to everything we do as a church.  However, please recognize that this is not just up to those who are elected to church office this morning.  It is a call to every single one of us to commit ourselves to gathering here with our brothers and sisters in Christ to seek our Lord and savior. 
Of course, I hope it goes without saying that this doesn’t mean we are going to just drop everything else we do as a church.  Obviously, the discipleship of our children and teens, reaching out to our community in Christ’s name, serving others; these things are a part of who we are and do not change.  However, it is my hope that in this coming year we will simply seek God for the sake of seeking God like we never have before as a church.  I believe, due to my personal experience over this past year, that if we will simply seek God and trust that His Word and His Spirit are enough, then everything else will be taken care of.  I believe that if we will commit ourselves to prayer and to the Word then years from now we will be able to look back over this time and say with those disciples on the road to Emmaus “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” and we will know that our Lord is not dead but alive and that he wants to give us life in his name.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Respectfully submitted,
                                                                        Your pastor and brother in Christ
                                                                        David Young