Farewell

As I announced in worship on Sunday April 30th, I have taken a new call to be a church planting resident at Grace Ann Arbor (RCA) that will begin at the end of June. Ever since I felt called to full-time vocational ministry church planting (establishing a new church) in an urban setting has long been my passion for a couple of reasons - church plants are able to really focus on meeting with and reaching out to those who are not Christians in ways that many traditional churches are not. As a resident with Grace Ann Arbor I will be there for two years before being sent out by them, and with some of their members, to start a new church somewhere in southeast Michigan. (For more on this process see here). My last official Sunday in worship at Cobblestone will be June 11th, after which we will pack up and move sometime in the weeks that follow.

Logistically the church will carry on in my absence. The consistory is already at work to find pulpit supply for the summer and are beginning to discuss the best way forward for the church. In our denomination we will receive a supervising minister and elder from another local RCA church to help provide support and assistance to us in this time of transition.

Cobblestone will leave a lasting impression on my life. This is my first call as a minister, where I cut my teeth in preaching, leading worship, consistory meeting, working through conflict, and failing at many things along the way. I want to thank everyone for their patience with me as I learned to do a difficult task. I pray that my time has been an encouragement for people in their faith journey; that some would grasp a little clearer the love of Jesus due to my words or actions. If you have questions about this please don’t hesitate to ask me, or talk with a consistory member.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit be with you all. Amen.

Why Good Friday?

“Christianity is unique. The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man.” These are the powerful words that begin Fleming Rutledge’s behemoth work, “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.” I’ve been reading this book with a couple of other pastors for the past several months, and this reading has driven me to an even deeper appreciation and understanding of the importance of Good Friday, the day when we celebrate the crucifixion. But you might wonder - why would one do that? We celebrate the crucifixion because it’s good for those who are overwhelmed with the injustice of the world. It’s good for those frustrated with themselves for their own consistent personal failures. It’s good for those who are in the midst of suffering.

Rutledge has a subsection titled “Where’s the outrage?” in which she shows how the crucifixion fulfills a longing in our hearts for justice in an unjust world. She writes, “A slogan of our time is ‘Where’s the outrage?’ It has been applied to everything from Big Pharma’s market manipulation to CEOs’ astronomical wealth to police officers’ stonewalling...Why has the gap between rich and poor become so huge? Why are so many mentally ill people slipping through the cracks? Why does gun violence continue to be a hallmark of American Culture? Why are there so many innocent people on death row? Why are our prisons filled with such a preponderance of black and Hispanic men?” She responds to these questions by answering it clearly, “Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves.” This is what we see in the day we call Good Friday: God’s wrath against the injustice of the world as God begins to set the world right by defeating death in the body of the Son, Jesus Christ.

In another section she quotes T.S. Eliot from the play, The Cocktail Party, “Half of the harm that is done in this world // Is due to people who want to feel important. // They don’t mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest them. // Or they do not see it, or they justify it // Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle // To think well of themselves.” We spend so much of our lives playing judge over others and ourselves and we always come out lacking. But God, in Christ, has become the Judge, and Christ has allowed himself to be judged in our place. Rutledge says, “The question of worth has been taken out of our hands and decided in our favor.” This is because Christ was judged in our place that we would be free to participate in the joyful life of God.

But what about true, horrific evil? Rutledge brings up the Biblical story of Job. Job was a good man, who had a great family and a great farm with much land, and then one day he lost it all. His children died in a building collapse, all of his animals were either stolen or burned in a fire, and many of his workers were killed as well. Later Job would have boils grow all over his body. The rest of the book of Job is a conversation that Job has with some “friends” about why has this happened, and finally Job cries out to God, “Let the Almighty reply to me!”  And God does reply to Job; God replies with his very presence. Rutledge writes, “[The reply] points away from ‘answers’ and ‘explanations.’ Instead, it brings us into the very presence of God.” This is all we have in the face of true evil; that God has replied with himself in his son in his death on the cross for us and for the world, and he promises to never leave us nor forsake us.

We need to see this crucified God again and again so that we would know of this love, this power, this freedom that Christ has wrought for us. If not, “Christian faith would be little more than wishful thinking.” Join us as we experience Good Friday together that the joy may be greater as we celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Lent

The word Lent is an old english word that means springtime. Lent is the season preceding Easter and is a time when people are invited to journey with Jesus to the cross. Now, you may ask, why would anybody want to do that? A journey to the cross sounds quite unpleasant.

We do this journey for the same reason that we get our annual physical. We may not really like it but it is good to do a thorough examination in hopes of catching any illness before it becomes a bigger issue. The illness that we are looking for is what Scripture calls sin.

Sin is much more than a bunch of do’s and don't's; sin is the twisting of good desires that occur in everyone’s life. As New York Times author, David Brooks, puts it, “The danger of sin … is that it feeds on itself. Small moral compromises on Monday make you more likely to commit other, bigger moral compromises on Tuesday. A person lies to himself and soon can no longer distinguish when he is lying to himself and when he isn’t. Another person consumed by the sin of self-pity, a passion to be a righteous victim that devours everything around it as surely as anger or greed.”

A common metaphor that others have used to describe sin is the acorn. Acorns are fairly small seeds compared to the enormous trees they grow into. According to Scripture this is similar to how sin works in one’s life. One doesn’t become a terribly anxious, raging with anger, or an over-controlling person overnight. It happens slowly over time. The seed finds good soil, and begins to sprout and grow. If you catch it while it is young it is much easier to remove than when it is big requiring much more effort to remove. The season of Lent is a time to examine one’s life to find some bad acorns that are growing in our souls.

 

Lent is marked by four disciplines: self-denial, self-examination, acts of compassion, and using the means of grace. Self-denial, or fasting, is frequently associated with Lent. The reason for this fasting, or “giving something up,” is not to earn brownie points with Jesus. We deny ourselves of certain goods to get us to stop distracting, avoiding, entertaining, and numbing ourselves freeing us to look honestly at our own life. Self-denial and self-examination go together because often we cannot examine our lives as we are so disconnected to how we are actually thinking and feeling. Acts of compassion are suggested because it exposes us to the hurt and loneliness in others, which often helps us have compassion on the hurt and loneliness inside each of us. The means of grace (prayer, scripture reading, communion), because we need grace for the journey. We need to be reminded again and again that whatever we confront in our self in this journey is not a surprise to Jesus. No matter how many acorns of sins and dysfunction we uncover, God is still moving toward us with his healing love and acceptance, just as he showed his love in the life and death of his Son.


The goal of Lent is, in the words of St. Paul, in fellowship with the suffering of Jesus, to better know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). Please join us on this journey. We begin with Ash Wednesday services on March 1st at 1 pm and 5:30pm (childcare provided for the evening service), then every Sunday with worship at 10am, and Good Friday services on April 14th at 1pm and 5:30pm (childcare provided for the evening service). Culminating with Easter Sunday on April 16th.

The Advents

That was some November. It began with one of the most divisive elections of all time that, in the words of New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, acted “like a flash flood that sweeps away the topsoil and both reveals and widens the chasms, crevices and cracks below.” This was followed by a couple week lull that led up to the Thanksgiving/Black Friday holidays. These events probably varied from person to person. Some dreaded Thanksgiving because they had to face potentially uncomfortable political conversations with family members. Some dreaded Thanksgiving because it felt like putting salt in the wound of their loneliness. Thanksgiving also coincides with Black Friday shopping, which seems to begin earlier and earlier every year. The irony that others have pointed out about Black Friday is that the day after we express our thanks for all that we have, we then scramble frantically to buy things that we “need.”  At the end of November many of us are in need of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Fortunately these are some of the various themes that are expressed and celebrated in the season of Advent that always begins four Sundays before Christmas. We need to celebrate and hold up each of these themes because when we do it gives a diagnosis of our life that can keep us from causing unnecessary harm to ourselves and others.

A mom was lamenting the developing sibling relationship among her three children. It seemed like her children were always fighting with one another, and she was sad at the current state of their friendship and concerned about them not having any real relationship in the future. One day she came across some information that opened her eyes to see the real problem; she realized that her kids weren’t getting enough sleep. With this new information, she changed how and when they did bedtimes and slowly she began to notice that her children were being kind and fun with each other. Obviously this doesn’t happen every day, nor can she make sure that they are always getting enough sleep, but it changed everything to know the root of the dysfunction.

When we celebrate Advent we hold up these themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love primarily to realize that these are deep longings that we all have inside of us. If we don’t recognize and explore these longings we can become obsessed with fixing and changing the wrong things. We can think that our lack of joy can be resolved by a change of pace, a new outfit, a new routine, or simply doing better. We’ve all been down that path and it's exhausting.  

In Advent we celebrate that God has brought Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love to the world in Jesus Christ. The term Advent comes from Latin, which simply means “arriving,” and so we celebrate the arrival of Jesus. Both his initial arrival over 2000 years ago as a child born in Bethlehem and his second arrival that we all wait for. To celebrate this great season we often journey with the people of Israel who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. We do this so that we can have these longings awakened and to realize that much of our angst and frustration in the world comes from our desire for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. And these things have come and will come again in Jesus Christ.

The beauty of celebrating the original and second Advent of Jesus Christ is that in doing so we are often made aware of the other Advent. That God in Jesus Christ often bursts into our life in unexpected ways to bring the reality of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love beyond what we could have expected. Join us this season of Advent as we celebrate the Advent of old and look forward to the Advent to come and wait for the Advent of the present presence of the living God in Jesus Christ by the power of His Spirit.

The Good News of Conflict

One of my favorite jokes that I’ve heard in the past few years is this. “Arguing with an engineer is like wrestling with a pig in mud. After a while you realize that the pig likes it.” I am technically not an engineer by profession, but my undergraduate degree is in Engineering, and so I did spend many hours doing all sorts of homework and various math problems, but more than homework and math I spent a lot of time arguing with my fellow engineers. Most of these arguments were not fights, but were intense discussions almost always about what is the most efficient way to do some activity. We spent hours arguing about the best way to cook and clean in the apartment, the best way to arrange our furniture, the most efficient way to do our grocery shopping. Engineers, I believe, are typically not afraid of a good old fashioned argument, but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy conflict. Speaking for myself, I’m not the type to avoid conflict, but I also don’t really enjoy it. More times than not nothing is resolved and there is now a break in the relationship, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Conflict is one of the greatest opportunities that life ever offers us in this world.

First, conflict provides us an opportunity for deeper relationships with one another. Recently I heard about how pediatricians want to hear about two-year-olds being a handful for their parents because that is where they should be developmentally. At the age of two (and really for the rest of their lives) children begin to establish a separate identity from their parents. This separation is normal, necessary, and good. It would be extremely unhealthy if a parent was still relating with their fourteen-year-old the same way they did when they were two. The good part of this is that a parent can have a deeper relationship with a fourteen-year-old than a two-year-old because of that separation. The same is true of all relationships. We have conflicts partly to establish our own identity, which if done well creates space for a deeper relationship with another person.

Second, and more importantly, conflict is the arena of God’s revelation. To understand this bold claim we must examine one of the most ignored passages of Scripture and the one right next to it that is often misused. The passages in question? Matthew 18: 15-20. Jesus is speaking and he says. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

We all know how difficult it is for everyone to speak directly to the person who has offended them. We find all sorts of excuses as to why we don’t do this, with the top two probably being the belief that the other person won’t listen, and that we aren’t that upset about it. When we make these excuses we not only mishandle conflict and promote more dissension, but we actually miss out on encountering the presence of God. Verse 20 says, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” This is not to give encouragement to small prayer groups, it is to emphasize the reality that God has given his people the task of reconciliation as a top priority, and promises to be there in our midst as we do this great task.

If you would like to experience the presence of God in conflict bringing healing and depth to your relationships, then I highly recommend attending the “Conflict Transformation” seminar coming up on Nov. 12th described here.  

Plans to Prosper You: Not What You Think

A new inmate is terrified at his surroundings and when the lights go out, the terror hits home. And all he can do is scream out, “I don’t belong here. Not me. There’s been a terrible mistake.” This is a scene from the classic movie, Shawshank Redemption. “I don’t belong here...There’s been a terrible mistake.” These are sentiments that many of us know deeply in our hearts. “This marriage wasn’t what I thought it would be, but divorced, I don’t belong here.” “This job seemed so promising, but now I can’t find the energy to make it to work; there must have been some mistake.” “My children seem so distant, and act as if I don’t exist; this can’t be happening to me.” When moments are bleak many find solace in turning to quotes and proverbs for inspiration. One of the most popular phrases that people love to turn to is this one from Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’.” This is truly an encouraging phrase, and the even better news is that it actually means something different than what we expect; something far better than we could imagine.

To understand the greater meaning of this phrase we need to do a brief history of Israel. The purpose of Israel, the people of God, was to be a nation that would receive the blessing of God and then, in turn, bless all nations. The prime location for this to take place was the promised land. Israel was delivered out of slavery in Egypt and was given the promised land. The promised land was located at the intersection of several major trade routes of the ancient world. Israel was to be in the promised land living under God’s rule and receiving and giving the blessing of God to others; this was to be a win-win situation for everyone. But Israel doesn’t obey God, doesn’t seek to be a blessing to the other nations, and so God removes them from this promised land.

The people of Israel literally know that they don’t belong “here,” outside of the land that God promised them. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. They are to be in the promised land. While they are in exile they get a letter from the prophet Jeremiah who has some words for them. Part of his letter has the inspiring quote, “For I know the plans I have for you…” but before that Jeremiah has shocking advice for them. He writes, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” This is shocking because God is telling them not to wallow and wish for some miracle way back to the promised land; he is saying to make this place the promised land. When God later says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” It’s the same word that is used earlier for seeking the “peace and prosperity” of the city. God wants them to have peace, and it comes as they seek the peace of their “new” city.

For Cobblestone Church, this is to be the guiding light in our current reality. I’m sure there are plenty of times when we look around and think that this isn’t what it is supposed to be. In these moments we are to seek the peace and prosperity of our community however we can for it is in the community's peace that we find our own. This is why we do things like community groups - to create space for each other and others to experience a safe place to explore and grow in the faith. This is why we built a memorial play set - in memory of past loved ones, and as a gift to the community for the peace and prosperity of families all around.

For those seeking and exploring the faith we invite you to join us in this journey. If you find yourself at a place where you feel like you don’t belong, know that you belong here because Jesus Christ, who didn’t belong on a cross, chose to endure it out of his deep love for you and me, for your peace and my own.

Taking a Deep Breath of the Gospel

Starlee Kine grew up in Los Angeles, and like most kids in L.A. she had a stage of her life when she was obsessed with Disneyland. The difference between Starlee Kine and other kids was that her mother’s paranoia kept her and her sister from visiting Disneyland because she was convinced that Starlee and her sister would get hurt on one of the rides. Eventually after many months and years of protest the mother caved in. Well, sort of. She took the whole family on a vacation to the Disneyland Hotel that was 15 minutes away from their house and directly across the street from the famous theme park with Space Mountain in the background. They did this twice a year for three years, always staying for two weeks during each visit. Never did they cross over to the theme park.

This is how many of us have experienced Christ. We’ve kept our distant from God, maybe coming near through regular Sunday attendance, or the occasional prayer, but always making sure that we can easily escape in case of an emergency. Some maybe have left church because you feel like you’ve “been there, done that” and there wasn’t much to it. But I wonder if you were just at the hotel across the street and not in the park. What does it look like to actually go to the park and not just stay across the street? Well, it’s a lot like breathing; the Church, and individuals within the Church, are gathered by God(inhale) and sent by God(exhale).

Which is more important, inhaling or exhaling? This is an absurd question because you literally need to do both or you will die. If we don’t inhale we don’t get oxygen to all the cells that need it, and if we don’t exhale the waste product of our cells, carbon dioxide, doesn’t get released from our bodies. This is true of the health of any church and the people within the church.

Inhaling is like the gathering functions of the church. We gather together to worship corporately together, to build relationships with one another, and to encourage one another to grow in our faith. Exhaling is like the sending functions of the church. We are sent by God to serve the needs of those in our community, especially those are the margins of society, to stand and speak for justice in the world, to work our jobs/vocations as co-creators with God, and to tell others about the good news of Jesus.

When a person is nearing the end of his or her life their breathing becomes shallow. This is also the way that churches die; they become shallow breathers. They continue to gather on Sunday mornings and go through the motion of worship. They have relationships, but just stay on the surface, which typically marked by idle gossip, and rarely challenge one another to good works. They respond to God’s sending by writing a check or sending canned food to a food shelter. Technically the church is alive, but just barely.

If we are honest about ourselves at Cobblestone we are shallow breathers. And we can choose to remain this way and know where this path will lead or we can start taking deep breaths of the Gospel. We need a few of us to be committed to gathering well, to deeper relationships with one another and allowing God to transform us and change us. We also need to be committed to being sent well, doing more than just sending a check or bringing in a can of food (both are good, but inadequate for a healthy church).

One reason at the heart of our shallow breathing is fear. We, like Starlee Kine’s mother, are afraid what will happen if we enter the presence of God. We are afraid of what God will ask of us or direct us to. And yet, we know deep down, that it is the best for us. We look to the one who gave everything for us, who took on our deepest fears and destroyed them in his own body, and we know he means the best for us and this world. Won’t you trust him? (For a new idea about what to do if you want to take a step of trust see the Discipleship Book Groups).

Looking at Revelation

Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. It is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world. That is, like every other New Testament book, Revelation is about Jesus Christ- “A revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1)- and about following him in obedience and love.

-Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly

The book of Revelation is either obsessed over in great detail searching for clues and hints about the end of the world, or avoided because of its frightening images and uncertainty. What has happened to the book of Revelation is that many modern readers and interpreters (think Left Behind series) have ignored how Revelation has been understood in Christianity for centuries. Most of the way that people understand and think of Revelation today would be completely foreign to Christian interpretations of the first 1800 years of the Church.

Why should we look at Revelation today? In the first century Christians were in the minority; this led to many being persecuted for their beliefs and some of them were martyred for their faith. Common questions that the first century Christians wrestled with were, ‘If Christ is King, why are we dying, why are we being ruthlessly persecuted, why does it seem like Rome is getting stronger and stronger even when she is full of corruption and evil?’ And this letter provides a peek behind the curtain to see how God is at work, has been at work, and will be working to bring restoration to this world. As John provides this glimpse he also calls the Christians to faithful witness in the midst of it all.

While thankfully, we are not physically martyred in America today, being a Christian is often a minority position and is frequently attacked by others. And we too wonder at times, ‘If Christ is king, then why is there still so much violence and strife locally and abroad, why is racism and bigotry still winning the day?’

Michael Gorman believes that Revelation answers these questions. He writes, “Revelation is (primarily) good news about Christ, the Lamb of God- who shares God’s throne and who is the key to the past, present, and future- and therefore also about uncompromising faithfulness leading to undying hope, even in the midst of unrelenting evil and oppressive empire.”

So whether you are someone who has obsessed over Revelation, or someone who is really confused by it all, or if you are not a Christian but interested in what Christianity teaches about good, evil, hope, salvation, and judgement, please join us starting May 22nd and through most of the summer as we explore this fascinating book.

Looking Beneath and Seeing God at Work

Spotting a mouse can save your soul. The unfortunate experience of discovering a mouse, or clear signs of a mouse's existence, is something we all would rather avoid. We don't go yell on rooftops if we have this happen to us, instead we quietly try to deal with the situation on our own. We are veterans of hiding our shame. We try to hide our anger issues, our gripping anxiety, and our strong self-doubt, but just like house-mice, they pop up from time to time. In both situations we cannot pretend that they will just go away, and in fact, if we face them honestly it can be to our eventual benefit.

Starting with the obvious it is never a good idea to pretend that the mouse you saw will disappear. First, mice can contaminate a lot of food and clothing very quickly; they void about 50 pellets a day. Second, they reproduce at an alarmingly fast rate. Bill Bryson points out that “two mice, breeding prolifically, could theoretically produce a million descendants in a year.”

Similarly when our emotions overcome us we should not simply chalk it up to a bad day or tell ourselves that it was just a one-time ordeal. This just leads to more damage as our anger grows, our pains deepen, and our self-esteem drops. The best option forward is to get an honest look at the situation and then to get to work.

Richard Rohr points out that “before the truth 'sets you free,' it tends to make you miserable.” It is very difficult to look behind the veil of our persona and see what is going on beneath the surface, because we know that it is ugly underneath, hence the veil. What's great about this exploring is that we get a glimpse of God at work in our life.

God knows what's going on behind our happy face that we put on most days. He sees more than our ugliness as well; He sees the amazing person that He created. God knows our deepest fears, our darkest secrets, and our hidden desires, and yet, He loves us passionately. Jesus willingly went to the cross to bear our shame because it was a joy to Him to know that He was setting us free.

It is a gift to us when our emotional outburst reveals an area where God is at work, and He calls us to join Him in the process. This work takes many forms from dealing with past wounds, broken relationships, or unhelpful vices. It is always a call to become better acquainted with our sense of identity, often pushing us to let go and fall back into the arms of a loving God. The first step for many is admitting to a trusting and caring person that we do have a problem, and letting them be the loving voice of God in your life.

For some this may seem really overwhelming as it feels like all you have is one emotional outburst after another, but the good news is that this means God is involved in your life and is beckoning you to become a more mature you. Tim Keller honestly admits, “sometimes God seems to be killing us when he's actually saving us.” So the next time that you go off your handle at your boss, spouse, or random driver that cut you off, view it as an invitation from God to take a look behind the curtain of your own soul, and you may be surprised to discover the healing hand of God at work.  

"No Condemnation" Is a Big Deal

Today while we frequently encourage everyone to “just get along” we actually rarely know how to do that with people whom we disagree. We promote tolerance of views and beliefs in the abstract, but when it comes to actual day to day living we are often ruthless with those we disagree with. In the course of a week, I’m sure we’ve all promoted tolerance towards people of different religious dispositions and at the same time ridiculed those who vote, parent, or educate differently than us. And unfortunately this is often just as true within the church as it is outside of the church. This should not be so, and I think the church would do better at leading the way in love if they kept before them how Jesus cures the disease of sin, leaving it as a mere entanglement.

Sin is a very contagious disease. Hear these words from the first Psalm, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.” And Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death.” Sin is a disease that leads towards death, and of course you would want to avoid it, but we can’t. And Jesus did something about it. As Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  

Sin is a disease that has been put to death in the cross of Jesus. Sin still exists, as the writer of Hebrews 12 suggests, and is something that easily entangles us, even if we have been set free from the disease-leading-to-death aspect of sin. This, I think, is an accurate picture of sin. Sin is thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes that entangle us, and and these thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes cause harm to ourselves and the world around us. But we can only freely see sin as a mere entanglement if we know that Jesus has put our own sin to death and that we are not condemned by our sin anymore.

If we continue think of sin as a disease, we will quarantine those whom we deem sinners from us. This is how we typically treat those who act or think differently than us - we label them as people with this disease and we quarantine them; then we are free to ridicule, mock, and insult them all we want. Not only that, but because we don’t want to be condemned like the others we pretend as if we have no contact with sin, constantly trying to cover up and hide our sins acting like they don’t exist. This results in what Dr. Henry Cloud calls merry-go-round Christianity. He writes, “Many Christians stay on the old merry-go-round, where they think they go from a forgiven state to a guilty state, back to a forgiven state, and so on.” What we often fail to realize is “Jesus has made us acceptable ‘once for all.’ This is not something we lose, slipping into a ‘bad’ state with God. The question is not, ‘Are we good or bad?’ but the question is, ‘What are we doing?’”

The alternative is experiencing no condemnation from a community of people who know just as Paul declared, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ” (Romans 8:1). If we know and are loved by a community who knows us and our faults and yet still loves us, we have the chance to honestly face our sins and throw them off of us when they begin to entangle us. When we are not consumed by the question of “are we good enough?,” we become free to see how our sin hinders our ability to love others, and we can let grief and guilt of our actions move us toward change instead of allowing them to cripple and paralyze us.

Many in the church have little experience with this world of “no condemnation” because they are not taught that it exists, or because they are unwilling to enter into a community of others to experience it for themselves. But for those that do, they can experience the wonderful power of being free from the disease of sin and free towards more fully loving God and our neighbor.

Annual Report for 2015

Take a moment and picture all of your memories of your time in relation to this church as if they were captured and placed into a photo album. For some of us this album would be very thin as we’ve only been here a short while, and for others of us we can’t imagine a photo album big enough to contain all of our memories. And to be sure, not all of these memories are happy ones. We’ve all had ups and downs and this church may have caused some of those downs. Some of these pictures will be of us celebrating with one another, baptisms, weddings, new children, and grandchildren, perhaps a new job or promotion. Other pictures will be of great sorrow and sadness, the time after we lost a loved one, or when we got the diagnosis that we were afraid of. The commonality among all of these pictures is that they are of people, not individuals. The strength of this church has been and still is our community. We are a church that is really good at community. This is why we say that we are a Christian community working together to serve all people. That is who we have been and who we desire to remain to be.

Now I want us to picture an imaginary family, the Jones family. The parents in the Jones family both grew up with some church experience, one grew up Catholic, the other Methodist, but as they got older both of them stopped going to church. Now they are married and they have three kids ages 2, 5, and 7. As their children have gotten older the mother in the Jones family wants the kids to go to church, and to be honest, she wants to go back to church for herself. As the parents talk about this they decide that they want to find a place for their whole family to go together. And because they live near here they think about checking out Cobblestone because they drive by it every day.

Now I want us to picture how this scenario would have played out three years ago. The first thing they would have done is to check out the website. Three years ago it was out of date and that alone could have turned them off to the church. But let’s say that they still want to come here, but then they would have arrived and looked for the nursery to drop off their two year old, only to discover that one of them would have to stay with the child during the service. And even if they still decided to stick it out, if they wanted to get to know more people and learn more about the Christian faith all that could have been suggested to them was that the mom could go to the women’s Bible study, but that wouldn’t work for her because she works during Tuesday afternoons. And so the family basically would have left being asked to just come back next week. And more than likely the family wouldn’t have come back, and the only picture that they are adding to the photo album of their life is that time they tried to go to church again, only to find that the church really wasn’t able to welcome them in.

Now picture this scenario today. Thanks to the work of Phil Reece the Joneses would have checked the website and learned all about our worship service on Sunday, what to expect during worship, and what we had for children. They would have come on a Sunday morning and found both a trained nursery worker and a volunteer happy to watch their two year-old while they participated in the service. In the service they would have been greeted and welcomed by the worship leaders, who explained the parts of the service and who offered ways for them to find out answers to any questions they may have concerning the church or Christianity. They would have heard a sermon that expects people who are making a journey like theirs, one coming back to faith. In the service they would have had the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of communion, reminding them again of the heart of the Christian faith. After the service the older children could have joined others being taught by Jan Janiga and Kristen Redler about the Christianity while the parents had a cup of coffee and snacks. If the parents wanted to dive more into our faith community, they would be invited to join a community group (which are kid-friendly) where they can better get to know others in the church and have a safe place to process and grow in their faith. The picture in the photo album of this family from this trip will be a joyful one as they remember their first time going back to church and wondering why it took them so long to go to church again.

These past few years we have done some good internal work of creating ways for us and others to deepen our relationships with one another and God and to better serve our greater community. And so, the consistory feels like this is the year to start to focus on ways to invite others to join us in our community here. In 2016 we want to grow from just being a welcoming church to being an inviting church. Therefore, the goal for 2016 is to have 10 non-church going people come to our church who have been invited by a regular of our church.

Why is this a good goal? Because we want other people to have mental photo albums like the ones we have. We want the recently divorced single mom to have people who can bear some of her burdens. We want the couple starting their second marriage to have a community that will help in the struggles ahead. We want the kids who have parents that are too busy working to make ends meet to have other adults that care for them and watch out for them. We want those who have an aching hole in their hearts to find a caring environment where they can openly wrestle with their doubts and struggles and encounter the living God. As we look at the past year and plan for the upcoming year let us do so always asking what can we do to make a better mental photo for someone in relationship to this church.

Past Year

This past year we have continued developing community groups as central to life of the church, we have improved our care team so that our members who are unable to be physically with us are still cared for, and we have done some significant upkeep to our lovely building.

We expanded from two community groups to three as the women’s Bible study changed to becoming a community group. These groups continue to be the best place for people to grow in their faith together and to develop relationships with one another. The service projects are not going as smoothly as we had hoped, but they are gaining some momentum. The best example of this is the Women’s Bible Study who has done 50 hours of service this month, which is more than the previous year and a half of all the groups combined.

Our care team, under the leadership of Barb McGarry, has continued to get better. Sadly we had many members have various health struggles, but because of Barb and others these members are getting visits, phone calls, and cards from their church family.

We have done several significant maintenance projects for our building and the parsonage, with thanks to Dave Parker for heading up most of this work.

  • Scraped, primed and painted exterior of Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall

  • Repaired and painted ceiling of Fellowship Hall dining area

  • Repaired and painted North side of Sanctuary

  • Replaced Parsonage furnace and A/C Unit

  • Sealed coated and lined parking lots

  • Sealed coated all drives including parsonage

  • Steam cleaned Heath room carpet and upholstery.

  • New copier

  • New FM receivers for Sanctuary sound system.

  • Installed signs to help newcomers find their way.

We set out as a big goal for our congregation to do 10,000 hours of community service in one calendar year. In 2013 we had 1341, and in 2014 we had 1126. It isn’t going the direction we hoped, but keep in mind with the momentum of the community groups and their service projects we are on pace to exceed 1400 hours in 2015.

This past year may not have been what we expected or fully what we desired, but we can be confident that God is clearly working in and through us that the Gospel would bear fruit in our lives and in this world.

We also remember with heavy hearts the passing of Sue Grethen this past year.

Summary

Our hope in the coming year is to become an inviting congregation. Look for upcoming events that will provide support and training on how you can contribute to that goal. We want to invite others so that they too can have a great photo album of memories of their times at this church, where they made great relationships with others and grew in their faith with God. We have done good work in the last few years that really makes us as a church capable to embrace and welcome in others into the life and work of our church. Please pray and participate in the work that we are doing as you are able.

 

Grace and Peace,

John Compton

What Community Groups Have Meant to Me (Part 2)

Below is a description of what Community Groups have meant to Kristen Redler, a soon-to-be member of Cobblestone. As she says community groups have been “one of the most helpful and fulfilling experiences” that she has had at Cobblestone.

About two months after I began attending Cobblestone Church, Pastor John asked me if I’d be interested in joining a community group. Initially, I was really nervous about joining, and I was not sure what to expect. Now that I am attending a community group for the second year in a row, I can honestly say its been one of the most helpful and fulfilling experiences that I have had at Cobblestone. I was expecting some kind of bible study, but community group has meant much more to me than that. I have gotten to know members of the congregation that I might not have known otherwise, and who I know consider friends. Together, we have prayed, studied, and worshiped. We have also discussed our questions, doubts, and the way that God is working in the world and in our lives. Although I started off attending on my own, my enthusiasm for the group encouraged my husband to begin attending with me. Despite differing opinions, everyone in the group is met with acceptance and respect. My husband and I look forward to attend group every other week.

Another aspect of community group that I love is that it forces us outside of our comfort zones as we actively seek out ways to serve our community. Last year, our group served together at the City Mission several times. This year we are hoping to serve there once a month, and work with a group that helps refugees. I believe that the service we do is the most practical way that we as a church can share God’s love with others.

Even though joining a new group was difficult for me, I am so thankful that I took a chance and joined a community group. The relationships that I have formed within my group have encouraged me to pursue church membership this year.

hese groups have been helpful to others who like Kristen have found them to be a place to both deepen one’s relationship with others, grow in their faith, and serve the community. If you would like more information about community groups feel free to talk to John.

What Community Groups Have Meant to Me (Part 1)

Below is a very candid description of what Community Groups have meant to Greta Daigle, a member of Cobblestone. As she says they are not perfect, but they "bring the old bible stories to life in a way that made them relevant to our lives today." 

When I was first approached about joining a community group, I was totally against it. I was already giving up one game night a month to go to a consistory meeting, and having gone to many bible studies in my life and found them boring, I really didn’t want to commit to yet another bible study. I usually prefer quiet bible reading on my own, where I can have a quiet just God and me time. 

I also have a problem driving at night, and hate having to ask people for rides.  If I joined yet another group, I would have to bother people more often. But I found that there was a group on Wednesday nights, which meant I only had to go one night a month. The first Wednesday of the month I already had a commitment to the Church Game Night that I host at the church. 

 I started going to the community group at the Reece house, and to my surprise, found that I really enjoyed it. The fellowship and sharing was much more than just a bible study. We shared a meal before we discussed anything, and I got to know members of the church that I otherwise would have only known on a superficial, member of my church, level. Then as we discussed the questions raised by Pastor John, I found that it brought the sermon of the week to life, and the sharing of life histories and how they related to what we were studying, brought us all closer together. It was a chance to bring the old bible stories to life in a way that made them relevant to our lives today.  

This year, I was able to host a community group in my own home, which alleviates the problem of having to ask someone for a ride.  Although there was a lack of communication about community groups starting fresh each year, or the reason for doing that, we were able to create a new group that met at a time that was easier for some people.  There still seems to be some hard feelings about the lack of communication, but this can be another learning experience. By having different people in the group this year, I am forming a closer relationship with more people that I didn’t really know that well before the group. We follow the apostle’s teaching to come together a break bread, share fellowship and share the teaching of God’s word in a way that makes the bible more relevant to our lives today. 

I would advise anyone that has reservations about joining just another bible study, to try it out before you make the final decision about community groups. I was pleasantly surprised. You may be too.  

The only real negative I can say about community groups is that one of the goals of a community group is not only to develop a deeper relationship between members of the church, but to also reach out to the community. So far, we have pretty much failed on that score.

These groups are not perfect and we are still trying to figure out how to best serve the greater community, but we believe that they are steps in the right direction. If you are interested in joining a Community Group email John (john.compton@thecobblestonechurch.org) 

Keeping Our Eyes on the Bigger Purpose

As I read through David James Duncan’s book, The Brothers K, I remember my anger gradually increasing towards the mother in the story. The mother is trying to raise this hectic and chaotic family of mostly boys and part of her child-raising involves beating them (sometimes literally) to go to church. And as you can imagine, this does not end well for her; most of her children rebel against her and her church. This storyline upset me because I’ve seen in real life the damage done by people like this mother. I’ve seen people completely reject the faith because they were berated again and again to go to church, but were rarely engaged in an honest conversation about why they should go to church. In the end my anger towards the mother changes to pity as the the book reveals (spoiler alert!) that the reason why she was so passionate about the church was because when she was young and had nowhere to turn the church took her in and took care of her. She never told her children what was most precious to her and as a result the kids thought it was completely pointless. Often tradition does more harm than good because the purpose gets lost behind the activity. We cling to tradition even when it is not good for anyone because we love what we have nurtured and will only change by making a conscious choice and discipline.

Sherry Turkle, who is the professor of social studies in science and technology at MIT, writes, “We are psychologically programmed not only to nurture what we love but to love what we nurture.” One implication of this truth is that a tradition can continue long after it is meeting the original purpose for which it was created because people have begun to love the tradition. For example, imagine parents who love taking their kids trick-or-treating. The year will come when the kids will no longer want to go trick-or-treating with their parents. The tradition (trick-or-treating) is no longer fulfilling the purpose (spending quality time together as a family). Ideally parents would recognize this and grieve the end of the family tradition and have a conversation with their kids about other traditions they can do as a family to fulfill the greater purpose of spending quality time together. Obviously this isn’t easy, but it can happen.

Local churches also need to examine their traditions (read habitual activities, not belief systems) to decide if the traditions are still fulfilling a meaningful purpose in line with the mission of the church. Many churches will cling to an activity long after it has been effective at fulfilling its purpose regardless of the cost.

The importance of this examination process is two-fold. First, if a tradition is not completing some significant purpose in the organization then the organization is using up precious commodities (people’s time, energy, and money) to succeed at something not important. Second, a tradition out of line with the overall mission of a church is a significant turn-off to potential new members. The disconnect between any activity and the church’s mission shows that a church doesn’t actually intend to do what it says it will do or to value what it says it values.

My encouragement to the people of Cobblestone is to consider what traditions have served their time, and what new traditions could we now begin that would better enable us to fulfill our mission to be a Christian community working together for the good of all people.

My encouragement to those considering or wrestling with Christianity is to accept my apology on behalf of the Church for the times that you’ve been burned and hurt by people demanding that you adhere to pointless tradition. Also I want to invite you to look past the sometime pointless activity of the Church and to see Jesus, the King and Savior of this world, who offers you love, grace, and comfort in the midst of your world. If you have questions about Christianity, or Cobblestone Church, I’m always available to try to answer them.

Sharing the Goodness with Others

It’s been years since I was working part-time at Target during college, but I still remember an odd compliment I received from a co-worker. At the time I was studying engineering physics, and he told me that if engineering didn’t work out I could probably make it as a used-car salesman. I remember being confused as to why he saw me as a salesmen because I wasn’t working in electronics or other parts of the stores trying to make sales; my main job was straightening all the boxes of cereal in the grocery section. Today I realize that, in a way, I am a salesman. If I like a product, a book, a movie, a television show, I become convinced that everyone’s life will be better if they do what I’m already enjoying. Despite this, there is still one area of my life that I am a little uncomfortable talking about with others, and that is my faith. This may seem surprising because I am a salesman at heart and I am a minister; you would think this would be the most natural activity in the world for me, but if I’m honest, it’s not. And I know from my time in churches that almost no two words make Christians more uncomfortable than outreach and evangelism. Let’s briefly look at where this discomfort comes from and what we can do about it.

When many people hear the word evangelism they are quickly washed over with a feeling of guilt. This guilt often comes from preachers and other Christians who have abused them by misusing passages of Scripture, calling into question their own faith, and just being mean.

If guilt doesn’t totally shut us down then three practical concerns immediately come up; I don’t know how to do it, I’m not that kind of person, and I don’t want to ruin my relationships. Many fear that if they talk about their faith with somebody else they will be met with either disdain and/or really difficult questions that they won’t have the answers to. Or when we hear evangelism we picture those going door to door or those approaching random people, and we just know that is not how our personality works. Then if we think about the relationships that we do have with those who are not Christians we are afraid of the topic of faith ruining the relationship.

The discomfort that these thoughts and feelings produce are no small matter. In fact, Paul himself often asked others to pray for him to be bold to share the good news about Jesus, and so if Paul had trouble sharing his faith it makes sense that we would too. There is no quick fix to this, but I do think reminding ourselves about who God is and learning how evangelism works can change our discomfort to motivation.

First, God isn’t wagging his finger at you in disappointment over your failure to share your faith. He loves you. He gave up his Son for you. He sings over you. You are his beloved child, and there is nothing you can do to change that. We need to hear this message again and again and in many different ways for the paralyzing effects of guilt to melt away making it easier for us to move out in obedience to God.

Second, evangelism is a group project that takes time. Many think that to do a good job at evangelizing neighbors and co-workers means that you convince someone to believe before you invite them to belong. In reality most people will belong before they believe. This means that the primary job of individuals within a church is simply to invite others to join them in the life of the church. A non-Christian who is exposed to the life of the church will hear the good news explained and enacted in a community. This person will know who he or she can ask their tough questions to. It won’t be on you to have an answer to every question as the church shares the task of evangelism together.

In summary, know that you are not guilty, (Jesus took all the guilt away), remember why you are a Christian and go to church (because you need God’s grace and he has given it to you and you need to hear that again and again), and remember why you would ever ask others to join you (because you love them). Ultimately we share our faith with others because we want them to enjoy the goodness that we have found in it. Even our concern that talking about our faith may ruin our relationship is a sign that we really love someone and, last I checked, Jesus is a pretty big fan of that whole love thing. Let that love motivate you to share the good news of Jesus.

Community

Some of the three hardest words to say as an adult are ‘I don’t know.’ We never want to appear like we are in over our heads or that we are not as smart as we appear, and for a whole slew of other reasons, we just don’t like to say these three words. Well, I’m going to buck this trend and say them now. I don’t know. I don’t know what it will take for Rotterdam and Schenectady to become places where all people are excited to live, where crime is insignificant, where every child is getting a good education, and where people are experiencing a healthy life and community. I don’t know what it will take for Cobblestone Church to be a completely healthy and vibrant church serving the needs of our members and our community. I don’t know exactly what needs to happen in your life for you to be someone who has peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control to a higher degree than you currently do. I don’t know. I do know that for any of that to happen we need to be in better relationships with one another. For Rotterdam/Schenectady to be a better place, for Cobblestone to be a better church, and for you to be a better you, we all need to be in better community together.

For you to grow as a person - to be that better you, to have more of the fruit of the Spirit - you need to be in a more intentional community. This is true for two reasons. First, we are primarily changed by people we are in relationship with. Social science has shown us that most of our beliefs and actions as individuals are not based on our rational thinking, but based on our relationships. Second, we have been created for community. One facet of being made in the image of God is that we, like the triune God, are built for relationships (or connectivity as it is sometimes called today). Even kids’ songs get this as they sing, “The more we get together… the happier we’ll be.”

For Cobblestone Church to be a more healthy and vibrant church we need to continue to have better relationships with one another. Again, this is true for two reasons. First, Jesus prays to the Father for his followers in John’s Gospel and says, “May they [the disciples] be one in us so that the world may believe that you sent me.” The number one way for the disciples to show the world that Jesus was sent into this world by God is their oneness, their unity. Christian teacher Francis Schaeffer spoke similar words to the Christian Church at a global conference, “There is a tradition that the world said about the Christians in the Early Church, ‘Behold, how they love each other.’” And he also said, “[People] should see in the church a bold alternative to the way modern [humanity] treat people as animals and machines today. There should be something so different [seen in the church] that they will listen, something so different it will commend the Gospel to them.” Second, you can’t be a Christian in isolation. In the New Testament we are called to love one another, honor one another, forgive one another, bear one another’s burdens, and so on. A church isn’t a church if it isn’t providing opportunities for people to live in a community in order to carry out these commands and these commands cannot be carried out only in a Sunday morning worship service.

For Rotterdam/Schenectady to be a better place we need church communities who both care for the greater area in tangible ways and provide environments for personal growth for all. Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” The Church is to be a place where people are transformed, and then these transformed people change the community and the world.

This is why we offer Community Groups at Cobblestone. These groups intersect at the place where we care for one another and care for the surrounding world. (For details about these groups click here). The prophet Jeremiah spoke long ago, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We are to seek the peace, welfare, and good of the city, and in its peace we will find our peace. I don’t know exactly how we can seek the welfare of this area, but I know it will at least involve us being in better community and relationship with one another.

 

The First Step to Change

Later this month will mark the two year anniversary of me and my family arriving at Cobblestone. After we made the decision to move across the country, the next questions were “What do we do now? What do we actually need to do to move all that we own across the country?” We knew where we were going, but we just didn’t know how we, along with all of our stuff, were going to get there. This feeling of confusion can happen to all of us when we begin a journey of growth. Whether you’re somebody who is just wanting to be less angry, or if you are a Christian and you see certain commands that you would like to follow, deciding where you want to go is not as hard as figuring out how to get there. So how do we get there? The best way to get where we want to is just like accomplishing any major goal, one small step at a time. But what is that first crucial step?

This first step is often ignored to our own detriment. This results in either burn out or recognizing that failure is imminent before we even start. Many of us, when we want to grow in character, begin by simply doing what we want to become, and this occasionally works. For example, if we decide we want to be more grateful, we start practicing gratitude, and if we are able to stick to it over time studies have shown that it works. However, if we try to grow in areas that are a bit more challenging, let’s say forgiving people who have deeply hurt us or loving our neighbor, we will typically stumble and fall. We may get up and try again and again and again, but more than likely we will get exhausted from all this effort and give up.

Other times when we want to grow we just know we are going to fail from the beginning, and so we don’t even try. We don’t even try to be better neighbors because, if we are honest, we don’t actually like our neighbors. We don’t want really want to forgive because we get a little pleasure from our anger towards those who have hurt us.

The first step is simple; it almost sounds too simple to state. We are to ask that God would change the desires in us to be people who love our neighbors or who actually want to forgive those who have deeply hurt us.

For those who are Christians we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself and, once again, if we are honest when we look at that command we just know that we cannot do it. Knowing that we cannot do it leads us either to not even attempt to do it, or to summon enough gumption to grit our teeth through it, which may work for the short term, but will fail over the long haul.

In the book of James in the New Testament he writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” The wisdom that James is talking about isn’t some type of mystical intuition, it is simply knowing what is right and having the power to do it. God loves to give generously to all so ask him to change you and to enable you to be the person you desire (and He desires) for you to be.

This small prayer may seem trite but it will begin a process that is much bigger than we can imagine. C.S. Lewis gives a great illustration. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew these jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of… You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself…. The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command.”

This message of the sometimes painful transforming grace of God is in James’s letter that we will be looking at for the next several weeks.

Step by Step

After helping his parents plant a garden a child becomes eager to see the garden grow. In his developing mind it is hard to comprehend how food to be eaten will grow from these tiny bits of green vegetation and seeds just planted, but his trust in his parents is strong. The next morning he eagerly wanders out to look at the garden,  and he sees the same pile of dirt that was there the day before. The boy remembers vaguely his parents saying that it takes time for a garden to grow so he decides to check again after lunch. At lunchtime he meets disappointment again. The next morning the boy, not as eager as the day before, but still with some excitement goes out to check the garden and finds the same pile of dirt. After that he stops paying attention and gets swept away in other enjoyable activities of summer. Then one day the boy’s mother brings in a bowl of lettuce, and the next day a zucchini. When he sees the zucchini the boy jumps out of his chair and runs out to see the garden, and he cannot believe his eyes. What was tiny green plants and some seeds is now a robust garden; there are tomatoes growing, an abundance of lettuce, and it looks like 3 more zucchinis will be ready to be picked tomorrow.

The growth of one’s inner-life, what the Bible calls fruit of the Spirit, is like a vegetable garden. Some plants grow quickly, and the benefits from these plants can be reaped shortly after being planted, while others take much longer, but the wait is worthwhile when harvest comes. All people have some virtues that seem to naturally grow quickly and early in one’s life and other virtues take a lifetime to develop. Sadly, often the garden of our inner-life is neglected. This neglect leads to weeds growing everywhere choking out the growth of both those virtues that are slow to grow and, eventually, those virtues that came naturally and easily. Fortunately using this image of a garden also gives a clear path to growth of the inner-life. Understanding weeds, the harvest, and nutrition leads to human growth for all, but before those can be considered the most crucial factor of time must be examined.

Just as naive as it was for the boy to expect the garden to grow overnight, so it is foolish to think that one can develop a strong inner-life in a short period of time. Many get frustrated with the Bible because it seems to be full of impossible commands. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “love your enemies,” “do not be afraid” are just a few of these unattainable commands. Three truths are forgotten in relation to these types of commands in the Bible. 1. You do not keep these commands to earn God’s love. 2. God loves you enough to help you become able to do these commands. 3. It takes time to become a person who can do these commands. To deal with the weeds, to prepare for the harvest, and to receive good nutrition, they all take time. Spending little to no time attending to one’s soul is like failing to do anything with the pile of dirt in your backyard; the good will be starved out and die, while what is unwanted will overrun the pile and create large problems.

Weeds have the frustrating ability to grow almost anywhere despite the conditions around them. These weeds left unchecked can grow to control a garden. For people common weeds are anger, fear, anxiety, and boredom. The ideal with any weed is to get to the root, but for some the weeds may be so out of control that it is difficult to know where to begin. If this is you the best thing you can do is to get some professional help. Having the courage to admit you need that kind of help is the bravest thing you can do, and don’t let yourself or anybody else convince you otherwise. Everyone has weeds and they will come back and so one must be diligent in knowing one’s trouble spots.

It may seem too obvious to say, but vegetables are grown in a garden to be eaten. This is good for the body and the bank account. The harvest of the inner life is to be a wellspring of life for the whole world. Time must be spent developing the virtues in one’s life that contribute to the good of the world. If that is neglected weeds will choke out those virtues and lead to ruin. In the world today it is popular to focus on becoming “successful” to the neglect of becoming good. This leads to the current cultural reality where we see story after story of “successful” people having their lives ruined due to poor character.

The garden must receive proper nutrition to grow. For the inner-life the big question is what are you listening to? What is the ongoing message in your head? Does it tell you that you are never good enough? That you must do better, that you should be doing this, and I can’t believe you did (or didn’t) do that? Or is it the voice of God speaking over you that you are his beloved child in whom he is well pleased?

The gardening season always begins with an intensive time of work and then the rest of the season is mainly minor maintenance with a bit of intensive work to put the garden to bed for the winter. For the soul there also should be a rhythm of intense work and steady easy work. Maybe as the summer begins you will use it as a time to do some inventory of the soul. What are your weeds? What type of harvest do you desire to produce? What are you feeding your soul with? Just like a well-planted garden if this is done well, with an appropriate amount of continual work, the yield will be a great harvest.

Focusing on the Common Good

I heard the story of a student who decided to give up listening to the radio in his car for a week. As he did this he made a very important discovery; his car was broken! He could hear that something was wrong with his car as he took a moment to stop listening to the noise from his radio and began to listen to his car.

We live in a world full of noise. There is so much information at our fingertips that it is almost impossible to know what we should pay attention to. There is a never-ending cycle of “breaking news” from all over the globe. Our jobs and companies are constantly changing and evolving. In our personal life we are always facing challenges for the first time. Social media always try to pull us into another debate about who is right and wrong. And this noise can distract us from the problems in our lives, neighborhoods, and communities.

To make matters more difficult it seems like we are always being forced to take sides. You are either a Republican or a Democrat, you either raise your child this way or that way, you either agree with these people or these people. Which ever side you choose you also must fight against all the ‘others.’

In a world full of noise and great conflict we want to offer Conversations for the Common Good. This is a series of conversations on important topics that relate to the common good of the world. What is the common good? Andy Crouch defines it as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” This definition makes it clear that it is about helping persons, not just groups or individuals or the vague “humanity,” but actual persons. Second, this definition makes it about helping people become what they can be.

This summer we have a great lineup for our second summer series of Conversations for the Common Good. We will discuss global poverty, drug-addiction, domestic violence, and these discussions will hopefully lead to real action. We will hear from a woman who walked with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and she will share stories about race in America over the last 50 years. We will learn about art and its power to change how we see the world, and what it means to develop eulogy virtues in a world that is focused on resume virtues. (Specific conversations listed in the Calendar).

This event is intentionally designed to be a place where people from different political parties, religious backgrounds, and economic status can come together to discuss important realities that deeply impact all of us. Part of creating that type of event is the need of a neutral location. Therefore, each event will take place at the fine, local establishment, The Bier Abbey. Bars are one of the few rare places that are pretty neutral. People from various walks of life come into the bar for a drink with friends, or to meet others in the community. Also since we expect people from different backgrounds to come we will not assume that you believe or think certain ways about anything; we want everyone to treat this like an intellectual pot-luck. We all have something different to bring, and when it all comes together a real feast can be enjoyed.

The beauty of these events is that we have opportunities to listen and to share. We get to listen to important issues of our day, we get to hear the stories of people impacted in surprising ways by events and forces that we never even considered. This listening makes us a more humble, caring, and compassionate people. We also get a chance to share; to share our story, and our knowledge. We get to have the privilege of offering what seems to us to be useless information, but is actually wisdom to another person.

Cobblestone is committed to events like this because we believe that the kingdom of God brought into this world by Jesus impacts the whole of life. Christianity is not just a private religious experience, but it is to bring about social and cultural renewal as well. We are ultimately motivated by the love of God who sent Jesus to be the “other” that we might become the righteousness of God.

 

Re-Understood Words

It used to mean a pungent smell, and a bitter taste, and great confusion about adulthood. Now it is the smell to start the day, the taste that brings energy, and the way of life. I’m talking, of course, about coffee. In my childhood I didn’t understand it at all, and then, thanks to a certain college roommate, slowly, over time, it became a staple of my life.

As we learned long ago words derive their meaning based on the context they are used in a sentence, and that sentence gets it’s meaning based on the paragraph it is a part of, etc. etc. At some point words find meaning according to the story of which they are a part. The word ‘college’ conjures up all sorts of images and meanings based on the stories we tell ourselves we are a part of. For some it is a past life where great (or terrible) moments happened. For others it is bittersweet because it is the place where your child is, and you both mourn their absence and celebrate their progressive journey through life. For others still it is a reminder of what a failure you believe you are for either not going to college yourself or for your inability as a parent to raise kids who go to college.

We are all collections of stories that we tell about ourselves, this world, and even God. These stories have the power to either empower us to live or they pull us down like an overfilled backpack. The Christian message is the true story orienting the whole world. It is the story of a God who loved the world enough to send his only Son, to save the world by putting evil and death to death on the cross and by rising to new life in his resurrection. In light of this person, Jesus of Nazareth, and his work, the whole world is living under a certain story, and this story often shows that some of our words are being understood incorrectly.

Jesus would tell stories to explain the new way the world was functioning now that he had taken the reigns as king. And these stories would change the meanings of words. A clear example of this is when a religious teacher was trying to be clever with Jesus and asked him “who is my neighbor?” in reference to the command, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The man is essentially asking this question because he is trying to determine who he is not obligated to love. He is hoping that loving his neighbor is something that he is already doing. When we think of the word ‘neighbor’ on its own we often think of those in proximity to us. Most of us live next to people who are similar to us; they are of the same race, religion, educational upbringing, and income. This means that loving our neighbor is not too difficult because it is often easy to love others who are like us. Jesus turns this idea of neighbor on its head as he tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. I won’t repeat the whole story (you can read it yourself in Luke 10:25-37), but the punch line of the story is that after two Jewish religious leaders walk past a recently attacked and abandoned traveler, a Samaritan comes and helps the man. A big deal because at that time Samaritans were to Jews maybe what ISIS is to Americans today. And Jesus asks the man, “which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who was hurt?” Jesus is turning the question of “who is my neighbor?” from being about who am I supposed to love to a question more direct about how can I be a neighbor to all I encounter in my life.

We are going to be looking at several words that need to be re-understood in light of Jesus in the coming weeks. We have already looked at Doubt/Belief, and Sinners/Saints, and we are going to examine Religious/Spiritual, Mercy/Justice, and Submission/Subversion.

Join in on this conversation by attending Sunday mornings and by checking it out yourself. All of these words are pretty explicitly addressed in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Whether you simply want to learn more about this story, or you are a Christian attempting to let this story guide and direct you, reading Scripture has been throughout the history of the Church one of the best ways to hear this story. More than hearing, reading Scripture captures us into the narrative; we see that this God of the world is the God for us, that the promises are for us, that the love of God is for us, that we are the stranger who has been attacked and abandoned on the side of the road, and it is Christ who has come to bind up our wounds. Won’t you listen to the story?