Cross Words – November 2018

  Rev. Ed Rees and I were classmates together in Seminary and we share a passion about growing faith in our churches. I hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did.  Pastor Clark
 
  Cultivate a Habitat Where Faith Thrives By the Rev. Ed Rees / Faith ColumnistPastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church
 
  The ivory-billed woodpecker is, or was, one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, native to the Southeastern U.S. Marked by a distinctive red crest, black and white plumage, and a thick, three-inch bill, the bird is listed as critically endangered, with no actual confirmed sightings since the 1940s. Thanks to the familiar story of extensive habitat loss, combined with hunting by collectors who prized its bill and feathers, the bird is assumed to be all but extinct.
 
Similarly, there is another formerly common feature of American life that also appears endangered – faith in God. Study after study tells us that people – particularly young people – are abandoning their faith in droves, leading to shrinking churches and the declining influence of religion in our national experience.
 
The reported decline in faith appears to be caused by factors similar to those that have adversely affected the ivory-billed woodpecker. While many parents think they have been dutiful in passing their faith along to the next generation, studies reveal that those who walk away from their faith when they leave home never felt deeply connected to that faith in the first place; in other words, the “faith habitat” was compromised.
 
For example, when we promote the idea that faith is primarily a matter of “being good,” young people soon discover that people of faith do not have a monopoly on good behavior. They realize at some point that you don’t need to be a part of any organized religious group to pursue “goodness,” however that is defined, and so choose the do-it-yourself path.
 
When questioning is discouraged, and young people are told that they must simply “believe,” regardless of any doubts, they do not learn how to integrate their minds with their hearts. They become easy prey for those who raise intellectual objections to faith, and their belief then withers, because they’ve never been shown that reason and faith are partners, not enemies.
 
When parents make sure that all in the family attend church, and go through all the religious activities, but in their own lives display blatant ethical lapses and hypocrisy without any repentance, they are building their children’s spiritual houses on sand. When young people begin to see their parents through maturing eyes, it’s like a flood that sweeps everything away.
 
In addition to this poor habitat for faith, there is the practice of pursuing faith for what you can gain from it, just like the woodpeckers were hunted for their bills and feathers. Children are taught – wrongly – that if you are “good” and read your Bible and go to church and pray, then God will “take care of you,” meaning he will give you good stuff in your life and protect you from everything bad. When tragedy and heartbreak and disaster strike, as they must in every life, trust in God crumbles.
 
The solution is to re-cultivate a sound habitat for faith to grow. We must demonstrate that being good is not the purpose of faith, but the natural side effect of a healthy faith in God who loves us in spite of our own lack of goodness. We should encourage vigorous questioning, demonstrating that there are sound reasons for belief in God, while not being afraid to admit there are lots of questions for which we have no clear answers.
 
We especially need to prepare our young people for a harsh and difficult world, reminding them of Jesus’ words: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
 
The best thing we can do is teach that it is God alone we should be pursuing, not any gifts or blessings we hope to receive from him.
 
The Psalmist wrote, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25)
 
I don’t know if the ivory-billed woodpecker is still out there, wild and free; what I do know is that the Creator who gave us that bird has offered us himself, if we know where and how to look for him.

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Cross Words – October 2018

  In the introduction to 1st John in his biblical translation, The Message, Presbyterian minister and author, Eugene Peterson writes:
 
  The two most difficult things to get straight in life are love and God. More often than not, the mess people make of their lives can be traced to failure or stupidity or meanness in one or both of these areas. (Eugene Peterson, The Message, Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2003, pp 227)
 
  If you’ve watched or read the news these last weeks, I’m sure you would agree with Peterson. I might even suggest that at one point you shook your head, and you thought or spoke aloud that “what this world needs is Jesus!” Where, however, is the world going to find Jesus? In “the church?” In His disciples? In you?
 
  In our discipleship journey, we too must answer Jesus’ question to His disciples as recorded in Matthew 16:13-20, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Peter’s life was never the same.
 
  It is my belief that somewhere along the way, we (North American Christians) have lost our way. We fell out of love with Jesus and fell in love with the institution of the church. In the process, we moved away from Jesus’ “easy yoke” and became inwardly focused on the maintenance of the institution rather than the Kingdom of which we are citizens. We avoid answering Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am,” because we don’t want to be pinned down to the God Jesus reveals.  Rather, we make up our own ideas of God and make up our own ideas of what love looks like.  John Updike in “A Month of Sundays,” described the church this way
 
  In general, the churches . . . bore for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it. (Joseph Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2018, pp 1)
 
  Like so many in the world, many Christians are dying of thirst because they base their faith on personal/family religious traditions rather than Jesus as revealed in Scripture. The Word of God is described as “sharper than any two-edged sword piercing to the division of soul and of spirit . . . discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV). We think we can hide from God, but we cannot. Trying to separate these two intrinsically related realities; God and love, we run into trouble. To deal with God the right way, we must learn to love the right way, and if we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. The two cannot be separated. C.S. Lewis wrote, “God is love, but love is not God,” and John writes in 1 John 4:8 (ESV), “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  The world is full of lots of people. Some are easier to love than others. We are called to love all – even our enemies. Left to our own selfish and self righteous attitudes, this will never happen, however, when we grasp the reality of God about which John writes, “. . . for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 ESV) the fruit of God’s people will produce evidences of His Kingdom. Love is from God – a gift. We can love because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19) In the Gospel of John (15:16-17), Jesus said
 
  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit  should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.  God chose you, and He loves you so much that He sent His only Son for you. What a precious gift!
 
Rev. Clark Remsburg, Jr.
 

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Cross Words – September 2018

  When Jesus is taken before Pontius Pilate, his own fear and anxieties come out in his question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Pilate’s task was to maintain law and order in his corner of the Roman empire, but frankly, right about now things did not look too good. Pilate will not receive an answer to his question, but will hear Jesus declare,
 
  “My kingdom is not of this world (emphasis mine).  If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world (emphasis mine) John 18:36.”
 
  The Kingdom of God is not based upon the kingdoms of this world – the power and authority of the Kingdom of God flows from a radical trust in God. As a disciple of Jesus our radical trust calls us to a detachment, but detachment is never easy because we are so easily drawn to the kingdoms of this world which offer power, security, and identity. Sadly, our personal formation too often comes from these earthly kingdoms rather than God’s Kingdom. Instead of “seeking first the Kingdom of God,” we give in to temptation and become attached to the kingdoms of this world developing a character that is shaped by the world rather than by God.
 
  So when things like Charlottesville, VA (8/12); the solar eclipse of 2017 (8/21); and Hurricane Harvey (8/25); or your own personal life events: back to school; hospitalization; surgery; job loss; sick family member; crop damage or loss; too much or not enough rain; a crisis not of your own making; or even a death; who you are is what will come out, and that’s not always love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Fruits of the Spirit, Galatians 5:22-23).
 
  In his book, God’s Answers to Life’s Difficult Questions, author Rick Warren observes:
 
  • Character is revealed in a crisis not made in a crisis.
  • Character is made in the day-by-day, mundane, trivial things of life – the routine.
  • Character is developed in the (routine), but it is revealed when we get into a shipwreck, into a situation that threatens to swallow us up.
  The safest thing to do when we get into a storm is to drop our anchors – wait. Just stand still – situations change, and the sands of time will shift.
 
  “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion which cannot be moved, but abides forever (Ps 125:1).” Luke tells us what to do while we wait in Acts 27:29, “Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed (emphasis mine) for daylight.” When the morning came, they discovered a sandy beach onto which they ran the ship, and all 276 people were “brought safely to land.”
 
  In the storms of life, God says “I am with you.” Let God’s truth stabilize your life, and give you the confidence you need in every crisis you face.
Rev. Clark Remsburg, Jr. “Changing the world begins with a small group of people who simply refuse to accept the unacceptable.” ~ Richard Branson
 

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Cross Words – August 2018

  The following article was written by my friend and colleague, The Reverend Doctor James C. Goodloe, IV. He is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology, and we serve together on the board of the publication Theology Matters.

Imagine a Church
 
  In 1988, in Demopolis, Alabama, a little boy named Rocky saved his mother’s life.  Rocky was five years old. His mother was driving them to town in their pickup truck when they had a wreck. They went over a forty-foot embankment, out of sight from the road. The mother couldn’t see, because of blood in her eyes. She could barely move, because her shoulders were both broken. And she sent Rocky away because she was afraid the truck would explode. At first he obeyed, but then he returned. Remember that Rocky was only five years old.  He weighed only fifty-five pounds.  Yet, he gradually pushed and carried his mother all the way up the forty-foot bank! He got her to the edge of the road. Someone found them there and took them to the hospital. Rocky saved his mother’s life!  What especially captures my attention is this: all the way up the bank, he repeated the lines, “I think I can. I think I can.” We recognize these from the child’s story, “The Little Engine that Could.” These words kept Rocky going! That story made it possible for him to save his mother’s life. We realize that this was not a story he had heard only once or twice. It was his all-time favorite. Rocky had insisted that his mother and father read it to him over and over. And so this story shaped him so much that he got his mother up the hill. It formed his character to such an extent that it focused his energies under pressure to save his mother’s life. I don’t even agree with the claim of the story that we can do anything we think we can. It’s simply not true. But the point that impresses me here is the power of this favorite, repeated story to mold a little boy’s life to heroic stature.
 
  If a simple child’s story can do that, what would happen to a church formed and reformed by the repeated reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word of God? Think about a church so confident in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ that no other loyalties distract it. Think of a church so shaped into the image of Christ’s ministry that all who see its works give glory to God. Think of a church so informed by the story of the cross that it accepts its own  suffering without complaint. Think of a church so shaped by the reality of the resurrection that eternal life becomes a quality of its present life. Think of a church so believing and trusting in Christ that it fears no earthly rulers. Think of a church that, having feasted on the bread of life, has so much left over that it takes twelve baskets full throughout the community, sharing the joyful Word with all. Think of a church that finds its way in Jesus Christ, cherishes His truth over all falsehoods, finds its very life in Christ and pours out that life for others. This is what we want for ministers and congregations, fed by the gospel of Christ.
 
*“A Holiday for Heroes: The Little Boy Who Could,” Newsweek, 4 July 1988, p 35.

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