January 2012










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Today we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although I have not endured the intense suffering of African Americans, I resonate deeply with King as a pastoral theologian. His vision for the human race, I am realizing, has shaped my vision for the church and world in significant ways. I realized his influence upon my life when several years ago I was invited to open the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Meeting with prayer. Here I was in the State Capitol building in Harrisburg, PA with the opportunity to offer a bipartisan prayer in the name of the bipartisan Christ. As you read below the prayer I offered at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, you will note the prominence of themes such as liberation and selfless service, themes that intersect the Gospel and the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Almighty and loving Lord, we thank you for the freedom we so thoroughly enjoy, the freedom that crosses party lines and is the foundation of this great country we live in.  We thank you for the pursuit of freedom that drove our mothers and fathers to this land, a pursuit that even hundreds of years later sustains us still.  We thank you for the ultimate liberation that you, according to your Word, offer to every person regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, and political party.  There, in Your word, we read that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” and “the one who the Son of God sets free is free indeed” and the words from Jesus that are written on the ceiling above us “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

Lord, from every mountainside let your freedom ring in our hearts; and may freedom ring in this place as these representatives seek to make decisions that will preserve and prolong the freedom we so deeply crave and appreciate.  Lord, would you ignite a fire in the hearts of these public servants so that they remember why they began to serve in the first place and so they continue to serve the public called the great state ofPennsylvania.  As our State Representatives meet would You give them the wisdom they need to discern your good, pleasing and perfect will and then would You give them the courage and fortitude to pursue your will with passionate persistence for the good of all the people who live in this keystone state.

Might our eyes see your glory today as these public servants follow the ultimate example of public service- Jesus Christ.  Christ is the epitome of selfless service for, in his own words, he came “not to be served but to serve” by laying down His life for all.  Lord, your son’s selfless service was fueled by his deep down desire to see people set free from the things in life that bind us.  May these servants of the people be driven by the same compassion that was in Christ, so that decisions about finances and policies today will enable people to be even more free tomorrow.  We know it’s a tall order, a sobering responsibility, but to borrow from the Battle Hymn we pray that “As Christ died to make people holy, let these [Representatives] live to make people free, while God is marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah.” Amen.”

I was recently asked to respond to the following question by the folks at  Building Church Leaders website: “How can a church introduce young people to Jesus in a busy city where no one seems to have any time to spare?”   Here was my response.  Perhaps it will be helpful to some of you…

The fact is that the vast majority of people (young, as well as old) come to faith as a result of a relationship with a Christian friend or relative.  Jesus often modeled the process.  To the demon-possessed man (Mark 5:19) he said, “go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you…”  When Zacchaeus believed, Christ told him that salvation had also come to his friends and family (Luke 19:9).  After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that the Centurion, and all of his family and friends, believed (Mark 2:14-15).  Jesus knew that the way the Gospel would travel around the world would be through relationships.

So, successful outreach builds on relationships. But many Christians today have few or no real relationships with non-believers.  How can such relationships get started?  C.S. Lewis gives us a wonderful insight:  “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”[1]  To reach young people we must create “relationship greenhouses” where friendships can flourish.

How do friendships flourish?  It’s easy, really.  Just two ingredients are necessary:  1) spending time together,  2) with people who share important things in common.

But, the next part of the original question begs our attention: “…where no one seems to have any time to spare?”

I love the experience shared by the small groups pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Illinois.  Their church was offering group meeting after group meeting…but no takers.  The common excuse?  “We just don’t have any time.”  Finally, they solved their problem.  Rather than ask, “Would you attend our group?” they began asking, “What kind of a group would you change your schedule to attend?”[2]  They found the “hot buttons” of people, created groups around those topics, and solved their participation problems!

I have found that the groups people change their schedule to attend are one of two kinds:  Recreational or Developmental.  The first relates to how people like to spend their free time, and may be on anything from apple pies to zoology.  The second category relates to major life challenges, and usually centers around: health, or finances, or relationships, or employment.  If the felt need is strong enough…if the promise is appealing enough…if the risk low enough, people will change their schedules to attend.

But real relationships do not begin and end with immediate interests or needs.  A good “relationship greenhouse” moves from Felt Needs —> Deeper Needs.  Deeper needs are such things as finding: a place to belong … a sense of balance … authentic relationships … help through transitions … and spiritual answers to life’s issues.

Ultimately, the “pilgrim’s progress” moves from Deeper Needs —> Eternal Needs, and a relationship with Jesus that fills the God-shaped vacuum inside every human being.  But, young people won’t make that jump “cold turkey” based on someone they neither know nor trust.  It takes time.  I recommend Bob Whitesel’s new book, Spiritual Waypoints, for a helpful discussion on facilitating people’s journey from ignorance to intimacy with Christ.

A marketing executive with Ford Motor Company once said to me: “I used to wonder what our ‘product’ would be if our church were a business.  I’ve decided our product is relationships.  First, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Then, relationships with others in the body of Christ.  And finally, relationships with people in the world that Christ died for.”

I like that.

[1] C.S. Lewis.  The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, & Company,  Orlando, FL: 1988 p. 247.

[2] David Stark.  Growing People Through Small Groups.  Bethany Press, 2004, p. 94.


By Colleen Derr

This past fall I thought I had finally cured my lack of a green thumb – a palm tree was growing quite successfully in my home. Planted in rich brown soil, topped with moss, and watered weekly it grew to be a beautiful shade of green with new stocks shooting up, full and tall. People came to visit and commented on my lovely plant. It felt so good to have a live plant growing in my home, and I was quite proud of my apparent success.

One day, as I sat at my desk in my home office admiring my lovely plant, I glanced out my front window and noticed something on my white blind – a few small black spots that began to move.  Curious as to what they were and where they came from, I stood and looked at the windowsill. It was covered in these tiny black, moving spots.  Not only were my office windows covered but my front door’s side windows and my dining room windows were as well.  Further inspection of my house revealed that all of my first floor windows contained these tiny moving spots.  What could they be and where did they come from?

Convinced that those tiny black bugs were attempting to escape the Indiana cold weather, I sprayed all of my windows and doors with bug killer and then eliminated any trace of the unwanted visitors.  Confident to have fully eradicated the menace from my home, I sat down once again to work at my desk.  Within moments something caught my eye – more moving specks!  They were back with a vengeance and my entire front door and foyer floor were covered in them.  After watching their movement for a few moments, it dawned on me that they weren’t coming in to escape a changing climate they were trying to get out.  These unwanted houseguests were attempting to make a run for it out of my home!  Why was that more insulting? A brief investigation exposed the source of the creatures was none other than my beautiful success at indoor gardening – my lovely palm tree!  Removal of the decorative moss revealed thousands of, according to Google, fungus gnats.

My beautiful plant that was a testimony to my newfound gardening success was the source of my bug infestation.  How could that be?  What appeared to be flourishing and healthy on the outside was in fact quite sick below the surface.

Interesting how that can happen to plants and to people.  What may appear to be healthy on the outside might actually be something quite different below the surface.  With my plant I failed to offer care necessary to achieve long-term sustained growth, things like fresh soil, nutrients, and the proper environment.  My lack of sustained attention over the long haul resulted in decay and infestation from within.

As you begin this New Year and think through all the possible options for a New Year’s resolution, consider resolutions that move beyond the external – weight loss and getting in shape – and focus instead on what’s below the surface.   Things that will provide you long-term sustained spiritual growth like fresh soil, nutrients, and a proper environment.

We used to sing a song about resolutions that, while containing some “old fashioned” language, offered some great declarations for “below the surface” health. Palmer Hartsough and James Fillmore wrote “I Am Resolved” in 1896.  Perhaps the words will give you motivation for a resolution that goes below the surface.  Can you read it as a statement of commitment for 2012?

I am resolved no longer to linger, 
Charmed by the world’s delight, 
Things that are higher, things that are nobler, 
These have allured my sight.

I will hasten to Him, 
 Hasten so glad and free; 
Jesus, greatest, highest, 
I will come to Thee.

I am resolved to go to the Savior, 
 Leaving my sin and strife; 
He is the true One, He is the just One, 
He hath the words of life.

I am resolved to follow the Savior, 
 Faithful and true each day; 
Heed what He sayeth, do what He willeth, 
He is the living Way.

I am resolved to enter the kingdom, 
 leaving the paths of sin; 
Friends may oppose me, foes may beset me, 
Still will I enter in.

I am resolved, and who will go with me? 
 Come, friends, without delay; 
Taught by the Bible, led by the Spirit, 
We’ll walk the heav’nly way.

My beautiful palm tree looked healthy and lush but below the surface was plagued by decay.  Do you desire more than a healthy looking outside?  Do you want to be healthy  and thriving spiritually below the surface?  Consider adding to your resolution list to “no longer linger” but rather “go to the Savior”, follow Him by being “faithful and true each day”, and embrace Kingdom living as you are “taught by the Bible and led by the Spirit”.

I am resolved – are you?