Archive for the ‘ministry’ Category

Helping those in need

Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. —Proverbs 28:27*

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on US and global economies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed for varying pandemic-related reasons. The food service industry here at home has been hit particularly hard.  Thousands of restaurants have closed, with most having no hope of reopening. The middle class is shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have nots. History has demonstrated that as the middle class shrinks and the lower class grows, civil unrest often increases.

To survive, many American families have had to dip into retirement savings, placing the future in question.  When savings are exhausted, losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  The ability to pay a big mortgage, something common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of both spouses.  If even one of them loses their job, foreclosure becomes a distinct possibility! To stay afloat they must negotiate with lenders, which in the long run usually means increasing the size of their mortgages and/or tapping into short term savings and retirement accounts. Early retirement withdrawals are usually accompanied by additional fees.

On top of pandemic problems, even before COVID-19 economic globalization had given rise to thousands of large companies that are loyal to neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers, especially blue collar ones, are increasingly being treated like disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table. Highly educated and skilled working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I heard many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This can and must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when those affected are members of the church. Many churches have lost touch with early traditions. The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tell us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

Even clearer instruction comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential to serving those in need outside the church.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop outreach ministries. One way for small groups to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in their church’s local area.  Charities are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.  The closest ministry filed for any church is the one inside its doors. The largest ministry field for every church is the one just outside the church doors.   

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. —Proverbs 19:17

*All Bible quotes are ESV.

Feed My Sheep

The Good Shepherd (C.1650-60) by Philippe de Champaigne

My recent work with a struggling young man in my community has provided me a stark reminder of the reality of hunger in America. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “having access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.”  According to USDA figures, 10.5 percent of American households in 2019 lacked proper food security. While the government’s 2020 food security figures are not yet available, indications are that this year’s numbers will be much higher.  The primary reason for this is the sharp increase in national unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the map below shows, the food insecurity problem is widespread.

As a state workforce developer in Pennsylvania, I worked with hundreds of clients who had recently lost their jobs.  Food security was often a major concern of these displaced workers. Many had small children at home, making their situations even more dire.  More recently, as a volunteer job coach working with the elderly, I discovered that food security is a major concern for many of my clients. My typical client is age 70 or older, dependent upon a Social Security check of less than a thousand dollars a month as their primary income, and frequently has to decide between purchasing expensive prescription drugs or food, as they lack sufficient income to pay for both with what remains after paying the rent or mortgage.  

While the mission of Christ’s church is to spread the Gospel, it’s difficult to convey the Good News to someone with a growling, empty stomach. Jesus clearly recognized this. By feeding the five thousand in the miracle of the loaves described in John 6, Jesus provided for the physical needs of the crowd.  The very next day, he called Himself the “Bread of Life.” (John 6:35). Clearly, one needs food in the belly in order to be more open to partaking of the Bread of Life.  The level of involvement in feeding the needy varies significantly from church to church.  Many get involved in collecting and distributing holiday food baskets for the needy.  While this is a wonderful thing, such baskets only cover a few days of the annual 365 that people need to eat. Much more is needed.   

Food banks and pantries exist across the country to help support food security. Typically, a food bank supports a region (such as a county), while local food pantries serve small towns or communities within larger towns/cities. According to the non-profit organization Feeding America, a food bank is a non-profit that safely stores thousands to millions of pounds of food for bulk distribution to local food programs, like food pantries. Food banks come in all different sizes. In contrast, food pantries receive food shipments from food banks and run food distribution programs where hungry families can receive food directly. Pantries feed hundreds of people per week! Because every community is different, there are many different types of pantries. It is common for a food pantry to operate from inside a community school or church. Some areas even have mobile food pantries to serve seniors with limited mobility or rural communities with little transportation.  Some pantries require the clients to demonstrate financial need, while others serve anyone who shows up. Some communities also have food kitchens, where the needy can eat a hot, nutritious meal.

Churches and individuals can help their local food banks, pantries and kitchens in a number of ways by donating money and by volunteering their time. Check directly with your local organizations to ascertain the best way to help each. A general rule of thumb is that monetary donations are preferable to food, as it enables the organization to spend where the need is greatest. Another general rule is that volunteers are always needed; this is particularly so during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many food banks, pantries and kitchens have adopted special precautions for COVID-19.  Those who might wish to volunteer should check with their local organization(s) to determine if they are comfortable volunteering in light of the precautions that have been adopted. In any case, I encourage you to reach out as you can to support food security in America. As James 2:15-16 tells us, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

Jesus feeds the five thousand, John 6:1-13 (NIV).  Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.  Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.  When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So, they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

Transformed not Conformed

Parthenon

The Parthenon (Temple of Athena) Athens, Greece

The lines between right and wrong are growing increasingly blurry in American society today.  Modern culture encourages us to be more accepting and inclusive. Our elected officials have passed many laws at the national, state and local levels that conflict with a Christian world view. Americans are bombarded with modern culture images, messages and social mores in the broadcast, cable, print and web news sites, as well as on the ever-increasing social media and other Internet websites.   

Despite the rapid social changes and pressures to conform, for matters of Christian faith and living the deciding question remains “what does the Bible say?”  When the Apostle Paul and Silas visited the city of Berea on a missionary journey, Paul preached the Gospel in the local synagogue, where it was received with great enthusiasm. Acts 17: 11 (NIV) says that the Berean Jews “…received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The Bereans recognized the authority of the Scriptures. Acts 17 goes on to tell us that as a result of Paul’s preaching there, many Berean Jews believed, as well as many prominent Greek women and men.

My wife and I are currently participating in a small group study examining the collision of Christian, Jewish, Roman and Hellenistic cultures during the ministry of the Apostle Paul.  Hellenistic culture was the pervasive Greek culture that influenced the entire Mediterranean region during Paul’s time.

Paul’s journeys led him to Corinth, a flourishing, modern Roman colony that Julius Caesar had intentionally populated with second rate Roman citizens, most of whom had failed in life while living in Rome. In Paul’s day, the city was wicked and corrupt, filled with prostitutes, crooks, swindlers and lowlifes. Corinth had a Jewish synagogue and Paul was eager to share the Gospel there.

Paul arrived in Corinth with only the possessions he was carrying.  Shortly after arriving, he met a Jewish, Christian married couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade and they owned a business in Corinth.  They took Paul into their business and invited him to live in their home, where Corinth’s first house church was established. 

Paul frequented the synagogue in Corinth, but met with much resistance from the Jewish leaders.  Growing weary of Paul’s message, these leaders eventually drug him before the local Roman proconsul Gallio in AD 51 and brought a series of charges against him. When Gallio learned that the dispute was about Jewish law and that Paul had not violated any Roman laws, he refused to judge the case and told the Jewish leaders to settle the matter themselves. Paul’s attempt to convert the Corinthian Jews failed.

After this, Paul turned away from the Jews in Corinth and took his message to the local gentiles.  Subsequently, many converted to the faith.  These converts included a high-level Corinthian leader named Erastus. The NIV translation of Paul’s epistle to the Romans refers to him as the “Director of Public Work” in Corinth. After Paul’s eventual departure from Corinth, he wrote to the Corinthian church, telling them that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). What a concept for people surrounded by pagan shrines and magnificent Greek and Roman temples!

Paul also journeyed to Athens hoping to spread the Gospel.  Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a city full of temples and idols.  There Paul had the opportunity to preach to the Areopagite Council (or Areopagus), a powerful, court-like body made up of Athenian aristocrats.  Despite Paul’s immense knowledge of the Scriptures and his skills in persuasive speaking, he failed to persuade the Areopagus. Paul failed to establish a church in Athens and departed the city in disappointment. 

Like Paul, Christians today will not always succeed against the tide of negative cultural change and influences, but they can remain steadfast in their beliefs without succumbing to cultural pressures. Paul succeeded in forming churches in some places and failed in others, but his approach was always based upon the same foundation—a deep knowledge of the scriptures; reliance upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and living in a manner that glorified Christ.

As Christians living in modern American society, we can learn a lot from Paul. We live in a culture filled with idols—people or objects we value more than God.  We may not literally bow down to these idols, but we worship them all the same.  Rather than existing as statues and shrines, today’s idols are more likely to adorn the covers of gossip and fashion magazines, make movies, play professional sports, or work in politics, i.e. modern cults of personality.  Some people idolize inanimate objects like money, expensive cars, exquisite homes, extravagant vacations, or their jobs. Others make idols of wealth, drugs, alcohol, cell phones, social media or Internet porn. I shudder to think what negative effects the advent of the sex robots will have on our culture. 

Today, in a world that’s filled with idols, Paul’s warning to the church in Rome is more relevant than ever:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good,  pleasing and perfect will.  Romans 12:2 (NIV)

J.B. Phillips’s, author of the bestselling book Your God is Too Small, paraphrases Romans 12:2 like this: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity”

Christians must let God’s spirit shape their lives, not the influences of modern culture. Let Colossians 3:12 (NIV) be your guide:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,  clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Christians in the early Church influenced the culture around them because they loved one another and cared for the sick, the homeless, orphans, widows, lepers and other disenfranchised members of society.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity didn’t occur through power and intimidation, but through weakness and self-sacrifice. Think about these words from Paul:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults,in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV)

Christians in America cannot stem the tide of the negative cultural influences that constantly collide with our lives and Christian world view, but we can focus on the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to shape our hearts and minds. In this politically charged era, we still have certain obligations to our laws and government that we must adhere to as the price for living in this great nation; but as  Jesus said, we must “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”  We must obey the laws of the land and work to change those laws when necessary, but we must not allow our Christian beliefs to be conformed to modern culture. In every situation, remember to ask, “What does the Bible say?”

 

 

Live for the Minute

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying; and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.   Robert Herrick

Few would argue that making plans isn’t important.  As an Army officer, I spent over a decade participating in various planning teams.  It requires meticulous planning to move a mass of soldiers and their equipment from point A to point B, whether the end destination is a local training area or a battle somewhere in the Middle East. The old adage we lived by was, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail!”

Hardly anyone would think of going on vacation without planning some sort of itinerary—where you’re going, when you’ll be there, overnight accommodation etc.  Many people use financial planners to help them plan for the future—monthly income, a dwelling, health care, long term care, assisted living, etc. We are a planning society.

All planning aside, however, there’s only one place you can accomplish anything—that’s in the here and now.  Too many people today are stuck in the realm of “if only.” If only I could (you fill in the blank), then I would be set.  Unfortunately, many Christians take this approach, striving to achieve some unattainable goal of holiness or obedience before they believe they can be of use to God. 

The truth is, God can use you where you are right now.  Many Christians strive to reach a future destination, while God’s main goal for them is in the here and now.  God is more about the process than our final destination.  He teaches us to be calm and courageous in whatever situation we find ourselves; and he teaches us to serve others.

St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2, to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.  This “working out” is a process of sanctification that can last a lifetime–again, it is more about the process than the destination.   The future is uncertain—it is only in your present situation that you can serve others.  Don’t wait to take up the work of God.  There will never be a better time than now to pick up your cross and follow Jesus.

Never allow the thought, “I am of no use where I am,” because you certainly can be of no use where you are not. Wherever God has dumped you down in circumstances, pray to Him all the time.  Oswald Chambers

 

Easing the Pain of Unemployment

Jobless-not-hopelessYou take my life when you do take the means whereby I live. –William Shakespeare

In Romans chapter 12, St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (ESV) Many churches attempt to follow his advice by hosting various support groups. There are groups for addiction recovery, divorcees, singles and those grieving the death of a loved one to name a few.

Unfortunately, there is another group in great need of support, but often overlooked by church ministries—the unemployed. Most people who become unemployed go through a series of emotional stages resembling this.

Initially, there is the shock of losing a job. This might initially give way to denial or disbelief like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” This sometimes gives way to feelings of anger or outrage towards those deemed responsible for the job loss. As the anger slowly subsides, sadness can follow. If the period of unemployment is prolonged, sadness can lead to the onset of depression. Isolation from others during this period worsens the situation.

To varying degrees, all of us derive some sense of worth from the jobs we do and the relationships we have. Losing a job can be every bit as devastating as a divorce or the loss of a loved one.

Those who have lost their jobs are in tremendous need of contact with and the support of others. This is where churches can weigh in for the unemployed. Options for helping are limited only by the imagination. The ShareFaith website published a very useful article in 2011 titled “Seven Ways to Help the Unemployed in Your Church.” You can find it at this link: http://www.sharefaith.com/blog/2011/12/ways-unemployed-church/.

I particularly like suggestion #4, “Provide free workshops.” Workshops are a fantastic way to help your church’s unemployed. But why stop there? Unemployment in your local area opens the door to a church ministry reaching beyond the pale of your own churchyard. Consider forming a job networking group reaching out to the entire community.

The north Pittsburgh area where I live has two fantastic, faith-centered job networking groups that have helped hundreds cope with unemployment over the years. Both began as ministries inside the church, but grew into nonprofit, community outreach ministries. Check them out and then start thinking about how your church can form its own job networking group. There can never be too many!

 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. —Galatians 6:2 (ESV)