Graduation and Commencement

Graduation and Commencement

This is the time of year for graduation ceremonies. In recent days, families of high school and higher education graduates have celebrated the “moving of the tassel.” Churches often join in these celebrations to mark this significant passage in a person’s life. Woven into this cultural season of commencement ceremonies is Pentecost Sunday, the day earlier this week when Christians celebrate the birth of the church and the powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the first believers. Maybe the convergence of these academic and sacred seasons will have some lessons for healthy churches today. The words that we use are interesting. Do you know the meaning of them? “Graduation” is from the Latin gradus, meaning “grade.” A graduate is one who “has completed a course of study.” This person is one who has made the grade and moves on to the next level. The word graduation signals completion, accomplishment, and achievement. In addition to the word “graduation” we also use the word “commencement.” To “commence” means “to initiate,” “to start,” or “to begin.” Graduation marks an ending – commencement marks a beginning . . . and yet we use both words to describe the same event. The story of the events at Pentecost is a story of graduation and commencement. GRADUATION: A SEASON IS COMPLETED Pentecost represented graduation for the followers of Jesus. A season was coming to an end – completion was being marked. The season began about three years earlier. Jesus called to himself twelve men to be a special class. He was their rabbi, or teacher. Others were in the larger group that followed along....
Is There More Than One Theologian in Your Church?

Is There More Than One Theologian in Your Church?

A few years ago, as I welcomed a first-time visitor to our worship service, he said to me abruptly, “I am looking for a church where the preacher preaches the Bible and doesn’t talk about theology and all of that kind of stuff.”  I knew then I was in trouble because I don’t believe you can preach the Bible or talk about God without talking about “theology and all of that kind of stuff.” As a Baptist who believes in the priesthood of every believer, I think that every pastor and every Christian should be a theologian in the truest sense of the word.  I propose that our churches will be healthier if our people are equipped to be good theologians. What is theology anyway?  Is it a discipline for sophisticated concepts and complicated descriptions of God?  Not at all.  Theology is a good word.  My esteemed theology professor in seminary, Dr. Fisher Humphreys, offered a simple yet practical definition of theology to his students: “Theology is thinking about God.”  And Dr. Humphreys continued that, “Everyone who thinks about God is doing theology.” There are many other definitions of theology.  Dictionaries generally define theology as the study of God.  Theologians Grentz and Olson say that “theology may be defined as the intellectual reflection on the act, content, and implications of Christian faith.” Dr. Dale Moody, long-time professor of theology at Southern Seminary, often described Christian theology as “an effort to think coherently about the basic beliefs that create a community of faith around the person of Jesus Christ.” Of course, there are different branches of theology such as systematic...
A Church for Those Who Wander

A Church for Those Who Wander

The book of James closes with a most interesting assertion: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” The ministry of “bringing back” seems to be a lost art today. Rather, we have an abundance of those who engage in excluding, berating, judging, critiquing, demonizing, and all sorts of Pharisaical specialties. Many churches are dead or dying because they have forgotten that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News to this world filled with wanderers. In its place, they have substituted a dark, heavy, negative message of condemnation and exclusivity that offends and dishonors to the One whose life we claim to emulate. We can do better than this. This text, and others like it, are an invitation to us to drop the smug attitudes of superiority and become engaged with those around us who have wandered. Congregations that fail to read this text and hear in it a command to care deeply for those who have wandered have missed something essential to their reason for being. Rather than spending time judging others so that we feel better about ourselves, we are called to go out and find those who have wandered from God’s dream for their life and bring them back to the life He intended for them. Every church that is a church is a rescue mission. By the way, wanderers are not just young people sowing their wild oats. Men...
Christmas Lessons

Christmas Lessons

Our current Christmas celebration habits are a uniquely post-WW2 phenomena. Much of the excess we experience stands at odds with the way Western society approached the holiday only a few years ago. This shift has lessons for any congregation attempting to manage expectations and change as they try to embrace the new realities of the 21st century. Wikipedia tell us that following victory during the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647. They did so because of the secular nature of the celebration: way too much alcohol, bands of young men going from house to house demanding food, etc. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans.  The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration. In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Moravian settlers in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz in Pennsylvania and the Wachovia Settlements in North Carolina, were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas. The Moravians in Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity Scenes. Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. Over in England, by the 1820s sectarian tension had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out. These writers imagined Christmas as a time of heartfelt...
The day the Bodybuilders met the Baptists

The day the Bodybuilders met the Baptists

I recently attended a national gathering of Baptists that was a stark reminder to me of the desperate need for congregational and clergy health.  Some things I saw there troubled me. It wasn’t so much that this group is any less healthy or healthier than other shades of Baptists or other denominations. What caused my heartburn about the state of health among those gathered was what came to me when observing another group was also meeting at the same large convention hotel and complex. This crowd had gathered for a bodybuilding competition. The juxtaposition of the two groups could not have been more revealing. Let’s just say, they didn’t look very much like most of the Baptist ministers and laity. There wasn’t much chance of confusing the two groups. So, I have to say that some of the bodybuilders were so over-the-top with their devotion to fitness that they bordered on the surreal.  More than a few times I caught myself gawking, not gazing, at the physiques on the elevator or in the lobby. Even in civilian clothing, some of these physical specimens were arresting. I had some interesting conversations with them. Several recounted for me the strenuous exercise regimen they employed. Others described for me a diet that sounded decidedly unappetizing. Their vocabulary was filled with scientific, nutritional and slang phrases and words that I had trouble following. I watched one day as several dozen of them passed by a mirrored wall in the lobby. All of them took time to check out their reflection…some more than once. All of them spoke of their devotion to fitness with...

Jason’s Upside Down World

If asked to identify a favorite New Testament character, most of us go with the predictable and obvious: Barnabbas, Mary, Nathaniel, Peter, Lydia, Timothy, Phoebe. You know the list. Let me remind you of an obscure character who can remind us of an important truth about church health. His name is Jason, and you will find him in the first 9 verses of Acts 17. He lived in northern Greece in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas come through town on one of their missionary journeys, and make great headway at the local synagogue, persuading many Jews and devout Greeks “and not a few of the leading women”. Their success is not well received by the synagogue leaders, and so a band of ruffians is hired to find Paul and Silas and run them out of town. In the midst of the search, the posse shows up at Jason’s house and drag Jason and some other believers before the city authorities. In v. 6, a telling comment is made by the accusers: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests.” Jason bonds out of jail, and Paul and Silas escape the vigilantes. While Jason disappears from the pages of the New Testament, his spirit lingers on. Jason’s risky bed-and-breakfast served as a key link in the spread of a Gospel message that reversed the established order of the day and heralded a new way of thinking and believing about God. Hosting those who bring a new, upside-down day is always risky business. In the 21st century, hosting can...