The Wrong Church

By Dr. Jeff Christian

Love Your Enemy Bering Drive Church of Christ

With the public reemergence of racist groups in the United States, the church may think it is our job to return hate with hate. Not according to Jesus. If a given church is not already practicing the opposite of hatred, speaking out against violence merely comes across to non-church types as opportunistic. Moreover, if a church is not clearly at all times choosing mercy over sacrifice we have much bigger issues to address than what to say in the face of evil.

With that said, recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, along with not so recent events like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 when four little girls died, all tie back to what results when a group of people choose sacrifice over mercy, talking over listening, and yes, hate over love. In no way is this the way of Jesus.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus speaks to the higher calling of loving our enemies. It was unpopular when he said it, and it is obviously still unpopular. Jesus begins by alluding to the conventional wisdom that seems common to human practice. “You have heard that it was said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” I have a feeling that some people in the audience that day shouted a collectively hearty “Amen!” I picture Jesus pausing a moment for effect.

Love Your Enemies Bering Drive Church of Christ

Wait for it.

And then… “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Abject silence. No “Amens” on that one.

Keep in mind that Jesus said this while his homeland was occupied by Rome. But I do not think Jesus’ statement was aimed at the Romans, or at least not merely at them. Not that simple. Jesus may have been telling his people to love and pray for their own who colluded with the Romans. Their brothers who collected taxes for Rome. Their children who reported unlawful behavior to the powers that be that got them in trouble. Roman sympathizers who wanted nothing more than to guarantee their own security. Men, women, and children who raised salutes as the occupying forces passed by in their perverse parades. Those who shouted in manufactured solidarity, “We have no king but Caesar!”

Love your enemies.

The church of Jesus in 2017 has a tough road ahead. Of course we must speak out against hatred. Of course we must never live in such a way that displays evil. But we have one more even tougher job than that.

We must learn how to be united in a world divided.

The church of Jesus has practiced division far more than we have practiced unity. Drive down any given thoroughfare in the United States and you are likely to see all kinds of Christian buildings with differing brand names. What kind of message does this send? It sends a message of division.

Our divisions are a direct result of we as churches spending our time answering questions that the world is not asking. We have divided over our own issues when most people are just trying to figure out whether God is actually there, and if so, does God actually care?

We have gone the way of the world on this one by thinking that we have to create just the right church. We have gone the way of the world by giving in to the Christian advertisements that tell us that we have to find the church that is just right for me. But in so doing, if you manage to find just the right church, then if you stay with that church for more than a few years, they will most likely say something or do something that you will not like, that you will disagree with and think, “Is this the wrong church for me?”

I am the chief of sinners on this one. I have spent my ministry career banging my heart against wall after wall. Only now am I beginning to realize that the church of Jesus needs to be about more than my own preferences, and maybe even more than my locked down interpretations on my favorite issues.

Inclusive Bering Drive Church of ChristThis is not to say that a church should not have standards. If a church chooses hatred over love, that is not the way of Jesus. If a church chooses sacrifice over mercy, that is not the way of Jesus. When a church is more concerned with itself than it is with living Jesus, well, then that is not a good thing at all.

And that is where we are called to engage the world.

If the church of Jesus wants to do something truly great, then perhaps we should start by not claiming to be so great. Humility over relevance. We probably owe the world an apology for allowing ourselves to become so divided in the name of Jesus.

We need to tell the world that we are sorry for those times when we have returned hate for hate.

We need to tell the world that we are sorry for those times when we have practiced law instead of grace.

And then, when the world asks what all of that means, our job will be something more than a display of yet more words. It will be on that day when we can say united, “Here, we may get this wrong at first, but let’s just try this together.”

The Presentation of the Gospel

Perhaps you noticed the new look of the website. A new look, a little more security, and more accessible web presence are the kinds of things we have to mind in this age of ever-important websites. But the reasons for our website, our church, and our life of welcome are all tied to a single purpose: We want to present the story of God’s salvation among us.

We live to tell the story of Jesus. Our church is a family-sized group of people who want to welcome everyone in the same way that Christ welcomes us. And when we say everyone is welcome, we mean it.

Enjoy the new look and new content of the website. But then join us on Sunday mornings to see what this looks like in person.

Our family has so much to share.

Classes for all ages begin at 9:00 a.m. every Sunday morning.

Worship on Sunday mornings begins at 10:15 a.m.

Other meetings include our small groups in homes on Sunday evenings, Women’s Bible Study at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings during the fall and spring, and other get-togethers for lunches, retreats, and family events.

Encouragement Card Ministry

Encouragement Card Ministryby Tamara Thompson

On any given Sunday morning, you can see a Bering member grab a songbook, open the front cover, and extract a 3-by-5 card from what looks like an old-fashioned library card pocket. The member scrawls a name on one side of the card and then flips it over to write a message of encouragement.

In a time when social media enables people to send messages instantly to others, Bering’s little missives of encouragement continue to uplift church family members and those they care about via snail mail.

It’s a simple concept that has stood the test of time for 30 years.

The brainchild of Samira Fitts, the Encouragement Ministry at Bering Drive Church of Christ began in 1985, after Samira read a book entitled Strengthening Your Grip, by Charles Swindoll. One of the book’s chapters discussed the importance of encouragement and how a church in Oregon had used cards to spread encouragement among the congregation.

Known for sending her own cards of encouragement, Samira recognized how imparting uplifting words is a God-given ministry. “We are never more Christlike as when we are encouraging others,” Samira says. “God can use us as a vessel of encouragement, and the work of the Holy Spirit can flow through us to those who need encouragement.”

Samira says she had been “praying to do something at Bering,” and starting an encouragement ministry seemed like an answer to that prayer. So at a mid-week visit to the church office, she discussed the idea with Bill Love, Bering’s minister at the time.

“He wanted to start it the next Sunday!” Samira recalls, her whispery voice crescendoing to a near-shout. Samira first had to present the idea to the elders, who quickly approved it. Cards had to be printed and a system and budget worked out. Gerald Robinson, a Bering member who had a printing business, printed a supply of cards that Pat Schrader designed. Samira would address the cards to be sent with postage from the church office.

Samira felt then, as she still does, that during communion was the best time to set aside for writing cards. During that time of reflection, “we concentrate on what the Lord has done to encourage us,” Samira says. “It’s not so much about people being encouraging as it is being vessels through which God can encourage others.”

From the very first Sunday the cards were introduced in March 1985, the Encouragement Ministry succeeded. In a short time, a few hundred cards were being mailed each week, and by 1988, the ministry was sending out an average of over 1,000 cards a month.

Writing encouragement cards is now an integral part of the worship service. Each week Bering members write messages to encourage the sick, the lonely, the hurting, and the incarcerated. Members send cards to celebrate someone’s birthday, anniversary, birth of a baby, a new house, a new job, retirement, or an honor.

The list of reasons to write a card is endless. The purpose in writing one is scriptural: to build up one another (I Thes. 5:11).

Although hundreds of Bering members have sent thousands of cards in the past three decades, only God knows the impact the encouraging messages have had on the recipients. We have heard stories:

A widow said the cards she received following her husband’s death filled a garbage bag—and it did not go into the trash. She read every card. Now remarried, she still has the bag more than 25 years later.

  • A man whose mother was not a believer said he was surprised to find the cards posted all over her hospital room during a particularly difficult illness.
  • A young man on the prayer list received stacks of cards each week. Overwhelmed by the number of people who actually cared about him, he told the congregation how the encouragement cards reminded him of God’s loving kindness, and he decided to invite God back into his life.
  • Samira remembers that years ago when Bill Love felt discouraged, he would sit down and read the messages the congregation wrote. He said reading the cards assured him of the many ways God is at work in the lives of the Bering family.

No doubt there are many more stories that have been or could be told.*

As one of the stories above illustrates, often people remember someone who has never set foot in the church building. “The words of encouragement bless many beyond the walls of our church, as well as our family at Bering,” Samira says.

The Encouragement Ministry has gone beyond the church walls in another way. Visitors who observe the practice at Bering have taken the idea to their home congregations and called for guidance on how to set up an encouragement ministry. It is not known how many churches today have adopted similar ministries.

It is clear that Bering has this ministry well oiled. After years of doing all the ministry mechanics, Samira now has a team of 10 women who sort the cards, address them, and stamp the envelopes. In 2014 they mailed approximately 7,600 cards. Samira still oversees the ministry, making sure that a team member is assigned each week and that the cards are available in the pockets of the church hymnals.

Because next Sunday, just like every other Sunday for the past 30 years, Bering members will write more encouraging words to bless others.

 

My Lunch with Dwain Evans

Bering Drive Church of ChristYou sit and listen across a couple of plates of Chinese food to the story of God. It was truly a sweet-and-sour communion as I sat with this preacher who dared to tell the story of God in the 1960s, a God whose gracious redemption refused even then to remain silent, no matter how many people try to reign it in and put it in a neat-and-tidy-easy-to-control box. Dwain talked about calling the church to renewal in the 1960s since many of our number were leaving at that time because of strictures that were holding us back. And here we are almost fifty years later… saying the exact same thing.

I am so thankful for people like Dwain and Barbara Evans and so many others who told the story of God when it was dangerous to tell the truth. Their work and many others like them paved the way for those of us in congregational ministry who get to say and do things they prayed would happen some day.

I am so thankful.

I mean, can you imagine a church these days where people are not allowed to lead prayers during worship because of the color of their skin?

Can you imagine a church these days that emphasizes what is wrong with all the other denominations?

Can you imagine a church these days that would not allow a woman to lead singing with a voice given to her as a gift from the living God?

Can you imagine a church these days that is concerned with anything other than God’s healing redemption?

We are finally past all that.

Right?

Full Story of the Church of Christ Apology to Nadia Bolz-Weber; “Naming the Thin Places” (Podcast Transcript)

Nadia Bolz Weber Bering Drive(The audio version of this story is available here at our podcast:

Of if you prefer to read the story, here is the transcript.)

Welcome to “Five Minutes Alone,” the weekly podcast of the Bering Drive Church of Christ. I’m your host, Jeff Christian, preacher at Bering. This is episode 10 of the second season, “Naming the Thin Places.”

Thin places with God don’t happen when we want them to happen. We try to manufacture them with spotlights and smoke machines, but most of the time God shows up in more unexpected places. And for a few of us who went to listen to Nadia Bolz-Weber last Saturday, one of those thin places with God showed up when we least expected. More on that in a moment.

Today, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, is a Christian holiday called the Annunciation of the Lord. It celebrates the day when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that the savior of the world was soon to come through her. Talk about unexpected!

Add to that the story of the Samaritan Woman* in John 4 that many of us preached this past Sunday. She was in every way “different” than the acceptable proclaimers of her time. She was a woman, divorced, and a non-Jew/non-Gentile reject. And yet she was the first preacher of Jesus. Go figure.

I had already written my sermon on the Samaritan Woman by the time last Saturday rolled around when a number of us from Bering went to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber. If you do not already know her, she is often described as the pastor in Denver who is six feet tall and covered in tattoos.

And it’s not that Nadia reminds me of the Samaritan Woman, but considering the Christian heritage that Nadia and I share in traditional Churches of Christ, let’s just say that she doesn’t fit the mold of what a preacher looks like.

But to me as one Church of Christ preacher who at least used to fit the mold of what you are “supposed to look like,” I thought it was important to say something to Nadia Bolz-Weber publicly.

Now, I didn’t ask for anyone’s permission; I just felt compelled to do this. But in an act of bold defiance, I spoke on behalf of the entirety of the Churches of Christ.

So here’s how I want to set up the rest of the story:

When Mary received the news from Gabriel that Jesus was on the way, her response was basically to say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.”

When the Samaritan Woman in all of her brokenness began to proclaim the salvation of Jesus, she was the first preacher who was certain that the story was bigger than her, and in many ways also said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.”

And as we sat on Saturday and listened to Nadia Bolz-Weber tell her story that was so much bigger than her story, every turn, every self-disclosure, and every joy was seasoned with those who came before her who taught her to say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.”

And that made me sad. I was sad because this six-foot-tall, tattooed, female preacher was not allowed a voice in the tradition we both share. So during a question and answer period, surrounded by about twenty of my fellow Church-of-Christers and a whole lot of Lutherans, I raised my hand.

At first, she called on someone else, and I rehearsed in my mind what I felt compelled to say.

Finally, she pointed at me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You, in the glasses.”

“I am a preacher…” I began, at which point everyone laughed because Nadia had just spent a few minutes commenting on the odd little world we preachers live in.

I continued, “… at the Bering Drive Church of Christ.” More laughter, followed by Nadia’s bright eyes making a few comments about her growing up in Churches of Christ to make the connection.

And that’s when the thin place hit her, me, and many others in the room. I took a deep breath, and said, “I just want to say on behalf of all Churches of Christ that I am sorry you were not allowed a voice in our tradition.”

Total silence. Nadia’s eyes filled with tears, as did many of us who knew why she reacted that way. People started clapping, and even cheering. And with breaking voice she said, “Thank you. No one has ever said that to me. Let’s end the session there.”

And that’s when Twitter lit up. Apparently someone running the show that day at the Lutheran Church put up a blurb on Twitter—or I think the proper term is “Tweeted”—that someone from the Church of Christ just apologized to Nadia. The response of people asking to hear more of the story is what led to this podcast, so there you go.

But there’s a little more to the story. After lunch, I talked to Nadia for a minute, which was great. But what meant even more to me personally was getting to sit next to my 14-year-old daughter during the second session while Nadia further described God, ministry, church, and redemption.

And in some ways at that moment, we all became the Samaritan Woman proclaiming the redemption through Jesus that none of us could possibly grasp as a result of our credentials. Instead, we all join the tradition of unlikely preachers who could do little better than to stand before God with open hearts. A few of us even try to resist God at times, God’s little misfit children that keep coming back with stubborn gratitude. But because of an undeniable salvation that God keeps offering to cracked pots like me and Nadia and probably you, we say, even with a little trepidation, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.”

Go to beringfamily.org for more information on our church, and come see us this Sunday if you are in Houston. Follow us on Twitter @BeringDrive and like us on facebook at facebook.com/beringfamily.org. Let us go tell the story with our life and with our words.

 

* The sermon about the Samaritan Woman can be found at the Bering website at this link: https://beringfamily.org/multimedia-archive/the-first-preacher/

The One That Got Away

Screen shot 2014-03-22 at 4.39.45 PM

The title of this post is misleading. She didn’t get away. Not really. Sure, she left Churches of Christ and went Lutheran, a move that back in the day would have surely disqualified her from playing the real game. But thanks be to God, some of us who stayed and kept on trudging in the CoC look upon people like Nadia Bolz-Weber and hear a voice that has plenty to say from a tradition that might actually have something to contribute back to us.

But in some ways, she did get away. She does not preach in a Church of Christ, and there are only a handful that would even think about letting her guest preach. Not a special speaker at a retreat, either. I’m talking the big times, Sunday morning, during the worship hour, doing the thing called “the sermon.” (I can think of three off the top of my head.)

So a few of us from the Bering Drive Church of Christ went today to hear this woman who has a powerful voice in American Christianity, mainly because her voice continues to turn the conversation back to God, and how God is available to everyone. Bolz-Weber talks about God in a way that makes God accessible, as though God were actually interested in communion with all people. Sounds almost like something Jesus said.

I sat next to my daughter during the last session. It was wonderful to sit next to her and listen together to a woman who spoke the Gospel with such beautiful sincerity. I wondered what my 14-year-old girl was thinking as she heard Nadia speak–(notice that in the course of a paragraph we are now on a first-name basis)–and as my daughter has watched her own youth minister at our church–(a woman, mind you)–preach a few times herself on Sunday morning. Would my daughter ever get up and speak this good news? Who knows? But I’m hopeful that we are entering a future where more than three places would listen.

 

Slow Ride, Clear Head, Pure Heart

Bering Drive Jeff ChristianIt wasn’t just because the weather was perfect this morning. It wasn’t about short sleeves and comfortable boots and a throttle that just begs to be twisted. It was about the heart.

Non-motorcylists think that those of us who are crazy enough to put two wheels surrounded by metal filled with flammable liquids between our legs are speed freaks. And while there is no denying the thrill of acceleration that no car can hope to match, some days (like today) are all about a slow ride.

Slow ride. Take it easy.

Some days you need to take your time. Enjoy the smells, the sounds, the low clouds rolling in off the Gulf of Mexico as they lilt above you. Meditate on your joys, hopes, and fears, and then forget them all and just go. Clear head.

This has been a hard week, one of those weeks that choose you. You don’t have a say in the matter. But for the past few days, while trying to stave off the demons of anxiety and worry, I have held on tight to that 800 pound mass of metal, and to an ancient teaching about purity of heart.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8) Some more conservative Bible types than me would probably argue that Jesus is talking about a puritanical brand of morality here where everyone sits around drinking warm water, wearing polyester suits, and sitting in folding metal chairs. I have been in those settings. And trust me, they are no fun. I could never get into a religion of avoidance whose primary goal was to articulate how bad everything is.

No, I think “pure heart” means keeping it open to the possibilities that God is in more places than we think. It’s about maintaining the eyes of our childhood, eyes of wonder, belief in miracles, and the innocence of thinking God is always right around the corner. It’s about believing that God makes good on an ancient promise to always be with us, especially during those weeks when God’s silence is painfully overwhelming.

To Dream Again

Bering Drive Church of ChristChurch divides more than it unites. Streets in the southern United States especially are covered with different names of different churches that send messages to non-Christians and lapsed Christians that only reinforce their negative feelings about church. But I think we can change that.

Romans 13-14 imagines a world where everything starts coming together, where the world starts falling into place in a way that makes more sense than it does on most days. It is a world imagined where we put all of our focus on Jesus in such a way that welcomes more than it divides. We give one another the benefit of the doubt knowing that God is working to shape us in ways that go beyond our delusions of precision and control.

One line in Romans 13 paints a beautiful picture: “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” God’s salvation is nearer to us today than it was yesterday. Now that’s not literal, book-chapter-and-verse truth, right? It’s poetry. It is a clever and beautiful way of saying something about God drawing us nearer and nearer each day. But that beautiful and poetic way of speaking about God’s salvation has an impact on both why and how we do church.

First, to the why. Why church?

The biggest reason has to start with Jesus, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. If not for Jesus, we would be nothing more than a very odd looking social club. But because of Jesus, our odd gatherings each week make sense.

And I am using the word “odd” on purpose. Because where else would you see the broad spectrum of ages that you see at many churches on Sunday mornings? And so the most important thing about our gatherings is that in the name of Jesus, we come together to tell the story of Jesus, and the way that story shapes our lives. The “why” of church is basically across the board in most Christian communities: Jesus is Lord.

But the “how” is another story. How do we do church? How do we be a church? That one is harder to answer. And it is the one that divides churches. But I’m wondering if the “how” unite us in Christ?

The most important answer how starts with our hearts. Scripture is quite clear that if you get the form down without the heart, God doesn’t care any more about the form. If you read the book of Amos, for example, it’s about a group of people who have the form of religion and worship down pat. But the one problem is that they do not love each other with the love of God from the heart.

So if we place our focus on being a Romans 14 church, it might affect the “how” with more intention. This is especially true in light of Romans 14:19—“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification.”

What if we strive to reflect Romans 14:19 in all of Christianity? Because when we as Christians place our focus there, on the salvation of God through Jesus, it reminds us to keep dreaming, to keep looking for the ways God dreams new dreams for us as his people equipped for God’s service.

So let’s dream again. Let’s dream and pray. Let’s start by putting Romans 14:19 front and center on the front burner of the stove. What can we do to cultivate peace and building up each other?

Let’s dream again. Let’s put just as much passion and focus that we place on our Sunday morning time together into serving others outside of our churches. I love that the ministry of the Bering Drive Church of Christ spreads around our city, and believe that there are more opportunities for service that we have not even thought up yet.

Let’s dream again. Let’s continue to look for ways to welcome others into this wonderful story and community we share. We at Bering started praying a couple of years ago that God would bless us with ten new individuals and/or families. Remember that? Talk about an overflowing cup! God answered our prayers and then some! But sadly, we have also lost some families and people we dearly miss. So you know what? Let’s pray and dream some more. Because what we have here is worth sharing.

Let’s dream again. One of the reasons we are entertaining doing a massive remodel of the Bering building is for the primary reason that we can say “yes” to new dreams. So what’s your dream? What have you been praying about lately? Me, I have been praying that God will work among us in such a way that we can proclaim the truths of Jesus boldly and without reservation in such a way that those who walk through our doors will find a home for a lifetime.

Isn’t that what we all want? A place to call home that lives according to a story so powerful that it saves our lives. Guess what? That’s the story we have. The story of “God with us.”

So let’s dream again.

Gratitude Sunday

Bering Drive Gratitude
Photo by Greg Becker

This past Sunday at Bering was “Gratitude Sunday” devoted to giving thanks for just about everything. For example, we take people for granted like welders and elevator mechanics, people who make a huge difference in our daily lives that we rarely think about as we go through our daily activities. But this week, as we give thanks to God and to one another, we do so knowing that so many people around us make our lives better each day. Here are a few things to watch and read this week as we give thanks:

Gratitude Film from Jeff’s Sermon

JEN’S HANDOUT from Sunday morning class

Ten things that will make you happier