From the Pastor | My sad privilege

Pastor Chris Jones

Beloved,

            It has been my sad privilege over the last few days to be of small help to the Roberts and Johnson family as they grieve the loss of Heidi and John. For those of you who may not know, John’s mother Beverly is connected to us through the Pepperell UMC. One of the few heartening aspects of this time has been the way their families and our community has reached out to offer comfort and assistance to one another. The people and clergy of St. John’s Parish, the Townsend Congregational church, the First Baptist Church, and New Beginnings UMC have all literally opened their doors and hearts without stint in this time of sorrow. Father Jeremy, Mark Brockmeier, and Kevin Patterson have all been supportive and kind. The community outside the churches have also stepped up. Representatives of police, fire, and other first responders will honor the fallen and mourn with us. Others have worked behind the scenes in ways we may never know. Most of all, the Roberts and Johnson families have gathered together in grief, in support, and in love. I am grateful and gladdened by what I am witnessing.

Bringing our community closer

            I know that Townsend has been challenged recently with sometimes bitter division surrounding some aspects of public governance. I confess I am ignorant of the particulars of this conflict, but I have heard several people express a hope that this time of grieving as a community will bring us closer and will move our community closer to mending the wounds that remain. I hope this is the case, but the thought puts me in mind of a larger truth spoken by the prophet Jeremiah to a people in captivity. The word of God is: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” God’s plan is true and real though we do not always see it well in these days.

Acting in love

            I have said before that there will be times when we will all walk in the valley of the shadow. We live in a broken world, and while God can and does make our crooked roads straight, we still are plagued with people and events that act in ways in opposition to God’s plan for humanity. If we declare ourselves followers of Christ, we are charged with building the Kingdom of God. We do this best by acting in love toward others. Winter is still with us, but we are beginning to turn our minds towards the Lenten season. I pray that we take this time to reach out to those we love and tell them that we love them. I pray that we put down any anger that we hold against another. We are precious, time is fleeting, and the Kingdom calls.

Yours in Christ,

Chris Jones

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From the Pastor | Ferris Wheels

Pastor Chris Jones

God is always faithful. God keeps his covenant with us, but our faith is not always firm. How do I know this? Two examples come easily to mind. One is the Hebrews remain. All the ancient cultures and empires that were once great are now gone, but the Jews remain. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires are all dust, but the chosen people remain. God’s covenant remains.

The other example is more personal. I know that God is faithful because when I do his will, I thrive, and when I turn from his will, I suffer. Let me explain.

I hate Ferris Wheels

Ferris Wheel
I love roller coasters and Tilt-a-Whirls. I have taken passage on the Pirate Ship and the Kamikaze. I have cheerfully ridden the Log flume, Fish Pipe and Water Slide. I bravely rode the Tumble Bug, Hydro, and Octopus, I have willingly strapped myself into the Wipe Out, Spin Out, Power Surge, Gravitron, Fireball and Fun slide, but I am not going on another Ferris Wheel. UH-UH, no way. I hate Ferris Wheels, but it’s not because I don’t have faith in them.

Defining faith

Faith, along with Love and Forgiveness, is among the most fundamental commands of Christianity. In one sense, faith refers to the way we understand and articulate the human relationship to the divine. We speak about the Christian faith, or the Jewish Faith, or The Buddhist faith or the Islamic faith, or the Hindu faith, or the atheistic faith.

For many years, I took the word faith for granted. I assumed it meant that if you had faith you believed without analysis or proof, you simply: “took it on faith.” This is the common understanding of faith, and it is very much alive in the world. This is what the world thinks of faith:

“Faith means not wanting to know what is true” – Nietzsche.

“Faith is believing something you know ain’t true” – Mark Twain

“Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile” – Kurt Vonnegut

“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason” Benjamin Franklin

I have a great deal of respect for all those men, but about faith, they appear to be ignorant; they are mistaken, they are wrong…that is, they are wrong if they are referring to faith as it is understood in the Bible.

The word faith occurs in 458 verses

I read every one of those verses in the New and Old Testament. Not one of them assumes that faith is blind; on the contrary, in the Bible, those who have faith have their eyes wide open and are doing something. What do the biblical authors mean when they use the word faith? They mean: My words and my actions are alike. You can count on me. I keep my promise.

The author of Genesis uses the word faith ten times. In six of those occurrences, he uses the same construction: “he walked faithfully.” When the Bible speaks of Noah walking faithfully, it means that he did what was asked, he built the ark. There is no question that, in Genesis, Noah did what he was told. This is how faith is used in the Old Testament. If one is faithful, one does what he says he will do, accomplishes what is asked, and acts in accordance to the will of God. Every single time the word faith occurs in the Old Testament, it has a very concrete and practical application. When the biblical authors use the word faith, they are talking about following through or not following through. The person of faith is trustworthy because he does what is asked or what he says she will do.

In one of the most important moments in the Star Wars trilogy, Luke is training to be a Jedi. He is trying to lift his spaceship with “the force.” He is failing. His mentor, Yoda is exhorting him. Luke says: “I’m trying.” Yoda replies: “do or do not, there is no try.” The faithful do.

I used to hate roller coasters

But one day, I decided to give up and trust. I let faith rule my mind and now I love them. But I am stubborn. I refuse to give up my fear of Ferris wheels. I refuse to let reason rule and have faith. What have you refused to give up?

In one of my favorite gospel passages, known as “the faith of the centurion,” Jesus praises a Roman officer, a commander of men, not the sort of man given to flights of fancy. He has asked Jesus to heal his servant. The centurion has heard of Jesus, heard of his healing others and asks Jesus to help. Jesus says that he will come to the house and see the man. The centurion replies that he knows that if Jesus only says the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus replies (Mathew 8:10)

“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Now you might say that the centurion had “blind faith” but then you would be wrong. The centurion heard of Jesus and what he was doing. He had evidence for his trust. Unlike others, he had faith.

One of the most remarkable things about the gospel accounts is that, despite the constant evidence, the disciples seem to always need more proof. “Oh, ye of little faith.” Is a phrase Jesus uses often, scolding those near to him; and to those he heals he often says: “your faith has healed you.” The disciples lose faith despite the evidence. The healed have faith because they saw and believed. People can and do argue over whether the miracles happened, but to argue the construction of the passages is nonsensical. Jesus is not asking his followers to have faith without evidence, on the contrary, he is saying “believe and act on what you have seen.”

Letters make up most of the New Testament

They were written after the first-hand evidence had gone. The physical Jesus had left the earth. When faith is used in the letters, it refers in some way to having faith in the truth of Jesus and what he promised. When the letter writers use the word faith, they are using in it one sense to mean Christianity, as in Ephesians 4:13 where Paul exhorts:

“Until we reach unity in the faith, and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Or 1st Timothy 6:10:

“For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

When faith is not used as a synonym for Christianity, Paul and the other letter writers use faith to describe what people are or are not doing, specifically whether or not they are doing what Christ asked. What did Christ ask? What do we do to follow him? It’s very clear. If we are faithful, we are loving God and loving our neighbor. To do these things is to have faith in Christ.

The letter to the Hebrews contains the only definition of the word faith in the Bible (Hebrews 11:1):

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Faith contains substance and evidence, and yet it also contains things hoped for and things not seen. Is this a paradox? I submit that it is not. I have faith in all sorts of things I cannot see: tomorrow’s sunrise, subatomic particles, daffodils rising after winter, my mom. I don’t see these things but I have much evidence that they do or will exist.

I hate Ferris Wheels

Not because I don’t have faith in them. I have faith in the substance of mechanical engineering; I have faith in the reality of electrical engineering. I know by the evidence that thousands of people have safely returned from their Ferris Wheel journey. But when I am on that wheel and it begins to roll upwards, I begin to lose my faith; emotion and imagination overwhelm my faith. Even though there is no substance or evidence, no rational reason, as that wheel tops the sky, I KNOW that the bar that holds me it is going to let go, even though I have checked it many times. My mind is full of imaginings of what might be, my emotions take over, and I fear. So I don’t ride Ferris Wheels, because I lose reason; emotion and imagination steal my faith.

As for me, what do I know of faith? This is what I know.

  • 100% of the time, when I have kept faith with what Jesus asks of me, I see better days and I do better things.
  • 100% of the time, when I let imagination and fear control me I suffer.

That, for me, is good evidence. As for substance, this is what I have witnessed:

  • I have seen cruel and brutal men become kind and noble,
  • I have seen the hateful become loving,
  • I have seen selfishness give way to compassion,
  • I have seen broken lives transform into whole and useful ones,
  • I have seen the sick in spirit become well.

I have seen this not once but many, many times, all by walking in faithful obedience to what Christ asks us to do.

Now I know most of you have not strayed so far from the path of faith as those I just spoke of. Perhaps you have only paused along the way. Perhaps you are only a few steps from the path. Perhaps you are wondering if you would like to go at all, but if you look to your heart… whether you are one step away or one thousand… I think you will find that there is something you have not been faithful in. There is someplace where fear and imagination has stolen your faith, and I invite you to turn, get back on the path, put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters and walks with God.

Rev. Chris Jones

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From the Pastor | What’s in a name?

Pastor Chris Jones

The title Lord clangs off the American ear and caroms off the zeitgeist of the day. To bow the knee is anathema to the western ethic of individualism and diversity. I am glad of many of the fruits of the enlightenment. I am glad that we no longer are quite so easy with racism and sexism and imperialism. However, the enlightenment project that was in its childhood in Wesley #39’s day has come to dotage in our own. In the same bin as the good fruits of the Enlightenment are also the poison apples of materialism, nihilism, and psychic despair. If we are to stop the postmodern senility of the present day, we had best turn back to the lordship of something other than the self.

Opening the door

Whether it feels comfortable or not, the statement Jesus Christ is Lord is the only form of address that will do. The title Lord is the only word that conveys properly the place humanity occupies in relationship to Jesus. Until we are comfortable with that word, the title Christ cannot be actuated in our lives. The anointed one is sent into our lives, He knocks, but He cannot work in our house until we open the door, and we cannot open the door until we acknowledge his relationship to us. He is our friend and our guide and our servant and our redeemer. He is many things, but the first thing he must and ever be is the Lord of our life. He must be the one who we look to for everything. He must be the one in whom our thoughts dwell and on whom we wait, rely and give over to.

Freeing oneself

The sad truth is that the enlightenment sold us a bill of goods. In freeing us from the tyranny of aristocratic political forms and the manacles of social convention, it did not free the will, it only bound it more tightly to the self and despair. We all worship something: the ego, goods, others; all of us have a lord of something, but all these somethings are lords leading to the Slough of Despond. Only the lordship of Jesus leads to freedom. As he so eloquently put it: To gain your life you must lose it. It is only in submitting to the Lordship of Christ that true freedom begins.

Rev. Chris Jones

From the Pastor | What is Church?

Pastor Chris Jones

Being an agent of transformative change

The nature and mission of the church is to be an agent of transformative change, first in the individual, then in the congregation, and then in the world. The church is both public and private. The workings of a church occur within the soul and outside into the wider community. Jesus began the church with one person. In Matthew 16 after Peter openly declares that Jesus is the son of the living God, Jesus calls the church into being. The word he uses, ekklesia, has as its root a verb whose sense can be to call out or call together. We are therefore called to gather into a community by Christ and we are called to go forth into a community. It is significant that Jesus speaks the church into being after the one (Peter) declares who Christ is. Jesus starts a community with one person.  We are the body of Christ because we step forward and choose to be.

While the church has a private function, where the individual is touched by the various forms of worship: song, prayer, sermon, liturgy, symbol, and sacrament, these functions almost always take place in a public setting. The individual may also be moved by acts of service that church supports or sponsors, whether as participant or receiver, but here too, the individual almost always engages in these acts with others. Therefore, while the action of church moves the individual, that action is operative in community.

A church that is not active is like Lazurus.

One of the primary functions of the church is activity. The church that is not active is like Lazarus, dead, possessing of potential but without the Spirit to animate it. In 1 Corinthians, Paul calls the church the body of Christ. A healthy body is active, it moves in the world, it interacts with its fellows, it learns and grows and changes and contributes. The phrase body of Christ implies that Christ is the animating force that moves and drives the body. Just as the Holy Spirit enables the individual to come to Christ, it is the Holy Spirit that does or does not descend into a church and allow Christ to move the body.

Answering the call

When I began to think seriously about answering the call to ordained ministry, I immediately ran across the term “missional” which seemed to mean active engagement in the world right outside our doors.

  • It means spreading the gospel Good News.
  • It means looking at my town, my state, my nation, as a mission field.
  • It means to go out.
  • It means: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”
  • It means taking risks.

I take such a message seriously, and I believe it is rooted in more than a contemporary church renewal movement. I believe the mission of the church is rooted deeply in scripture both Old and New.

In the first two chapters of Genesis, creation is described twice. This is no accident. Chapter one is a majestic and cosmic account of divine creative intent. The second chapter is pastoral and bucolic. In the first chapter God states three times that he creates humanity “in His image.” In the second chapter He places humanity in the garden with the express purpose of stewardship. This is our primary command: to “tend the garden.” When we do so, we are acting in the image of God. When we fail to do so we are reenacting the Fall. When we are creative, we act in the image of God. When we are destructive, we are acting out of fear, the consequence of the Fall. The church’s first function is to creatively tend the garden.

In the last of the Gospels, the final words of Jesus are “Follow me!” In the earliest gospel, Jesus tells us to repent (turn) and believe. As Wesley so clearly articulated, it is impossible to do anything good without surrender to Jesus through the working of the Spirit. The task of the church is to help people come to know Jesus and to be the vessel through which the Spirit can more easily work. In order to make this possible, the church cannot stagnate, it cannot expect that people will come to it, it must go forth into the community and be a place where people come to find sanctuary and challenge. It must be a place where love in all its forms; acceptance, discipline, nurture and example all mesh. Church has been described as a hospital for the soul. We are all patients and we are all called to be ministers. The purpose of a church is to help us grow in love.

Blessing be on you all,

Pastor Chris Jones