Every Generation

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NRSV)

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

By Chuck Griffin

America and many parts of the rest of the world have embedded in their culture a love of youthfulness. In the media and elsewhere, we often glorify the young people of our world, even as we get older on average.

As Christians, we of course value young people deeply. Every new generation is in danger of missing out on the precious message of Jesus Christ as Savior, so we want to do all we can to reach the children and young adults around us. Sadly, American Christians as a group have not done a very good job of transmitting the message to younger people the past few decades.

As we realize our failure, some among us panic, and that can cause church leaders to fall into a kind of ageism. While wishing for more young people among us, they also begin to disdain all that white and silver hair that still arrives every Sunday.

It’s as if some church leaders are thinking, “These old people are the problem, and without them, everything would be okay.” This, of course, is silly—a lot of churches would end up with a mostly empty building.

As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37.) And certainly, we shouldn’t chase away the workers we already have.

We do slow down some as “our outer nature is wasting away.” Older people, however, have an advantage, particularly if they have been in the faith a long time. Many have a deep sense of inner renewal—what we might call spiritual depth—and the life experiences they bring to a church’s outreach can be invaluable.

These people not only know how to plan and execute, they also often have more free time than your typical young adult! We also have to acknowledge that with medical advances and a better understanding of lifestyle choices, there are people in their seventies who can run circles around some people in their thirties when it comes to work.

Church leaders, don’t push these active older people away, even if they seem a little disengaged at times. Have you drawn them into the heart of your plans? Do you treat their worldview as something that remains relevant?

Once these experienced Christians are equipped with a proper understanding of the Great Commission (something lost on so many churchgoers for too long now), they can be a tremendous force for the kingdom.

Several years ago, I was doing ministry work in the Czech Republic. Senior Christians there were unusual because Soviet-enforced atheism had dominated their society and their minds for so long. The young Czechs proved to be more open to the gospel shortly after the Iron Curtain fell.

One Sunday, I worshiped with a small church made up mostly of families with young children. There was a white-haired exception among them, however. After the service, she asked me through an interpreter, “In your country, are there many older Christians, people like me?”

I suppressed a smile as I replied, “Oh, yes—most of the people in our churches are about your age.”

“Ah,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”

It is wonderful. Let’s never stop valuing what we have, and let’s get all the folks we have with us recommitted to the mission.

Lord, you work in our lives from the womb to beyond the grave, and every person is precious in your sight while here in this world, young or old. Give us the vision and the energy we need to grow your kingdom now. Amen.

Love in the Time of Corona

The Rev. Chuck Griffin is on vacation through Sept. 20, but LifeTalk goes on. Devotionals these next two weeks are repeats, items written in the early days of the pandemic while he was pastor of Luminary United Methodist Church.

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We talk a lot about love in church, of course, and in a healthy church we will always experience love. Love is part and parcel of the experience of the Holy Spirit, the great benefit of having God’s presence among us as we gather in fellowship.

But what about when our togetherness is limited? What about times like now, when a microscopic virus with the numerically precise name of Covid-19 comes between us?

Well, I would suggest we start taking a common farewell we hear, “Stay in touch,” very seriously, even when we are too physically distant to touch one another. And we are blessed with more ways to stay in touch than civilization has ever known. We just have to be truly deliberate about our outreach to one another in church, and to the people around us who may desperately be needing community.

Setting pen to paper is old-fashioned, a form of retro caring, but you would be surprised at the difference a little note can make in another person’s life. I suspect it’s still often perceived as the most caring kind of communication—writing a letter takes time, concentration and thoughtfulness.

I’ll not get into the details of the elaborate 12th-century story of Abelard and Heloise. If you’re a romantic and stuck at home, you might want to read up on their love and their long-term separation, which resulted in a collection of letters sent one to the other.

Wrote Heloise: “If the portraits of our absent friends are pleasant to us, which renew our memory of them and relieve our regret for their absence by a false and empty consolation, how much more pleasant are letters which bring us the written characters of the absent friend.”

Most of us will be more likely to use our keyboards to send e-mails or texts, and of course, it’s wonderful to hear a friend’s voice on the phone when we are separated. With video chat, we can even see each other’s faces during times of separation.

Our choice of media doesn’t matter so much as the deliberate decision to reach out to one another. During these next few weeks, who is that going to be?

A church friend you’ve not seen in awhile?

Someone you know who struggles with illness?

Someone who always gives you joy, who uplifts your soul?

Someone with a listening ear? Someone you know who needs a listening ear?

A neighbor who may have become isolated?

A person with whom you’ve had a grievous misunderstanding?

Let’s commit ourselves to making good use of our time apart.

Lord, as we close our eyes to pray, show us the faces of the people you need us to write or call. Amen.

Small Groups, Day 2

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT): Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

As we continue an exploration of what makes Christian small groups effective, I’ll propose what I think is their greatest existential threat, short of the devil joining. The members, having begun to enjoy some level of spiritual intimacy, will want to “close the circle,” keeping new people out.

Now that I think about it, that may be how the devil gets in!

Small groups are, of course, Christian in their mission. And regardless of how a group may define its specific reason for existing, it has to continue carrying out the “Great Commission,” Jesus’ mandate that we make and grow new disciples.

So small group members find themselves maintaining a strange tension. They want spiritual intimacy, and at the same time, they want to be drawing what are essentially strangers into the group where secrets are sometimes shared.

To succeed, the members from the start have to be deeply intentional about growing and then splitting, birthing a new group. And frankly, this is where American Christians seem to struggle more than Christians in other, more communal cultures. I have witnessed and heard stories of small groups locking down, fearing they will lose something precious if they let new people join.

I recognize the instinct. We have to understand, however, that what we lose is what is sometimes called “organic growth,” the development of the body of Christ, where the Holy Spirit best goes to work in the world. A locked-down small group is like a dead cell in a body.

If each small group successfully draws enough new members to split each year, the number of small groups in an area can grow amazingly fast. You may remember geometric growth from math class: 1 becomes 2, 2 become 4, 4 become 8, 8 become 16, 16 become 32. Most churches would love to be able to say that in five years, 32 healthy small groups containing 150 or 200 active, thriving Christians would exist in their congregations.

I personally think it’s ideal if the first true small group in a congregation focuses on understanding how to evangelize, either reaching those who have never heard of Jesus Christ or re-energizing those who have fallen away. That way, evangelism DNA should remain in each new generation of small groups.

Along these lines, every small group needs both a dedicated leader and a leader in training, someone ready to depart with the new group when it’s time for a split. Having a leader in training also emphasizes the group’s seriousness about splitting.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider some core practices of small group members, the kind of activities that ensure the group remains truly Christian.

Lord, we don’t always get excited contemplating math, but we know what we’re really talking about is vibrant, vigorous life, the greatest blessing in your creation! Renew us with a deep understanding of how quickly the kingdom can grow, if only we cooperate. Amen.

The Unloved

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor
“Jacob Urging Rachel and Leah to Flee Laban,” Pieter Symonsz Potter, 1638.

Genesis 29:31-35 (NRSV)

When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.

Desperate sadness surrounds this part of Jacob’s story in Genesis. If you don’t know all the background, I would encourage you to find a plain-English translation and read Genesis chapters 27 through 36—it’s just a good story!

Leah was married only because her father tricked her husband Jacob into taking her, when Jacob really wanted her younger, more beautiful sister, Rachel. Within a week of marrying Leah, Jacob married Rachel, too, making Leah the ultimate third wheel in her own home.

Jacob wasn’t reluctant to use Leah for breeding purposes, but clearly, there was no affection. Undoubtedly, he held her father’s deception against her, even though there was no way in her day she could have defied her father. It’s not hard to imagine Leah weeping over her circumstances, crying out “Why?” to God. All she wanted was to be loved, too.

In this story, we see early evidence of how God notices and blesses the unloved. God gave Leah what a woman needed most in those days to be relevant, male sons, heirs for her husband. And in her case, she ultimately delivered the progenitors of six tribes of Israel, including Judah’s tribe of kings and Levi’s line of priests in the first flurry of four sons. Jacob may have failed to love Leah, but God honored her mightily.

In Matthew 1, the lineage for Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, traces back to Judah, making Leah very much a part of Jesus’ family memory. I wonder if the boy Jesus, sensitive to the stories of his world, was moved by his ever-so-great grandmother’s need to be loved. Did her story echo in his mind as Jesus reached out to the unloved of his day? Jesus spent a lot of time with untouchably ill people, traitorous tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders, ministering to them in ways supposedly holy people would not.

There’s a lesson here for the church today. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we act on God’s behalf. And there’s no doubt we are called as the church to love the unloved as God loves them. There’s plenty of evidence of this call in the New Testament. Matthew 25:31-46 alone should be enough to convince us.

We are led to a simple question. Do we know the unloved around us?

Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear so no one in our community is left unloved and alone. Amen.