Equip: What Would You Have Done?: Christian Community in the Vietnam Era

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Equip: What Would You Have Done?: Christian Community in the Vietnam Era

What Would You Have Done? ‘The Vietnam War’ Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have produced a searing evocation of the decade of the ‘60s with their documentary on ‘The Vietnam War.’  Twenty-first century cultural and political turmoil since 9/11 have been accompanied by economic stagnation, moral disintegration and a rapid decline in church attendance. But these trends are much less traumatic than the crises that befell families, communities, churches and the nation in a single decade between 1961 and 1971.  Since this is the decade in which I came of age, the documentary raises a serious question.  How was my Christian faith shaped by this era?  I want to ask this question for the readers of this blog to reflect on their own faith.  What would you have done?  

‘The Vietnam War’ juxtaposes the confidence and cohesion of American culture at the beginning of the 60s with the violence and division at the end of the decade.  Just a few of the highlights:

  • Kennedy’s inaugural promise “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny,” was followed by the insertion of “advisors” who fought alongside the Vietnamese Army against the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong). The government of South Vietnam was so corrupt that the administration approved a secret coup against their president Diem.
     
  • After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, without consulting the South Vietnamese or the American public, sent in the Marines based on a controversial, minor skirmish in the Tonkin Gulf. One episode in the series shows the marines disembarking from their landing craft near Da Nang in full armor only to be greeted by beautiful, young Vietnamese women dressed in white.  Eventually the Army joined the Marines, while the American government covered up the change in strategy.  Private records show that the administration had already concluded the odds of success in Vietnam were 1-in-3, yet they continued to add troops and bomb cities in North Vietnam.  
     
  • In 1968 17,000 American soldiers died in one year alone, and another 12,000 died next year.  Vietnamese deaths, of course, were far greater.  Meanwhile a universal draft swept all males over 18 into the armed services unless they were enrolled as students with good grades in a 4-year undergraduate school.  This unusual exemption shifted the burden of war to the poor.
     
  • An antiwar movement escalated into violent confrontation between students and police at the Democratic Convention in 1968.  
     
  • Racial conflicts starting with non-violent demonstrations in the South had engulfed large metropolitan areas in violence by 1967.
     
  • Leaders in both these movements were assassinated three months apart—Martin Luther King on April 4 and Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968.  

Would you would you have done under these circumstances?  I had three options as a college student:  1) sign up with the armed services and go to ‘Nam; 2) apply for conscientious objector status or evade the draft by fleeing to Canada; or 3) resist the draft and face the consequences.  My first choice was to resist the draft.  American policy seemed to have misled us into fighting a war against communism which was actually a war for national independence from colonial rule. However, at student demonstrations in Washington in 1969 organized by Students for a Democratic Society, it became obvious to me that anti-war demonstrations were led by anti-American anarchists. I realized war was not the problem.  I was the problem. The same sin that made politician lie and anarchists die was in my heart. I therefore chose the first option as I neared graduation.  Nixon abolished the draft before I was called up. In between, another option showed itself.

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 The fourth option was to experiment with new forms of Christian community.  In 1970 I helped start a men’s Christian residence on the campus of Ohio State named the Fish House and published a student newspaper called, ’The Fish.’  We had no idea what we were doing other than to confront the culture with a different option for a meaningful life.  That was the same year four antiwar demonstrators were shot at Kent State, and Ohio State shut down the university. Our Christian evangelistic activities on campus found a welcomed response. The small beginning at the Fish House has since grown into the Xenos Christian Fellowship (xenos.org).  Many other experiments in Christian community started at that time. Chris Peterson, an elder at our church, was also involved in new experiments with Christian counter-cultural communities.

The way we answered the question of what is required by circumstances may not be the answer necessary for today.  However, conditions seem to be right again for new experiments in Christian community.  Rod Dreher, whose book, "The Benedictine Option," I reviewed in part, makes five suggestions:

  • rediscover the past
  • recover liturgical worship
  • practice asceticism
  • center our lives on the church community
  • and tighten church discipline

His suggestions are based loosely on the Rule of St. Benedict governing the religious communities founded by St. Benedict (480-543).  Dreher gives the following reasons for his adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. We need the past to endure shifting currents of belief in the present. Next month we will explore the lives of four Protestant Reformers in our Equip classes.  When we use liturgy, we are teaching the church that our faith is old and authentic. Simon Chan, a theologian in the Assemblies of God, has written Liturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshipping Community to encourage the use of liturgy.   Asceticism comes from the world of athletic training.  Practices like fasting, prayer, study and almsgiving employ the body in spiritual practice.  Too often, we forget the body is also part of worship. Paul instructed us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice…” as true worship. Focus on church community is the topic of our present month in Equip classes, so I don’t need to repeat those lessons.  Church discipline is the hardest step to implement.  Coming under spiritual authority seems like the last reason for going to church.  It is not that scary if we agree that spiritual authority is authority under God’s Word.  Coming under spiritual authority is the only reasons for church membership.  

‘The Vietnam War’ series is a convenient way to start recovering the past and building for the present by asking ourselves today what we would have done back then.

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Equip: Why Do We Need Community?

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Equip: Why Do We Need Community?

The concept of community has been something that society has wrestled with for centuries. From the Egyptians, to the Romans, and to the Americans. There are even whole studies in which people give the majority of their lives to understand this idea community. If community is so important, what does that mean in the life of a believer?

It seems that although we crave strong connections with other people, there is a distinct lack of meaningful relationships. Individuals have tried to create these connections, but it seems that the opposite is happening. Two examples would be Facebook and Twitter. These companies were established to connect people. Facebook has a section called “Friends” and Twitter has a section called “Followers”. What is sad about these titles in these mediums is that they give a false impression that you have a lot of relationships and have a strong community. People get validation from the “Likes” on the Facebook post or “Retweets” on their Twitter post. The ironic part is that even though we have this way to connect with so many people all around the world; people feel even more alone than ever before.

The main problem with our society is that we have found our identity in relationships or feeling like a part of a group(s) of people. Individuals may find their identity in the political party they ascribe to. As long as they are a part of a party that they agree with, they feel at home with those people of like mind. Others find their identity with their race. Some people say that they feel more at home or comfortable when they are with a certain race. Some people find their identity in their music selection, to the point where they dress according to the “style” of that genre, specific musical instruments they play, and music they will “only” listen to in the car.  More examples of groups people find identity in are gamers, car people, motorcyclists, jocks, cheerleaders, PC/MAC, tea/coffee, etc. Sadly it’s even in the church. Some people look down on others, because they are not part of their denomination, theology, methodology, etc. When those groups eventually fail us we feel like we have been slapped in the face.

Am I saying that being in community and liking a certain type of group is necessarily bad? No, but we have totally lost the center of what community and relationship should be. I think community is essential for human beings. For this reason solitary confinement is a form of punishment. If we have completely lost the center of community, then what is the center and what does that mean for us?

I think to rightly understand this question we have to do as John Calvin says in Chapter 1 Section 1 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. “ …no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; no, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone”. In simple terms, we have to look to how God is to truly understand ourselves.

We know that God is a triune God. That the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God. This is an amazing mystery. This triune God has always had perfect community since before time began. All three of them have been of one mind with no discourse among them. The Father sends the Son, the Son willingly comes and dies, the Son sends the Spirit, the Spirit gladly point to the Son, and the Son happily brings us to the Father. Now this triune God decided to create a group of creatures unlike anything else that he had created. In Genesis 1: 26 God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Part of that likeness and image is that we are made to be in community by our very nature, because God in His very nature is communal and relational. This is why humans have missed the central understanding of community. The very nature of community stems from God himself. Community makes no sense outside of God. This is why even in lower creation there is community. Birds fly with other birds, penguins are always in big groups, and even ants have colonies. This is even more in human nature, because our being in community is a direct image of the triune Gods’ relationship with himself.

Jesus makes this very clear when he answers a man that comes to him asking what the greatest commandment is. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22: 37-40 ESV. Jesus starts with the understanding that we look to God first and the he is our ultimate. If we rely on him and submit to Him completely we will have a natural follow up; which is to love others as ourselves. Jesus knows that human nature is directly connected to God himself who made us. Jesus does not let these two truths be separated.

The idea of community is brought to light in the relationship of the church. One of my favorite verses is Ephesians 1: 5 where the Holy Spirit through Paul tells the church that we were adopted. This means that we were once not children of God, but through the work of Jesus Christ we are adopted into the family of God. This is a central understanding for us as a church. We are FAMILY! The God of the universe brought us into a family that will be eternally united through Jesus Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This family is similar to many of our families with many dysfunctions and issues, but like your family will stick together because you are family. The greater miracle of the church is that unlike your family which may get so dysfunctional that even blood doesn’t matter; this church is united and related on the infinite, powerful, holy blood of Jesus Christ. Our sins were not only paid for on the cross, but also our being brought into a family was bought at the cross. The nails that stuck our savior to a tree were also the nails that built the foundations of the church.

 

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Equip Book Review: "The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation"

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Equip Book Review: "The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post Christian Nation"

Christianity in Culture or Christian Culture?

A review of Rod Dreher, "The Benedictine Option" by Bruce McCallum

In times of political and personal turmoil, religious communities can provide a sense of membership in a caring community with a meaningful mission. Rod Dreher, editor for the American Conservative magazine and author of several books, has written "The Benedictine Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation" (New York : Sentinel, 2017, page references to Kindle Edition) to document models of communities with a sustainable Christian culture.  The New Your Times called it, “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade” (David Brooks, review of the Benedictine Option, March 14, 2017).  The title calls to mind monks in cloistered mountaintops like Luke Skywalker after the Jedi revolt.  But it is not a call to retreat from culture.  It is a call to rebuild Christian culture from within through practices drawn from the Benedictine tradition to save our own souls. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (KJV)”

His premise is that religious conservatives have lost the culture wars in America. The crusher for Dreher was Obergefell, the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States.  Since then, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives (p. 3).” Dreher has written this book to alert Christians to the fact that they face a choice between religious persecution or compromise with surrounding culture.  His book is worth reading to explore the survival strategies religious communities have employed to prosper as a minority groups, whether as monasteries, Jewish ghettos or counter-cultural Christian churches, schools or businesses.

Dreher’s prophetic judgment on the status of conservative Christians raises the question of where to draw the line between healthy and compromised communities.  To be sure, he laments the slimmed-down version of Christianity studied by sociologists like Christian Smith, who documented a ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ in the generation of Christians coming into adulthood for whom God is a cosmic therapist who helps good people become happy with themselves and nice to others. These views represent a departure from the pattern of belief in traditional Christianity centered on repentance from sin, faith in the representative death and resurrection of Jesus and a life of service to the glory of God.  However, by the time sociologists detect widespread trends, they are second nature. Dreher argues that the only way to return to healthy communities with active engagement in the life of Jesus is through a changed lifestyle.

Sexuality is the lifestyle area most in need of formation. Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is “the linchpin of Christian cultural order (p. 198),” asserts Dreher citing Philip Rieff.  “Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible (p. 203).” Since Dreher places sexual practice at the center of Christian culture, a few summary comments on his views of human sexuality are necessary.  Dreher argues that Christian anthropology regards men and women created in their gender specificity toward specific ends, and those ends are procreation and enculturation.  Marriage is part of the cosmic order meant to channel the generative powers of nature into cultural and social good.  Sex is something to be discovered through the practice of chastity and fidelity and not something to be used to express personal desires.  “Everything in this debate…turns on how we answer the question: Is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire (p. 201)?” Of course, Dreher asserts nature is favorably inclined to human prosperity as shown by God’s incarnation in a human body.  Bodily incarnation validates human community and institutions like marriage that sustain it. Gay marriage challenges this view at the very core by equating sexuality with the struggle for human rights.  If gay sex is a natural, then gay marriage should be enshrined in law as a human right. Any viewpoint-religious or otherwise-that limits sexuality to heterosexual sex is a violation of basic human rights. No accommodation between these views of human nature is possible, according to Dreher, so the solution is to strengthen the practice of Christian marriage in families and in communities with the understanding that Christian marriage is a minority view in modern culture, with all that entails.

I agree with Dreher that sex is central to Christian and non-Christian culture, along with money, power and religion.  Deviations in sexual practice introduce all manner of disruption to social order.  Dreher’s contention that Christian sexual practice was the primary change factor in the original confrontation between Christianity and  Greek and Roman pagan culture finds support from an important study of romance and sexuality in Rome and early Christianity by Kyle Harper, "From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity." (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).  Dreher’s recommendations for enriching sexual practices through the discipline of chastity(no fortification), stronger families, and parish sodalities are helpful. Where I disagree with Dreher is his limitation of sexuality to anthropology and the natural embeddedness of male and female gender specificity.  Two creation accounts in Genesis separate sex and sexuality.  The second creation account in Genesis 2:23-25 characterizes sexuality as an expression of personal identity.  Adam’s cry of recognition, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” is very much an expression of identity, although it is an identity between man and woman who constitute one flesh with different sexual desires.  Paul’s exhortation to husbands in Ephesus to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” places marriage in the context of soteriology, not anthropology.  Paul’s insight extrapolates from Christ’s teaching on divorce, which revealed the hidden identity in human sexuality, namely God unites men and women in one flesh (Matthew 19:6).  For Paul, this mystery is grounded in membership in the resurrected body of Christ.  Paul’s vision here is soteriological and eschatological, a horizon in which marriage will ultimately be replaced with the eternal presence of God.  Indeed, since the Kingdom of God is already inaugurated, marriage is optional for Jesus and Paul.  Jesus and Paul (and Benedictines) practiced celibacy because the strong erotic drive towards sexual fulfillment can be elevated to the sublime love of God—the source of resurrected, eternal life. For Paul, a single man with deep jewish ethnic roots, the elevation of eros can be experienced in marriage and singleness through the ultimate satisfaction of these desires in the realm of soteriology and eschatology.

The generative power of sex is embedded by the first creation account in the cultural sphere as a moral duty to rule over nature.  The Hebrew words for male and female in Genesis 1:27 (zākār, nᵉqēbâ) signify non-cognate, gender specific human beings, each bearing the image of God.  While gender is common to all sexual reproduction, it is only with male and female human beings that gender is ascribed as a unique creation of God.  Sexual reproduction has a cultural function insofar as the divine mandate directs human beings to reproduce and rule over nature. It’s not simply being male or female; it’s how one behaves as male or female.  Recent research in human biology has shown that gender has a cultural dimension (William R. Rice, Urban Friberg and Sergey Gavrilets, “Sexually antagonistic epigenetic marks that canalize sexually dimorphic development,” Molecular Ecology [2016], 25: 1812-22). Gonadal sex is fixed at conception, but secondary male/female traits are molded during fetal growth by exposure to the enzyme testosterone.  Epigenetic factors modify sensitivity to testosterone such that secondary traits like body hair and sexual attraction can be differentially expressed in early childhood and puberty.  Epigenetic traits are usually erased at conception, but sometimes male traits can imprint on female embryos and female traits on males.  Although precise epigenetic markers have not yet been found, this model could explain gonad-trait discordances like body hair and same sex attraction. No “gay gene” exists.  But same sex attraction or gender dissatisfaction can be manifested within the basic sex differences between male and female human beings.  The question is what can be done to resolve discordances between sex and sexuality to achieve cultural good?  Medical culture offers surgery, hormone therapy and gay marriage. Christian culture offers spiritual healing to all men and women with abused or discordant human sexuality, while lifelong, heterosexual bonding is the norm for reproduction.  Christian culture does so to increase human flourishing, not to deny human aspirations.  

It may be that we are in a period of hyper pluralism where surrounding culture is no longer merely indifferent but outright hostile, as Dreher envisions.  Christians have spent too much energy trying to change American culture and not enough building up Christian culture. The results are fun youth groups and awesome worship experiences but very little understanding of the foundations of Christian life. It may also be true that it is too late to correct this imbalance with better messaging.  The path to renewal is through practice.  The area of practice most in need of formation is sexuality, according to Dreher.  Parents and church leaders need to confront sexual abuse, childhood exposure to pornography, teenage sexuality, and marital breakdown with fearless honesty.  More needs to be done to support and encourage chaste, single lifestyles.  Christians must prioritize social interaction with other Christians to give and receive spiritual encouragement at a personal level where sexuality is experienced. Cultural formation is not an accidental product of Christian conversion.  Adherence to a biblical Christian sexual ethic must be enforced through example, pastoral leadership and church discipline.  We can be thankful for people like Dreher who have recovered links to examples from Christian tradition in the past and present. Those who want prescriptive help solving problems with sexuality will have to look elsewhere than Dreher.  Some may wish Dreher spent more energy on Christian approaches to money, power or religious reformation.  My remarks have been directed at his explanation of Christian sexual ethics. I believe we can do more to recover traditional Christian teaching on sex and sexuality within a modern culture that seeks companionship in marriage and knows more about human biology than our ancestors.  We need to celebrate what G.K. Chesterton calls ‘the romance of orthodoxy.’ Christianity has enriched marriage and health in every culture where it is practiced.  Dreher believes we live in an age where no choice is left to us but to practice Christian culture first and not Christianity in American culture.  We can do no less if we want to save our own souls.

After this blog was prepared, I became aware of the Nashville Statement on human sexuality signed by Evangelical leaders. Their leadership is a hopeful sign that Evangelicals will not accommodate to the new transgender cultural agenda.

"The Benedict Option" is a recommended reading for Equip’s September focus on the Theology of Community.  The book can be purchased here.


Equip is the adult education ministry of Mercy Hill Church.  Equip takes place every Wednesday night at 6PM.  Equip informs the body of Christ about the Nature of God through Classes and writings such as this one, in order to transform who we are by this knowledge of Him.

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Equip: From Cessationism to Continuationism

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Equip: From Cessationism to Continuationism

I grew up in a cessationist church.  Cessationism is the belief that the miraculous sign gifts of the Spirit ceased within the first 100 years of the church. The opposing viewpoint is continuationism which is the theological belief that the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit have continued to the present day. The church I grew up in was full of gracious people and the gospel was preached.  I assumed most good churches believed in cessationism.  I heard horror stories of ridiculous preachers doing comical sign gift routines with their churches that we attributed not to the Spirit but to Satan.  I was taught that in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 when this passage says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away when “the perfect comes” which my teachers saw as the completion of the scriptures.  

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Equip: The tension of Pentecostal Theology and Sola Scriptura    

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Equip: The tension of Pentecostal Theology and Sola Scriptura    

Within the last century there has been an increase amongst professing Christians of experiencing the “sign gifts” attributed to the Holy Spirit.  In conjunction with these experiences many questions have arisen concerning the nature of revelation.  For many, the personal edification that takes place by speaking in tongues is a cherished gift.  For others, the edification of a group of believers that takes place in the interpretation of the tongue is an unmistakable sign of God’s present care for his body.  Yet for some who cite Sola Scriptura, a belief or practice in either of these gifts is a rejection of the sufficiency and relevance of Scripture.  It can be difficult for sincere Christians as they feel torn between a practice of specific gifts and fidelity to the Word of God.

What if there is another way? What if our understanding of the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit doesn’t betray our understanding of Sola Scriptura? What if the Spirit working in an individual’s body works similarly in the corporate body of Christ?

First, we must define Sola Scriptura.  We look to the historical definition cited in 1646, drawn up by Westminster Assembly as part of the Westminster Standards to be a confession of the Church of England, it became and remains the standard of doctrine for many in the Reformed traditions.  It states, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

If we disregard context of this writing it would be easy to see the application to Pentecostal practice today.  This application is made by leading voices in evangelicalism today.  After all, is prophecy and the interpretation of tongues a work contributed to the Spirit?  And is God not revealing information to his people through these means?

If the focus of Sola Scriptura is simply the last line “nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men”, it is easy to understand why the sign gifts would be rejected in our modern context.  But if we take into account the time at which it was developed and the statement as a whole, we will see that it has nothing to do with what Pentecostals consider a working of the Spirit.

If the Solas are the fruit of the Reformation era, and Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were the seed, then the abuses of Papal authority proved to be fertile ground for their development.  While not yet completely opposed to the doctrine of indulgences at the time he developed his theses, Luther was beginning to see the direct contradiction to the gospel that theologies attributed to papal authority presented.  As Justin Holcomb notes,

“Luther’s Ninety-five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he’d gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one able to pay the penalty due for sin.”

It is my opinion that the Reformation was a response to 3 issues within the Roman Catholic Church at that time.  Those issues were: An abuse of power, A necessitating denial of Scriptural authority to maintain that power, and the false gospel they produced.

If we are to apply Sola Scriptura against the use of tongues and interpretation we must ask three questions.  They are:

  1. Do we believe that those practicing tongues and interpretation in a corporate setting are establishing themselves as the supreme authority above scripture and the church?
  2. Do we believe that those practicing tongues and interpretation in a corporate setting are equating the edification with new revelation that it should be considered on par with cannon?  If your answer is yes, do you believe that 1st century believers did the same?  If so, where are the manuscripts of their services to be added to canon?
  3. Do we believe that those practicing tongues and interpretation in a corporate setting are establishing a false doctrine and diminishing Christ?

It is my belief that Pentecostals would answer a resounding “No” to the questions posed.  I am sure there are examples of abuses in Pentecostal gatherings that can be pointed to that would allow us to answer yes to these questions.  However, within most pentecostal denominations this is not the case.  In my opinion as the Spirit instructs, convicts and comforts individuals in their daily circumstances, he also does so for his corporate body.  Individually and corporately the Spirit edifies His people.  Whatever is interpreted is measured against scripture for its validation.  Scripture is always the ultimate authority that all our experience is subjected to.

Pentecostal experience and 16th century Papal authority are not connected.  To apply Sola Scriptura against those practicing the gifts in a corporate setting is a category error.  We should take joy in the whole counsel of God.  We should also take joy in the edification the Spirit brings to his people.  Just as two friends do not need to be reconciled; Sola Scriptura and corporate edification by the Spirit do not need reconciliation, but celebration.

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Why Italy?

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Why Italy?

Each year as we prepare for, or as the team is serving, I am asked about our trip to Italy. It is usually a question of “Why Italy?” out of a sense of curiosity. But, admittedly, some of the questions are much more pointed. Some ask why we would send people and resources to a European “Christian” country when we could have a much greater “impact” elsewhere.
 
While one is out of curiosity and one is more direct, they both provide the opportunity to dive deeper into our understanding of Christian missions. It allows us to dig deeper and have a clear understanding of where God is needed, how He has chosen to save the world, and how modern mission trips fit in.
 
Where is God Needed?
 
In our effort to send missionaries to the ends of the earth, in some ways we as American Christians unfortunately fall victim to our own efforts. In order to raise support, missionaries need to motivate people to give, and to do so they share their ministry as a compelling need. And what is more compelling than the picture of the hurt, poor and lost of this world. Think of the picture of the African child in tattered clothes looking up to the camera with sad eyes. It compels us, but it also very subtly deceives us. It deceives us into the notion that their need is “greater” than that of our neighbor next door, or a citizen of a European country. All three contexts share the same truth: there are people in each who don’t have the restoration and redemption of the Gospel in their life. 
 
This is reminds us of Jesus when he said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV) We are called to all places at all times. And this includes Italy, a nation where Catholicism has become cultural and has minimal impact on a personal level. While 80% of Italians claim to be Christian, only 3% report actively participating in their faith.
 
How Will He Save?

So if God is needed in all places and at all times, how should we reach out? Unfortunately, this is where we once again fall victim to our own efforts. Since most mission trips involve a significant financial commitment, we have approached our trips as wanting to “maximize impact” and making sure the trip is “worthwhile”. We think in terms of return on investment.
 
But let me be clear. God’s salvation plan has not included one-week trips until the last 50 years. For the first 1,900 or so years God’s plan was focused on planting Gospel-centered faith communities among the lost of the world. His salvation plan was first the saving grace provided through His Son, and then proclaiming this good news through local churches animated through the transforming and restoring work of His Holy Spirit.
 
The hope of the world is first and foremost God’s saving work, and second, His bride the Church. When God poured out his Spirit He did so to a local community of believers who were committed to each other and to the Gospel, and through them the good news went out.
 
As a reflection of this, everything we do in missions at Mercy Hill Church for missions is centered around the local church wherever we serve. Whether we serve in Italy, Rwanda, Mexico or locally, we partner with and edify the local church in those communities.
 
So, How Do Mission Trips Fit In?
 
“If the hope of the world is the local church, then why go at all,” you may ask. But this question is still flowing out the view that a mission trip is about what we can accomplish or achieve. The proper question should be what will we allow God to accomplish on this trip?

And if His plan of salvation is our guide, then we know what is most important to Him is relationships. It is our relationship to Him, our relationships with each other, our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, and our relationships with the hurting, lost, and broken of this world. Just as Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)
 
Because of this, our mission trips at Mercy Hill Church center on building relationships in all these areas. We design and create space on our trips for this to happen. There is individual time for people to reflect and walk with God. There is time in cafes in Italy, on the terrace at Solace Ministries in Rwanda, and time on our other trips. There is time ministering with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the local context so we can encourage them and they can edify and teach us. And there is time to be involved in reaching out in ministry. If this involves some construction work or a tangible project, cool, but that will just be secondary to our main focus on building relationships.
 
With all of this in focus now, I hope that you can see that our question of “Why Italy” can now change to the statement “Of Course Italy.” Of course Rwanda, and Mexico, and Royal Family Kids, and India, and the Middle East, and Milwaukee, and beyond.

May we be a church that at all times and in all ways is reaching out to all places. And as our church family is reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Padova, may we be lifting them up in prayer this week and beyond.


MH Missions Trips

Find out more about Mercy Hill missions trips at mercyhill.org/missionstrips

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Equip: Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: In Step with the Spirit

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Equip: Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: In Step with the Spirit

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: In Step with the Spirit

Last year as the Italy mission trip approached, I tried picking up enough Italian to get by. I downloaded an app and absorbed as much as I could. I aced level after level on the app and soon was ranked as 25% or so fluent in Italian. I thought I had it in the bag, and was ready for the trip.

Then I arrived, and tried to order my first coffee at a cafe.

The expression on the waiter’s face was one of polite confusion. It seemingly didn’t even register with him as Italian, and that it must have been some other foreign language. Embarrased, I switched to English and made my order. While I knew the mechanics and vocabulary of Italian, my lack of experience and immersion led to my ultimate failure when it came to living it out.

If I am honest with myself, I have made the same mistake in regards to the Holy Spirit, and the lesson is simple: intellectual knowledge is no substitute for experience.

As Phil mentioned in his blog a few weeks ago, the role of the Spirit is to guide, control, lead, guide, advocate, convict, teach, comfort, encourage, counsel, give peace and help to pray. But simply knowing these roles on an intellectual level will leave our experience of God lacking.

In the New Testament, both the narrative surrounding experiences with the Holy Spirit and the prescriptive passages about the Holy Spirit use language that is very relational in nature. One passage that highlights this is Galatians 5. In verse 16 we are told, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” followed later by verse 25 which says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Unfortunately, this passage is one that is glossed over by us as Christians, and we mistakenly view it as simply flowery description of a theological concept. In fact, most of us skip over this language and latch on to the list of don’ts (verse 19-21) and do’s (verse 22).

This is where our experience of Christianity must move beyond merely an intellectual exercise. Only through daily walking with God, allowing Him to move and speak to us in all the ways outlined in Scripture, will we truly experience the freedom that is inherent in the Gospel. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But here’s the scary thing: we can accomplish much that has the appearance Christianity in our own ability.

That is why our doctrine of the Holy Spirit cannot exclude the need for the real experience of the Holy Spirit. In fact, I suggest that the most important piece of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is that He is to be experienced and not merely understood. We are called to walk in the Spirit.

So what does this look like? How can we walk with God?

Again, I think our modern Christian expression can become pragmatic too quickly. We tell each other to “spend time in the Word”, “pray at all times”, “attend x, y, or z church event” and many other straightforward action steps. While these are valuable disciplines and steps to take, we will never be able to capture the Holy Spirit through our own effort or ritual. He moves and speaks as He wishes.

And that is the first step to walking with the Spirit. Are we truly willing to walk where He guides and leads, or are we trying to craft our faith in our own image? Are we willing to dive into our own hearts, pains, and hang-ups and let Him speak into them? Are we willing to let him nudge us out of our comfort zone and into the lives of others? Are we willing to let Him guide us beyond our own expectations into the depth and life He has for us? Will we truly walk with Him?

It sounds like a simple question, but a brief survey of the book of Acts tells us that when the church walks with the Spirit, we are not only released into the fullness of a Gospel community, but also exposed to persecution, pain and suffering. When the Spirit leads, it is not to a place of complacency or comfort, but one to where we see God redeem and restore the hurting and lost around us.

But this collective experience must start at the individual level. We must resist the urge to live life in our own effort, of our own design, and be willing to stop and repeatedly check whether we are walking with, speaking with, communing with the Spirit. I encourage you each to pause in the next week and lay that question before the Spirit: “Am I walking with you, or am I walking at a pace of my own design?”

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Equip: The Anatomy of Groaning

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Equip: The Anatomy of Groaning

Do you find yourself groaning as a Christian?  You don’t groan alone.  The Holy Spirit groans with you, according to Romans 8:26: .  

"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express."

What makes the Holy Spirit groan? Is he disappointed with us? Are inarticulate groans sighs of self-pity and despair? Do inarticulate groans refer to the experience of speaking in tongues?  

In our exploration of the anatomy of groaning in Romans 8, we want show that the Holy Spirit groans as he gives birth within us to a new identity in Christ that wills to do what God wants.

 

Who is the Spirit?

Romans 8 contains more references to the Spirit than any other chapter in the Bible, yet not once is the name “Holy Spirit” used.  Instead of a proper name, we have descriptions: Spirit of life (v 2), Spirit of God (v 9), Spirit of Christ (v 9), Spirit of Him who raised Jesus (v 11), Spirit of Sonship (v 15) or simply “the Spirit.” God the Son has a proper name. He is Christ Jesus (v 1).  God the Father is “Abba, Father” (v 15).  But nowhere do we hear of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8.

Good theological reasons stand behind this ambiguity. The Spirit’s groaning is not inarticulate. “He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with the will of God” (v 27).  Paul tells us two things.  First, the Holy Spirit is a person with a mind whose groans are intelligible to the Father.  Secondly, the Holy Spirit’s groaning is intelligible because it is congruent with God’s will.  The Holy Spirit accords with the will of God because the Holy Spirit is the will of God. The Holy Spirit is the going forth of God in the power of his love.  Going forth in power assumes a source and a goal.  God the Father is the source, and Jesus Christ is the goal.  The Holy Spirit is neither source nor goal but that which unites both. As the will uniting Father and Son as well as the power of God in us, the Holy Spirit acquires many names depending on the function He plays: counselor, comforter, enlightener, etc. These functions and more are summarized by the name “Holy Spirit” as defined in the Apostle’s Creed: We believe in the Holy Spirit.

 

God’s Spirit and Our spirits

If the Holy Spirit is God’s will going forth in the power of his love, how does God’s Holy Spirit relate to our spirit? “The Spirit,” Paul tells us, “bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children” (v 16). How do we know through our experience we are God’s children?

We know we are God’s children, Paul tells us, whenever we put to death the lingering enmity towards God that constitutes our old way of life.  The transition from verse 13 to verse 14 captures the relationship between our spirit and the Holy Spirit.  Paul starts this section reminding us we have an obligation (v 12).  The obligation we have grows out of the previous section in which we are told our old self is dead because of sin, and our spirits are alive because of righteousness.  We have a new self.  It is Christ in us (v 10).  Christ in us complements verse 1 where we are in Christ.  Christ in us is a new identity based on his perfect sacrifice for our sins and his perfect obedience imputed to us (v 4).  Verse thirteen contrasts those who live according to their old identity to those who “by the spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” The spirit in verse thirteen refers to our spirits as the means of mortification.  This is shown by the causal link to verse 14:  “Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  The Holy Spirit cannot be both cause and agent of resistance to sin.  We have an obligation to mortify sin as the Spirit of the Lord empowers us to do so.  Our active resistance to sin is the sign we experience as the work of the Holy Spirt in us showing us that we are God’s children.  

How do we mortify sin?  John Owen (1616-1683) wrote a book that is vital for us today entitled, Mortification of Sin in Believers.  In short, Owen advises us to name it, repent of it, starve it and oppose it by trusting in Christ’s perfect obedience in us.  Oppose lust with Christ’s joy, resist anger with Christ’s peace, and defeat pride with Christ’s humility.  Christ’s perfections are preferred over our old hatred of God by the power of God’s love manifested in us through the Holy Spirit.  

 

The Groaning of the Holy Spirit

The work of the Holy Spirit in us is called vivification.  To vivify means to animate or give life.  Paul compares the groaning of the whole creation to childbirth in verse 22.  Think of a newborn. After the trauma of childbirth, a newborn is held aloft and spanked on the buttocks to cause it to scream.  A scream inflates the lungs, filling them for the first time with the breath of life.  To the newborn a scream is shocking, but to everyone else it is a welcome sign of life.  To us, the Holy Spirit’s cry is a wordless shock at the overwhelming power of God’s love over our unloving, faithless hearts (which can be expressed by the gift of tongues, the outpouring of our hearts to God).  To God, it is the welcome sign of his love at work in us to want what God wills.  Vivification is the other side of mortification.  As we put to death our old self, the Holy Spirit brings to life our new self hidden in Christ. 

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 Equip: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit - Temples

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Equip: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit - Temples

We are spirit beings, and as spirit beings the only thing that can contain our spirit is our bodies (our flesh), without our living bodies we cannot physically exist in this world. Just like an astronaut cannot live in space without their space suit which provides them with air to breathe etc.., we cannot live here without our own suit, our bodies. But let's go deeper, what if I say that our body is more than a suit, it is also temple?

Let’s look at the dictionary definition of the the word temple.

Temple:
A building devoted to the worship, or regarded as the dwelling place, of a god or gods or other objects of religious reverence.

You see, as believers and followers of Christ; the Bible tells us (see verse below) that our body is the temple for the gift that God has given us, The Holy Spirit.

“Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” 1 Corinthians 6:19 -  (NLT)

So, if the Holy Spirit does not reside in your temple, or as I would phrase it, “Is not sitting on the throne of your heart and mind”, then who is? Know this, the temple is never vacant. There is always someone sitting on the throne of your heart and mind!  It’s either you or the Holy Spirit dwelling in the temple!

If it is you and your sinful nature occupying your temple, then you will fail at being a follower of Christ.  The human heart is the most deceitful of all things (Jer 17:9), we may think our way of doings things seem right but if you are dwelling as the god of your temple in place of the Holy Spirit, our lives will lead to death and destruction (Prov 14:12).  Yet, many christians say “I’m good Holy Spirit, I will be sitting on the throne of my temple, I’ll call you when I really need you!”

But Christ knew better, he knew that while his followers were still on earth, that they would not be able to willingly serve and obey God, let alone do the will of our heavenly father by our own mere willpower. He knew that his people needed supernatural help. He also knew that being holy wasn’t just a matter of following rules, for his priority was based on a intimate relationship with our heavenly father through his son Jesus Christ.  

As a result, God made it possible for us to follow and obey God by making sure that the Holy Spirit rightfully resides in the throne of our temple as he leads us to Christ, and unlike our sinful nature, when the Holy Spirit is leading us he never goes against Scripture! The Holy Spirit entered our temple when we decided to give our life to Christ.

We need to continually ask the Holy Spirit to lead us, to guide us, and to help us do the things God wants us to do, and when we continue spiritually growing as Christians, our desire should be to allow the Spirit to take control over more and more areas of our lives. Why on earth would anyone want to try to be a believer and follower of Jesus Christ without having the Holy Spirit on the throne of their temple? Quite simple, because we still want to be the God of our own temple (our body and life) and rule from the throne of our own hearts.

Below are some action words from scripture that describe what the Holy Spirit desires to do when you give him the throne of your temple.

Controls:
"But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you." Romans 8:9

Guides:
"O I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves." Galatians 5:16

Leads:
"He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth." John 14:17

Directs:
"But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses." Galatians 5:18

Advocates:
"But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you." John 14:26

Convicts:
"And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment." John 16:8

Teaches:
“He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you." John 14:26b

Helps:
"And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness." Romans 8:26a

Comforts, Encourages and Counsels:
"But when the Father sends the Advocate (Or Comforter, or Encourager, or Counselor) as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit." John 14:26a

Gives you peace:
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart." John 14:27 -

Helps you pray:
"And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words." Romans 8:26

If your temple and the throne of your heart isn’t for the Holy Spirit to dwell in, then you are your own God (yes, I just said that), and it’s no wonder that you might be struggling as a Christian. Our God was caring and loving enough to provide us with the Holy Spirit, why wouldn’t you want to him to dwell in you?

 

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Equip: Parenting in Proverbs

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Equip: Parenting in Proverbs

In our midweek Christian family night, we just completed a two-week study of parenting in the Book of Proverbs. Two proverbs often come up in discussions of parenting.  “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV), is one. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him,” (from which we get the English proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”) is another. Both are found in Proverbs 22, verses 6 and 15, respectively.  Together these two proverbs form a tightly bound parenting model, but we need some context to use them profitably.  

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Stories of Mercy: Sean Gilles

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Stories of Mercy: Sean Gilles

We are excited to bring you the first of many Stories of Mercy.  Sean Gilles story includes his recovery of cancer and a testimony of the church coming around him to support and love him in one of the most trying times of his life.  

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Being the Church in Janesville - Six Months and Counting

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Being the Church in Janesville - Six Months and Counting

I would ask Mercy Hill as a whole to continue to pray that God continues his work in the Rock County location. It has been a privilege to see Jesus grow His church in these ways and others. Please pray that God would continue to provide the finances that we need to expand our children’s ministry area and materials for outreach. Pray that God would continue to grow His church through a healthy mix of unbelievers, Christians, the hurting, the healthy, and leaders. And pray that he grants us wisdom in ministering to the city, and new ways to authentically engage our city, proclaiming the Gospel in relationship and actions.

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Fervent Prayer: Church Planting

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Fervent Prayer: Church Planting

"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles."  Acts 2:42-43 ESV

From the birth of the Church in Acts, we see what the new gathered Body of Christ focused on: God’s Word (apostles’ teaching), community (fellowship and breaking of bread), and prayer (communing with God).  Thus, from the very beginning of Mercy Hill, these verses have been close to our hearts and has helped define and shape our mission of being the Church.  Keeping our focus on the simplicity of the Gospel, as taught in Scripture, and proclaiming that Good News both from the pulpit and through personal relationship, is a big part of what I think makes Mercy Hill Church the amazing community that it is.  And it seems that God is stirring the hearts of others all over southeastern Wisconsin who desire to see churches planted that are committed to the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel.  God has been building His Church with people ready to be His Church, and because of this, we are excited for what God is doing through the church planting efforts here at Mercy Hill.  

Today, let’s focus our prayers on the area of church planting:

  • Pray that God would continue to build His Church here and abroad
  • Pray for our current church planting efforts/connections:
  • Mercy Hill Rock County, Janesville (Josh and Angie Dostal)
  • Imago Dei, West Milwaukee (Pete and Kristy Ziolkowski)
  • Nuovo Vita, Salerno (Justin and Abbey Valiquette)
  • Pray that God would provide to expand His Church:
  • Leadership, resources and finances
  • Pray that we would continue to train and equip leaders for church planting
  • Pray that God would continue to make His mission clear to our churches
  • Pray that God would clearly direct our Elders in future church planting efforts

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Fervent Prayer: Financial Commitment and Provision

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Fervent Prayer: Financial Commitment and Provision

"Hopefully throughout your time at Mercy Hill, you’ve sensed and heard that why we give matters more than what we give. We emphasize this every Sunday during worship. And through the example in Luke 21, the Bible gives us many reasons to be generous. Today I’d like to highlight one of those reasons; to care for others..."

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Fervent Prayer: Outreach

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Fervent Prayer: Outreach

"Throughout Holy Scripture, it is clear to us that we have been commissioned by Christ to go forth into the world as his ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20). As we do this, we are to proclaim the Gospel wherever we go, endeavoring to raise up disciples as we ourselves follow after Christ who is with us “to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19,20)."

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Fervent Prayer: World Missions

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Fervent Prayer: World Missions

"...So it seems that God will most definitely accomplish this in the culmination of all things.  So why do we need to be involved then?  This reminds me of the story of William Carey. He was a lay Baptist pastor in 18th century England who went on to become known as the “Father of Modern Missions”.  It was believed by most in the Church at that time that the Great Commission was only a command to the apostles and that those in other “heathen” nations were of no concern to them."

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Fervent Prayer: Community

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Fervent Prayer: Community

"The term community has become a buzzword in our culture. Millennials are said to desire it, employers seek to build it, sociologists bemoan its demise, and churches have rediscovered its value. But as with most buzzwords: when you hear it often enough it gets lost in the noise..."

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Fervent Prayer: Sing

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Fervent Prayer: Sing

God chose us and then the message we received from God was Jesus. In Jesus the Messiah we received from God our Father heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. He accepted us through Jesus and forgave us for all the wrong we have done and will ever still do. Through Jesus we have forgiveness and peace with God our Father and are put together with others in Christ’s body, the Church. And what are we the Church doing? Singing, singing, singing songs that teach and warn leaving us very grateful to God our Father through Jesus our Messiah.

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Fervent Prayer: Confession & Commitment to Spiritual Disciplines

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Fervent Prayer: Confession & Commitment to Spiritual Disciplines

"...it is essential that we face the call in Christ to train ourselves for godliness and recommit ourselves to the spiritual disciplines that help to produce in us this godliness that is of value in every way. There is a long list of spiritual disciplines that many find valuable for the production of godliness in their lives but there are 3 specifically that as pastor at Mercy Hill church I would like to see us commit ourselves to in 2017..."

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Looking Beyond

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Looking Beyond

If I were to believe social media or popular culture, 2016 is a year to wipe from our collective memory.

Celebrity deaths. Politics. Terrorism. Civil wars. Cyberattacks. And so much more. It has spawned all sorts of viral memes and metaphors from the silly to the dead serious. But in the echo chamber that has become popular culture, I have noticed one thing that is distinctly missing.

Hope.

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