Why I Follow Jesus

31 08 2011

by RICHARD JAMES, Council of Twelve Apostles

Gladys James is credited by her son, Apostle Richard James, for much of his spiritual growth.

I can remember as a small child wanting to follow Jesus. It was the main reason I wanted to be baptized. If Jesus wanted to be baptized then so did I.

It was the Jesus who had time for people, who reached out to children, to the lepers, and healed the sick who interested me. His words and actions changed people’s lives. This was the Jesus I wanted to follow. He made a difference in people’s lives.

I was nurtured and loved by a family and church community that were accepting of every person. I can remember our door always being open for people to come and talk with my mother, whatever the time of day or night. This is where they found someone who would listen without judgment. This is where they found sanctuary. It was this kind of Jesus, portrayed by my mother, who I wanted to follow.

Our congregation was busy reaching into the community. With our youth group, I remember visiting day centers for people with learning difficulties and homes for elderly people. We made time for those marginalized by society. This was the kind of Jesus I wanted to follow.

The congregation had wonderful times in which worship was dynamic and life-changing. It was this kind of Jesus who was present and I wanted to follow.

As I have grown in my faith I have realized how much these foundational experiences shaped who I am. I have a strong testimony of the living Christ. I have not physically seen Jesus, but I have heard his voice. Such times I cannot deny the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.

These experiences bring peace, reassurance, and guidance. They increase my faith. As I travel to many nations I feel a strong presence of the Divine, almost as a shield. I feel secure, and it is as if Jesus is standing right beside me. This is a powerful witness to me that I am not alone.

As I renew each day my desire to follow Jesus, I look back at the experiences that shaped and molded me. I want all people to feel this love, acceptance, and continuing presence of God. This is the Jesus I want to follow, the one who invites everyone into a relationship with God, who has compassion for people, who cares about peace and justice for people and the world. This is the Jesus who develops disciples to follow and serve, and provides opportunities for people to serve people.

This is the Jesus I follow. The living Jesus who changes lives!

My Allegiance

29 08 2011

by WIM VAN KLINKEN, International Headquarters director

Recently, a pastor asked me two questions that in hindsight are greatly interrelated. Knowing I moved recently from the Netherlands to the USA, he asked if I missed home. I said, “I do not. Although I am Dutch and love my country, I consider myself more a world citizen and feel at home wherever I am.” This answer amazed him and made him ponder his feelings for his homeland and whether he ever could make such a statement.

During our conversation we also shared about our beliefs and journeys with the church. He asked about my continued motivation for belonging to and serving Community of Christ. My reply made him look anew at the church.

I explained that I strongly feel a unique and important characteristic of our church is that it’s international. It would be far easier for someone in the Netherlands to belong to a national church that has far more members and is accepted than to face the ridicule of belonging to a perceived “American church.”

But Community of Christ has become an international church. The most-spoken language on a given Sunday in our congregations is no longer English, but French. Our membership is growing in developing countries. Probably in the next decade or so, actual membership will be larger outside the USA than inside; active membership already is.

But more important than membership numbers is the church’s conviction that we are a global movement with a vision to establish the peaceable reign of God on Earth, thus transforming all of creation, all nations, all peoples.

We believe Christ is above all nations and does not favor one country or people above the other. As I sang as a child, “In Christ there is no East or West.” And as President Steve Veazey reminded us in the introductory statement to Doctrine and Covenants 164, “There is no longer Jew or Greek … for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That is why my allegiance is primarily to Christ and not to a particular nation. Like Christ, I need to be spiritually free to challenge practices and beliefs in my home country, in my country of residence, or anywhere in the world that are contrary to the saving purposes of the gospel.

Being part of this church and living in a new country have made it clear to me that my beliefs and actions are tainted by the culture I grew up in. Being part of an international movement confronts me with sisters and brothers from different cultures who challenge what I believe. They challenge how I live out my gospel, which is not necessarily Christ’s gospel. We need the intercultural critique. Otherwise we become complacent and self-righteous.

I am proud of a church that professes and tries to be faithful to Christ’s mission, a universal mission for all and by all.

The richness of cultures, the poetry of language, and the breadth of human experience permit the gospel to be seen with new eyes and grasped with freshness of spirit.—Doctrine and Covenants 162:4a

Blind Faith

27 08 2011

by SHERRI KIRKPATRICK, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, USA

Peter, in many ways, is a typical little boy who loves school and studies hard. He enrolled in the Community of Christ school when it opened two years ago in Zambia. Nine years old and a second-grader at the Young Peacemakers Community School, Peter recently invited me to meet his grandmother, Erala.

As we approached the house, I noticed it was built with homemade adobe bricks and had a tin roof. When I stepped inside, the warm Bemba greeting of “Mwapoleni” welcomed me. I was invited to sit down.

I strained to see her features in the dimly lit humble home. The darkness made no difference to her, however, because she was blind and could enjoy sunlight only through its warmth.

And then the story began. Erala said her husband died eight years ago. About the same time her daughter and son-in-law died suddenly from causes unknown to her. She couldn’t travel to the funeral, so within a few days family members brought 1-year-old Peter and his older brother and sister to Erala.

When I commented that she was a brave and loving grandmother to take on such a big responsibility, she said, “I had no choice. They would have been street children if I had not taken them in.” Adding to the challenges, Erala became blind three years ago. The children now serve as her eyes, doing the things she cannot do.

I could have made a long list of challenges in that family’s everyday struggle to exist. Important things like food, shelter, and clothing.

But I watched Peter snuggle up to his grandmother on the well-worn little sofa. I saw his older brother, Michael, perch on the side of the sofa and put his arm protectively around his grandmother’s shoulders. And I knew love lived in that little home. Somehow the struggles of life seem much more endurable when loved ones surround you.

I doubt Erala suspected when she took the children that she someday would need them as much as they needed her. Many people calculate the return on investment, whether monetary or intangible, before they invest. Few invest with the blind faith that Erala did.

Though her dividends haven’t brought riches or even secured basic needs, she has earned something many long for but never get: a loving family.

The Bristlecone Pine

25 08 2011

by JERRY W. NIEFT, Kirtland Spiritual Formation Team

I am a bristlecone pine, poised on a rocky cliff. I am very old, one of the oldest living creations of God on Earth.

I know something about life, how to live with hope and joy. To live so long, one must know at least three things: how to flex, how to heal, and how to give. I learned these three lessons well over thousands of years, and they are available to you.

I grew from a tiny seed, shed in adversity and trapped in a crack on a precarious, craggy ledge near the western coast of North America. I sprouted and sent my roots as deeply as I could into the shallow soil. It is windy here. I had to hold on for dear life. There were long dry periods when all I could do was wait. When it did rain, I grew and pried the crack in the rock wider. My roots slowly dissolved the hard rock and gave me a good foundation.

The relentless wind banged me onto the rocks over and over. As a young sprig, I could bend double, but I was tender. My bark bruised, and I grew calluses. I continued to bend with the wind instead of resisting it. Others I knew became too rigid and unyielding. They broke years ago.

At first I resented the wind, and I disliked what it did to me. It sculpted me into a shape I did not want to choose. I grew in twists and knurls so my silhouette bespeaks time and the durable joy of life.

Lightning struck me several times, pruning me and burning off what I thought were my best branches. I grew around the wounds and healed. Sometimes I had to sprout again from a stump and start all over. Yes, life is about healing. Growing and living is always about healing.

I receive of the earth and the sun, and I give in return. I breathe the breath of the animals, and breathe my breath of life in return to them. I make soil with my roots and house the birds. I please the eye of the one who beholds me and wonders. I am a bristlecone pine, and I have experienced the wisdom of life.

Ask any tree. To grow you must bend, you must heal, and you must give as you receive. There is beauty in a life that knows that. Ask the walnut tree. The veneer of its wood—its record of the past—is beautiful in the good times. But the veneer that comes from the wound, the crotch, the stump is exquisite burl and highly valued.

Healing produces a beautiful grain in one’s life.

Ask Jesus. He knows. He worked as a craftsman with wood. He died on a tree, and arose to heal the nations, one person at a time.

Spiritual Practice
Spend prayerful time with a tree. Be drawn to a living tree in your environment or find an image of a tree that speaks to you. What do you notice as you give the tree your reverent, grateful attention? What lessons of divine presence and grace does the tree offer? Give thanks.

Experience Congregations in Mission—Nurture Congregations of Christ’s Love and Peace

22 08 2011

by KEITH McMILLAN, president of seventy

I have been fortunate to see how mission transforms the lives of people in congregations as we nurture, support, empower, and help them recognize their giftedness to do mission in neighborhoods.

So I am excited to tell you how a congregation recognized its own potential. Several years ago I was on the pastorate of the Village Heights Congregation in Independence, Missouri. It was a good congregation—probably like the one you attend—of people who do worship and things within the church walls that are very, very fulfilling. But we recognized the giftedness of our people was being underutilized.

How do we, as leaders, empower congregations to do things in their neighborhoods? That was our question as a leadership team. We came up with a simple phrase to help us get to that stage: pray, discern, and act.

We began to pray as a congregation. We decided one of the best ways to recognize our giftedness was to do a congregational blessing. Over a six-week period with an evangelist we began a visioning, knowing we had the gifts to do what we were called to do in our neighborhood.

A scripture says seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened, ask and it shall be given. You better be careful if you’re asking because God’s going to tell you what you need to do in your neighborhood or in your field.

So you better be willing to act. We went through the visioning project for six weeks, discerning what we thought God was calling us to do. And then we courageously, sometimes timidly, moved forward.

Now 100 kids come on Tuesday nights to the Jesus and Me (JAM) program. Tom Cochran has taken it to a new level in the mission center, with the effort spreading to Boys & Girls Clubs.

I cannot tell you the transformation that happened in the lives of young people, who never would’ve experienced Community of Christ had we not prayed, discerned, and then stepped into a neighborhood that was scary for a middle-class, white congregation. We stepped into an impoverished neighborhood right across the street.

When for the first time I walked into the office of the woman who ran the Boys & Girls Club, I said I was Community of Christ. She said, “You know what? I’ve heard your church’s name. Nobody from your church has ever darkened our door before.”

I said that was going to change. And it did. I’m encouraged as we talk about mission because your congregation, your mission center, is exactly like Village Heights was for me.

Gifted people need to unleash the power of their witness and testimony of Jesus Christ and what we can do in this world. So as we continue to lift up the five mission initiatives, I can only imagine where we’re going to go as a church.

I’m excited because I think we’re poised like never before to do something amazing.

Develop Disciples to Serve—Grow Pastors and Leaders for Mission

20 08 2011

by RON HARMON, Council of Twelve Apostles

I’m privileged to co-chair with President Dave Schaal a wonderful steering committee. The members are able to serve because of the vision created through the Co-Missioned Pastor Initiative (CPI). The foundation laid there was because of someone who stepped forward and said, “I want to be involved,” helping fund that vision.

Well, there’s a desire to expand that vision. As President Steve Veazey announced at the 2010 World Conference, another donor has contributed $4 million to expand CPI in the US field.

We want to take the learning from CPI and look at how we can expand pastor and leaders education, primarily throughout the US, but also in other parts of the world.

I believe in the congregational life. I’m here because a small group shared with me about Jesus Christ in powerful and transforming ways on the west side of Cleveland. If not for them and how they lived out the gospel, I wouldn’t be standing here.

So, I believe there’s a future for congregations. We’ve heard stories of how God’s vision can disturb congregations as they sense a call to be shaped. In some cases it even calls them to leave their building and move where they sense God calling them.

In all those stories we find a common element. It’s leadership. It’s someone who began to be disturbed by God’s vision and invited others on a journey of being shaped, formed, and changed by that vision.

That’s what we’re about with pastors and leaders education. This isn’t about training people to heroically swoop into a struggling congregation and turn everything around. This is about training leaders to journey alongside people. This is about training leaders to cultivate congregational environments where God’s vision and what God wants can disturb our lives. Not only the lives of people in our congregations, but in our neighborhoods. In all places where Community of Christ has presence.

The pastors and leaders project has two dimensions. The first is providing a training guide for pastors and leaders.

Phase two is expanding the CPI emphasis and asking, “How do we help pastors and congregational leaders discern, lead, and sustain mission in their local context? How do we journey with them in doing that?”

So it’s not just about training and development. It’s about how we then apply what we’ve learned in leading and discerning mission in the congregation and neighborhood. We will partner with mission centers and their leaders in both phases.

We look forward to expanding pastor and leader education so we might have congregations where people’s lives are disturbed, enlivened. So people will sense the call to embody the five mission initiatives. And we’re looking forward to partnering with you.

Finally, this initiative will bring an important connection with young adults. We’ll look for opportunities to partner with Community of Christ leadership programs at Graceland and will create opportunities in the field.

Pursue Peace on Earth—Engage Children in Peacemaking

17 08 2011

by BRENDA LENFESTEY, Southeast USA Mission Center

We’ve already heard that children are great invitational people, and they’re great missionaries. They are also great peacemakers. Jim and Andi Melham, from the Atlanta North Congregation, had a vision long ago to provide that ministry in the Southeast USA Mission Center.

They retired early from their jobs and traveled to congregations, areas, and schools that invited them to share peace. Now, their vision has been mobilized. Within the last year or two, funds came for their vision of sharing Christ’s peace using a 30-foot trailer.

It is fascinating. I have been in public schools; I have been a head teacher; and I love hands-on activities. This ministry is fantastic. It shares how to learn about environmental issues and how to take care of the environment. It also has hands-on exercises for resolving conflicts.

Last year I invited Andi and Jim to bring their trailer to our reunion. I asked if they would be able to share that ministry, not just with children, but with adults.

Andi and Jim also shared in the evening intergenerational worship. The couple I was sitting with shared something with me. After about 40 years of marriage they realized, thanks to the peace mobile, that they had been practicing poor communication skills.

During an activity, they sat across from each other. The goal was to communicate what each had on a board they were holding. They couldn’t do it.

They experienced more challenges during an intergenerational activity. The goal was to create a form to share with your small group. The group could ask questions, but they could only be answered with a nod for yes or no.

Although we weren’t supposed to talk, the man called his wife on his cellphone. He got it and wanted to share with her since they hadn’t been successful during the first “test.” It was a wonderful experience for the children and adults.

Jim and Andi have taken the peace mobile to schools, festivals, malls, shopping areas, and reunions. They have kicked-off vacation Bible schools taken it to campgrounds. This increases Bible school registrations because kids get excited about what is going to happen that week.

Jim and Andi are on fire to share the peace of Christ where they live. And they are willing to travel. They love sharing Christ’s mission—our mission!—with children and adults, helping them develop communication skills that bring peace.