Why I Follow Jesus. . .

30 07 2013

By Brian Ober, Lake in the Hills, Illinois, USA

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.” —Luke 15:1–7 The Message

A vibrant church family plays a big role developing discipleship.

A vibrant church family plays a big role developing discipleship.

I love this scripture, because this is the Jesus that I know and love. This is the Jesus I choose to follow.

I follow Jesus because I was blessed with a foundation. A mom who taught me to pray. A grandfather who taught me how to serve with humility. A pastor who taught me how to engage the most broken and bruised in the world and how to approach “church” differently. A wife who has taught me how to serve with strength and conviction in moments of deep weakness and doubt.

I follow Jesus because our world is broken and beautiful. On the outside, our world seems to be a collection of lives consumed with fear, hopelessness, addiction, anger, anxiety, and cynicism. But don’t let the surface fool you. Our world is filled with countless people who despite their brokenness are hoping and praying to be heard, to be seen, and to experience the good news of the Living God. I follow Jesus because I choose to see their lives and hear their voices.

I follow Jesus because I agree that “mission matters most.” I believe Christ’s calling for each congregation and each disciple within that congregation is to be a voice and servant to the lost. Sometimes that means examining and rediscovering what it means to “do” church.

I follow Jesus because I am blessed with a church family that holds each journey sacred and provides an authentic place for people from all walks of life to come, worship, experience, and be invested in. My church family inspires me.

I follow Jesus and consider myself humbled and blessed to be a small part of his work and this church.





Outreach International: A Beautiful Vision

29 07 2013

By Kevin Prine,
Outreach International

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.—1 John 3:17–18 NRSV

Outreach International add love to its formula for helping people out of poverty.

Outreach International add love to its formula for helping people out of poverty.

When I reflect on this portion of John’s letter to the early church at Ephesus, the prominence given to truth seems particularly compelling. John could have omitted the word, “truth” and simply stated, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in action.” We easily recognize the need for action as an expression of love. So why this emphasis on truth?

Outreach International’s 30 years of service provide a multitude of examples of truth in love. Consider our work in the Philippines. The hardworking Saints in the Philippines were the first to partner with Outreach International (OI). Had the church and founding leadership of OI been oriented solely on action, that partnership might have evolved into two or three continuously dependent congregations and nothing more.

Instead, a truth has been repeatedly illuminated during the last three decades. Namely, basic earthly needs cannot be achieved solely by a transfer of wealth from one person or group to another. Creating clean water systems, sanitation, adequate food, basic education, minimal health care, and economic livelihood for a community requires far more than handouts.

These human necessities spread and become permanent when beneficiaries can identify challenges and create their own solutions. In turn, a spiritual, communal, and emotional confidence is created when people work together to solve their problems.

Gifts with minimal thought may temporarily alleviate symptoms among the poor, but they often reinforce the chronic problem of poverty.

When I recently visited Outreach International field staff and communities in the Philippines, I saw areas where OI and the church were thriving. They didn’t need continued outside help to succeed. If anything, they were multiplying their resources to new areas.

Just as in other countries where OI works, the people seemed to enjoy our connection. But they appreciated it as a balanced relationship between peers rather than as a group of wealthy people and needy codependents. Isn’t this the beautiful vision of love between brothers and sisters in Christ that John spoke about?

Community of Christ seeks to follow the five Mission Initiatives, including Abolish Poverty, End Suffering. Words and speeches will accomplish little. Only a community infused with God’s love, expressing itself in actions—grounded in truth—will achieve this, one of humanity’s greatest callings.





Do You Know Your Neighborhood?

27 07 2013

By Johannes Egbert Gjaltema, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Providing meals is just one way a congregation in Rotterdam, Netherlands,  is helping the underprivileged of its community.

Providing meals is just one way a congregation in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is helping the underprivileged of its community.

Five years ago, I moved from a small village named Zwaagwesteinde, where everybody knows everybody, to the big city, Rotterdam. My job as a youth minister in the Western Europe Mission Center made me travel a lot, and for a long time I did not get to know the people near my apartment.

When I looked at problems in the world, it was as if I were using binoculars. But the problem with using binoculars is that you can miss things happening close by.

At that time the congregation in Rotterdam was meeting every week. People received ministry through music, preaching, and fellowship in church and elsewhere. Some members also helped with neighborhood activities. Two members who still play that key role are Aad and Truus Heijdenrijk. They have built relationships that benefit children now meeting in our church.

The local government has youth workers who organize activities on the playground next to the church. They set up sports, movies, dancing, karaoke, and they provide drinks and snacks. These hard-working youth workers know the children and their needs well.

They saw that some children wore the same clothes—even with torn fabric—every day. The youth workers would visit the families and help them to get clothes.

They also noticed that some children would take a sandwich to school. Because nobody was home after school, they would go to the playground and stay until 9:00 p.m.—without going home for a meal.

Now the youth workers are working with the church to provide meals. This is done in an educational way, teaching kids about hygiene, cooking, and measuring. We hope to expand the ministry from the current two times a week.

On average 10–15 children now have a healthy dinner in the church. We invite their parents, too, so families can have a meal together.

Our building is not up to date, but we offer a safe and caring place for people. We pursue Christ, through the Mission Initiatives. The cooking class is a direct result of Experience Congregations in Mission. Our efforts seek to Abolish Poverty, End Suffering. We Invite People to Christ when we reach out to others to join us.

Now I can see the world without binoculars.





The Holy Spirit Moves, Heals

25 07 2013

by Greg Clark, Integrated Communications

The healing, with the gentle caress of the Holy Spirit, started almost as soon as delegates took their seats in the Auditorium for the USA National Conference.

Long before the outcome was known, the Holy Spirit was there, providing inspiration, compassion, and—most of all—healing.

Throughout the April 19–21 event, which dealt with two pressing matters involving sexuality, the Holy Spirit wafted over, through, and among more than 1,500 delegates. They felt it in testimonies. Heard it in songs. Touched it in prayers.

In the end, healing came for some people, who had felt slighted for years, when the conference, by more than a two-thirds majority agreed to recommend policy changes to the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles.

One recommendation was that the sacrament of marriage may be extended, where legal, to persons of the same sex/gender. In places where this is not legal, a church-recognized way for two persons of the same sex/gender to publicly express their covenant to each other will be made available.

The other was to allow a priesthood call to be processed according to established procedures regardless of sexual orientation, including a person in a monogamous, committed, same-sex/gender relationship (e.g., legal marriage, civil partnership, covenant relationship).

But some delegates found unease or distress in the outcomes. Their journey of healing started with the conference upholding their worth as persons with differing opinions who still are welcome at the church’s table.

Healing was there in recognition that change is difficult. And it was there through the blessing of the Holy Spirit, which presided over the three-day meeting in Independence, Missouri.

It was visible in hugs, handshakes, smiles…and tears. And it was evident in the US apostles, who clasped hands during a first-day recess to offer thanks to the Holy Spirit’s presence.

That presence was nearly as tangible as the grove of aspen “trees” that sprouted on the stage and in the balcony behind the rostrum. Soft, blue, translucent banners, decorated with leaves, descended from the ceiling, providing foliage for those trees.

And just as those banners murmured with movement in the Auditorium’s air currents, the Holy Spirit gently made itself known.

The selection of aspens as a worship setting was no coincidence. As the assembly heard early in the conference, aspens don’t grow individually; rather, they grow as community, interlinked by a foundational root system.

The church, built on Christ, is much the same with its Enduring Principles of Unity in Diversity and Worth of All Persons. Those principles were very much on the minds of apostles.

“We have experienced today the depth of the Holy Spirit,” Apostle Linda Booth said. “It’s moved in our midst in a very tender and loving way. Breathe in God’s breath and listen to the people around us as well as the Holy Spirit.

“Without your presence, we would not be complete.”

The yearning throughout the chamber was for people to remain a community even when they disagreed on the topics. That desire was reflected in comments, moments of blessing, music, sermons, and prayer throughout the conference.

“Our love for God and one another must be stronger than any disagreement we have,” Apostle Booth stressed.

Added Mike Hoffman, from the Arizona USA Mission Center: “I feel a very good sense of the Holy Spirit, especially the way people are demonstrating love and patience when hearing opposing views.”

Gloria Crockett of the Eastern Great Lakes USA Mission Center expressed the Holy Spirit’s presence and desire for healing this way:

“This whole experience has been like a worship service. I feel very blessed to be here. It’s wonderful, knowing that evangelists are here, all praying for us. I don’t want people to leave the church.”

She was touched, she said by President Steve Veazey’s first-night message. It began with a quote from Colossians 3:12–13 NRSV:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Apostle Art Smith raised the value of faithful disagreement and added: “We strive always to remain open to the Holy Spirit. Through our vulnerability to the Holy Spirit, we trust God will continue to guide us.”

Karen Ferris, a delegate from the Kentucky-Indiana USA Mission Center, also put her trust in God.

“I feel a settling of the Holy Spirit. It’s been a very unifying, peaceful kind of thing. I hope it will help gather us in and keep us together with the love of God.”

And Ellen LaBrue of the Sierra Pacific USA Mission Center noted that songs throughout the conference focused on peace and reconciliation.

“I definitely felt the Holy Spirit in the music and testimonies, the way people opened their hearts. Sometimes you feel it like the wind, a breeze gently coming over you.”
Scripture reflected that sentiment:

Do not be discouraged. You have not been promised an easy path, but you have been assured that the Spirit that calls you will also accompany you.…It is for divine purpose that you have been given the struggles as well as the joys of diversity.…Do not be defined by the things that separate you but by the things that unite you in Jesus Christ.—Doctrine and Covenants 162:3a, 4b, 5a

On Saturday, Apostle Booth noted that “what we have been doing is not about polling devices; it’s about listening to one another and looking to God. That’s what we’re called to do when we go home.”

A day later she summed up the weekend—and the three-year journey of discernment that preceded it—this way:

“So in faithfulness you have come. Now we pick up the burdens of those who are weeping and…stand together in harmony and the peace of Jesus Christ.

“There are no winners or losers in this body, only disciples trying to be faithful…The Spirit was here.”





Hope!

22 07 2013

East St. Louis Program Provides More than Food

By Laura Phillips, International Headquarters intern
Kids enjoying a snack at the Feed the Hungry Program

Kids enjoying a snack at the Feed the Hungry Program

Larry Drury, of Belleville, Illinois, felt moved to make a difference in the suffering he saw near his hometown.

“The statistics of East St. Louis [Illinois] were very alarming. Poverty levels were extremely high,” he said. So in 2010, he started the Feed the Hungry program with the assistance of a grant obtained through the Gateway USA Mission Center.

It seeks to provide meals for children during the summer, when they are not in school. Every day the program feeds about 65 schoolchildren and provides an all-day safe environment. If you go to the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a summer school program that partners with Feed the Hungry, hordes of children will greet you, wanting to get to know you or play a game. A glance tells you they are glad to be there, though they don’t know the effort it takes.

It’s hard to run a program like Feed the Hungry when money is scarce. You can have all the love in the world, but if you don’t have funding, you can’t do much. That’s why Feed the Hungry started looking for grants. It discovered the World Hunger grant available through Community of Christ’s Mission Initiative of Abolish Poverty, End Suffering.

“We could not have survived or gotten started without the World Hunger grant,” Larry said. “We use it for food and supplies.

“I was so pleased when the Mission Initiatives came out, because it seemed exactly like what I wanted to accomplish. My original target was to make a difference in hunger and poverty in the East St. Louis area, but we have also taught disciples how to serve through working with the children.”

After playing basketball or doing a puzzle with the children, you can see the difference the program is making. They join activities that promote education and focus on building character.

“I want to show the kids alternative ways of life and that they are capable of doing it,” said Albert Hamilton, videographer for the Lessie Bates Davis program.

By partnering with the summer school program, Feed the Hungry can provide much more than a meal; it provides hope. It has big hopes for its own future, too. Leaders want to make it a year-round program so they can help even more children. They also want to provide other resources, like after-school tutoring or study programs.

“This has been one of the most exciting things in my journey of ministry,” Larry said. “I’ve been in the church for many years, but I’ve never been so close to the needs of people and felt like I’ve been making a difference.

“It’s rewarding to know that after we started, many other groups began similar programs. …More kids are being fed now because we started our program.”





When, Earth…When Did We See You?

20 07 2013

By Lu Mountenay, Independence, Missouri, USA

Multiracial Hands Surrounding the Earth Globe   Alex Max | Dreamstime

Multiracial Hands Surrounding the Earth Globe
Alex Max | Dreamstime

The stewards said to the sacred Earth, “When did we hurt you?”

Then the Earth said to the stewards, “I was gasping for breath, and you suffocated me—you contaminated my air and destroyed my protective shield. I was thirsty, and the waters that you did not imprison in plastic vessels, you consumed and polluted.

“I was whole, and you cut the snowy peaks off my mountains and laid them low. You filled my deep valleys with toxic sludge. My forests were green and full of life-giving oxygen, and you cleared away my trees, leaving barren stubble. The waves of my seas were high, mighty, and teeming with fish, and you left them stagnant, laden with mercury. You eroded my shores.

“I was abundant with energy, a gift for your children’s children, and you greedily depleted my storehouse. I was delightfully naked, and you clothed me with trash. I was full of resources, and you scraped up my chemicals, processed them in a way my Creator never meant them to be, and then exploded them.

“I revealed traces of hidden things for your benefit, and you left me with intruding footprints of carbon and tetrachloride. I was free, and you imprisoned me with bars of apathy. I was creation itself, and your blinders of power would not let you see me for the living gift that I am.

“Some of my prophetic people sent warnings, but you laughed. Some of my inhabitants tried to protect me, but your laws and regulations were feeble. Some disciples offered solutions of green, but you said the cost was too high. I welcomed you to dwell with me, yet you made me a stranger.”

Then the stewards said, “Holy Earth, when was it that we did these things? When did we betray you?”

And the Earth said, “It was not only what you did, but what you failed to do.”

Then the stewards again asked, “Earth…Earth, when? When did we see you cry and not respond? When did we feel you shudder and not comfort you?”

And the Earth answered, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to me, you did it to yourselves…and your children’s children.”—Based on Matthew 25:32–40





Dwell in These Words

18 07 2013

Prophet-President Steve Veazey recently talked with Linda Booth, president of the Council of Twelve Apostles and director of Communications, about the words of counsel he presented to the World Conference in April. These excerpts are the first of a three-part series from their conversation. See the entire interview and view or read the words of counsel at www.CofChrist.org/presidency/041413wordsofcounsel.

President Steve Veazey

President Steve Veazey

Linda: In the introduction, you spoke about your prayers for direction on behalf of the church, as well as for the world that we serve. You said the words of counsel are an expression of your role as prophet-president, and as you prayed, you made yourself vulnerable to the Holy Spirit. You spoke of being surprised by that Spirit. Could you tell us about that experience?

Steve: I’d be glad to. I try to maintain a regular schedule of spiritual practices, but over the last six months or so, I’ve tried to give even more attention to that. It was during that time, as I took more time for reflection, prayer, but especially silence, just being in the presence of God, where I began to experience what I’ve learned to recognize as the impulse or prompting of the Spirit.
I knew I needed to pay attention to that. So I became even more focused. As I spent time in prayer and reflection, I began to have a sense of certain themes that I knew were intended for a broader audience—the church. So I began to make note of that.

I was surprised because I really felt the counsel that had been given to the church was still needing a lot of attention, and I had sort of concluded…words of counsel would not be coming to this Conference. Then I was caught up in an experience where it became obvious to me that was going to occur. That was the beginning of the words of counsel I shared at World Conference.

Linda: Yes, and you encouraged the church to go more deeply into these concepts and the words, which for me have great power and meaning as we prayerfully consider them. And you asked the church to take that journey with you with these words. It’s almost as if we, as a people, are being directed to be more prophetic as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Steve: Yes, it’s a continuation of the journey we’ve been on. I think if we look back over the last two or three decades, there’s been this call from God to us to continue to become a prophetic people.

I think we’ve come to understand it’s more than just individual discernment. It’s something we actually do together; we experience it in community together. So, for the last several decades, we’ve been growing in our experience of discernment around important issues in the life of the church. As we’ve gained experience, and developed new processes and tools, we’ve seen the blessings and benefits that come to the church.

So…I did experience a sense of the Spirit saying to me, “Encourage the church to spend a lot of time with these words, and dwell in these words in order for the church to continue to grow as a prophetic people.” Which means discerning what God is doing in the world to bring about God’s purposes and what God will be doing in the future…and coming to understand that not just individually, but together as a faith community. That’s why I make it so essential that we spend time in that way.

Linda: I remember one phrase that we are “to advance the response God desires.” Is that what you’re meaning?

Steve: Yes, that’s part of it. The words of counsel are meant to draw us into experience with God.So if we just stop at the surface and read the words, we haven’t gone near deep enough. They are to be a doorway into individual—and especially corporate or community—experience with the divine nature and will.

So, the call is, yes—go deeper. And spend plenty of time doing that, because there is insight and meaning that can unfold and blossom. That becomes part of our experience as a church community.

Linda: Oftentimes, we’ll note in words of counsel, Doctrine and Covenants, and even some scriptures in the New Testament that God lifts up continuously themes and concepts for our attention. It’s true in these words of counsel, as well. What do you think God is trying to emphasize to Community of Christ?

Steve: Well, I think the key is to look back over the last 20 or 30 years and recognize that as we read those words of counsel, certain themes are consistent, though maybe expressed in somewhat different ways. But multiple prophet-presidents have identified these themes and concepts for us to pay attention to as a church community. So it is the consistency of the themes, and the persistence of certain themes that really should emphasize for us how important they are.

What are some of those themes? The importance of spiritual formation to be effective in mission, I think is a theme that runs throughout a number of recent sections of the Doctrine of Covenants. The call is to continue to explore and go deeper in what it means to be communities of diversity that have unity in the love and Spirit of Jesus Christ. Oneness and equality, as the recent words of counsel express it. Generosity runs throughout a number of sections, and in these words of counsel especially is lifted up as a concept of spiritual practice that helps us grow as disciples. It also frees the capacity of the church’s mission to fulfill its potential in the world.

Others are the Worth of All Persons, giftedness of persons, and the opportunity that should be afforded in the church for people to express their God-given giftedness. The continuing call to holistic mission that includes evangelism, but also abolishing poverty and establishing justice throughout the world, ending needless suffering.

And there’s a constant theme of the relationship between being peacemakers, and the coming of God’s peaceful reign on Earth. Those are some themes that really stand out for me.

Linda: And the words of counsel go a little deeper, even, into the Mission Initiatives, or Christ’s mission is our mission. You brought up new understandings in these words, in particular with Abolish Poverty, End Suffering. It’s the added word of “needless” suffering.

Steve: That was a very interesting experience, as I thought about the human condition. I think the succinct statement Abolish Poverty, End Suffering is right, yet the words of counsel say “End needless suffering.” That’s a recognition that, as human beings, we do suffer, and sometimes through suffering there is growth.

But a lot of needless suffering is caused by greed, conflict, violence, and other people’s actions that take away the sense of an individual’s worth. That’s all needless suffering. And that is the suffering we are especially called to address.

Then, in terms of Pursue Peace on Earth, it had always been my understanding that peace on Earth included environmental peace—peace for the Earth itself. But as I was shaping these words of counsel, the emphasis really came through very strongly that it…has a lot to do with human interactions, and that is also pursuing peace for the Earth. I think that’s an important insight into the meaning of that statement.

Linda: I was also struck by the words of counsel where it says that we’re on a spiritual venture. I really like that it says, “Boldly follow the initiatives into the heart of God’s vision for the church and creation.” That’s a profound way of looking at God’s vision.

Steve: Yes. The vision of God was embodied in the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ, and as Jesus grasped that vision, he said, “This is what I’m called to do.” There were certain themes of that mission that became very important to him, which we have identified as our Mission Initiatives. We need to understand in the church today that the Mission Initiatives are not just programs or optional activities. They’re the very essence of what it means to be the body of Christ. It’s actually very spiritual in terms of engaging in those ministries and experiencing the Spirit of God with us and the affirmation that this is what is important to God.

Linda: So as we deepen spiritually to capture God’s vision for not only the church but for the world, we will continue to shape communities that live Christ’s love and mission. That’s a bold call for the church. Not just for individuals, but for communities of individuals who will boldly and passionately love like Christ and fulfill Christ’s mission.

Steve: Yes, it is a bold call. It’s not necessarily new, but the very purpose of the church is to embody the love, the life, the mission, the hope of Jesus Christ and express it in ways that others can experience it. That’s what we mean by incarnation—not just God being an incarnating Christ, but Christ being enfleshed in our lives and relationships.

It means the church is not about a schedule of activities, so much; it’s about what we do together that frees us to share Christ’s love with each other and in the world with those who have need so they, too, can experience God’s love in Christ.

It’s a deeply spiritual venture. It also says that as we develop relationships with others and share in ministries of inviting, of addressing poverty and suffering, of justice and peacemaking, that not only are others blessed, but we become spiritually transformed as we learn to dwell more and more in God’s life and love. That’s why the words of counsel talk about it being a spiritual venture. It grows us, as well as being a blessing for others.

Linda: So we truly then do become Community of Christ.

Steve: Which requires spiritual transformation.