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Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Church

I have often wondered why the Bible does not give a more definite description of how a church should be organized and how it should function.  While the book of Acts and the letters of Paul clearly indicate that there were various leaders in the church, such as pastors, elders, overseers, bishops and deacons, it does not specifically clarify their function. 

Most scholars assume that deacons originated with the selection of the seven in Acts 6 who were assigned to “wait on tables,” an apparent attempt to quell the discontent between Jewish and Greek widows who sometimes felt neglected.  But these same seven immediately threw themselves into the work of preaching and evangelism.  As a result the message of Christ was carried beyond Jerusalem. A spiritual awakening broke out in Samaria. And a church was started in Antioch that would later send out Paul and Barnabas. 

Some of the other “offices” seem interchangeable, especially elders, overseers and pastors. Exactly how the churches were to be organized and how they were to conduct worship and ministry is not explained.  This may be the reason we have so many different churches, organized in many different ways and conducting worship and ministry with great variety.

Because of its silence on these issues, the Bible gives great freedom as to how churches can be organized and how they function.

The fact that churches were indispensable in the spread of the Christian faith is indisputable. The entire book of Acts and all of Paul’s letters are predicated on the practice of planting churches and helping them prove productive.  In fact, Josephus, the ancient historian, states that churches were multiplying so fast during the first century that no one could count them.  Churches not only spread westward with Paul’s ministry, but north, south and east, so that the first center of Christian learning was at Alexandria in Egypt.  Peter wrote his letters to churches in Asia and Bithynia, regions Paul never entered.

If organization and structure regarding the church (and churches) is vague in the New Testament, other things are not.  It is clear that whatever churches did, and however they did it, they developed followers of Jesus Christ who reflected His character and glory.

The bottom line is that churches are about people living out their faith.  This month we have been visiting a church of English speaking believers in Nuremberg Germany. We served this church for three months two years ago and felt impressed to return.  We have visited with people from South Africa, Austria, Cameroon, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Portugal, India and Germany. 

We have heard their stories: a husband who was a professed atheist until three months ago when he gave his life to Christ; a young man who was addicted to drugs until he found Christ 18 months ago, and is planning to marry a young woman he met in the church next month in Poland; a young couple from Portugal who will marry in that country later this year; a father whose daughter will marry next month at the beautiful St. Bartholomew chapel on the Koenigsee at Berchtesgaden; a young woman starting her career in Nuremberg whose grandfather was a pastor in India; a young professional from Cameroon who is finding ways to create agri-business opportunities in his native country. 

We are reminded that the church continues in every culture, in every language and in every country because the church is always the people who believe in Christ.  It is more than a mere organization.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Temptation

Last week I stood on a mountain peak in the Alps, an area referred to as Obersalzberg.  Stretching out before me, in the valley below, was the historic city of Salzburg.  Nearby, nestled in another valley, lay Berchtesgaden and Koinegsee.  I stood over a small square stone.  One side marked the boundary of Germany. The other side marked the boundary of Austria. 

As I scanned the landscape that fell away beneath my feet in the shrouded distance, I felt as if I could see forever, that I might be standing on the top of the world.   It was an impressive sight.

As I stood on this awe inspiring spot, I was reminded of the Scripture that tells of Jesus’ temptation. He was taken to a similar high point where the nations of the world seemed to stretch out at his feet.  It was there that the devil made his offer, “All these things will I give you if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus answered him, “Be gone Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God , and serve Him only.” (Matthew 4:9-10).

On the mountain cliffs, not far away, I could see the outline of a building. The Kelsteinhaus, more commonly known as the Eagles Nest, a home built as a gift for Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday. It is reported that Hitler seldom came to the Kelsteinhaus.  But it was in this region, in the mountains above Berchstergaden and Salsburg, that Hitler completed his writing of Mein Kampf, the massive document that outlined his beliefs and his plans.  His quest for world domination varied very little from what he included in that early manuscript. 

In 1942 Hitler said, “There are so many links between Obersalzburg and me.  So many things were born there … I spent there the finest hours of my life … It was there that all my great projects were conceived and ripened.”  The outcome is well documented in history. He would follow an agenda of manipulation, force, war, terror, brutality and racism.  His agenda left in its wake more than 6 million murdered Jews and at least another 50 million dead worldwide.

Almost a century ago, in 1925, Adolph Hitler looked off into the awe inspiring distance from this same mountain vista and experienced a similar temptation to the temptation Jesus faced.  Unlike Jesus, he accepted the devil’s offer. 

In a way, every man and woman must make a similar choice. We face the temptation in our work, our schools, our government and our homes.  We are tempted to enforce our own will upon those around us by duplicity and deceit, by force, anger and violence. We are tempted to arrogance, self-will and prejudice.  We all must choose whether we will bow down to the power of darkness (Col. 1:13), the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), or whether we will choose, as Jesus did, to worship the Lord our God and serve Him only.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Germany Present and Past

Last Sunday evening my wife and I stood on the balcony of our apartment in Nuremberg and watched as fireworks lit up the sky.  Horns, whistles and screams of ecstasy echoed off the buildings.  Moments before, nearing midnight, in the second overtime, Mario Goetze struck the winning score for Germany’s victory in the World Cup championship.  On Tuesday we were in Berlin where 400,000 gathered at the Brandenburg gate, many wrapped in red, black and gold, to celebrate the team's return.

We are staying in Nuremberg this month to visit people we came to love when we served and English speaking church in 2012 to serve an English speaking church.  Most of them are young adults just starting their careers. They came from such places as Cameroon, India, China, England, Ireland, Austria, Brazil, Poland, Ukraine, U.S. and, of course, Germany. Nuremberg has become a cosmopolitan crossroads. It is, as we remembered it, a beautiful city with beautiful people and a welcoming country.

Of course, Nuremberg hasn’t always been that way.  It is difficult to be here and not reflect on that dark period when Hitler led this nation and the world to the brink of the abyss.  During those days, Nuremberg became the site where the 1935 laws were passed that launched the deadly persecution of the Jews.  It was also the site of the annual Nazi rallies where up to a million people assembled to cheer Hitler and his programs. And it was here that the Nuremberg trials were conducted in 1945 to hold the Nazi leaders accountable to International law. So chilling was the Hitler regime that the world seemed to forget that Germany gave us Luther, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and Bonhoeffer.

The Nazi rally grounds have been turned into parks where couples stroll beneath shade trees and families play with their children beside a tranquil lake. Near by, the Document Center (Doku Zentrum) “documents” what happened in the Second World War, an attempt to understand how a nation could be led to commit the atrocities unleashed by Hitler’s regime.  It is a sobering place that looms over the peaceful park that surrounds it.  Today the Nuremberg Symphonic Orchestra performs open air concerts in the same place where thousands once hailed Hitler and cheered his speeches. 

Nuremberg, the largest city in Franconia and gateway to Bavaria, is impressive as an idyllic and tranquil place. But always, underneath the surface, there lurks the memory of the Second World War and the questions it raises.

Nuremberg is a constant reminder of our potential for good and evil, our infinite capacity for the divine and the demonic. The evil that raised its head in Nuremberg more than half a century ago, continues to raise its head among us today. We witness that evil in Nigeria where 200 girls were recently kidnapped by a radical Islamic group, in Iraq where tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions threaten to rip apart its fragile government. In Syria where civil war has raged for the past three years and threatens to spread into Lebanon.  We witness it in almost every city where domestic quarrels often end in violence.  We see it in the continued global fear of terrorism. Nuremberg is a reminder that each of us, every people and nation of every generation, need to be delivered from our worst passions.  It is the reason God sent His Son who died for us so that we might learn to love as He loved, to forgive as He forgave and to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Last week, while Americans prepared their fireworks for the fourth of July, Louis Zamparini quietly slipped the bonds of this earth at the age of 97.  After a 40 day struggle with pneumonia, his body finally surrendered. He was surrounded by his family.

Zamparini started his remarkable journey as a wild youth in Torrance, California.  He was constantly on the edge of juvenile detention or jail, a failing student and a troublemaker.  Determined to alter his destructive course, he channeled his untamed energy into athletic competition.  In 1936, at 19, he set a national interscholastic mile record that stood for 15 years, and became the youngest runner on the U.S. Olympic team in Berlin.  His performance was so outstanding in the 5000 meter that Adolf Hitler asked to meet him.

During World War II he became a bombardier in the Pacific.  Assigned to a B-24, popularly known as the “flying brick” he crashed at sea and survived for 47 days on a raft with only rainwater for survival and no protection from the scorching sun.  When he and his buddy were washed ashore, they were captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war under torturous conditions in POW camps.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent condolences to the Zamparini family in 1946 when Louie was presumed dead.  After the war he returned to his family alive.  But he was bitter, angry at God and dreaming of revenge on his captors.  He began to drink heavily and again his life was on a destructive course for disaster.

In 1949 his wife compelled him to go with her to a tent in Los Angeles where a young unknown evangelist named Billy Graham was preaching.  On the second night, he gave his life to Christ.  The transformation was remarkable.  When they returned home he immediately poured all the bottles of liquor down the drain.  He gathered up his secret stash of girlie magazines and cigarettes and threw them in the trash.

He later forgave his Japanese captors, traveling back to that nation to find his tormentors and personally tell them of his forgiveness. He established Victory Boys Camp for troubled youth and spent the rest of his life helping young men find a way out of their addictions and broken homes.

In 1998, Louis Zamperini returned to Japan to carry the torch in the Nagano Winter Games.

Laura Hillenbrand, the author who wrote Seabiscuit, documented Zamperini’s remarkable life in the biography, Unbroken, published in 2010. It remains a best seller. A movie about his life is scheduled for release this year on Christmas Day.

Hillenbrand commented on Zamperini’s death, "Farewell to the grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew. Thank you, Louie, for all you gave to me, to our country, and to the world. I will never forget our last, laughing talk, your singsong 'I love you! I love you!' and the words you whispered to me when you last hugged me goodbye, words that left me in happy tears, words that I will remember forever. I will love you and miss you to the end of my days. Godspeed, sweet Louie."