Monday, December 31, 2012

New Community Church

Today we worshiped at New Community Church, 3100 Wexford Road, Wexford, PA 15090, 724.935.0909, www.NCCinWexford.org, Mark Bolton, Senior Pastor.

Scripture: Genesis 17:3-5, 9 –
Abram fell facedown and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.”

Bob’s thoughts:

On Christmas Eve we went to worship with some of our family at a church they have been attending. It is one of the modern churches for the unchurched…nothing to offend anybody…but I realized that the loud clanging cymbal worship, the flashing lights and smoke was not how I would like to welcome my Savior. It didn’t feel like worship to me. Some churches are careful not to display any Christian symbols so as not to offend, but I find that is exactly what offends me. It took Christmas Eve for me to realize that if Christ isn’t the center of worship, then why are we there? Why is anybody there?

We were led back to a community church where we had worshiped before. There was some good press on some missional activities going on, and we went not realizing we had worshiped there previously. I did not notice any offensive crosses here either. During the welcome time a few people said hello, but otherwise we were left alone. The female lead singer was a little too strong for me. There was a harshness with the volume, but I did enjoy when she took up her bow for a solo.

There was an announcement of an upcoming program for young girls to help them recognize their self-worth. The cause is dear to me, but I was somewhat dismayed at the $15 charge. It seemed to be an odd thing to charge for attendance.

I thought the sermon by the Young Adult Pastor was well developed and brought up some interesting points. The title, “You Are a Hero, Now Be One,” was a good choice. He posed the thought that we are judged by what we do, who we are by how we act in the world.

I was reminded of an incident not long before I was brought to Christ. My wife was backing out of our driveway and backed into a neighbor’s car. He didn’t realize she was backing as far as she did.

The problem was me from the back yard assuming he ran into her, and this poor older man bore the brunt of my ire. He apologized profusely, no doubt to appease this wild man. When I found out later that my wife had backed into his car, I had many opportunities to apologize for my behavior to one of the most interesting Christian men that I have met. A hard lesson of being judged by how we act.

Jan’s thoughts:

I neglected to check the blog to see if we had already worshiped here, so we ended up re-visiting sooner than we might have planned.

We were plenty early for the 9 a.m. service, so had time to wander around some. As with most churches with more than one service, we were not identified as visitors so perhaps only one person spoke to us.

This is a modern building with an amazing child care area. The paintings lining the walls in the children’s’ area were colorful, imaginative, and well done.

Music seems to be an important ministry, and their Advent CD is even available on iTunes. Personally I thought the lead singer’s voice sounded a bit harsh, but it could have been just my ears. The music generally maintained a good volume though, and the song “Child of Love” was beautiful, especially the violin accompaniment.

The message, entitled “You Are a Hero, Now Be One,” was presented by Adam Jackley, the Young Adult Pastor. He led with a question about how we decide our identity: “Does who I am determine what I do, or does what I do determine who I am?” He declared that what we do matters, but does not define us; in other words, who I am determines what I do. He pointed out that, as illustrated in the Genesis passage, God first clarifies our identity, then He issues a call to action. (A profound point...) He said our identity as children of God is marked by the fact that we are loved, accepted, and forgiven, and nothing we can do can make God love, accept, or forgive us any more than He has. I appreciated the wording of his concluding thought: Jesus was God’s final word on who we are.

I find it both fascinating and disheartening that we are so often confused about our identity and spend much time and effort deciding how to define ourselves. Logic says that once we become believers, it’ simple…our identity has been determined and we should be able to move forward in our lives with the knowledge that we are children who are dearly loved by our heavenly Father.

But if you’re like me, Satan subjects us to regular reminders of our sins and failures in an attempt to keep us from believing what God has told us – that we’re forgiven, accepted, and loved – which forces us to decide again and again who we are.

Perhaps some do not experience this spiritual tug of war, but I’m betting most do. It’s a painful struggle to which we can only respond by praying for a fresh indwelling of the Holy Spirit…along with sticky note reminders everywhere I look. I joyfully anticipate the day when I have escaped this struggle and KNOW who I am.


Our prayer for this church:
Lord, we pray these worshipers are confident in Your gift of salvation and humble knowing it is nothing any of us could earn or deserve. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Concord Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Concord Presbyterian Church, 2832 Conway-Wallrose Road, Baden, PA 15005, 724.869.9135, www.concordchurch.org, Rev. Dr. John Wiebe, Pastor.

 
Scripture:
Isaiah 7:10-16 –
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also?

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

Matthew 1:18-25 –
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.”

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

 
Bob’s thoughts:

We were invited back to witness our daughter and son-in-law joining church. The festive spirit of Christmas causes me to reflect in a church where we don’t know too many people, how many think the church is always trimmed in greens and lights. We could be worshiping with people who are here every week or twice a year…it really doesn’t matter. Even where we are unknown we are bonded in corporate worship celebrating the birth of Christ. What a way to feel welcome.

I enjoyed the advent candle lighting and the anthem, “When Will Messiah Come?”

The sermon could have been titled “Emanuel, With Us Is God.” When we are in need we want God to show up. We serve and worship a God Who loves to show up in the lives of His people. When we are in need, we want to buy a miracle but are weak in faith to believe we will get one.

 
Jan’s thoughts:

Today we were back to Concord to witness our daughter and son-in-law re-join this congregation. We’ve been here often and know many of the folks.

Sitting in the very back pew, I appreciated the size and yellow color of the words on the screen. It can be frustrating to try to read small and/or white print displayed over graphics, but that was not the case today.

The cute skit for the Children’s Moment was well done, and I really enjoyed the spirit of the Senior Choir Anthem, “When Will Messiah Come?”

The Message, “A Night for Miracles,” began with a quote “from that pseudo-theologian, Woody Allen: ‘90% of life is showing up.’” He proceeded to make the point that God shows up even when we have lost hope and don’t expect Him to or believe He will, and usually when we least expect Him. God’s word has power to create and to bring healing into our lives, and His promises can be trusted because He is faithful.

That’s what I want…a God Who shows up before I know I need Him and does what I don’t stand a chance of doing. A God to Whom I matter, and Whom I can trust to do the best thing even when I disagree with Him about what the best thing is. A God Who doesn’t give up on me even when I’ve long since given up on myself, and a God Who can and does heal my deepest hurts and sorrows. I am so grateful that is the God we worship.


Our prayer for this church:
Father, We pray this congregation will see Emanuel, “With Us Is God,” and they remember that You want to show up in their lives. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Crestmont Alliance Church

Today we worshiped at Crestmont Alliance Church, 100 Parkridge Drive, Aliquippa, PA 15001, 724.375.3379, www.crestmontchurch.org, Joel Repic and Jim Eaton, Co-Pastors.

 
Scripture: Isaiah 55:6-7 –
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

 
Bob’s thoughts:

I am always intrigued by the dynamics of how God moves us to where He wants us to be for worship. From my wife’s conversation with our daughter she learned that a singer she liked worshiped at this church. I mistakenly assumed that the singer was female and wondered by the female I saw singing was drowned out so her voice didn’t come through (the same with the violinist). But God used this to get us where He could send a message.

The sanctuary is bright with solid color panels on the windows. Other than the flag staff, I didn’t see a cross anywhere.

During the passing of the peace of Christ only one person said hello and I was forming a negative opinion on the friendliness of the congregation, especially after hearing of their missional efforts out in the community. After the service a young couple came who had noticed my Marine jacket and thanked me for my service. A simple and much appreciated acknowledgement, but enough to give pause to my earlier evaluation regarding friendliness.

After the service a young woman spoke to my wife and directed us to where the pastor was. Of the 200 worshipers, these few people who took the time to greet visitors helped me to get past the perceived unfriendliness.

I imagine most pastors also preached on or at least spoke to the tragic shooting in Connecticut, but I would imagine this is one of the few that called the church to come together for extended prayer time, asking those in related fields to come forward for prayer. It was encouraging that the deacons and elders were willing to come pray without reservation for those requesting.

The kind words and prayer of the pastor were much appreciated.

 
Jan’s thoughts:

We usually do not know until Sunday morning where we will worship that week, but in a strange series of events, we had decided mid-week to attend church here…prior to the events in Sandy Hook.

As outward-focused as this church obviously is, and as friendly as everyone was with each other, there seemed to be a hesitancy in approaching us: the greeting time during worship took a little while because everyone was busy speaking to each other, but few welcomed us at this time. After the service one young man approached Bob (in his Marine t-shirt), shook his hand, and thanked him for his service, and several others spoke with us afterward also.

We also had an edifying visit with the pastor as we spoke about our mutual experiences of grief and how God had led us to this church on this particular Sunday. I was deeply touched by his prayer for us following our conversation.

The fair-sized sanctuary filled toward the front first then moved all the way to us at the back, a pattern I’ve never seen before.

The music was well done, and I especially loved the drums and the violin.

The emphasis of the untitled sermon was on prayer, mostly prayer for God’s presence but also for “hope, for churches to have an impact, and that the shadows would not have their way.” He stressed that we must follow Isaiah’s advice: seek the Lord, call on Him, and know that we are in for a battle. The heart is dark, but that’s not the final word: Christ brings light from darkness.

Indeed the last few days have seemed pretty dark, and every time something like this shooting happens, many people have things to say about the causes and how it could have been prevented. Unfortunately the facts remain, and we must live with the results.

One of the facts is that the God to Whom we pray and upon Whom we depend did not prevent this horrendous event, and the inevitable question is, “Why not?” It seems so clear from our perspective…He should have stopped it before it happened.

But I’m convinced part of that clarity stems from our hearts’ belief that things should not be like this…there is much evil in this world that God never intended.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but this much I believe with all my heart:
1 – God is Almighty.
2 – God loves us.
3 – God gives humans free will, including the freedom to go against His wishes, aka sin. And until Christ returns, we will continue to have to live with the results of evil, and God is our only hope for this world and the next.

I agree with his statement that what we most need is God’s presence. That’s what He has given me in my grief, and that will be my prayer for those who grieve now. Blessedly, He is enough.


Our prayer for this church:
Lord, we pray that this church continue to lead people to pray, to bring their concerns and joys to You, that they are always comfortable to come to You in prayer. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community

Today we worshiped at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, 2700 Jane Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203, 412.481.4010, www.hotmetalbridge.com, Rev. Jeff Eddings & Rev. Jim Walker, Pastors.

 
Scripture: John 1:6-28 –
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”

From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made him known.

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.


Bob’s thoughts:

The last time we were at Hot Metal they had just bought a bar, and it has been an oft-used and favorite witness of mine. They were losing their worship space…enough to destroy a budding congregation…and their answer was to pursue the purchase of a building that would accommodate their outreach and mission efforts even though they would not have space to meet in worship. God has blessed their leap of faith and the tithing of the church. They now have grown beyond two worship services.

We found a few padded chairs in the rear, which I really appreciated since I’m still sore from my fall. I don’t recall musical accompaniment of guitar and accordion anywhere, but it worked well, and I enjoyed the accordion player’s voice.

The worship space is an uneven V-shape with a stair in the middle. The remodeling is ongoing, but the love shows in what is done. Two walls of the sanctuary space are commercial windows. I think the world’s wisdom would suggest heavy drapes to block out the distractions, but it is a way for this church to shine out into the community. The view shows the access ramp, inviting others to come on in.

We were warmly welcomed, and feel sure that extends to all.

Many churches have an Advent wreath and candles, but here there are also anti-Advent candles to extinguish as the others are lit, a good sermon in itself.

From the message, John the Baptist coming to clean the people up in baptism in water for the coming baptism in Christ.

Also were drawn to think of the prophets like Zechariah foretelling the coming Christ, only to have 500 years go by before the prophecy is fulfilled. I am sure Zechariah questioned his faith like we do when we have to wait.


Jan’s thoughts:

As best we can guess, we last visited this church 6-8 years ago. They were in their previous location, and strangely enough we happened to be there for the announcement that they planned to buy the building in which they currently meet.

We arrived early and so had time to look around at the incredible decorating job in the nursery as well as the unconventional enhancements in the worship area. It seems almost everything about this church is original. Even the music leadership is unique: drums, an acoustic guitar, and an accordion, and the sound was novel and perfect.

More than a few people spoke to us, just saying hello, and one gentleman sat and talked with us at length, apparently just greeting visitors before sitting elsewhere for worship.

Many churches utilize Advent wreaths this time of year, but today we encountered something innovative…an anti-Advent wreath. The Advent wreath was traditional, created from evergreen sprigs and pine cones and containing the usual candles of hope, peace, joy, love, and the Christ candle.

The anti-Advent wreath was created from a fake wreath, lots of artificial glittery stuff, and candles called dread, anxiety, guilt, negativity, and anti-Christ. Last Sunday, for the first Sunday of Advent, the candle of dread was extinguished and the candle of hope was lit, and today the candle of anxiety was smothered and the candle of peace was lit.

The speaker pointed out that we feed our anxiety when we ignore God, causing us to fail to notice Christ at work in the world.

The untitled message was presented by Mike Holohan, Director of Ministries. He began by quoting Henri Nouwen: “Waiting is an awful desert between where you are and where you want to go.” He observed that waiting is hard because we are fearful.

However, Zechariah’s prophecy about Christ took 500 years to reach fulfillment, and John the Baptist was arrested for speaking the truth to power. Prophets don’t predict the future, they read the present, and they need the skill of waiting while resisting fear.

We can choose to wait with anxiety and dread or with anticipation. To do the latter, we must be aware, looking and listening and being in the moment. Blessedly, as we wait during this Advent, we can wait together in community.

This message is a timely reminder for me of the destructive power of fear. It paralyzes the mind and heart and often the voice as well. I pray that we all will extinguish the candles of whatever tries to make us forget that the victory we await is already true.


Our prayer for this church:
Awesome Lord, we are excited to see how You will bless Your church here next. We pray You continue to bless and strengthen them in the trials they face. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Home

Today we worshiped at Home.


Scripture: John 11:1-44 –
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.”

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even if he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

 
Bob’s thoughts:

There have been days where we both were too sick to get to a church, but today it is all on me. I fell on Monday and my body is a mosaic of green/blue/black/purple/yellow with a fair amount of pain.

This is the second time I got out the one word prayer that saved me – “Jesus!” There was not time – or need – for anything more. I came away beat up and bruised but nothing broken and with a renewed thanksgiving for my God.

The other time I remember using this prayer, I was stopped on a Parkway ramp watching for a break in traffic when I saw a car bearing down on me in the rearview mirror. There was no time to react and nowhere to go. As I invoked the name of Jesus in prayer, the car swerved into the guard rail and passed by me, removing most of the right side of the car in the process as he forced his way into traffic and was gone, leaving me in my vehicle wrapped in God’s loving arms.

Today we listened to a message about Christ raising Lazarus from the tomb and it spoke to me. I have and always will struggle with why God did not use me to raise my son whole and healthy. I knew then I had Christ’s power to do it and I know it now, but I knew he would not honor that prayer. I wasn’t so obedient that I didn’t try anyhow, but I knew it was in vain. When I lay on hands in prayer I don’t always know that God will bring the healing I look for, but usually know when healing isn’t going to happen.

In the story of Lazarus we ponder what the sisters were thinking while at their brother’s tomb with Christ, that it could be worth all this pain for just a glimpse of God’s glory. Christ wept because He felt their pain and their loss.

We are called to know that He can, that sometimes He waits, and we must trust in the meantime. Are we any different than Lazarus’ family, when God doesn’t meet our expectations?

 
Jan’s thoughts:

Had we not stayed home today for the reason I’m sure Bob already mentioned, we would not have heard this message. God uses every little thing in our lives to guide us.

The Andy Stanley message we listened to, entitled “When God is Late,” was based on our question of “Why doesn’t God do something about that?” He explained there can be many “thats” in our lives, and the question is universal. But what Jesus did in the story of Lazarus was “create a ‘that,’ then did not do something about ‘that’ in order for us to learn how to live with ‘that’ in the future.” He created a new category of ‘thats’ that are for God’s glory.

Stanley pointed out that every time we ask God “Why didn’t You come? You could have stopped this,” Jesus’ answer would be that it was worth it for the glory we will witness as a result. In our pain we must learn three things: that He can, that He waits sometimes, and I can trust Him in the meantime. He has promised that if we continue to believe, we will see God’s glory.

I recall asking God more than once why He did not stop the accident that killed our son, so I can surely relate to this question. God has been gracious to me in my periods of questioning and unbelief, and instead of an answer has given me more of Himself, and He promised that I will one day see His glory. All I can say is amen and hallelujah!

 
Our prayer:
Holy Lord, we believe; forgive our unbelief. Help us to be strong as we put our worst days in Your hands. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.