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How Chronic Anxiety derails the church from her purpose

Just read some good stuff in the last few days, and it is so relevant I just had to write it up and share it. In fact, I would say it is essential knowledge for church leaders. If what is described here is active in your congregation, it will help you understand, and both be compassionate and firm with the problem, or even to nudge you to seek help addressing it.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT HOW ANXIETY IMPEDES RELATIONSHIPS IN CHURCHES

and so then interferes with doing God’s work as well.

One of the books I am currently reading explains how a negative emotional dynamic in churches works. It has to do with unhealthy anxiety. Everything I read here fits both my experience and my theories about unresolved trauma in the CRC in Canada. By the way, I will start mentioning that the theory is not a blaming theory, in fact it is quite sympathetic. People at that time did not know what was happening, and they did not know how to deal with it.

By the point in the book these quotes are found, the author has explained there are two kinds of anxiety. Short term, or acute, and chronic, which is always there. Chimes or alarm bells are always going off for the chronically anxious. I will add that they seem to need to be fearful. He has also explained, simplistically put, that there are three areas of brain activity that regulate our behaviour, one is the part we have that is most in common with primitive, reptilian animals, it governs basic functions that keep us alive—survival processes. The next, more advanced part of the brain is the part that deals with playing, nurturing, bonding, and emotional expression –relational processes (my term). The most advanced section of the human brain’s processing centres, consisting of about 85% of the brain matter, deals with analysis, concepts, symbols, reflection, observation and insights. The author refers to it as the “Thinking Cap.” Stress, or anxiety, tends to cut out the second and third level and have the lower one dominate.

In this section the author is talking about Jesus’ parable of the lost son, using the runaway as an example of acute anxiety, and the homeboy as an example of chronic.

Here is the quote:

“Acutely anxious people regain their perspective. There is a return to the Thinking Cap. They have the capacity to control their reactivity. But the chronically anxious have immense difficulty keeping their hands off their own chimes. They are not self-regulating. And they are not imaginative. Note how the father appeals to his oldest son’s thinking capacity: “It is fitting to rejoice and give thanks. After all, my son—your brother—was lost and is found. Son, everything I have is yours.” There is no response.

“Typical of chronically anxious people, the older son resorts to either/or, yes/no, or black/white thinking. It was either “favor me” or “favor your other son;” it was all these years of obedience versus the irresponsible behavior of the other son. Anxiety-driven reactivity inhibits the use of the Thinking Cap. With little capacity for discernment, the chronically anxious reduce everything to all or nothing. Lines are drawn. It is no wonder, then, that they overfocus on others and their weaknesses. They blame or falsely criticize. The older son, for example, diagnoses his brother—reckless, careless, foolish. By overfocusing on the riotous brother, he is no longer responsible for his own reactive position nor responsive to his brother. To the older brother, the trouble is external to himself. Obviously, the brother cannot think systemically. For when you see yourself as part of all relational transactions, you look in both directions. You understand that in emotional systems everything is mutually influenced.

“The parable of Jesus also clues us to another characteristic of chronic anxiety. There is willfulness. “If it’s not done my way, I’ll show you.” Thus the older son refuses to join the festive party. If the chronically anxious cannot diminish or eradicate their pain by blaming, they’ll rid themselves of it nonetheless through other means. “I’ll make you suffer yet.” If differences cannot be tolerated, they are likely to be persecuted.

“It is the chronically anxious individuals in the church family who are apt to conduct a “search and destroy mission.” They will not hesitate to impose their wills on others. They make hostages of their gifts, attendance, and participation. They employ their stewardship as brinkmanship. Their ultimate threat is to run away from home—transferring or terminating their membership if an action is not rescinded, a person is not removed, or a demand is not satisfied. These tactics are effective in church families that place a premium on peace and harmony. They will exchange integrity for tranquillity. They cannot free themselves from the bondage of others.

“Basically, chronically anxious people have a low threshold for pain. This is why they are in the forefront of the effort to secure immediate relief. They hanker for answers and comfort. Threatened, they make demands, spread rumors, exaggerate circumstances, claim injustice-whatever it takes to lessen their anxiety. Governed by instinct rather than insight, they cannot be stopped by reasoning or appeasing. Mistakenly, those who must deal with them think being “nice” to the chronically anxious will earn cooperation in return. Or that being reasonable will get the reactive forces to follow suit. But the reptilian brain does not respond to nice behavior, clear thought, or sugar and roses. Under the siege of the Automatic Pilot, thoughtful and careful approaches are ignored. For this reason, too, difference itself is not the cause of the friction. Differences are problematic in proportion to the automatic processes. With the chronically anxious, the contentious issue is not at the basis of their reactivity. Even if the issue changes, their chimes are still ringing. They keep adding emotional fuel to the fire.”

–Pg 24-25 How your Church Works

“At times a system becomes aware of the anxiety-generating forces, yet refuses to use its strengths and resources to deal with the agitation. Sweeping the anxious reactivity under the rug, the system proceeds as usual. But “benign neglect” only reinforces malignant processes. Moreover, ignoring is as reactive as placating or attacking. VICIOUS CIRCLES CAN ONLY BE DISABLED THROUGH EXPOSURE. They are enabled by secrecy and avoidance.

“The church family’s relationships are no exception to anxiety. It was as true in the early church as it is in the contemporary church.”

–Pg 27 “How your Church Works; Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems” by Peter Steinke

 

 
 

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Live the Adaptive Change you wish to see in the CRC.

With apologies to those who visit here who are not from my tribe, I will engage in some tribe talk.

Fellow tribal leader and smoke-signal sender (blogger) Paul VanderKlay has been addressing the chief’s delegations call for Adaptive Change. See his posting on that if you want background, but I’ll quote the bit I’m responding to below.

His post ends with the one thing I want to address, since I’ve become more and more convinced of this in my work as an STM, (which is really a work of holding up mirrors to congregations (without smoke) and a work of hoping for recognition and change to occur). Here’s how Paul posits it:

Adaptive Change

I also know that no agency or denominational change will be sufficient to turn the tide of our decline. Those changes need to come primarily at the local levels and while a denomination may support local change it cannot cause it or bring it.

I also realize there is no consensus on what changes need to come in local churches. The fault lines within the church run from top to bottom. Some thing churches must be more “affirming and open”, others more hard line. Some think we must be more evangelical, others more confessionally Reformed or catholicly Reformed. Some are just trying to keep the doors open long enough so a pastor they like can do their funeral.

We talk about adaptive change. Do we really mean it? pvk

My answer – briefly put so you can stop reading if you just want the kernel proposition – is: Adaptive change, or Deep Heart Change, can only come to an organization if it’s leadership is practicing it, and as many individuals as possible are engaged.

Trouble is, it is not a program to follow (technical), it is a way of life change, of dying-to-self and especially to institutional needs, in order that something new can continually be born. Sound familiar?

I come to this from my work as a pastor of congregations in transition. Transition is usually precipitated by some kind of crisis,  and the more intense the crises the more likely will be a willingness to enter into adaptive change (up to a certain point, then paralysis and shock will win out for a time). And I come to this from my reading. I had read some background material and had training already in Systems Theory, which is an underpinning in all this. Three books particularly shape this response which I am writing today: “The Leader’s Journey” came across my eyes first, then “Leadership on the Line” which sharpened my understanding of Adaptive Change, and finally “Deep Change” by Robert E Quinn. I haven’t posted any summaries of that, but here is something I wrote in spring of 2012 beginning to apply it to the CRC as an organization. Here is a post I quickly made of how Quinn describes the transformational process of “Deep Change.”

I believe that what Quinn describes has a direct co-relation with the biblical call for “Heart Change” or Spiritual growth (Eze 11:19 and the like). To not be engaged in this is to have a hardening heart. Yet our many institutional constraints (exoskeletal structures, in Pvk’s description) – yes even those that have a preacher of the gospel going political to preserve his job and reputation – must be jetissoned for a necessary new metamorphasis to occur.

You first.

 

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Response to editorial about pastoral mobility

This is my reply to this editorial:

http://www.thebanner.org/departments/2014/04/time-to-move-on

I’m responding as a preachers kid and preacher who is now a Specialized Transitional Minister — where moves every 2 years or less are the norm. There is a frustration to that part of it, because Transitioning is about culture change, and 2 years just barely gets you out of park.

About moving frequently: This will affect each person according to their constitution and the way parents handle it. In my youth, moves were just announced to us kids. With my own family, the entire family was made aware and as much as possible was part of the process. Since one of our moves was to the real Holland, I have gained a ‘culture reading’ ability that is a crucial tool in my work now.

About leaving before the church wants you to: The writer may be clinging to a notion that was once appropriate for his father, but is no longer so. In a day when our churches were more mono-cultural and cookie-cutter pastors could fit almost anywhere and repeat their evening Catechism sermons somewhat creatively enough to maintain interest for 3 to 5 years, and a day when democracy and pop-poll-arity were not strong in the church, it may have been valid. But today churches believe too much in democracy (one strand of the problem) and that a pastor has to ‘keep them happy’ (a second strand in the bigger problem) and where each congregation and pastor position within them can be very different from church to church (strand three) and where – from both sides, pastors and congregations – we have tremendous difficulty being clear about expectations and abilities in an open and transparent way (four) the case is no longer valid. Plus, the statement “leave before they want you to” hints at a lack of biblical perspective on serving God in a congregation, where it is God who might want you to stay while the congregation wants you to leave (fifth big strand ‘prophetic calling’ and sixth strand ‘discernment’). I take pleasure in reading the first part of Numbers 14 with people and asking what would have happened if a congregational meeting had been called followed by a vote?

Clergy Mobility: I do see the housing equity and spousal career factors which have changed mobility ability. But the writer needs to make the case for why itineracy should be the norm, rather than simply state, like a traditionalist would, that this was handed down from the forefathers as accepted truth.

We most definitely need to revamp our calling system:

In my work I have seen that churches have lost touch with the principle of the two-fold calling, where a personal sense of call must be confirmed by the church. Congregations do not know that they are affirming a person’s called-ness when they extend a call. They tend to see it more as a ‘hire’ or electing someone (there is a lot of ‘gaming’ of the equation that happens around the ‘vote’ to approve extending a call) who they can then un-elect and un-hire. Re-teaching is needed on calling.

Pastor Church Relations has a new book out that can help a lot with the search process, but still, if a pastor is deluded about their abilities or inabilities, or a congregation is misrepresented by it’s search committee as wanting outreach when the congregation really wants to hunker down and be safe with ‘their own kind’ we end up with stuckness. In one of his books, Eugene Peterson, in one of his books, even refers to the search process as “Ecclesiastical Pornography” where too much airbrushing goes on and shock sets in when the real blemishes become apparent. The church could learn much from the recovery movement about the value of being open about struggles, rather than continuing to hide the fact that we all create dirty laundry and carry that baggage. We need much more transparency in the call conversation.

I don’t know much about the past, but pastoring has, in my experience, become much to political and resident chaplain-esque. Buying a house and having a spouse with a good job, or having massive student debt will hinder most preachers from risking-in-faith in a pastorate. The unstated value in congregations seems to be that the pew must remain comfortable and the pastor may be unique or intriguing, but may not speak God’s word in a way that rattles comfortable core values. We need a return to strengthening the prophetic side of pastoring. (I know that may mean all kind of things to people, but have to risk that misunderstanding).

More and more it is a fact that churches and pastors seem to get ‘stuck’ with one another. Too often one or the other or both languish in pain for too long and then there is a rupture. We certainly need new and creative processes to get churches and pastors unstuck from each other, and for preventing stuckness in the first place.

My thoughts here are in no way comprehensive. All of this is evidence to me that a major change in the way we are church, based on scripture, Reformed principles, and cultural context is needed. This will not be fixed by more mere tinkering. The kind of change needed is Adaptive (as another article in the Banner describes), it needs to run deep into our hearts and worldviews, and we need to find the courage to drop everything Egyptian and Pharaohic that has become comfortable for us, and forge ahead into whatever shape God’s promises have for us in the land of the future.

 

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The Power of Christ and Christians is in vulnerable love

Some extended history of mild abusiveness have been surfacing in the congregation I am serving. And there are hints now and then of deeper abuses. As a result council asked that I begin to address abuse in some sermons.

The first of these sermons was introduced with our denominations’ historic and ground-breaking survey in the 1990s that, much to our surprise, revealed abuse within the denominational membership was reported at the same or higher levels as in general society. We began to address this as a denomination as soon as the shock wore off.

The first sermon I preached was rooted in Philippians 2:7,8 and Galatians 5:16 with Matthew 4:1-11 and 27: 39-41 in supporting roles. I also borrowed some things I learned through Tony Campolo, who apparently learned them from Willard Wallard, namely the concept that “for love to increase power must decrease”

The main drive of the sermon (in my mind anyway) is that there are two main power dynamics in this world and one of them was never strongly used by Jesus:

Power One is what we might call survival of the fittest, the way of the flesh, the ways of nature – of this world, or the ways of the Kingdoms of this world. It is a form of power that is primarily dominating, coercive and thus abusive and violent. It is the one we know naturally and instinctively, even as humans. It has us wanting to take that power to ourselves. Vulnerability has no place in this system, except to be taken advantage of to advance oneself.

The other is the power of the Kingdom of God, the way of Jesus and the way of the Spirit. It is in direct counter-emphasis to the original one. Jesus repeatedly was given opportunity to use or obtain the powers of the Kingdoms of this World, for instance in the wilderness with Satan, and for another instance on the cross, when people are saying they would believe in him if he healed himself. So why is it that he did what we most likely would not have done if we had access to ‘super’ power? — i.e. let himself be vulnerable to that power? To increase and show love is why.To build relationship is why.

Jesus knows that for love to be shown, Power One must decrease. Think of human relationships like marriage. If strained, the person who really loves and cares has much less power than the one who says and believes “I don’t care.” If that relationship is to balance, the one with the power must become vulnerable and reduce the power they have in the situation. God understands that. We don’t. Not easily.

So, that sermon said Jesus became vulnerable to show God’s love and in dying in that vulnerability revealed the power of God, the power of Love, Grace, Forgiveness, Mercy etc.

When we pull power to ourselves, we will abuse.

For the next Sunday morning I was led to preach on Ezekiel 34, focusing on verse 21. In the chapter I saw that there was a reprimand for Shepherd-Kings, but then also one for the dynamics within the flock. The “Survival of the fittest” Power One dynamics. The same dynamic Paul addresses regarding the Agape Feast in 1 Corinthians 11. And God, through the prophet, says he will intervene himself and level things, not so much the playing field, as much as the power field.

Well, those who enjoy using Power One in the church do not like that message. At all. OK, I’m not comfortable with it myself. It’s scary to recognize the call to the sheep in that chapter. Support the vulnerable, do not butt and boss the weak, etc. The rules of Power One are much easier to figure out, and if you work well under those rules, why change? Well, because the Word says that to live by the flesh is to be displacing the Spirit, that is why.

So, I’m working on it.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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12 step 12 traditions adapted to the body of Christ

I was recently reading yet another discussion regarding the difficulty of balancing institution and organism in the church. I went back in my thinking to a time when I worked at an addiction treatment center and began to see that AA — the original 12 step program — had a brilliant way of avoiding some of those problems. These are normally referred to as the 12 traditions. Here below I’ve quickly and without deep thought translated those to apply to the body of Christ. Recognize the wisdom!:

1. Our common welfare as the body should come first; personal growth depends on a healthy body.

2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God that is depicted in the Bible and revealed in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

3. The only requirement for membership in the group is a desire for sanctification.

4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or the body as a whole.

5. Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to those who still struggle.

6. One group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the name of the body to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

7. Every group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

8. The groups in the body should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

9. The body, as such, ought never be organized into an institution; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

10. The collective of groups has no opinion on outside issues; hence the reputation of the body ought never be drawn into public controversy.

11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity outside the group gathering and especially in media.

12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever remind us to place principles before personalities.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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It is good to hear a terrible (to you) sermon now and then

One Sunday recently when I was in Central America I attended an English (Gringo) service hosted by the Spanish (Tico) congregation my brother and his wife and other gringo missionaries in the area are part of.

These Gringos (mainly my brother’s family and another family) are involved with setting up a Christian Private school, and have roles in running an addiction treatment ministry, and helping out in a ministry that takes young girls out of the sex trade and teaches them English so they can get jobs in the regular tourist trade and support their families that way instead. It is all great ministry and all three are growing. The lady who was in charge of the Addiction treatment facility has been there 10 years, and clearly has deep connections, relationship and respect from the Ticos. She showed me the Saturday market, and it took us quite some time to walk from one end to the other with all the hello’s and greetings and meetings we had on the way. That respect seems to be the fruit of a combination of her personality and a factor of having put in a long time in the community. All three missions, and even the Gringo congregation, had stories about the difficulty of getting government permits in writing. The more I heard and saw, the more I think it has to do with an innocent, well-meaning arrogance Gringos bring with them, that the Ticos see and smell but that is inodible (I made that word up spellchecker) to the carriers of it. I have developed this radar that is always asking “What am I communicating that I am blind to” and that radar leads me to that awareness.

Back to the worship service. When you are not at home you expect to experience something different. I did. I was not prepared to be so disturbed by a sermon though.

The ‘pattern’ of worship there is to start with a set of worship songs that move from enthusiastic, to pensive, to a ‘pentecostal’ mood and then finishing with a rousing chorus repeated multiple times. After that came announcements, offering, and then the message to close the service.

It began with the obvious challenge of musicians leading us in worship using their second language. I was deeply appreciative of the musicians (the great drummer was only 12 and had been drumming since he was 4) being willing to risk this as hosts. When you are worshiping in a second language, and you get to the part of worship where you usually lose yourself in adoration and pentecostal praise, reverting to your mother tongue is understandable. Meaning it’s ok with me as a Gringo, even if I can’t understand. And yes, the irony of reverting to one’s first language in a “Pentecost” moment is rich and wonderful for a Reformed guy to observe.
The musicians finished and left.
At that point the congregated are all older but-able-to-travel-and-be-active Americans, and my brother’s young family, and the lady from the addiction treatment center and her young son and teen daughter.
Then some announcements.
Then the pastor asks someone to come forward to tell of some mission work they do. It’s a near 60 yr old builder guy from Tennessee or some place like that, who tells of his conversion 6 years before, and how he a year later felt God telling him to go to poor countries and build houses to North American specs (double pane windows) and ready for plumbing and electric if the people want to put them in later (but no one does) to give them away. He tells of how it has grown, and how they’ve done 12 houses now, and if you want support or be part of a team etc etc etc. And I was wondering how helpful that kind of thing really is, but when he asked for questions I stayed quiet. I’m a guest. I don’t want to make trouble for my brother and his wife’s reputation. I had already asked some pointed questions at the open house for the new home some of the same people had built that was to be a group home for the girls who had been rescued from their pimps. Questions like “What do you do to be careful to respect their cultural patterns, like their more lax approach to time, (which I admire and envy) and not turn them into little American Northern Europeans? And in fact could that be one of the resistance factors in getting government permits?” Like that. It’s what I do. But I began to realize these people were not used to thinking that way, and didn’t really understand what was behind the question… they are convinced they are doing a good thing (and they are) and don’t understand why not everyone rushes in to support it.
So I stayed still in church.
Then the scripture was read.
Hebrews 11:6, which we were told was a context where the writer was talking about faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The word “earnestly” or “diligently” became the focal point of a sermon that substantially was a contrasting of lazy and diligent, with a long string of “definition of lazy” jokes being the counterpoint to the diligence. “When the remote is 10 feet away and you decide you like the rerun after all… that’s laziness and not diligence” that kind of thing.
The theme statement or big idea seemed to be “Work hard, don’t be lazy, and you will please God enough that things will work out for you” with the caveat that a prosperity gospel was not what was being preached. There was no caveat about works righteousness.
Very soon I began realizing that my experience of the faith journey, and my understanding of the passage, was completely different than his. My experience was that a certain kind of ‘trying hard’ that he was describing, for me almost always led to problems, and that a recognition that my effort was not the key but my relaxing into God’s will for the moment led to all kinds of great results my efforts had little to do with. I saw and heard the passage saying “Faith in God leads to God being pleased, coming to God in belief leads to pleasing God, earnestly seeking relationship with God leads to rewards that are freaky and wonderful and amazing and unimaginable beforehand.
So there I was, believing the complete opposite of what he was preaching. And I was seeing how a message like this was perpetuating the inodible problems and barriers. And I was frustrated.
Now, that all would have been workable, if this was not a “call for response” insecure preacher. But, alas, he kept asking “are you with me? Let me hear an Amen!” and at my toughest point he directly asked “Do you agree with me? I need to hear if you agree with me!” and I made myself look over at my brother’s family and think about what damage I might do to their work there if I told out loud what I was thinking and feeling, and I kept quiet.
Later, when I had time at the poolside to reflect, I came to realize how important it is to hear a bad sermon now and then, how it can sharpen your awareness of God’s ways.

 

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Thoughts trying to see clearly through a local dustup

A nativity scene was removed from the public square after an objection was raised that it was unconstitutional. In local coffeeshops, churches, newspapers and blogs a lot of detritus was stirred up. This following post is just my trying to think this through as clearly as possible. It is written in a format of an open letter to fellow believers in Jesus Christ, but is not really intended as a public document, just a way for me to get hold of what my priorities are.

***

Could one of my fellow Christians tell me how the name of Jesus is advanced by the way many of us (I’m embarrassed to have to admit I’m part of the us) have responded to the nativity scene situation?

As a visitor among you from another land I will be as polite as I can but I have this habit of asking hard questions that don’t come off as nice. This is what I see from within my view of what following Jesus entails:

A set of religiously symbolic objects was removed from state property because someone pointed out they were “a clear violation of the constitutional principle of church-state separation.”

An outcry resulted. Nasty comments either attacking the objector, or in defense of the necessity of these Christian symbols being in the public square, or doing both, were posted. Many implied they were from Christians or clearly stated it.

To my ears and eyes, the hue and cry was disturbing on several levels, but primarily because people who carry the name of Christ in their religious professions were besmirching that name by ignoble behaviour, ironically in the naive belief they were defending that name. That is very very sad-making for me. In watching people fighting to keep Christ in Christmas (which is in itself debatable: what we have made the birthday into is far from what Christ was all about in my view, but then I might be a bit of a Scrooge by nature). I saw little evidence Christ was living in the majority of contentious objectors. Again, sad. Which of course raises questions, one of which is “What has the Way or movement Jesus founded by his humble birth, bold teaching and call back to God, suffering, torture, death and resurrection followed by the release of the Holy Spirit become? It appears to be a gospel-empty civil religion? If so, again this is sad. Sensible voices speaking for the Christ I know were not rising to my awareness in the hubbub.

Here is what I do know:

Our Christian Bible tells us to obey the state.

Our Christian Bible tells us as body of Christ not to try to become the state.

Our Christian Bible, read through Protestant glasses particularly — but not only — warns against the dangers of religious symbols becoming a replacement for God (instead of a means of connecting with God).

The Bible and history give us many examples of the dangers of the State and the Church being “in bed” together. Or a cattle stall or manger for that matter.

So, fellow bearers of the label Christian, lets work to keep Christ operating in our hearts and through our lives, including our words. Let’s not make a scene about a nativity scene in the public square the equivalent of a hill to die on. Please! For His sake. We will win many more to him by that than by knee-jerk words or antics.

***

Background thought:

One’s religion (the practices by which one’s spirituality is lived out) also shape one’s values. One’s values shape what is said and done in the public square, and in even in public service in the government.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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