©1999, 2016 By Bob Litton.
NOTE TO READERS: A couple of days ago I published another episode relating my spiritual journey. It is a mostly recondite, mystical piece that probably only a few people would be interested in.
¶But today, before getting off the theology train altogether, I want to publish the drafts for a couple of pamphlets which I wrote back in 1999 for my home church, at the time, back in Dallas. They were never published as pamphlets because the minister considered them too controversial. Perhaps some church elsewhere on the planet might view them in a more sympathetic light and make use of them. I should warn you beforehand that they are wordy: the first (What Disciples Expect of the Church) contains 1,761 words and the second (What the Church Expects of Disciples), 1,324 words.
¶One further bit of information: Recently, an acquaintance who is currently quite active in the United Methodist Church (not the same one I attended) looked over these pamphlets and pointed out to me that the UMC’s bishops have added a fifth item to their list of expectations: Witness. I think that was a good move on their part; however, I did not add it to my presentation here for two reasons: (1) I don’t believe witness was in the group when I composed the pamphlet and I want to publish these pamphlet models as originally intended; which leads me to (2), adding witness would destroy the symmetrical balance of my design (four expectations for each pamphlet). I know that sounds self-centered and childish of me, but there you have it, the dark side of Bob Litton. I should add that these pamphlet models have not been sanctioned or approved by the United Methodist Church or by any other denomination. I am solely responsible for them.
¶As noted next to my by-line, I have copyrighted these compositions. However, I don’t expect to make any money out of them. I want anybody who can make positive use of them—even in an edited form—to go ahead and do so. I just don’t want anyone to claim he or she was the original author. Also, even if readers can’t find a practical use for them, the writings might provide material for interesting conversations. I hope so.
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What do disciples expect from the Church?
¶When a person walks through a church door into a sanctuary full of strangers, what is he or she looking for? What should they be looking for? What in fact will they find? This pamphlet is an attempt to answer those questions as honestly as possible.
¶Four primary elements motivate our search for a church home: Spirituality, Community, Relevance and Mission. The only significance in that order is in the way these elements correlate, however roughly, with the four contributions the church expects of its disciples: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, and Service; all of which are discussed in a companion pamphlet to this one. Otherwise, there is no hierarchy in their importance.
¶Spirituality — Of the four, spirituality is the most difficult to discuss because, even as the Holy Spirit lures us with a yearning to be nearer the holy ground, it thwarts knowledge—even clear perception—of the “holy ground’s” elementary features. Jesus acknowledged the evanescence of the Holy Spirit: “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:7, 8)
¶The Holy Spirit can be “described” only obliquely through analogies such as the manna gathered by the Israelites in the wilderness. The manna was given freely, it appeared overnight when no one could see it, there was enough for everyone, it was sufficient nourishment in and of itself, and it could not be preserved. Is there anything in that description that is not true also of spirituality?
¶So how can a church develop and nurture an atmosphere conducive to spirituality?
¶A cross, a chancel rail, and stained glass windows help to a degree in at least keeping us attentive to the reason we walked into the sanctuary. By themselves, however, they are insufficient to establish a truly spiritual atmosphere. What is really needed is a yearning in the breast, both individually and as a congregation, to relate to, and depend on, God during a time of communal tribulation or celebration. That doesn’t happen every Sunday, but it does happen.
¶Traditionally, spirituality in the church has required separation—however temporary—from the world, even from our church community. Christ, we are told, went alone into the wilderness for his most intense spiritual focusing. Later, he separated himself even from his disciples and went upon a mountainside to pray.
¶Today, we have retreat centers where we can go for two or more days, either solo or in a small group, to recollect ourselves through extended prayer and meditation. That means examining our consciences more intensely, asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness, and rededicating ourselves to spiritual struggle. Such centers are available throughout the U. S. There is at least one very close at hand—Mt. Carmel Center in Oak Cliff. Although operated by Carmelite monks, the retreat is open (for a fee) to all Christians.
¶And, of course, we can always have a prayer service here at our home church. Unfortunately, the modern prevalence of burglaries and vandalism make it unwise for any chapel to be kept open 24 hours a day, but arrangements can be made to allow small groups to gather in the chapel or the sanctuary for a prayer service at any reasonable hour.
¶Frequent prayer, in fact, is the second factor that contributes to spirituality. But the type of prayer that is most conducive to spirituality is not of the sort through which the pray-er talks a lot. The most spiritual prayer is the “prayer of quiet”—the prayer that waits and allows the Holy Spirit to work upon the soul. Such praying is difficult for the novice, for we discover then that our brain never rests; it must always be busy about something. To keep the mind from drifting onto the “stream of multiplicity” different cultures have devised simple, repetitive phrases such as, “To you, Lord, I lift up my soul!” or “Lord God, come to my aid!”
¶Most disciples—if indeed they are true disciples—want an atmosphere congenial and conducive to prayer. Yet most of us are uncomfortable with extended periods of quiet; our culture militates against it. Even in the sanctuary, the ideal of fellowship usually over-rides the ideal of spiritual quiet. Do we really want it that way?
¶Community — In his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold Kushner recalls asking his atheistic father why he went to the synagogue every week. His father replied: “My friend Garfinkel goes to the synagogue to talk to God; I go to the synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.” There is much insight in this comment. Kushner’s father respects, maybe even reveres, his friend Garfinkel enough to go to a place toward which ordinarily he is at best indifferent. And he goes there to enjoy the wholesome fellowship he covets and that Garfinkel exemplifies. Moreover, he is not unaware of the irony inherent in the situation: Where Garfinkel is seeking a relationship with the divine; he himself is seeking a relationship with the earthly.
¶Indeed, many people start attending any particular church because a friend, or someone they admire, goes there. They want both to spend more time in the vicinity of that person and to do the things he does because of a belief that everything that person does must be worthwhile.
¶Once involved, though, the novice may become disenchanted; for, although it is quite possible to find wholesomeness and good-naturedness and kindness in an individual person, expecting every church member to possess all those virtues is naive. And therein lies the cost of belonging. While a congregation in the large can be welcoming and nurturing, each member has flaws of character the same as other people have. Just because we go to church seeking perfection doesn’t mean we’ve attained it; the quest is lifelong. As someone has well put it, “A church is not a haven for saints; it’s a hospital for sick souls.”
¶The new disciple can find her community only if she reciprocates in the welcoming and nurturing. Although, to those who have never tried them, welcoming and nurturing may at first seem burdensome, the disciple quickly finds that joy and gratitude are the true recompense for the effort expended.
Relevance — Several years ago, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported of the Yuppie generation’s cynical attitude toward the church: “They complain that it’s boring, irrelevant, and money-grubbing,” he said. The churches that were growing, Jennings reported, were the mega-churches which offered programs little different from what might be found in a shopping mall or a country club…with child care added. And these new churches were offering worship as a multi-media event complete with semi-professional actors and musicians and colored lights.
¶And the message? The message of the gospel? It was “feel good”! In a new rendering of the old 19th century “gospel of wealth”, the assurance of the Good Book was that, in God’s eye, you didn’t earn that Mercedes Benz. God provided it for you because you deserved it. But that was years ago.
¶The majority of newcomers to a church today are young marrieds with children. They say they want their children to receive a good grounding in moral values and community involvement. They might prefer that they could leave their children in a Sunday school class and go home to their TV football game, but a sense of fairness and decency will not allow them to do that. So they go to a service and maybe even to a Sunday school. Let’s begin with the Sunday school and surmise what they hope they will find there.
¶Of course! It’s relevance! They might be surprised that it’s not a discussion of whether a man can survive being swallowed by a whale or how many wise men actually went to the manger, but instead a discussion of how Christian ideals can be practiced in a secular and mechanistic world on Monday, Tuesday, etc. Or they might encounter a discussion of particular women of the Bible compared to particular women today. They might find that Christianity is not encased in a 19th century mold.
¶And in the church service, they might find newer songs, different instruments. They might find a sermon filled more with insight and love than with fire and brimstone. They might find a balance between the vertical God-human relationship and the horizontal human-human relationship. And above all they might find a renewed sense of values that they can take home with them and share with fellow workers during the week.
Mission — That brings us to the final expectation disciples hold of their church. They want to go out into the broader secular world and make a positive difference. They come into the church to be spiritually filled and go into the world to empty themselves spiritually. As the Twelve Step programs put it so succinctly: “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”
¶Our people have expressed over and over again their desire to act outside the local church community. We have done many kindnesses one to another and contributed, at times sacrificially, for our “little church in the wild wood”. Routinely, we have contributed financially to the community beyond us. And occasionally we have given of our time and energy to that broader community. Yet somehow we feel as though we have “hung back” like a shy suitor. It seems that, considering who we are and what we have, both materially and spiritually, we should be making a more significant impact on the world around us.
¶This impulse may be dangerous because it could be simply the symptom of hungry pride. Perhaps our contribution may be larger than we imagine; perhaps it is so diffuse and anonymous that notice of it escapes even us. But in fact, what we want to do is something large, physical and together. What we want is a sense of focused mission and to encounter that mission as a total church community, not simply as individuals or small committees.
¶That is where leadership comes in. A true leader is someone who can discern and define the aspirations of a people and then mold and direct those aspirations toward a goal that is realistic, attainable and worthwhile.
¶Our church is in a period of maturation right now, much in the same way that our country is struggling toward maturity. Won’t you come and help us grow?
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What does the Church expect of its Disciples?
Prayers — The Discipline of the United Methodist Church specifies four things the church expects from its disciples: prayers, presence, gifts and service. The purpose of this pamphlet is to relate to you what we mean by each of those support elements in this local church. In another pamphlet we discuss what this church has to offer disciples.
¶Each Sunday at the end of the pastoral prayer, our minister and individuals in the audience add brief prayers for specific persons and groups. Whoever initiates the mini-prayer introduces it as either “a prayer of concern” (intercessory) or “a prayer of gratitude” (thanksgiving). After each of these mini-prayers the pastor pauses a few moments to let the congregation add their own silent, individual prayers. Then he says “Lord, in your mercy…”, and the congregation completes the sentence with “…hear our prayer.” There are several varieties of prayer. We haven’t space to discuss all of them here. Three types of prayer—petition, intercession, thanksgiving—are the ones with which most of us are acquainted. At our church, we find occasion for all of them. However, the prayers most frequently used by us as a community are “intercession” and “thanksgiving”.
¶But praying doesn’t cease when we leave the sanctuary. We try to adhere to St. Paul’s injunction: “Pray unceasingly.” By that, we do not mean spending all our time on our knees. No, we interpret “pray unceasingly” in three other ways:
¶Firstly, it means keeping our souls and minds receptive of the Holy Spirit’s nudging; as a result, we often find ourselves praying brief, spontaneous, even involuntary prayers (what Richard Foster has called “popcorn prayers”) at any time, any place. These happen when the Holy Spirit prays within us for us. Many of these prayers are for ourselves, of course, but also many are for the church community.
¶We don’t really need experiential proof of prayer’s efficacy to persuade us to pray. What is necessary is a feeling of great and genuine spiritual need and a sense of our own inability to satisfy that need. Even the hardest-shelled atheist, under certain conditions, will find himself praying, as is witnessed by the so-called “foxhole prayers” of our various wars.
¶Secondly, “unceasing prayer” means keeping one’s mind centered on spiritual things, constantly realizing that we are not of this world even though we are in this world.
¶Thirdly, it means making of our lives a prayer, in other words, a life well-lived glorifies God and sends up “a fragrant sacrifice most pleasing to him.”
¶All we believers need for motivation is love and faith. True, even for us God sometimes says “no”, or his idea of what we need doesn’t always jibe with ours. In other words, he gives us what we need rather than what we want. Jesus articulated that reality when he prayed at Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me … but nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.”
¶Prayer doesn’t come easily for most of us, but with continual practice it gets easier—just like any other worthwhile endeavor. The more we practice it, the more natural it becomes for us. Prayer indeed is the least demanding responsibility the church expects of its disciples.
Presence — Primarily, presence means regular attendance at corporate worship services and, especially, active participation in those services. Some Christians speak of the local congregation as “thecorporate church” and of the larger community as “the scattered church”. This latter includes district and annual conferences away from the home church. The former includes the annual charge conference and committee meetings at the local level as well as the regular, weekly worship service. The church is governed through such meetings, and as many disciples as can should take part in that governing, Sometimes, also, we join other congregations for a special service. For instance, each Thanksgiving, Cochran Chapel and the Church of South India combine for worship.
Gifts — There’s a saying: “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t put it in their nests.” Yet it truly is amazing how many people think the church simply grows like a plant out of the ground. Yes, we take up an offering. The offertory is an important part of each service. It constitutes our return to God of a portion of the bounty with which he has blessed us.
¶It would be nice if everyone tithed. Not everybody is that well off, however. All we expect is that each disciple give according to his or her capability. No one here expects anyone else to give so much to the church that they jeopardize their own family’s well-being, but it is better for the individual disciple’s spiritual and emotional health to “give until it hurts.”
How much is that?
¶Some people have so much and give so little that they don’t even realize they are giving. They should give until it grabs their attention.
Where does the money go?
¶Part of it pays for the utilities, supplies, upkeep and salaries at this local church (General Fund). Another part, when so specified by the giver, is used to pay for construction of new facilities or for structural repairs and renovations on this campus (Building Fund). And then there is what the Methodist Church calls “apportionments”, a kind of denominational tax, based on membership head count, which we as a congregation contribute to the church’s mission elsewhere in this nation—and on this planet.
¶Each of these contribution targets is separate and requires an indication from the giver as to the fund for which the money is intended. The giver can either use a different envelope for each contribution or write on a single envelope the fund—or funds—for which all or each part of it is intended.
¶Also, once a month when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, partakers are invited to leave at the altar rail a small gift for some special charity. And about three months of the year our church is asked to be responsible for the lion’s share of food and toiletry items gathered for North Dallas Shared Ministries.
Service — Locally, we are always looking for volunteers to teach Sunday school at least one quarter of the year. The laity also help during the service as liturgists, ushers, choir members, and servers of Holy Communion. We also have Saturday work days periodically when disciples—those who are willing and physically able—renovate rooms in one of the buildings or improve the Children’s Center playground.
¶From a certain vantage point, Gifts and Service are really indistinguishable. Above, we spoke of gifts as what we give to the church by way of financial support. But there is also the way of giving through service, both at the local church level and in the mission field. By “mission field” we mean community projects such as North Dallas Shared Ministries and Habitat For Humanity as well as foreign missions—in other words, the Kingdom of God beyond the borders of our tiny church.
¶In the wider community, some disciples help a few hours each week with North Dallas Shared Ministries or the Wesley-Rankin Center in West Dallas. In the past, those of us who were young enough and apt enough have rehabilitated a house in disrepair. A group of ladies in the congregation visit the ill who are hospitalized or home-bound each week. Some classes have adopted a family for Christmas who otherwise would not have had any Christmas. But, to be honest about it, some of us feel we have not done as much as we ought to improve the wider community—not on a concerted basis at any rate. Recently, we have awakened to that remissness and are planning community service projects in home renovation and tutoring for the near future.
¶We hope you will be touched by the Holy Spirit and join us in these endeavors. If you would like to have more information on how you can participate, contact the church office.
—May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.