A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Friendship with Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that people who pray to see God and have their prayers answered rarely ask the same thing twice.  Like the Israelites who met God face to face on the mountainside of Mt. Sinai, we cower in fear when God singes us with a presence that is overwhelming and, at times, threatening.

We keep God at arm’s length.  What if God searches us deeply as the scriptures attest (Ps. 139:1)?  What if the unveiling of God unveils all our secrets (Luke 12:2)?  What if God snags us in our selfishness and zaps us dead if we venture too close (2 Samuel 6:7)?

We preachers speak every week on the intimacy of God.  We encourage people to know God as they are fully known, to grow in a personal relationship with God.  Yet, God, ever mysterious, evades us and meets us with silence–God, immortal, invisible, the One only wise.

That is why we need Jesus.  In Jesus we hear a familiar, human voice.  In Jesus, we sense that God chose the best way to come near us so that we might not be singed, but experience a lightness of yoke and the easiness of God’s burden (Matthew 11:30).  We are not off the hook with Jesus; rather, we are hooked by the great Fisherman who calls us to do the same for others.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition maps out a more personal relationship with God than the fright that God sometimes engenders.  One of my favorite hymns, What a Friend We have in Jesus, teaches us that we should never be discouraged, be open and share our sorrows, and realize that Jesus meets us in the midst of our vulnerability and weakness, not in spite of it.

Jesus is not out to get us, but to bridge the gap between us and God, that we might “carry everything to God in prayer.”

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is “not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857” –Kenneth Osbeck.

Other hymns on friendship have comforted the church in ages past.  Jesus is All the World to Me ends every verse with the simple affirmation that Jesus “is my friend.”  I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial act of dying on the cross for us, likening his friendship to that of a tapestry of love: “He drew me with cords of love…And round my heart still closely twine, for I am His.”  No, Not One admits that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.”

A contemporary song by Casting Crowns, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, is a song of confession.  It acknowledges our failure to befriend others who need Jesus like we:

Always looking around but never looking up, I’m so double minded
A plank-eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

The church’s hymnody provides God’s people not only with an alternative narrative, but also an alternative vision of who God is for us and how God relates to us. (Casting Crowns’ song is appropriate: “Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers“).

God is not the seething, besieging white-haired judge who zaps people, but One who faithfully pursues us in a personal relationship through Christ.  It is a model of friendship, not animosity or antagonism.

Of course, this requires work.  We no longer have an excuse to run from God.  We cannot state that God is too powerful or scary for us.  In Jesus, God has removed every hindrance, and we have to take responsibility in cultivating that friendship.  Like friendships in the flesh, our friendship with Jesus requires time, patience, communication, honesty, and trust.  This is a great task, but it is among the greatest blessings we are entrusted.

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4 Ways to use Social Media for the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the past two years, many church visitors found us by our website.  Our online presence is a major draw for our guests, second only to personal invitations.

If that is the case, then it stands to reason that churches, especially those concerned about fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission, need to think intentionally and “missionally” about the use of social media.

The use of social media is not for the church leadership or administration alone.  Every person in the church must think critically about how social media may harness the power of evangelism and testimony in a world that has entered the digital age.

Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel, states that a church-wide approach to social media has to do with a church’s philosophy of ministry.  If a church is teaching that each person is a minister called to share the gospel, then the use of social media must come under the lordship of Christ.  No word published should be without some spiritual scrutiny.

There are several models for social media usage that might guide churches–and Christians–on the appropriate use of online communication.

Santa Clara University professor and journalist Elizabeth Dresther, for instance, argues that Christians can keep in mind the acronym, LACE, when online.*

The L stands for listening.  She argues that Christians can use social media by listening to others and assessing the emotions and needs behind the opinions and posts that people often publish.

Ask yourself: What are the concerns that people express in social media?   Do fears, prejudices, or anxiety seem to be a common theme?  How might God’s Word address these fears and empower friends to “love thy neighbor” rather than disparage the unknown?

The A in LACE is attend.  We Christians are asked to be the presence of Christ for others; this can happen in person or online.  Our comments and contributions on social media platforms can attend to people who need encouragement.

C is for connect.  Our digital world gives the illusion that we are relating to each other intimately and in real-time.  Yet, people feel more isolated than ever.

A recent article in the New York Times by Adam Grant revealed that people are less likely to make friends at work because people spend time on online or on phones during breaks instead of talking to co-workers.

We must keep our connections authentic and vibrant.  We cannot settle on being a voyeur in the lives of others, keeping people at arm’s length.  Connecting to people is the intentional act of moving past the “like” button.

The E stands for engage.  Engaging others online for Christ encourages that we share words of edification on our profiles and in emails.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)

Are we promoting the cause of Christ and challenging people to think in new ways with our communications?  Are we building an alternative community with quality content and thoughtful reflection fitting the Christian faith?

Too often, our engagement is limited to promoting political or theological views that reinforce our embedded beliefs.  Status quo can be dangerous in this setting: if Christian engagement does not inspire transformation and conformity to the image of Jesus, then why share it in the first place?

We all know that social media is a powerful tool in keeping up with friends and family.  It even has the power to shape our day if it exposes us to a heartbreaking story of a loved one in need or bombards us with offensive opinions that linger in our minds well after the computer is turned off.

Likewise, it can be an effective tool for Christ, for it has shown that it can influence people to mobilize and get excited about a cause, religious or otherwise.

Although the Bible did not originate in a digital world, its principles are just as applicable.  We are still commissioned, whether in person, at church, or while surfing the world-wide web, to share the Good News of Jesus’ love, make disciples, and, ultimately, baptize all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

“Digital Media–It’s All About Relationships,” in Bearings for the Life of Faith (Autumn 2014): 4-8.

Gratitude for so Great a Cloud of Witnesses

FamilyBy Matt Sapp

Have you ever noticed how the right people end up in the right place at the right time in your life?  Every so often I stop to count my blessings, and one of God’s greatest blessings is each person God has put in my life.

According to the writer of Hebrews, we are surrounded by a heavenly cloud of witnesses who cheer us on in our race through life. I’m grateful to them and to God for their presence and influence in my life.

I’m grateful for the mentors among us.  I attended Founder’s Day at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology last week. While I was there I spoke with professors, pastors, and former bosses.   I talked to fellow church ministers, some who started their ministerial journeys with me and some who are further down the road.

All of them smiled, shook my hand, gave me a hug, and said something encouraging. These are people who in one way or another have invested themselves in me or are sharing in my experience.  Connecting with them encourages me.  Their kind words mean something to me. They fill me up, and I am grateful.

I’m grateful for the young people in our midst.  I went to Six Flags with students from Heritage recently.  Teenage enthusiasm is infectious. They are open and honest, and they haven’t quite learned to be cautious and closed off yet.

Young people trust the world and believe the best about people.  They still know that things will work out okay in the end.

We sometimes laugh when children are afraid of Santa Claus or monsters under the bed.   But adults build all kinds of imagined fears that box them in, too.  Teenagers, on the other hand, live in that magical, mystical middle, unencumbered by fear.

It’s refreshing. You can learn a lot by hanging out with teenagers.

I’m grateful for family.  That includes family I see in person or talk to on the phone or by text message.

My family includes close friends too.   One friend sent me a funny email when I needed a laugh.  Another sent a text message about a new rock band in Atlanta.  Each touch reminds me that there are people out there willing to share their lives with me, that I am not alone.

Even when we don’t feel particularly lonely or isolated, friendship is encouraging.  We are, all of us, gifts from God to one another.

I’m grateful to be among church family. One woman who’s been like a grandmother to me for 34 years came to church to see me last Sunday.  She lives in Acworth and had to make arrangements to be away from her Sunday School class.   Now in her 80s, she still teaches preschoolers every week.

I’ve known my current church family for less than a year now, but I know how lucky I am.  They choose each day to reflect the love and graciousness of Christ in their encouragement and affirmation of me, so I work each day to live up to and into the shared vision that we’re building together.

The people in our lives make a difference. Ultimately, it’s our relationships with others that determine the quality of our lives.

I’m incredibly lucky to have relationships that bring health and balance to my life.  I bet you have similar relationships in your life, too. Take some time to think about it.

I bet you’ll discover that you’ve got more people on your side than you ever imagined.  That’s what I’ve discovered. Here’s my advice: Treasure those people.  Be there to encourage and support them, too.  And thank God every day for them.