GCI Update

Looking to Advent and Christmas

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

joeandtammyMany people are fascinated by signs and symbols that convey hidden meanings and secret messages. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I enjoy deciphering such messages (including the meanings of those often-baffling acronyms and abbreviations you see on personalized license plates!).

Worshiping in the catacombs
Worshiping in the catacombs

Throughout history, people have used signs and symbols to convey messages understood by some and hidden to others. An example is the use by first century Christians of the ichthys (fish) symbol to secretly convey their allegiance to Christ. Because many of them were being persecuted, even martyred, they would hold their meetings in catacombs and other secret locations. To guide them to these places of meeting, ichthys symbols were painted on walls to mark the route. Doing so would not arouse suspicion because Christians were not the first to use the ichthys symbol—pagans used it to represent their gods and goddesses.

Despite its association with paganism (more about the “pagan roots” issue below), the fish symbol was widely used by early Christians. This likely was because Jesus often referred to fish in his teaching. On one occasion, he noted he would make his disciples “fishers of men.” On other occasions he performed miracles involving fish—from having Peter pull a coin out of a fish’s mouth, to filling the disciples’ nets with a huge catch of fish, to taking two fish and multiplying them to feed thousands of people. In these and other ways, Jesus used the symbol of fish to tell his story (the gospel), despite the fact (certainly known to him) that pagans were using the fish symbol to tell their own (pagan) stories.

Fish symbolAs the incarnate Son of God, who created all that is, Jesus was not limited by the pagan world’s misuse of his good creation. Because he felt perfectly comfortable using their signs and symbols to tell his story, so did the early Christians. For example, (see the picture at left), they turned the word ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ in Greek) into an anagram where each letter in the word stood for the first letter of each word in the phrase Iesous Christos, Theou Huios, Soter (Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior).

Sadly, some sincere, though misinformed Christians, work hard to avoid those things they perceive as having “pagan roots.” I know some who avoid clothing with a paisley print, believing it originated in the Zoroastrian pantheistic religion of Persia. Others refuse to wear wedding rings believing they are of pagan origin. Others go so far as to reject Christmas and Easter, believing those celebrations originated in paganism (and that, “once pagan; always pagan”). Holding this misguided viewpoint, they miss out on the deep meaning these central, historic Christian celebrations convey about the goodness and faithfulness of God, revealed to us in the birth and resurrection of Jesus.

God has used signs and symbols throughout history. For example, he gave ancient Israel the Sabbath as a sign to point them to himself as their source of true rest (salvation). God knew they would not fully grasp this meaning (as cogently explained in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4). Many years after giving the Law through Moses (including the Sabbath), God gave a new sign intended for all people—the birth of his incarnate Son, Jesus. Note Luke’s account:

And this will be a sign for you: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:12-14 ESV).

On one occasion I was quoting this verse to explain the importance of celebrating Jesus’ birth to a person burdened down by the superstitious belief that birthday celebrations are pagan. He said this: “This verse in Luke only justifies one celebration of Jesus’ first coming, not celebrations thereafter.” I replied that Jesus’ birth is an event that changed all time, and, therefore, is for all time and all people.

The birth of Jesus is a powerful, enduring sign that encapsulates the entirety of the Christ event: his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension for the salvation of all humankind. Like all signs, our Lord’s birth points backward (reminding us of what our triune God promised and accomplished in the past), and forward (pointing to what God, in Jesus, by the Spirit, will yet accomplish). Luke’s account continues with a part of the gospel story often told during Epiphany, which follows Christmas:

A Light To the Gentiles by Greg Olsen (used with permission)
A Light To the Gentiles by Greg Olsen
(used with permission)

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:25-35 ESV).

As Christians, most of us reading this do not have to rely on secret signs and symbols to conceal our places of assembly. That’s a blessing, and our prayers are with those who still face this hardship. But no matter the circumstances, all Christians know that Jesus was raised from the dead, and our heavenly Father is drawing all people to himself in Jesus and through the Spirit. Therefore we all have much to celebrate—and so we shall, during the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons. I wish you and yours joyous celebrations as we begin a new annual worship cycle in accordance with the historic (western) Christian calendar (for more about that cycle, go to https://update.gci.org/2015/11/annual-worship-cycle-using-the-lectionary/).

Looking forward to our celebrations of Advent and Christmas,
Joseph Tkach

PS: To all who gather this week in the United States (and abroad) to celebrate Thanksgiving, I send my best wishes for a joyous holiday. We truly do have much for which to thank our generous God, including our nation’s spiritual heritage.

To read the other letters in my five-part series on Christmas, click on a number: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Abner Washington

Josh McDonald is a new pastoral resident, serving alongside Dave Perry in GCI’s congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana. One of the elders serving in that congregation is retired GCI pastor Abner Washington. Josh recently interviewed Abner and posted the interview along with some of his reflections on Abner’s life on his The Indy Project Blog at http://theindyproject.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-way-it-was-talking-race-and-faith.html. We think you’ll enjoy reading the amazing story.

Josh and Abner
Josh (left) interviewing Abner

Pioneering female pastors

Last week, Greg Williams, director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development, sent a letter to all US pastors concerning a meeting he held recently with a group of our female pastors. For the benefit of all Weekly Update readers, we’ve reproduced that letter below. Feel free to respond in the “add a comment” box below. 

Greg and Susan Williams
Greg and Susan Williams

Recently I had the privilege of gathering with six of our female pastors for a time of rich conversation and a delicious meal (ending with a decadent seven-layer chocolate dessert!). It was such a wonderful occasion that I felt prompted to write this summary letter to each of you.

The purpose of our gathering was to give these pioneering female pastors opportunity to share ministry joys and challenges, recount their journeys in GCI pastoral ministry, and share their hearts with me as superintendent of GCI-USA ministers. Though at different stages and seasons in life and ministry, they have much in common and displayed deep appreciation for each other, providing a wonderful atmosphere of openness and trust in our meeting.

female pastors group
The six participants in the meeting with Greg (left to right/top to bottom): Tracy Lee, Mary Bacheller, Carrie Smith, Linda Rex,
Debby Bailey and Becky Deuel

Prior to meeting, I had sent the participants a list of questions to guide our discussion. The answers they shared showed a great deal of wisdom about life and ministry. Below are some of their key insights. I think all our pastors and ministry leaders (both women and men) will find these points instructive and encouraging. I also hope they inspire other women to follow them into GCI pastoral ministry.

  • See how God has been preparing you since youth with the various experiences you have gone through and the faithfulness the Lord has displayed in your life.
  • Balance training and experience.
  • Get all the training you can both inside and outside the church.
  • Serve out of your passion and experience (these factors seem to remain with you throughout life).
  • Know how to identify the voice of the Holy Spirit and sense God’s calling on your life. There will be a nagging sense of insecurity unless you have this settled.
  • Hearing the Spirit’s voice for your personal life, and for the life of your church, are not separate voices—most often they are married together.
  • Your role as a pastor is to be a “sign post” pointing people to Jesus.
  • Allow the Holy Spirit to be the agent of change – as a pastor, you don’t have the ability to transform other people.
  • Build relationships with other female pastors for encouragement and mentoring.
  • Be open to sharing your personal struggles with your congregation so you can journey forward with prayerful support.
  • Have safe relationships outside the congregation you pastor, where you can share and process your burdens.
  • Grow an extra layer of skin—you have to expect that some men and women will not accept you as a pastor because you are a woman.
  • Be secure in your identity. Knowing that you are, first and foremost, “in Christ” allows you to properly view your gender, personality, marital status, etc.
  • Establish healthy boundaries for your family. Your spouse may be a ministry partner, or passively supportive, or simply uninvolved.
  • Be comfortable organizing and operating with a ministry team. Help your team operate out of their giftings and passion.
  • Your relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit is your highest priority!

When I asked the group what advice they would give our pastors and churches, a common, resounding plea was that congregations make space for women in leadership at all levels. They also noted they want to see women and men serving side-by-side within our churches, facilitating the best expressions of God-designed femininity and masculinity.

I want to thank each of the six female pastors who met with me. As pioneers, they have blazed a trail for other women to follow. Because of them, and other women like them, GCI doesn’t merely accept women as pastors, we actively invite and welcome into this important role, those women who the Lord prepares and calls to serve his church in pastoral leadership.

I’m proud of these brave women, and am humbled and blessed to have spent a day listening to their important voices.

Connecting in Tipp City, Ohio

GCI’s Tipp City, Ohio, congregation (Crossroads Christian Fellowship) has been actively connecting with the surrounding community for many years, utilizing multiple outreach strategies and programs in doing so. Below is an account written by Jen Cruea, one of the congregation’s newer members, who now leads Free Market—one of the congregation’s outreach ministries.

Crossroads Christian Fellowship’s church building

If someone had come to me a couple of a years ago, and said “you will be a beloved child of God and help your community any way you can,” I probably would have laughed and thought they were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened and here is my story.

In the early spring of 2012, I noticed I was always tired and cold. I had constant headaches and was very irritable. I thought that it was taking my body longer to bounce back after having my third child. I went to the doctor and they found vitamin deficiencies and told me to rest and take care of myself. They referred me to a specialist that told me my antibody level was extremely high and they were concerned. In 2013 I found out I had a lump on my thyroid. They said they wanted to do a biopsy. I was very scared because I was only 26. I have always believed in God but had never developed a relationship with him because I didn’t know how. I was not raised in church and had only been to a handful of them as a child. I started to pray hard and often. I told God that if it was cancer, I wasn’t ready to die. I had so much more to live for and so many things to do, including raising my three children with their father, my husband. I also told God that if it was my time to go it was just that, my time. The day I got the biopsy results back, I felt an unusual calm. And when I received the good news I was cancer-free, I wanted to continue my relationship with God but I still didn’t know how. Little did I know I wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

Ad collage
Advertisements for some of Crossroads’ outreach ministries

In the fall of 2013 the turning point came in my life. My husband was starting a new job, which I wasn’t very comfortable with him taking. I honestly didn’t know why—I don’t like change, so I thought that was it. On the last day at his previous job, I came down with what I thought was a stomach bug. I was very sick and weak. It passed in a few days, and we resumed our normal life, but the sickness kept coming back. I was always nauseated and shaky. I couldn’t eat and the peak finally came in December just before Christmas (I had lost 60 pounds since October). I woke up one morning in a full blown panic-attack. I went to the ER where I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I left there with five medications and went to a doctor the next day for a follow up. I left his office with two more medications. I was absolutely terrified that I would have to live this way the rest of my life. I started seeing a Christian therapist who encouraged me to start my relationship with God. Then my husband was laid off from his new job and one of his coworkers told him to go to a church named Crossroads Christian Fellowship to get some food for our family. I went to what Crossroads calls their Free Market to get the food, but I got much more. Not only did they have clothing, toys, housewares and food, but they also provided direction for me into the Christian lifestyle.

A few weeks later we attended a Sunday service at Crossroads for the first time. I was nervous but also excited! So were my husband and children. We started to attend Bible study and worship services regularly. I never knew a church could love someone they just met! But that’s how God works. This past January, our pastor, Jim Valekis, asked me to serve as the coordinator of the Free Market. Then this summer he asked my husband to serve as the director of ONE Market. We are loving what we do to help the community, and most importantly to bring people to Christ, just as we were.

Crossroads has given me the open door I needed to start my journey as a Christian in a safe, non-judgmental, loving environment. I’ve grown so much as a person and child of God since coming here only a short while ago. The church has given me many experiences I never thought possible or even imagined. Just as the word “ONE” in One Market stands for Our Neighbors Empowered, that’s exactly what the congregation has done in empowering me to be a better person in every aspect of my life. I have never felt so confident before or so loved. Crossroads has so much to offer everyone! It is a wonderful place to be!

Women’s conference

Here from Vicki Hart and Tammy Johnson is a report on a women’s conference recently held at Christ Community Church—one of GCI’s congregations in the Cincinnati, Ohio, metro area.

The Unlocking the Treasure Within women’s conference was God-breathed from start to finish. On Friday evening Keysha Taylor led us through praise and worship as we “rolled out the red carpet” for our God. Jan Taylor then had us look in the mirror, and challenged us to see there the image of Jesus. Erin Campbell then charged us to take out our spiritual shovels to get prepared to start “diggin’ up” our treasure. Her story of going from atheist and addict to devoted Christ-follower was captivating.

women conference collage

Saturday was interspersed with powerful preaching by Erin Campbell, a testimony and presentation by Tammy Johnson on using flags in worship, along with a message on using the keys that unlock our treasure, as well as dance and song. Matt Campbell gave a moving message called “I’m Sorry” in which he made an apology on behalf of men for some of the wrongs done to women. His presentation evoked a powerful response. The day ended with evening performances from the women in attendance. There were songs, poems, a testimony, and dance, as well as delicious homemade desserts. The highlight for Saturday night was a drawing for a quilt by Augustine Shannon from Florida made especially for the conference. The conference ended Sunday morning as we joined the host congregation in worship. Erin Campbell preached another powerful message and Jan Taylor gave the Communion message. Vicki Hart, the conference coordinator, gave closing remarks.

Annual worship cycle: using the lectionary

RCLAs a denomination, GCI embraces the historic, orthodox, (western) Christian worship calendar. As a guide for teaching/preaching in accordance with this annual cycle of worship, we recommend that our congregations follow the pattern set out in The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The annual cycle followed there begins with Advent in November and proceeds as follows (dates shown are for the new worship year that begins in November 2015):

  • Advent: November 29-December 20, 2015
  • Christmas: December 25, 2015 (followed by the Christmas season that extends to Epiphany)
  • Epiphany: January 6, 2016 through February 7, which is Transfiguration Sunday
  • Lent: February 10 through March 13
  • Holy Week: March 20 through March 26 (including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday)
  • Easter Sunday: March 27 (followed by the season of Easter that extends through May 8)
  • Pentecost Sunday: May 15 (followed by the season of Pentecost that ends with Advent 2016, which begins the next annual worship cycle)

For help in planning worship and writing sermons in accordance with The Revised Common Lectionary, we recommend the following resources (note: our recommendation is not an endorsement of all content):

Christians in Bangladesh

We’ve been advised by John Biswas, GCI’s National Ministry Leader for Bangladesh, that ISIS has become very active in Bangladesh. As a result, Christians there are in physical danger. John reports that leaders of Christian churches in Bangladesh have been receiving threatening letters and phone calls, and two pastors were brutally attacked. One is a Roman Catholic priest. The other, Pastor Luke Sircar, has expressed interest in working with us and has now taken refuge in our Mission Center. Please pray for protection for these leaders and others in harms way.