Happy New Year!

Fireworks
(image source – creative commons, Wikimedia Commons)

Our prayer for you and yours is that 2016 will be a year of joy-filled participation in the life and love of our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The GCI Weekly Update team is taking this week off. Our next issue will be posted on January 7, 2016. To read the latest full issue, click here. To review the recently posted five-part series from Joseph Tkach on the topic of Christmas, click on these links:

  1. Looking to Advent and Christmas
  2. A Christmas Carol
  3. Christmas: a message of hope
  4. Celebrating Jesus’ birthday
  5. Christmas: celebrating pure innocence

Christian Leadership intensive

Greg Williams and Charles Fleming recently team-taught a weekend intensive in Dallas, Texas, as part of the Christian Leadership course offered by Ambassador College of Christian Ministry (ACCM). Seven men and women pastoral leaders participated (they are pictured below with Greg and Charles).

ACCM group

Various Christian leadership topics were addressed during the three-day intensive, including how to develop an operational style of leadership that is both team-based and pastor-led. This approach fits well with GCI’s modified-episcopal system of governance. Greg Williams elaborated:

In GCI we place a great deal of emphasis on prequalifying and then training our lead pastors. We then place on them a great deal of trust to lead their congregations. In that leadership role, we call on them to recruit, train and empower a team of able ministry leaders and then meet with that team regularly to discuss, pray and deeply consider the ministries that are involved in advancing the disciplemaking work of the congregation. We also expect our pastors to utilize their Advisory Council, which brings together a cross-section of members that help keep the pastoral leaders informed concerning the general mood and attitude of the congregation. We expect that our lead pastors will work closely with these leaders to establish, communicate and then execute a clear vision and mission for their congregation. As part of that work, the team will establish and then operate in accordance with an annual budget aligned with the agreed-upon vision and mission. Also, the team will work through the challenges it encounters, including conflict within the team. An effective lead pastor develops trust and credibility with the team, seeking consensus in discerning how the Spirit is leading the team forward. In the few cases where consensus cannot be achieved, the lead pastor is called upon to make the final decision.

Here are comments about the Christian Leadership intensive from some of the students:

Thanks to everyone involved in offering this class. It was an amazing three days of learning and building friendships. The class gave us the opportunity to not only learn leadership skills and applications, but also to see them in a perspective of how Christ leads us so we can in turn lead others. I came away with an excitement to serve. The friendships made in the close-knit environment of the intensive are wonderful. I look forward to other classes in the future.

It was awesome! We covered day-to-day practical things and items to dream towards for our congregations. It was interactive and open to any of our questions. The format was great—Greg and Charles were very accessible.

This was a great way to take an ACCM class. Every aspect was a learning opportunity. I came away with an increased knowledge of leadership and a love for others. The structure of the class and time outside the class gave me the blessing of getting to know everyone in the class. I came away blessed with new knowledge and new friends.

It was uplifting to be together in an intimate setting for three days with people who treasure God’s love and want to share that love with our church and future members that God will bring to us. To see the passionate dedication of Greg and Charles was truly inspiring. I believe this intensive class will spur us to grow into our future responsibilities as we transition into a more active pastoral role.

Established or emerging leaders interested in participating in an intensive course like the one described above are encouraged to let the GCI-USA CAD office know of their interest. We plan to offer more intensives like this in the future.

Birth of Williams’ granddaughter

We’re pleased to announce the birth of Emory Grace Williams, first grandchild of Greg and Susan Williams. Greg is the director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development, and Susan is the registrar of Grace Communion Seminary. Emory Grace is the daughter of Greg and Susan’s son Glenn and his wife Crystal of Hendersonville, North Carolina. Congratulations to all!

Emory Grace Williams

Fellowship Group resources

We recommend that our very small congregations (those with 15 or fewer people attending—we call them fellowship groups) utilize a small group style meeting format that is effective for both nurturing believers and connecting with unchurched people. Resources to assist in operating fellowship groups are found on GCI’s FaithTalk Equipper website at http://faithtalkgroups.blogspot.com/ where the CAD team has posted videos for small group facilitator training, discussion guides to use in group meetings, and instructions related to starting small groups and conducting small group meetings. At the GCI-USA 2016 regional conferences (listed at www.gci.org/events) we’ll have sessions specifically addressing fellowship group operations.

FaithTalk Equipper

 

Christmas: celebrating pure innocence

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

joeandtammyOne of the joys of parenting is doing something that makes your child laugh, then hearing them say, Do it again! I fondly remember several occasions when that happened to me (I’m sure many of you dads and granddads will relate). I also remember Tammy—always the protective mom—not being particularly fond of what I was doing, yet having a hard time saying so as she laughed right along with the kids!

Perhaps you recall the first time you experienced a little child’s laughter. There is a captivating pureness there that makes you smile. I recall watching a video of a laughing infant that went viral a couple of years ago. Every news media I know of broadcast it due to its trans-cultural accessibility. Watch it at http://youtu.be/RP4abiHdQpc and I’ll bet your heart will be warmed by the pure innocence of that child’s laughter.

Be It Unto Me by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)
Be It Unto Me by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

Some of life’s greatest moments come when beholding the pure innocence of a child. Of course, the greatest of all such moments occurred over 2,000 years ago when angels and shepherds viewed the baby Jesus—the eternal Son of God become flesh, lying in a lowly manger in Bethlehem. Because Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), we rightfully celebrate his birth every day, but especially at Christmas—the day billions of people are reminded that Christmas is about Jesus, whether they believe him to be the Savior of the world or not. Celebrating his first coming is every bit as important as celebrating his promised second coming—for a number of reasons, not the least of which is there will be no second coming without the first.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered from my series here on the topic of Christmas, I’m a huge fan of celebrating Jesus’ incarnation and birth. I don’t think we can say enough about that blessed event and all it signifies. Note the prophet’s words: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 ESV). This sign points to Christ’s divinity (he came from outside this world) and his humanity (he came as a newborn baby). Jesus was (and still is) both divine and human—as fully God as is the Father, and as fully human as are you and I.

That Jesus was born in this way also is a sign to us that our Triune God understands our lowly state and shares fully our life with all its limitations and suffering. Our Christian worldview helps us understand that there is more to life than what we experience in our mortal bodies. There is an afterlife, and Jesus promised he would go ahead to prepare a place for us to dwell with him forever. Knowing this truth helps us celebrate Christmas with the assurance that our departed loved ones aren’t separated from us forever. Assured that the Son of God united himself to us through the Incarnation, and thus shares our humanity forever, we are comforted to know that our loved ones are with him when they die. Of course, we suffer the loss of their companionship, but knowing that Jesus has conquered death on our behalf helps us look beyond the sting and tears of our loss to the joy that is signified by Christmas.

Like us, Jesus experienced the pain of losing loved ones, yet he was comforted knowing that his heavenly Father was aware of each and every one of those deaths and of the sorrow such loss brings. As we can, he found comfort in the words of the Psalmist: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8 ESV). The NIV translates it this way: “Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?” The point is that God sees; he knows and he cares.

That caring is not from a distance. Through the Incarnation God became one of us, assuming our entire human nature from the very beginning to the very end—from the moment of conception to the moment of death, with nothing left out between. In his humanity, the Son of God deeply understands what we are going through and promises to eventually end all pain and suffering. Note the words of the prophet: “He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it” (Isaiah 25:8). John makes a similar promise: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

I delight in these reassuring promises, remembering that in the fullness of the kingdom of God there will be no more reason for tears—it will be a time of perfect peace. All this will come to pass because the Son of God became the son of man. And so we celebrate Christmas—rejoicing in the Incarnation and joining the angels in celebrating the birth of Jesus, the pure and innocent One who brings the world eternal peace, joy and love.

I wish you all a happy and blessed Christmas. Our home office will be closed next week so we can spend extra time with family. The next issue of GCI Weekly Update will be published on January 6, the day of Epiphany, which celebrates the revelation of Christ to the world. See you next year!

Resting in and celebrating the pure innocence of Jesus,
Joseph Tkach

PS: To read the other letters in my five-part series on Christmas, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 4.

GCI school in Haiti

In a previous issue we asked for prayer for our school in Haiti. Here is an update from Joseph Franklin, leader of the school and GCI pastor.

Madam Micheline Darius, our school’s principal, was fighting Typhoid-Malaria. Thankfully, she now is back at work! Many of the children battling the disease also are back to school. Madam Marie Gerale Vainqueur, who teaches the sixth grade, is recovering nicely from her surgery to remove a non-cancerous lump in one of her ovaries. She is expected to return to work in January. We thank you for your prayers!

Celebrating Jesus’ birthday

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

joeandtammyAt Christmas we celebrate God’s love for all humanity (John 3:16) as seen in the Incarnation—the Word of God become flesh (John 1:14), and in the birth of Immanuel (God with us)—the most significant birth of all times (Matthew 1:23). Even so, some well-meaning Christians insist that Jesus’ birthday should not be celebrated. I’ve not addressed their arguments for a few years, so I’ll do so here as I continue a series on the topic of Christmas.

Some Christians say we should not celebrate any birthdays because the Bible casts such celebrations in a negative light. As evidence, they typically cite Pharaoh’s birthday celebration (Genesis 40:20) and Herod’s (Matthew 14:6-11). Though murderous acts accompanied both, that does not “prove” that birthday celebrations, in themselves, are wrong. Had you been related to Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer (Genesis 40:21) you would have rejoiced! Some also claim that in Scripture, birthday celebrations are always associated with paganism. But that argument does not stand up when we note how the Bible exalts the birth of Jesus. Here is part of Luke’s account:

Anonymous_18th_century_Birth_of_Christ
Birth of Christ (anonymous, 18th century)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths 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!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:8-20 ESV)

In this grand celebration of Jesus’ birth we find worship, singing, prayer, praise and exuberant joy. I admit that it took me a few years to see Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth as essential to sorting out the “birthday debate,” and to conclude that the birth of Jesus was a time of great celebration, and still is. Previously I had evaluated Jesus’ birth on the basis of a few other births mentioned in the Bible. But what I came to see is that Jesus’ birth, which is fundamental to all reality, sheds light on and thus gives meaning to all human births and thus is truly worthy of being celebrated.

Adoration of the Magi by Antonio Vivarini (1418) (public domain via Wkimedia Commons)
Adoration of the Magi by Antonio Vivarini (1418)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another argument often given against celebrating the birth of Jesus is that Jesus told his followers to remember his death, not his birth. While it is true that Jesus told them to remember his death (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24)—and we do each time we receive communion—this argument is based on faulty reasoning. Jesus was not saying that his death was more memorable than his birth, nor was he telling his followers to remember his death at the exclusion of remembering his birth. The simple truth is that we would not have Jesus’ death to remember had he not first been born. We should also note that early Christians viewed the Incarnation as a miraculous means by which the Atonement in the death of Jesus occurred. Also (and perhaps most significantly) they understood the Incarnation and Atonement as one redemptive work. Thomas F. Torrance comments:

In [Jesus] the Incarnation and Atonement are one and inseparable, for atoning reconciliation falls within the incarnate constitution of his Person as Mediator, and it is in that ground and from that source that atoning reconciliation embraces all mankind and is freely available to every person. (The Mediation of Christ, 1992, p. 63)

Jesus had to come in the flesh in order to be the Atonement, and so to argue that the Bible’s emphasis on Jesus’ death indicates that celebrating his birth is wrong is an example of jumping to a conclusion that does not follow. When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:26 that in partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” he is commenting on the symbolism of communion, not setting a policy concerning what should not be celebrated. To use Paul’s statement as a rationale for not celebrating Christmas is a non sequitur—an inference or conclusion that does not follow logically from the evidence that preceded it. Such faulty reasoning is a gross misuse of Scripture.

Those who say we should not celebrate Christmas also often argue that we lack a biblical command for doing so. This line of reasoning is a form of hyper-literalism in which one reasons that if something is not specifically endorsed by the Bible it is therefore forbidden. While it’s good to look to the Bible as a trustworthy authority concerning all that it actually addresses, we must realize that the Bible does not address everything. What it does address are the fundamentals of life, with a focus on right relationships with God and with others.

Were it true that we must only do what the Bible specifically commands, that would mean that the Bible must speak to every detail of Christian life and worship. But the Bible does not do that—it doesn’t need to. For example, the Bible doesn’t give instruction concerning how to celebrate memorial occasions like birthdays, weddings, or anniversaries. Nor does it specify how to order our worship services. There are many practices that have been adopted by orthodox Christians that are not specifically commanded in the Bible, yet are fully consistent with the teachings of Scripture and the Spirit of Christ.

Arguing from the absence of an explicit command to a moral obligation involves defects in both logic and biblical interpretation. When we interpret Scripture in a hyper-literalistic, legalistic way, we miss the spirit and intent of the Bible. When we focus on what Scripture does not say, its actual instruction and lessons can be overlooked. The end result of such failed logic would be to conclude that just about everything done in Christian worship is wrong because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible.

The Bible’s purpose is not to give details on every possible subject, but to witness to Jesus. Note what Jesus said to a group of Jewish leaders: “You search the Scriptures diligently because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). So while I cannot point to an explicit command in Scripture to celebrate Christmas, I can point to Luke 2, which gives us scriptural precedent for celebrating Jesus’ birth with great joy. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth we see these things:

  • God sending angels to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds—a message that is “good news of great joy” and a “sign” of great consequence (Luke 2:10-12).
  • The shepherds excitedly rushing to verify what they had been told (Luke 2:15-20).
  • A group of wise men (Magi) coming “from the east,” following a guiding “star,” and bearing “gifts” to celebrate the birth of Jesus, “the king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-12).

These celebrations of Jesus’ birth were marked with majestic flourishes (Luke 2:13-14). Not only was God pleased with these celebrations, he initiated them! These biblical examples serve as invitations to us to join in the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. Just as we celebrate the Atonement (Jesus’ death for us), we also celebrate the Incarnation (Jesus’ becoming flesh for us and with us). Through both we celebrate our inclusion in Jesus’ life and love brought about through his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Christians we remember and celebrate Jesus’ first coming, his second coming, and everything in between.

Tammy and I wish you and yours a joyous Christmas season and celebration,
Joseph Tkach

PS: To read the other letters in my five-part series on Christmas, click on a number: 1, 2, 35.

Resources for children’s ministry

This update is from Ted Johnston, editor of  Equipper and a regional pastor in GCI-USA.

I’m often asked to recommend resources for teaching the Bible to children in Sunday school or at home. For the last few years, my #1 recommendation has been The Jesus Storybook Bible. It’s available at a good price at Amazon.com, along with a related curriculum kit, and handout packs for the Old Testament and New Testament.

For recommendations related to ministry to children, teens, young adults, older adults, married couples and families, click here to go to the age-graded resource page on the GenMin website.

Jesus Storybook Bible