A Prayer of the People

LORD, in the days of old, you gathered your people in the desert. It was there that they questioned you, they learned to depend on you for their every need, and they learned to praise you. 

As your church, we come before you this morning as your people Israel did. We also live in a desert amidst the unbelief of others, and our perfect view of you is clouded by our own sinfulness.   

But we praise you: our lack of resources demands that we totally depend on you. We praise you: you were Israel’s sustenance, you met her physical and spiritual needs and we trust you to meet ours. We praise you: you authored perfect justice, you invented wisdom, and you are love, shown to us in Jesus Christ.

There are those of us who rejoice freely today, feeling whole and bright in spirit, and there are those of us here who come before you broken-spirited, contrite, and needy. We remember, LORD, that you do not despise a broken heart, that you love the poor and needy.  Comfort and sustain those of us who are wanting, who have been bruised and discouraged by poverty, misunderstanding, abuse, fear, mental illness, and disappointment. Show those of us who rejoice how to care for those who grieve, who struggle with unbelief, and who are deeply disappointed in themselves or in their circumstances.

There are those in this world who live righteously and fairly, and we praise you for their leadership. But we cry out to you: we live in a world where injustice often prevails. We tremble at the corruption of many of our country’s leaders. It warps our hope for justice.  And we confess that we ourselves are unjust: we create unfair opinions of those we don’t understand, we shut our ears to the cries of the poor. We remember that you are the God of peace. We pray that you would raise new leaders in our country and the world who value the wellbeing of people over the hoarding of money or power. Likewise, make us a more just and honest church.

We live in a world of hatred. When we gather together every Sunday, something new and terrifying has disrupted our country, our world. We remember you are LORD, and you are love. As your people, fill us to overflowing with your compassion, and may this compassion move us to action. 

We live in a world of mixed messages. We remember, LORD, that you created wisdom, that out of your mouth came understanding. Protect our church from misunderstanding and division. We pray that you would use our Sunday worship, our home groups, our bible studies, our coffee club, our pint night, to be locations where we encourage each other, become one in mind and thought, and share everything we have.  

In your name we pray, AMEN.

Written by Jason Downing

A Prayer of the People

A Prayer of the People

Written by Richard White for Intown Church

August 13, 2017

Lord, I love Miriam’s song in Exodus 15. I love the fact that a 95 year old woman suddenly broke into song and danced to the tambourine when the Egyptian chariots were swallowed in the Red Sea. 

Now that must have been an inspiration.

“I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song, He has become my salvation.”

When I am a very old man I want a sing and dance and shout. I want to be overwhelmed by your spirit like Miriam. 

Just now, it seems we are stumbling our way to the promised land. Like the children of Israel after their baptism, there was a great deal of relief and joy, but the long journey to the promised land is taking its toll. 

Like them, we are weak, limited, flawed, sinful. We repeat old sins we thought we had conquered. Our anger, our lust, our selfishness push their way to the surface of our lives and reveal they still find a home in our inner most being. We retrace our steps in the wilderness. Ground we have already covered.

We are plodding in circles like the children of Israel. The Road to Character is not easy. We’ve started over so many times.

On those rare occasions when we set aside our load of stress and guilt and fear and lift our heads we can almost see the promised land. We feel its faint refreshing breeze. We can smell it in the air.

It is like descending the west side of the coast range on a hot day, or this morning’s rain – we feel the cool, damp, refreshing breeze and are reminded there is path out of the wilderness. When we lift our heads, when you lift our heads, we aware once again that you are leading us through these difficult places and we are not alone.

Help us sense the depth of your love and the strength of your might in the midst of our wandering. When we pass through the dark places – of our minds, our hearts, our spirits, our times – reveal yourself to us again. Renew our minds, guard our emotions, strengthen our resolve however slow our progress seems to be.

We are in a time when the pride and predatory self-interest resident in all humankind has overtaken us. We are deceived by national pride and gross misunderstanding of our nation’s importance and role in history. 

Guard the mouths and clear the minds of world leaders so they might act with caution and grace. Bring, we pray, strong-minded, principled Christians into their inner circle who will give good counsel and boldly challenge their policies. Draw one into our President’s circle who captures his attention, someone who will not exchange human kindness, grace, or the stewardship of creation for economic gain. A Nathan. A Daniel. A Nehemiah. One willing to speak truth to power without concern for reputation.

In these days you are revealing to us again that trust in chariots and horses, that trust in human leaders and military might is fruitless. That you alone are the one who holds history in your hands. That you are the one who holds back the principalities and powers of darkness and prevents us from descending into chaos. That you alone are able to deliver. 

Take us back to the place where we first met you – to our Red Sea experience – and remind us that we joyfully and willingly surrendered our lives to you. All of our lives. Our thinking, our feeling, our doing. That we trusted you then and we can trust you now. We are confident that you will lead us through our current personal, national and global wilderness. That you are our present help and guide. That, as the song-writer has said, you didn’t bring us this far to leave us, you didn’t lift us up to let us down.

We are dismayed and discouraged by the events that have unfolded these past few days. That battles against the powers of darkness that we thought were being won have been set back. That men and women would harbor hate in brittle obsidian hearts and that that hatred would fling open doors to demonic violence. 

As a nation we have turned to worship violence – it is our entertainment, our music, our poetry, our games, our movies. It is on our lips and in our minds and hearts. We no longer hide our eyes nor weep when the endless loop of news plays out scenes of death again and again. We are intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually numb. 

Only you can deliver us.

Enlarge our souls on this trek through the wilderness. We want to be rooted in your word. We want to grow in your spirit. We want to follow wherever you lead. 

So to this end we pray this morning that you would draw us back once again to be students not only of our times but the Bible. Reading the newspaper and scripture. Drawing lessons from both but guidance for our lives from your holy Word revealed.

Bring us to our knees in prayer. For each other, for those who presume to lead us, for nations and for all people everywhere. And especially for those who stand against the powers, those called to speak your word in season and out the world over.

And as we journey inward, send us outward. Send us into the world, into our neighborhoods to heal with words and hands, to lift up the weary, to walk with the weak, to give hope to the hopeless. To live, even as we wander through our present wilderness, as ones who have been baptized in Christ and can join with Miriam and sing with unfaltering voice:

“I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song, He has become my salvation.”

In Jesus Name,

Amen

A Prayer of the People

The following is a prayer written by Rachel Ebbers for our worship service on July 16th:

LORD, thank you for meeting us here. Some of us come here today like the Bible tells us Nicodemus did: in a shroud of darkness, full of questions. Other come as Mary did: in humility, thirsty to know you. Some of us come as Thomas: unsure of Jesus’ sacrifice. Like Jacob, some of us come wrestling. Like the paralytic, rejoicing. Like the woman who followed Jesus in the crowd: bleeding, desperate. You take us all in, our refuge. We are your doubting, ecstatic, broken church.

LORD, accept our broken hearts. Be with us, now in: our unbelief. In our anger. In our broken marriages. In our estrangement. In our financial need. In our physical pain. In our fear. In our crippling anxiety. In our depression, our grief, our loss.  

Our assurance is this: You knew all of it, already, before we arrived. As individuals and as a church, we need healing. Instruct us: use the wise people in our lives, your word, your creation, to teach us how to speak to each other, how to listen, and how to trust you. Help us to rest in this promise more fully: the LORD is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. 

LORD, accept our broken world. It is polluted with superficial chatter. It is tempting and easy to say ruthless things. It is difficult to separate truth from deceit. There is too much language, and too little regard for it. Our leaders malign and slander each other. It is confusing and depressing to watch the news. We are caught up in our own lies; we are distracted by the “likes” we seek and accumulating followers. 

Our assurance is this: we are your followers, your disciples. It is tempting to despair about our culture, our nation, and our world. Thank you for your word, and that it is a bedrock of truth in sand: it reminds us that you are sovereign and have a plan.  It says your soul hates the wicked and those who love violence, that your plans stand firm forever, and the purpose of your heart through all generations. Give us faith in this plan. Help us to see need, and move our hearts to serve. Thank you for giving us the story of grace, and make it our prevailing story, the one we tell to others.

LORD, accept our broken church. Our sinful nature makes us hesitant to help each other but quick to cast judgment. Our sinful nature tempts some of us to be Pharisees: to privilege the rules of behaving like “good Christians” over mercy or compassion. Others among us take hold of grace without consequence: we don’t share it with others, or we allow it to become an excuse to act how we want. In more ways than we can count, we distance ourselves from you. 

Our assurance is this: this is your church, not ours. Make it look more like yours: help us to share what we have. Help us to listen to each other. Move us to serve or to lead. Make us an encouragement to Brian and his family. Teach us to be completely humble and gentle; patient, bearing with one another in love. 

We bring all this brokenness before you because your grace permits it. Help us to listen for your voice first: you have the words of eternal life. Help us to do your work: to believe in Christ, the one you sent. Help us to reflect your image: to be ministers of reconciliation. We pray all this in your holy name, AMEN.

 

 

EMBODY - The Third Word of our Mission Statement

The South African Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, Now is that political, or social? He said: I feed you. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus telling us something similar in ch. 25, that the true test of faith is not the accuracy of the mental constructs in your head, but whether you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit the sick and those in prison?

Theology is important, right belief about the nature of reality and God is critical, but it’s not right if it doesn’t lead you into the lives of your neighbor and into the life of the world. 

Intown Presbyterian Church is a community seeking to EMBODY the historic Xian gospel in the city of Portland. 

We want to respond to Jesus' "Follow me" call by living into the life of our city, seeking to bring tangible signs of his healing nature wherever there is sickness, loneliness, hunger, poverty, etc. 

So, though we have a long way to go and much to improve upon, our deacons are leading us to creatively-serve arriving refugees with Refugee Care Collective. And, in the case of Embrace Oregon, busy moms are initiating ways that our church can serve another vulnerable population - foster children.  

But, embodying the gospel means so much more than just creating pathways of service toward communities of need, it means living Christianly in all areas of life in such a way that theology is not simply a matter of talk but of life. So we're asking: 

  • What does following Jesus mean with regards to my finances? What could Intown be and do if everyone gave in truly costly ways to the mission of our church?
  • What does following Jesus mean for me as an employee or student?
  • What does following Jesus entail for being a good neighbor in my actual neighborhood? or with a difficult family member?
  • What does following Jesus require of me politically? How does being a follower of Christ shape political dialogue with others, especially those who think differently than me? 

Join us as we seek to live OUT what God is doing within.   

SEEKING - The Second Word of our Mission Statement

Jesus comes preaching the good news, or "blessedness", that comes from the opposite direction than most of us naturally assume it comes from. We are naturally inclined to seek the blessed life in: success, wealth, fame (or at least recognition), intelligence, long life, victory in competition, etc

Jesus says, "no, look to the other end of the spectrum, I’m preaching good news to the humble, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the peacemakers, the spiritually-bankrupt." 

It's these people who have an insight into the way things really are and the way things will be. 

In fact they have an understanding of what it means to be fully, truly human that people on the winning end of the bell curve normally do not.

The rich, the powerful, the satisfied, the comfortable - the kind of people we normally long to be, are the people who miss it, who can’t see it, but: the meek, the spiritually-poor, the mourners, the hungry for righteousness, they’re the people who “see.” 

These first four Beatitudes which Jesus tells us about in the Sermon on the Mount are not the behavioral qualifications of seeing the kingdom, they’re not the ethical qualities of the right kind of person, in fact they’re not really about possessing at all, these people LACK something.

They have what we might call the "gift of imperfection."  

The gift of imperfection means that the way UP is the way down, or as Parker Palmer says, “holiness means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.

The gift of imperfection, if we will embrace it, allows us to meet Jesus because his grace flows down hill, his mercy pools at the bottom of the bell curve.

When we say that we are a "Community SEEKING to embody the historic Christian gospel in the City of Portland" we mean that while we believe that we have in fact found the source of life and blessing, we are still SEEKING to embody it. We are people in process

Therefore there is a safe seat at Intown for failures, for broken people, for those who don't have it all figured out. In fact, these are the only kind of people who show up at Intown on any given Sunday. 

So, join us. 

A New Sermon Series is Upon Us

Other than taking a small break during Advent, we've been looking at Paul's letters to the Corinthians since September of last year...29 sermons! (I'm sure you remember them all.) 

Well, it was a great journey and I learned a lot but now I'm ready to move on, and perhaps you are too.  

This summer we are going to be looking at 10 of the great prayers of the Bible. I hope that this series will not only be encouraging and draw you closer to God, but also enable us all to better learn how to pray. 

These sermons will generally be shorter - it's summer after-all! And, alongside this series we will begin reading through the Psalms in order during our Psalm reading each week. This week we will read Psalm 1, next week Psalm 2, so forth and so on. 

We won't be able to read the entirety of every Psalm because of length (have you seen Psalm 119?!) but if you worship with us regularly you'll get to hear/read every Psalm every 3 years or so. 

There are 150 Psalms and 52 weeks in the year so that's just under 3 years to get through them all. However, with breaks during special seasons like Lent and Advent, it will take a little longer. But, imagine how reading and praying through the Psalms every 3 years could complement and perhaps enhance your personal prayer life! 

I hope that this will enrich our worship together and provide a more systematic exposure to the Psalms. Below you'll find the outline for our sermon series - The Great Prayers of the Bible if you would like to read along/ahead. 


Prayers of the People / June 4th

Lord we will bow to you, to you alone and to no other God. Nothing hands have made, no art, no science, no nation, no people deserves our praise as you do. Two black holes collided in space 3 billion light years ago and the universe shook like a bowl full of jelly. We just heard about it – old news to you. On a moonless night, on the Oregon coast, I once lay on my back on a log and saw the expanse of the stars, the milky way, so close it felt like I could reach up and touch it, and yet so far away that I felt infinitely small and insignificant. I’ve stood on mount Hood on a sun-drenched day and felt the breeze and looked up the Hood River valley at trees so green and clouds so white and alpine lupine so blue that I thought I had never known colors before nor tasted water so sweet as that bubbling from a spring 7000 feet up on the mountain.

The prophet Isaiah said “The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands!” [Isa. 55:12] We believe it because we’ve heard it. Recently scientists have questioned why beauty exists. Some have argued it is simply utilitarian – it is how we find a mate. But now a few have suggested we simply like beauty. That even birds and reptiles are drawn to that which they find beautiful. We live in a world of texture and sound and smell that gives us pleasure. You have made us lovers of beauty. The Universe is covered with your fingerprints. Like the Psalmist we cry out “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.” [Psalm 148]. There is simply none like you.

Whether our hearts are inclined to good or to evil your grace surrounds us. You are in the air we breathe. It gives you pleasure to surround us with joy. And yet humankind has abandoned stewardship of creation for a dollar. Unlike Adam we are not even trying to hide as we hear your footsteps approach. We have become arrogant bullies who destroy all that is lovely and all that is good in hurried pursuits of momentary gain – it is as the preacher said, “Vanity, vanity all is but vanity.” [Ecc.1:2]

We always knew we could not be our best selves, we knew that would come later, that would come in the end, but we’d hoped we could be our better selves, now we wonder if we can even be our good self. We fear we are failing even at that. There are other things in the news that have captured our attention. The violence we perpetrate on your creation extends to our neighbors. We are filled with horror at the present darkness that seems to be descending on our time. It is chaotic. Indiscriminate. Vicious. It seems beyond redemption. Bitter, poisonous words that flow from the lips of the high and the low alike seed violence and expose the darkness of our hearts. Our hearts are anxious and in the midst of this disregard for you, this present darkness, we feel less than courageous.

So, we affirm again, that you and you alone are worthy of our praise and we lean on the apostle Paul’s admonition to pray with rejoicing and thanksgiving. [Phil. 4:6-7] So, we come to you this morning asking three things:

First, for ourselves, guard our hearts. Help us keep our emotions in check. Help us to have the courage to walk in the light and speak the truth without fear. Keep us from panicking, but to reach for your hand as we try to walk on this troubled sea. Guard our minds, the way we think. Help us by the power of your spirit to be good critical thinkers who study both the Bible and the newspaper to discern our times. Guard our actions. That our lives reflect that we are a new creation. Gracious, peaceful, courageous in Christ.

Second, we pray for world leaders. God there are so many things to ask here. We ask that you cure them of their arrogance, humble them. Bring one of your children into their inner circle whose insight is so compelling that they cannot ignore it. A Daniel, a Nehemiah. Give them clarity of mind, unclouded by personal gain, ideology, or whim. Guide their hearts where you will as you do streams in the desert. [Proverb 21:11]. Be irresistible to those pretend to lead that they might be your agents of peace.

Last, we pray for those who have declared war on Christians. Many do so from ignorance or injury. Help our brothers and sisters who attempt to walk beside them. Protect them from harm. Give them loving hands, clarity of thought, and words of wisdom. Some oppose you and your children because Satan has taken over their hearts and minds. They live in a deep darkness of hate and violence. We know their numbers will increase as time runs its course. But please place a hedge of thorns around those who fall in their path. Hold them close. If necessary welcome them home. This is what is on our minds today. We are shaken by events in our town and across the globe. But we will refuse to hide our eyes from what is happening around us. We will lean into the world’s distress, to our city’s distress, to the distress of our neighbors and friends as Jesus did. We commit ourselves to your purposes, to heal, to soothe, to encourage, to confront evil in all its forms, and to spend ourselves if necessary for your will. Because you and you alone are worthy of our very lives.

In Jesus Name,

Amen

 

A Prayer written by Richard White / June 4th, 2017

 

COMMUNITY - The First Word of our Mission Statement

Deborah Tannen is a linguistics prof at Georgetown, she write’s in her book: That’s Not What I Want, "We need to get close to each other to have a sense of community, to feel we’re not alone in the world. But we need to keep our distance from each other to preserve our independence, so others don’t impose on or engulf us. This duality reflects the human condition. We are individual and social creatures. We need other people to survive, but we want to survive as individuals."

We desperately want to be known but we also love our independence. We want a connected life, known AND loved, but this makes us anxious. 

We'd rather people NOT see our weaknesses, NOT encroach upon our time, NOT call us for help when we're relaxing. 

But, we are made in God's image and thus made for community. "It's not good that man is alone" - there's something that we need that even God doesn't provide immediately...without the mediation of other creatures.

We only find our identity - our genuine selves, our true humanity embedded in community - not in isolation.

So, Intown is designed to be a community where you can be known without fear because ALL of us are in process, ALL of us need the gospel. It's only in that kind of community, one that is radically-accepting, that we can live into our full humanity and full potential.  

Mission Statement, Core Values, Blah Blah Blah.

Maybe you're tired of hearing about mission statements and core values.

I've been there too.

Many churches spend a great deal of time identifying, refining, explaining, and promoting core values only to have them drift into the background as the organization moves on to more-pressing matters.

This has happened at Intown in the past.

And, some of us have a been part of a business or a church that has maybe talked too-incessantly about it's mission statement while the customers and congregants grow frustrated with the organization aspiring to rather grandiose goals while not effectively fulfilling its core functions.

I don't know if we've ever talked "incessantly" about our mission statement at Intown, but we've certainly experienced times where our rhetoric exceeds our core competencies. 

I would like to see Intown continue to grow more and more effective in fulfilling the core essentials of a healthy church, things like: spiritual formation, assimilation, pastoral care, gospel-centered preaching, etc. while at the same time continuing to pursue a mission that is particularly-necessary in Portland and which we feel uniquely-gifted to pursue.  

We do in fact have a mission statement, which doesn't simply reside on our website, sadly-forgotten, but one that does help to determine our everyday choices as a church.

We revisited this mission statement in a series of sermons last summer and fall as we prepared to make a denominational move. In these sermons we tried to argue that in making a move to the RCA we were trying to stay true to and being guided by our mission statement.

In other words, our denomination transition wasn't arbitrary or guided by convenience but we determined that we were in an ecclesial context where we were unable to fully embody our mission statement and we made a decision together to honor our local ministry commitments above denominational loyalty and continuity. 

This was a circumstance in which having a mission statement, clearly-defined and substantially-understood by congregation enabled us to make a difficult but very consequential decision. 

So, over the next few days I plan on posting a short summary of each of the significant words in our mission statement, that we are, "A community seeking to embody the historic Christian gospel in the city of Portland." 

This will be particularly important for the leaders as we continue to chart out our calling in these new denominational circumstances, but it should also be helpful for visitors as they seek to learn more about "what makes us tick", as well as for the member/attendee seeking to live our our common mission in their everyday life.

So, check back regularly... 
   

 

Prayers of the People / May 7th

Heavenly Father, we come to you feeling both confident and humble.  We are confident in you because you have qualified us in your Son Jesus.  You have pursued our hearts, you have poured out your love, you have done for us in Jesus what we could not do for ourselves.  You have named us as your children, without any merit on our part.   So, therefore, we approach you with humility in the realization that our lives are not our own.  Though we are confident in our eternal security, and confident in our abilities and gifts, we remain humble knowing that the work you have qualified us for, and called us to, is Your work and not our own.  Give us clarity and assurance as we work in your kingdom each day.

Loving and steadfast God, you have abided with us through all the seasons of our lives, including those times when we have turned away from you. We praise you for the enormous sacrifice of love you gave through Jesus Christ who revealed that perfect love casts out fear.

Be with us now when we face our own trials and fears. Let them not be so overpowering that we succumb to their force. Give us the strength to withstand the pressure, and courage to face boldly those times when our faith is tested. When we are confronted by those seeking our counsel, give us your guidance. When we are challenged by those needing our support, give us your strength and courage. Help us be in solidarity with others long enough for them to trust us, so together we can both learn about and work for Christ’s liberating truth.

Give us patience to sit with the lonely. Open our arms to those who seek comfort. Free our tongues from stammering or remaining mute when a word of encouragement or truth is needed.

We pray for peace in our world. We lament and grieve when we hear the news of what’s going on across the world. Bring justice to those who cause, or are affected by, physical and emotional suffering; break its vicious cycle, we pray, that all may live in safety, peace, and hope. Comfort those who are grieving and live in fear, and protect the police and military personnel as they seek to protect others.  We pray for the leaders of all nations to be used as instruments of your freedom, justice, and peace.

Father, we pray for Intown Church.  Guide us and strengthen us by your Spirit, as we seek your kingdom within this body and in our communities.  We praise you for the many ways you are at work:  for our pastor, staff, and leaders in laying out the vision and mission of our church, and for the many ways you are carrying out your work in our body:  we praise you for those who are encouraging each other in times of personal turmoil, for the times of intercessory prayer for each other, for those who are tangibly serving the downtrodden, the homeless, and the refugees.  For the ways in which our corporate worship softens our hearts, and strengthens us in the trials we face.  We look forward to what you have in store for Intown Church, and we pray for unity as you have called to live together as one body.

Throughout history, we take comfort in seeing how you have accompanied your people. We ask that your Spirit so move among us now as we seek to serve others.  Let us be motivated by your grace, that we truly value others above ourselves in one like-minded spirit. Amen.

Consistor-what?

In our transition to the RCA, Intown is using new and unfamiliar language to describe the levels of church leadership. These levels have all previously existed in our church; we're just now calling them something different. 

For example, we're no longer a "Presbyterian" church even though in our new denomination we still operate within and relate to local, regional, and national entities. 

We should put  regional in quotes because while the RCA is divided by regions, like in the PCA, in the RCA our "region" is non-geographic. We are part of the City Classis, which is a national governing body made up of churches in similar urban and college town settings as Intown is.

But, what is a classis? A classis is similar to a presbytery in our old nomenclature, while a consistory is similar to a session.

In Presbyterian circles you have the local Session, the regional Presbytery, and the national General Assembly while in Reformed churches you have the local Consistory, the regional Classis, and the national General Synod. 

"Consistory" still sounds weird to me, but only because I'm not used to it. If I hadn't been a presbyterian for 25 years then "presbytery" and "session" would probably sound weird. 

One more clarification: in presbyterian circles the local "session", at least in a PCA context is made up of only the pastors and elders and these are subdivided into "teaching" and "ruling" elders. They are more or less considered to be one office with different roles: "teaching" and "ruling." This is called the "two-office" view where there are two kinds of elders occupying one office, along with deacons in church leadership. 

In the RCA we practice a "three office" view where there are pastors, elders, and deacons. These three offices make up the "consistory" - the local church leadership. Each has different but somewhat overlapping responsibilities and in our new context it is not required that these office holders be male-only.  

So, from now on when we print "Consistory Meeting" in the bulletin you will know what this means. This is what we formerly called our "Session" meeting, though we have included the deacons in this meeting for quite some time now. And, as always, these meetings are open to you! We'd love to hear your feedback and questions, or if you'd simply like to come and observe consider yourself invited. 

Just email me at brian@intownchurch.com to find out when we are meeting to to let us know you are coming. 

Denominational Transition Update

Last year, after much discussion and prayer we decided to leave our former denomination - the Presbyterian Church in America for theological, exegetical, and cultural reasons and begin the process of affiliating with the Reformed Church in America. 

After months of investigation and conversation with leaders in the RCA, we found them to be committed to the motto: In essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, and in all things charity. Like Intown, they were highly committed to unity but not uniformity. 

In every interaction we encountered an orientation toward dialogue rather than debate, and a high commitment to the gospel and core essentials of Christianity while allowing flexibility and nuance in matters that are less central. 

They vetted us too, seeking to determine whether we would be a good fit relationally, missionally, and culturally. We never felt however that we were trying to pass a theological exam but instead they sought to learn our story, make sure our leaders were healthy, and hear about our vision and values in order to determine whether they cohered with theirs. At every turn we felt warmly embraced and begin to believe that Intown could best be Intown in an RCA context.   

So after months of vetting: us of them, and them of us, Ben Poundstone (Intown elder) and I traveled to Long Beach last month and Intown was wholeheartedly received into full communion as an RCA church.

We are incredibly delighted to not only be a part of the RCA but connected with the City Classis which will serve as our immediate relational and governing context. You can read more about the these two related entities and our ecclesial structure using the website links above.  

 

An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ash Wednesday has been celebrated at least since the 10th Century to mark the beginning of the season of Lent.

Though this specific ceremony isn’t described in scripture, what it represents is wholeheartedly biblical.

As you come forward and have ashes spread on your forehead you’ll walk back with an absurd looking smudge approximating a cross. 

And, as we all do this, we form a strange looking community of people who seem to have left home without checking the mirror first: we have food in our teeth, a big grease stain on our shirt, and our fly down!

(Not that any of these examples come from personal experience!) 

It's like we've left the house forgetting we have an image to uphold, impressions to make, a reputation to construct.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of all the things that we try to keep hidden: our frailty, our human fragility, our mortality.

The ashes are a stark reminder of who we actually are: we are mortal and we are not gods. We will not live forever and many of our dreams will die with us. 

Many of us spend most of our lives trying to deny this reality, but Ash Wednesday is a time when we consciously remind ourselves of the truth: from dust we came and to dust we shall return

But Ash Wednesday is not only about reminding ourselves about the fact that we are human. It is also about owning the fact that we are sinners

In the ancient world, ashes placed on your head was a way of saying, I am busted. I am guilty. 

So tonight, as we stand around and look at each other with these odd black smudges on our foreheads, we are saying to God and to each other, “I don’t have it all together. I’m not the person I want to be. I have tried to construct life according to my own wishes and for my own benefit. I am in short: a sinner.” 

But, mustn't stop there, because this isn’t just an exercise in authenticity

Ash Wednesday is also a time of hope. The ashes are placed on our foreheads in the shape of the cross because we have a hope that goes beyond our humanity and sins. This cross is a reminder that because of Jesus our mortality and our sins aren’t the final word about us. 

The ashes both acknowledge, and mock death, saying, “death, you are real, but where is your sting?”

There is a stronger reality at work in our lives - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Through Jesus’ work on our behalf, God has actually won the battle over our sins and has even defeated death itself. 

So as you come forward, come in acknowledgment of death, and penitence over your sin, but remember that you are marching toward Easter!  

Prayer: God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth, grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence and a symbol of our mortality; for it is by your grace alone that we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Talk about this in your groups...

A good friend, who's also a parishioner texted me this week and asked, "what was that you said you wanted us to discuss in our Community Groups? I nodded off." 

Hahaha! I love the honesty. So, here it is:

What would it be like to be a part of a church where: 

  • people aren’t cut off and cut down because of their failures
  • people who are struggling don’t feel the need to hide but believe that church is the best place to get the help they need. 
  • someone isn’t forever labeled by their sin pattern but are allowed to move on?

What would your groups look like if you practiced deciding in favor of love? What would Intown look like? How can we intentionally practice this?

On Being a Pastor With Political Views, pt. 2

Last June I wrote Part One of this blog post intending to follow-up quickly with parts two and three. I did come up with a snappy title, "An Elephant and a Donkey Walk Into Church..., funny right? But, I wrote part two over and over and simply couldn’t find the right tone.

What I had begun wrestling with in Part One was the tension that I felt between my life as an individual human being with political views and passions while occupying a professional role where my personal views are scrutinized and used to assess whether Intown is a church to belong to. 

As our political climate has grown even more divisive in the last 7 months and the role of Christian witness in the public square even more hotly contested, another tension, or maybe I would say an “occupational hazard” has presented itself - how do I utilize the prophetic voice of a pastor, calling our little church to care about issues of social justice and compassion toward the 'least of these' when these very issues are being disputed in a partisan manner and both sides are using these disputes to mobilize their base??

First a confession: as a student of history (at least in my own mind!) one of the most disturbing historical themes to me is the conspicuous absence of the white Protestant church from some of the most important human rights issues in the American experiment. (Think: slavery, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement to name a few.) So, I confess that I have a certain anxiety as a white pastor of a largely white church of continuing to “do church” as we’ve always done in the midst of one of the most profound sociological upheavals in a generation. 

Motivated by this perhaps-disputable historical analysis, I have been unusually-active as well as less-guarded on social media in the last year and have shared things and aligned myself with co-belligerents online in a way that may have compromised, or at least distracted me from the very local nature of my job.  

I’m chastened by the famous statement of former Speaker of the House Tip O-Neill who used to say, “all politics is local”, and with few exceptions, a church’s ministry is quintessentially and irreducibly-local. 

So, while I have at times spoken far too loudly into the national conversation with an overly-generous assessment of the importance and influence of my own voice, I haven’t led our church as effectively as I should have at addressing the injustice and human suffering in our local community while at the same time potentially isolating people in the congregation who aren’t overly-invested in the outcomes of national politics but who could be energized to care for the “lost and the least” in their neighborhood. 

So, I want to apologize to those in our congregation who have felt concerned about how extroverted my political views have become, as well as to those who have been energized by this. Intown’s vision includes being an intentionally-heterogeneous community where people of all cultural backgrounds and political convictions are not only welcomed but are taught how to love one another and pursue Jesus and his mission - together. This is a very unusual and challenging vision, but I do think it’s worth it, perhaps more than ever. 

This is going to take a lot of self-conscious patience from ALL of us! And, now that I’ve shared with you some of what I’m wrestling with and some of the ways that I need to change, here’s what I need from you:

  • For those of you who have ever thought “my political or social views don’t feel affirmed here”, please don’t leave. Whenever people address something lacking in a church and then leave because of it, it makes it more true! We do ministry in one of the "bluest" cities in the nation, so it seems likely to me that if we are reaching city people they are generally going to lean more "progressive" or Democratic. If that's not your political bent, I encourage you to have the courage to stick around and enter into conversation about what it means to be a faithful Christian in the public square as this will create the space for mutual learning and the ministry of the church will be more effective because of your presence. Another of Intown’s commitments is that Jesus and his gospel is far more foundational and substantial and important than any of our political differences, so as you enter into relationship with others who may not only sit in the other pew but on “the other side of the aisle” remember that your starting point is your mutual commitment to the gospel rather than who you or they voted for. And, please give me space to talk about justice, poverty, income inequality, homelessness, care for the refugee, and the like as manifestly-Christian issues and ones that if we cease to talk about and agitate for we cease to be a church that deserves to exist.
  • If, alternatively, you’re someone thinks, "finally, a pastor who shares my political views” please don’t allow this to be a centerpiece of your engagement at Intown. I’ve heard this sentiment, and believe me, I like to be that pastor! My formative years in ministry were spent at a culturally-conservative, affluent, mostly white, and very very Republican church in the South. I loved this church a lot but it was so homogenous that discovering there were pastors and Christian voices who loved Jesus and didn’t necessarily vote Republican was quite empowering for me even though at the time I had recently worked for a Republican US Congressman and was deeply embedded in the conservative cause. Katie and I are still friends with many people from this season of life, some of them can’t fathom our wanting to live in a "blue state”, while others find my social media presence gives them “permission” to question the status quo in their context - often the uncritical conflation of Christianity and Republicanism. But, I’m not their pastor, I’m yours and we need to remember that neither party, and no individual politician has the corner on the market of biblical faithfulness.

My dream is for Intown to be a counter-cultural community. In the political realm this would mean us being a community that resists the instinct to become an echo-chamber where one political perspective is expected and enabled. And for individuals it will mean that we don't leave our political views at the door but that we don't let them define us or our relationship with others. This presupposes having actual face-to-face conversations rather than debating one another on our Facebook pages.

This is hard! But, we can do it, together! 

 

 

 

A Christmas Prayer

Father, what an incredible morning. We don’t think it could get better than this – the music, babies . . . you’ve captured our imaginations. Here with our eyes closed we see angels and shepherds.

Angels... 

Angels on risers, quietly jostling for position, listening to whispered instructions – a little nervous with anticipation

The choir director with pitch-pipe saying: 

“Tonight I’ve chosen a selection from Handel’s Messiah – key of D, I’ve written a little variation on the theme, we’ll begin with the narrator, then a small jazz ensemble, and then the full choir.”

Angels gathered in white tuxedos and flowing gowns, hair brushed, faces shining, hiding behind the starry curtain of the universe ready to belt out a few hallelujahs in perfect harmony.

Tonight the universe will ring with His praise...

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth, hallelujah, hallelujah!

How long we wonder did they practice? A millennium? Two? How long did it take the narrator to memorize the lines: 

“Don’t be afraid, today, in that little town over there, in a cattle trough, is a baby, born for you a savior who is the anointed of God.” 

How long did the angels prepare? Standing rank upon rank, in breathless anticipation of this one moment only to discover when the curtains of the universe were drawn back an audience of eight speechless . . .frozen shepherds. 

King of kings forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah

Lord we want to be your messengers. Grant us humility to sing the good news of Jesus Christ to the few, the marginalized. Grant us courage to raise our voices in the dark and lonely places.  Grant us patience to wait for your time. Give us wisdom to yield to your call, to do as you ask, even when we do not fully understand either what we are doing or the message itself.

And Lord of lords forever and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah!

And then there were the Shepherds...clothes smelling of sheep and sweat and smoky campfires.

Calloused hands, but not rough, smoothed with years of stroking sheep’s wool.  Arms strong with lifting lambs. 

Men and boys, clear-headed, no-nonsense, brave, strong . . . and ignored.  Common people – lower than common – pushed so far to the margins they were practically invisible.

Asleep in a field of sacrificial lambs on the outskirts of an insignificant backwater town of Judea in an insignificant corner of the world.  

They came to see this baby Jesus, to hold him. They came to deliver a shepherd’s blessing to the sacrificial lamb. To cradle eternity in their arms. To look with ignorant awe into the face of the creator and sustainer of the universe. They came to bless and be blessed. 

Luke tells us they went back to the fields rejoicing and waking the neighborhood like a bunch of drunken sailors . . . .

Going back to their sheep, we imagine one turning to another in their revelry – “. . . you know I can’t get that tune out of my head ‘hallelujah, hallelujah,  hallelujah . . .’”

A light broke into that dark world so long ago where political insanity, social stigma, economic injustice, and religious perversion reigned. Remind us afresh that it has not been dimmed. 

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

In our dark world, make us good receivers of the Gospel as well as givers. We want to abandon ourselves, our lives, our ambitions, our sophistication. We want to be like shepherds who respond to the absurdity of your call to embrace something we do not fully understand. We want to be like shepherds who in the moment of their own transformation refuse to be silent. Overwhelm us with Great Joy – in our families, in our work.

Today in this room we sit, afraid to open our eyes for fear the vision will be lost. And yet,  still somehow we cannot get the song out of our heads, 

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...Amen.

 

By Richard White for Intown Sunday Service / Dec. 18th, 2016

Historic but Generous Orthodoxy

Intown recently made a move from the Presbyterian Church in America to the Reformed Church in America. What does this mean for Intown theologically? 

One of the things that attracted me, and later Intown's leaders to the RCA was their commitment to historic but generous orthodoxy. They practice a deep rootedness in and commitment to the Bible but allow space (within reason) for pastors, elders, and members to wrestle with difficult scriptural issues without fear of immediate censure and without an unnecessarily-narrow set of predetermined conclusions. 

Of course there ARE certain predetermined conclusions that can’t and shouldn’t be negotiated. Intown has been, is presently, and will continue to be committed to the gospel of grace, justification by grace through faith, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection and return of Jesus, the Trinity, God as creator, the Bible as our final authority and guide for life, and a HOST of other things!

But, we felt more and more uncomfortable in a context where opposition to women’s ordination was functionally equivalent to the creedal matters above. And, as a PCA pastor I was expected to oppose a host of things that I felt the Bible was unclear or ambivalent about:

- Evolution. I was an ordained minister in the PCA for over a decade before I came to realize that our denomination had definitively ruled that theistic evolution was not a position that a minister could adopt, that is, unless you're Tim Keller...he gets a pass. I am delighted to be in a place where I don't have to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus in order to keep my ministerial credentials. 

- Adam and Eve as our genetic parents: The scientific consensus that humanity did not descend from a single pair of human beings in recent history is enormous. And this consensus is bolstered by the work of numerous Christian scientists such as Francis Collins. While conceding the fact that this point creates some theological difficulties, such as how does sin enter the human race if the human race does not share common parents, I don't think that conceding the point means that we need to throw out our Bibles. It's okay to be in process and to not have everything nailed down with perfect clarity. We can allow science to guide us in reading our Bibles more accurately. Maybe Adam and Eve are our spiritual parents but not our genetic ones, and even Evangelical luminaries such as John Stott have wrestled with this.  

- Historical Criticism is BAD. I'm not so sure. Of course there are practitioners whose theology has little resemblance to historic Christianity, but this doesn't mean that the entire historical criticism project needs to be jettisoned. Perhaps like the findings of modern science, the findings of form, source, and historical criticism can help us read our Bibles better and keep us from continually retreating into old apologetic paradigms that have ceased to be helpful. Many of the theologians and exegetes that we would consider "liberal" are men and women trying to wrestle with the text as we have it (not as we would want it to be) and trying to find Jesus in the Bible despite the challenges of a corrupted text, contradictory passages, and the theological diversity that even many evangelicals acknowledge.

This last point is pretty important and we will discuss it further in the next blog post.     

 

Intown: PCA to RCA

Intown Church was planted about 15 years ago as a gospel-centered church "in the city for the city." The founding pastor was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America and thus the church was affiliated with that denomination.

But, most members and attendees from those early days didn't see their fundamental loyalty to a denomination but to a local mission.

As Intown's third pastor, that's how I've thought about our church's ministry as well.

Denominational affiliation is an important aspect of a church's identity but we should never feel so beholden to our denomination that we would allow it to take precedent over local ministry concerns. So, the elders and I have been willing to ask from time to time whether or not our affiliation with the PCA continues to be the best context for us to most effectively reach the city of Portland with the gospel. 

After extended conversation with the members and regulars of Intown we determined that it is time for Intown to make a move to a different denominational context. Over the next few weeks, we'll be communicating on this blog some of what lead us to this decision and what it means for us now.  

First of all, perhaps most importantly, Intown will continue to be Intown. Very little will change in the day to day operations, or operating theology. In making this move we are not changing to become something else, but believe we are affiliating with a denomination that allows us to be who we already are.

Because Christians are so accustomed to defining themselves by their denominational affiliation and all that comes along with that designation, when a church to moves to another denomination it feels like a radical change. We believe it is not.

Denominations aren’t in the Bible, but are an unfortunate accommodation to human sin. While re-affiliating isn’t something to be done lightly, it’s not representative of a change of fundamental theology or mission.  

At the same time, Intown has been a PCA church from it’s founding, and because we believe that the PCA continues to be committed to the mission of Jesus, we don’t have any interest in disparaging either the continued ministry of the denomination or of anyone who feels a sense of loyalty to the PCA.   

Accordingly, Intown is moving TO something rather than AWAY.

While we've felt hindered in local ministry by our affiliation with the PCA, we don’t want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary itemizing the negative components that we feel are a part of the PCA’s culture. 

Instead, we want to lay out a positive vision for Intown doing ministry in a denominational context that allows us to creatively-engage our decidedly non-Christian neighbors.

So, in the coming weeks I will lay out some of the principles that have led us to move away from our original denomination and into a new one.  

Reformed and Always Reforming

Intown is a church that exists during the decline and fall of Christendom in the West and is witness to the rapid decline of individual denominations and churches. As a church in that context, we live in the tension between being historically orthodox and open to reform, rooted in tradition while realizing that the church must change or die.  

Christians are normally expected to choose sides and to see Reformed and Reforming as polarities rather than tensions. But in reality, the danger for a church is being committed to one or the other instead of both. 

There is the Reformed danger of conservation for conservation’s sake. While being "conservative" is a posture toward scripture and theology which can be helpful, this is different from conservat-ISM. Like liberal-ISM, conservatism can become an ideology that stands above Scripture. When conservat-ISM sets in, a church or denomination exists for itself and is oriented around the goal of preservation rather than proclamation. It almost always becomes ingrown and self-serving, unable to speak into new situations, deal with new challenges, or engage its neighbors in a healthy dialogue about Jesus. 

The opposite danger, liberal-ISM, is change for change’s sake, a denial of rootedness that also stands apart from and often above Scripture. In this posture, everything is up for grabs and the Church fails to be salt and light. 

These two “isms” can both obscure God’s word and hinder the mission of the church.

In Matthew 15 we see the Pharisees, the ultimate conservatives, seek Jesus out in order to confront him about the fact that his disciples are breaking the tradition of hand-washing before a meal. This religious practice of ritualistic washing had been developed over hundreds of years before Jesus came and was intended to honor God and demonstrate their seriousness about Scripture. Jesus was denying that this tradition had scriptural warrant but to the Pharisees, he was being unacceptably liberal. However Jesus was being “liberal” in a sense that is very unfamiliar to us. He’s actually trying to protect the Bible from traditions that have obscured its meaning. The conservatives were vigorously conserving a tradition not the Bible itself.  

So, Jesus accuses these Bible defenders of being Bible breakers! 

In the ancient world, caring for one’s parents was an irrevocable duty. The Pharisees were getting around that duty by devoting their money and property to God, sort of putting it in escrow in such a way that if their parents ever needed it they could say, “that money is devoted to God.” They guarded their ritual purity in hand-washing while violating one of the most fundamental commands of all Scripture – the care for one’s neighbor (In this case, their closest neighbor - their parents). Their religious practices were detailed, exacting, demanding…and according to Jesus: fraudulent. (see: Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook) 

It takes a reformer, a radical, to call them on it. Jesus is committed to the deeper truth of what the tradition was meant to point to – a heart that is devoted to God and to neighbor. In Matthew 15:10-11, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” The source of real uncleanness is to be found not in the food that passes through the body but in those qualities which lodge in the heart. 

Jesus does not attack tradition or ritual as such but the severing of practice from its essence.  

So, how is Intown to be Reformed and Reforming? Reformed is a tradition within Christianity that finds its most significant theological linkage to the Reformation’s emphasis on: the authority of the Bible, the sovereignty and holiness of God, the priesthood of all believers, salvation by the radical grace of God, and the extravagant welcome of all sinners. We steadfastly believe all of these things (and a lot more!) 

We are also reforming because we realize we’ve been witness to a Copernican revolution of societal change. Suddenly the Church finds itself doing ministry in an ethnically-diverse, multi-national, egalitarian, pluralistic, post-modern society where the Bible is often viewed as a regressive relic. If these challenges were just external we could plug our ears, keep doing what we’ve always done and hope our children won't be corrupted. But difficult questions, born out of this new context are coming from within the church too. 

Committed Christians are asking, “What do I do with a Bible that condemns my closest friend who is gay but appears to be just fine with slavery? What do I do when I read historical accounts in the Bible that seem to be contradictory or mythical? What about evolutionary biology and modern astronomy which seem to undermine the history and cosmology of the Bible? How do I reconcile the images of a God who seems alternatively enraged with his people and eternally loving? Can I worship a God who commands his people to exterminate entire races of people?!"  

It’s not just the outside world asking these questions to challenge the biblical worldview but also our brothers and sisters in the pew who are trying desperately to hold onto faith despite no longer being satisfied by traditional apologetics. How do we answer these questions in a way that captures the imagination of the skeptics in and outside the church? 

Diarmaid MacCulloch, who wrote what is probably the definitive history of the Reformation says, “Self-styled traditionalists often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of humanly-manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsing with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity.” 

This is a beautiful image of the Church, not conservative re-entrenchment, resistant to change and afraid of theological enlargement, nor is it a liberal demolition of the entire system where one’s individual religious wishes are made paramount. 

Instead, the church is a plant that is flowering and growing but can’t, and shouldn’t, escape its own DNA.

One scholar put it this way, “When Reformation stops, Deformation sets in.” While we believe that the Scriptural canon is closed (there is no new revelation to be added) Scripture itself is a living document, pulsing with the life of the Spirit. Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the writers of the Bible itself but he continues to inspire interpreters to wrestle with the meaning of the text in ever-changing contexts, just as he did during the time of the Reformation and the early church. The church must learn to continue to honor tradition and the interpretive shoulders we stand upon, while also appropriating the historical, revolutionary, living truths of the gospel for new circumstances. 

In contrast to much of the contemporary church that is known more for “always reacting" instead of “always reforming”, can Intown be a church that is actively exegeting the surrounding culture while seeking to creatively bring the gospel to our friends and neighbors, rather than just reacting to and opposing cultural change?

We can't simply reassert the thinking and theologizing that "worked" in a former age or in another part of the world. There is no “golden age” of the Church, and no system of theology that isn’t occasional and time-bound.  We do not honor the difficult, sometimes innovative work of interpreters and theologians who have come before us by simply cutting and pasting their conclusions into our context without a fresh exegesis of the Bible itself. We are Reformed, but also Reforming!

The gospel of Jesus Christ challenged the conservatives whose theology had become self-referential and self-perpetuating and had forgotten that proper theology is always missional. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had used their theology to wall themselves off from the messiness of life and from those who most needed the gospel’s life-giving essence. But, the gospel constantly challenged, and continues to challenge our liberal instincts because it claims Jesus as THE king of world and the one true pathway to God. 

As we wrap up our series on the ABC’s of Intown, this concept of Reformed and Reforming has sort of played in the background of most of the sermons. As we consider, “what now?” our mission must include a tenacious commitment to the universal truth of the gospel while simultaneously seeking to allow this truth to transform and reform everything about us - even our theology.