A Bit for Good

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By Hannah Comerford

Last Sunday, Larry Short shared with us from James. One part he touched on was James’s description of the tongue:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. . . . So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. (3:3, 5, ESV)

Years spent working with horses have given me a special love for this passage, and I appreciated how Larry discussed how a bit guides a horse, using pressure to tell the animal where to go and when to stop. Yet this analogy goes much deeper than Larry had time to talk about in his sermon.

It’s easy to look at the metal rod we stick in a horse’s mouth and think of it as a form of punishment—a tool to annoy the horse when he misbehaves or doesn’t listen to our directions. With a rebellious horse, it can certainly be that. The more the horse fights its rider, the more pressure will be placed on its mouth from the bit as the rider pulls back. But with a well-trained horse, the bit becomes something so much better—a tool to communicate with its rider.

If you’ve ever watched horsemanship competitions on TV, whether while flipping through channels or during the Olympics, you may have come across something called dressage. You may have even seen forms of it at shows such as Medieval Times. To put it simply, dressage is like horse dancing. The goal is not to be the fastest horse and mount or to navigate obstacles; rather, the rider must show how smoothly her horse can follow her subtle cues, resulting in breathtakingly beautiful movements that often look as though the animal is floating through the arena. The rider uses the bit in communicating, but only with small gestures—the horse has learned to pick up on just the slightest touch.

Let’s go back to James. In 3:2, he says, “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” James is giving us a key to perfection—if we can control what we say, bridling ourselves, then we can be perfect! But there’s a problem: a horse can’t bridle itself, and neither can we. Even Paul said that he can’t keep himself from sinning, finding himself doing the very things he hates (Romans 7:15-20). Like the horse needs the rider, we need God to bridle us. With more “training,” we can use the bridle of His direction and laws to understand His commands and do what He says.

This all can seem kind of frustrating, can’t it? If we want to get anywhere near perfection, we need to be told what to do? We need to be subjected to another’s force? Our sinful selves hate feeling controlled, and the world tells us we should be free to do whatever we want.

But let’s take another look at the bit. If you watch a high-level dressage horse at work, its neck is elegantly arched, with the head making a straight line directly up from the ground. This isn’t just for looks, and it doesn’t mean the rider is pulling hard on the horse’s mouth. In the case of these well-trained animals, the horse is arcing its neck voluntarily, and there is very little tension between the mouth and the rider’s hand. This is a posture of obedience from an animal that knows it could yank itself free and bolt—this horse is allowing the rider to be in control. It is not a contest of wills, but rather a sort of dance in which the rider is leading. What’s more, when the horse is “on the bit,” as it’s called, it becomes easier for the horse to move, as the horse’s body is in better alignment and able to use its muscles more effectively. (Think of it like having good posture while lifting weights or running.) The horse’s humble obedience is doing good for its body.

Go to YouTube and search for videos of dressage horses. Watch the beautiful, amazing work they can do because they eagerly listen to and trust their riders.

When we humbly accept God’s leadership, He doesn’t need to use negative reinforcement. He can move us with the smallest touch, because we’re waiting to hear from Him. We’re in a position that is healthiest for us, because He knows exactly what we need. I pray that we would learn what this humble obedience means, to be willingly bridled by our God.

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COMMUNITY GROUPS: A “Church Within a Church Within a Church”

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By Larry Short

If you’ve ever seen the movie Inception, this concept may sound familiar. In the movie, there are sleuths (Leonardo DiCaprio plays the lead sleuth here) who are experts at entering people’s dream states to try to extract important information from them. It gets more than a little twisted when they have to take it down two or more levels, creating a dream state within a dream state, within a dream state. Which gives rise to all kinds of adventuresome challenges for returning to the “real world” . . . if there is such a thing!

(How’s that for a one-paragraph movie review? I dare you to try sleeping through this movie.)

At any rate, to some extent community groups and the way they function within the Body of Christ remind me of the premise of this movie. First, we all know that a Body of Believers such as the one you find here at Elim is merely a “church within a Church.” Ultimately, everyone who calls Christ Lord is a member of the same Body, the Body of Christ. Elim is only one local manifestation, a church within a Church.

I’ve found that the most effective community groups function as little “churches” within a church (such as Elim), within the Church (the Body of Christ). That is, many of the things that we are blessed by and bless others with, as a result of being members of the Body of Christ, happen well within the context of community groups.

I was reflecting on this last night while sitting around the fire pit in Bob Walsh’s backyard with a group of Elim men at one of our Men’s Conversations. We ate great food together. We worshipped together. We prayed together. Then Isaac McKenzie led us in a discussion that quickly got down to the nitty-gritty of how we live lives as men devoted to Christ together, in the context of relationships with other men (Pauls, Timothies, Barnabases—more on that here). There was honest discussion, and we encouraged one another onward in our journeys as fathers, husbands, men, and followers of Jesus.

I was encouraged to hear how the lives of so many men were being impacted by what was happening in small groups they were a part of at Elim, formal or informal!

During this weekend’s sermon, we will be looking at James 1:22-27, which begins with the simple and very direct admonition: “Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” God is implanting His Word in us. Often, we will receive it and say “Amen,” but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of daily life, we then “forget” to implement what we have learned and proclaimed. James tells us that professed faith is not authentic faith unless it is lived out in lives of God-directed action.

And community groups are an ideal place where we can safely “stir up one another to love and good works,” as Hebrews 10:24 exhorts us.

In this seventh and final principle in this series for life in community groups, I see the following three ways community groups help fulfill this “church within a church within the Church” mandate:

  • Small groups are often the place where a believer’s spiritual giftsfirst float to the surface. In the community ministry, we will work with group leaders to hone a process for helping their group members discover and use their spiritual gifts effectively to minister to others. Use your small group to exercise the “one anothers” of Scripture with your brothers and sisters in Christ!
  • Groups play an incredibly important part of the prayer life of the Church.This ministry will exhort, support, and encourage a vital prayer life within small groups.
  • Small groups are the place where the best care and shepherding In a traditional church model, the “professional” pastors are responsible to visit the sick and bereaved. But when tragedy strikes someone who is involved in a small group, many times the best care comes directly from other group members who are in community with that person. We will work with group leaders to help them develop as wise and caring shepherds of the little flocks God has entrusted to them.

Our prayer for you as we close out this series is that if you are not yet involved in a community group here at Elim, you won’t hesitate to jump in! Many new groups traditionally get rolling in September as school begins, so watch for an announcement of groups that are meeting, and don’t hesitate to contact a group leader to ask questions and express interest. (If you need help getting started, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line at LarryShort@gmail.com!)

Also, if you are already involved in a community group at Elim as a leader, an apprentice leader, or as a member in any other leadership role, know that we are praying for you and desire to come alongside you in this challenging task. You are a “little pastor” to whom God has given responsibility to shepherd and care for a portion of His flock. We exhort you to spend daily time on your knees before Him, seeking a godly vision for your group and asking for His help in making a real difference in the lives of the people He has entrusted to you.

Thank you for reading this series, and I pray you all will have a blessed and renewing summer as you grow in your walk with Jesus!

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Community Groups at ELIM: The Hands and Feet of Jesus

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By Larry Short

This is part six in a seven-part series on principles guiding community life at Elim. To read all seven principles in one document, click here.

Fr. Nicolae Tanase of Valea Popului, Romania

Fr. Nicolae Tanase of Valea Popului, Romania.

I experienced something of an epiphany 20 years ago, when I traveled to Romania with a group of nine other World Vision staff on what was essentially a staff vision trip. There, high in the mountains above Bucharest, we spent the day in a community called Valea Plopului. This was no ordinary community. It was centered around the life and work of an Orthodox priest named Father Nicolae Tanase.

Fr. Tanase became a priest at a time when it was very difficult and unpopular to do so. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, Communists, under the iron fist of a brutal dictator named Nicolae Ceauşescu, were in charge. They believed there was no God in Heaven and human children were nothing other than a commodity to be exploited for the purposes of the State. They encouraged people to have lots of children and made any kind of birth control illegal, and when parents could not afford to raise their children, the kids became wards of the state, where they were to be indoctrinated in Communist ways.

That was the vision, at any rate. The reality was that children were half-starved, and many were diseased and disabled. They were treated like cattle and often left to die, caged like animals in “cribs” with steel bars.

Because of this reality, abortion was rampant. This young, brave priest named Father Tanase, convinced that God was alive and wanted him to show compassion to suffering children, announced that unwanted children could instead be brought to his village in the mountains, where they would be adopted by loving parents and raised with the dignity of human beings created in the image of God.

This announcement didn’t sit kindly with the Communists. They attempted secretly to kill Fr. Tanase, but only succeeded in maiming him. (His huge, black beard covers most of the grisly scars of this event some 30 years ago.)

After Ceauşescu was deposed in 1990 and the Communists fell from power, Fr. Tanase accelerated his efforts. When we visited in 1997, dozens of children had been adopted by community members. They tended sheep and gardens, running hither and yon with joy through the hills. They were well-fed, healthy, and happy. And they knew Jesus loved them! The image that remained with me from that day is best characterized by the somewhat odd title: “Peter Pan goes to Sunday School.”

What does this have to do with community groups? As I reflected on what Father Tanase had done in Valea Plopului, it occurred to me that he hadn’t done it alone. He had a group of vibrant believers around him who were willing to sacrifice enormously to show the compassion of Christ to a hurting world. What an incredible testimony!

Elim has gotten small toeholds on this principle, through amazing efforts such as Freezing Nights, feeding the hungry at the Puyallup Armory, and more recently, our wonderful involvement in foster care ministry. But I believe God has far more in store for us.

And if compassionate outreach to the community and world around us is going to be effective and sustainable, I believe it will find itself envisioned and resourced from within the center of our community groups. Hence, principle six of our seven principles:

  1. The Community Ministry will seek to strategically equip and encourage groups not simply to be places of community and fellowship, but also to be the point of the spear for our church reaching out into the community and world around us. This will look very different for different groups at different times, but we will challenge each group leader to be interacting with his or her members with outward-reaching ministry in mind. We will ask them, “What is God placing upon your heart(s) to do to impact the world around us for Jesus?” We will encourage them to listen to God and work toward whatever vision He plants in their hearts. Perhaps not every group will be reaching out, but it should be an important value to do so and to support those groups that do.

I would like to encourage everyone in a Community Group to pray about a vision that God would implant for becoming His hands and feet to the community and world around us. This won’t look the same for every group. Some may focus on supporting foreign missionaries, and others may focus on feeding the hungry right here in our community. Some will have a heart for strategic evangelism initiatives, and others may have heart for supporting efforts to help children in our community and beyond. Who knows what God will do?

But I do know He wants us to do something. I look at Father Tanase and praise God for the way James 1:27 is being worked out in his small corner of the world:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

What will God accomplish through you and your group? Start praying NOW, and only time will tell!

P.S.: Where is Father Tanase’s ministry, 20 years later? The video below will blow your mind. I mentioned that when we were there, dozens of children were being cared for. Now that number is in the hundreds!

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Affinity vs. Diversity in Community Groups at ELIM

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By Larry Short

This is part five in a seven-part series on principles guiding community life at Elim. To read all seven principles in one document, click here.

Many people (I among them) consider Elim’s very intergenerational nature one of our greatest strengths. Here we are, a 133-year-old church, but we have more than 70 children aged fifth grade and under in our midst! There are the older and wiser among us, but we also have lots of young families, singles, and college-/career-aged young adults.

We are also a church that exists in a fairly racially heterogenous area, and we embrace, enjoy, and benefit from fellowship with people of all different colors of skin and different walks of life. We have stay-at-home moms in addition to women who work outside the home. We have blue-collar and white-collar types and everything in between.

We are a fairly diverse bunch! You can see this diversity in the way different community groups form. We have affinity groups for women, for moms with young children, for men, and for young adults. We have had groups for retired people. We have groups that focus on young marrieds, and groups for other married couples.

When it comes to groups, there is a certain tension between affinity and diversity. There is a certain power in meeting together with people you share a life stage with, such as young adults. You enjoy the same types of things, and it is therefore easier to “live life in proximity.”

But there is also a power in diversity. We can benefit from exposure to people who are different than we are, in a variety of ways. We need to understand each other and hear each other’s stories. In particular, we need to be in relationship with and work to bridge any gulfs between young and old, black and white, male and female, blue-collar and white-collar, etc., if we are to effectively function together as a true Body of Christ.

Hence, our fifth principle of community ministry at Elim:

  1. One of Elim’s strengths is that it is intergenerational. A lot of wisdom and other benefits flow across age and life-stage boundaries. We believe this should be encouraged and maximized for the benefit of all. On the other hand, we also believe that some of the most effective groups revolve around life-stage affinity. Young parents with kids in diapers can definitely benefit in many ways from being in community with other young parents. If our Community Ministry is to be healthy, we need to figure out how to raise up and grow both types of groups as well as connect them to each other for maximum benefit.

Paul told the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our identity as children of God in Christ Jesus supersedes all other more superficial diversities! And yet, those diversities are also the way He created us, and for a reason. Elsewhere, Paul urges younger women and younger men to look to older women and older men for wisdom and training.

We pray for two things for you: 1) that you have opportunity at Elim to meet people who are unlike you in various ways as well as benefit from getting to know their life stories and 2) that you have opportunity at Elim to gather together with others you share the affinity of life stage with, to be able to enjoy their company and share joys and sorrows as you walk this discipleship journey together.

The more effectively we can figure out how to do both things, simultaneously, the more effective a Body of Christ expression here on the corner of 94th and 128th in South Hill we will become!

Next time: We will talk about how community groups at Elim will be better equipped to reach out and minister to a hurting world around us!

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The Delinquent Elder

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By Dan Amos

A couple of weekends ago we had a crazy Sunday. Right after church we had a meeting which was followed by a graduation party and then another meeting. It was go, go, go, right until it was time to collapse into bed that night. It was not much of a day of rest.

The next weekend was similar. I knew that Sunday afternoon was completely filled and Sunday evening was another meeting. So, on Saturday, which was really another day of work, I recognized I needed a break. I chose then not to attend church in the morning. We rarely miss when we are home and we rarely go anywhere, so most weeks you’ll see us at church.

Now that the sun has returned, I realize my Sunday community is going to get smaller for the summer. Many of us take breaks when the weather is nice and kids are out of school. But, according to Hebrews 10:25, we are a community and we gather together for mutual benefit, instruction and encouragement. The verse implies it is easy to get out of the habit of meeting together and we should not neglect our community.

I think I can safely say it’s okay to miss a week. I’m pretty sure all of our Elders and Pastors have taken a break. We need to rest and sometimes say “no” to very good things in order to be healthy. Demands on our time can add up and have a way of growing without conscious assent.

The wise person maintains the margin in their life, leaving capacity for others, taking time to be still and listen, honoring their responsibilities and not neglecting assembling together. Enjoy these precious few days of sunshine and try to keep the complaints about it being too hot to a minimum. It’s already been too hot this year.

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