The rich roots of American History are evident throughout New England where I live. Yet sometimes, I have to travel beyond New England in order to truly appreciate what is right before me here at home. C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity put it this way, One must go beyond one’s own culture and generation to discover truth. I hope you enjoy this update as I share what I learned from going “back in time” on a recent trip to Princeton, Illinois.I was privileged to present 3 workshops at an evangelical conference in Princeton. There were over 50 congregations from 15 states present. To say these are “wounded” congregations is an understatement – all of them have experienced the pain of permanently severing their mainline denominational affiliations. In the midst of their pain, I witnessed great joy in this multi-denominational audience – they were on fire for Jesus; evangelism and missions; God’s Word; and worship. All of these congregations know the pain of severing their affiliation with various mainline denominations. For most of them, this painful experience has resulted in bitter division; loss of physical assets; damaged friendships; divided families; and broken churches. The divorce of a family is devastating; the divorce of a church of families…that is tough stuff!You can imagine how nourishing it was for these pastors and church leaders to gather for fellowship, encouragement, worship, prayer and God’s guidance. This is why I felt deeply honored to be included in their conference – right in the midst of their pain. God blessed my workshops – I thank the Lord for always touching hearts and minds through LTH. Many pastors and leaders were very interested in how to implement care to LGBT+ persons and their families. They were looking for tangible ways to express through ministry their love for LGBT+ persons. That is why they invited me to present LTH. The Fog of Culture War…As much as I was humbled to minister among these pastors and church leaders, I was more humbled to learn the history of the host church, Hampshire Colony Congregational Church.
Hampshire Colony – a long-time United Church of Christ member church – knows what it is like to go through a church split; they lived through one just 3 years ago.In the years prior to this split, there had been a growing spiritual confusion growing within the church. Many believers felt it was impossible to pinpoint what was happening in their midst – it just seemed that the “language” of sin and salvation and Jesus as Savior had shifted. The sound of this new language was ambiguously off key. Yet they remained faithful in the midst of this uncertainty.The clouds of uncertainty became more clear when after the loss of their senior pastor an ordained lesbian pastor applied for his position. This candidate lost by a small margin. What happened next was unprecedented. The United Church of Christ started contacting members and dictating that there must be a second vote. This is not allowed under voting regulations and yet a second vote was forced upon Hampshire Colony. The creases of division deepened as the true beliefs of a divided congregation came to the surface in frustration and anger. The candidate for pastor lost in this second vote.Despite multiple attempts for reconciliation, those in support of the lesbian pastor left the church. Had the initial vote simply been accepted, the congregation could easily have healed. It was the forcing of a second vote, against United Church of Christ policies, that exhausted members on both sides as divisions and disagreements tore at the fabric of peace and unity. In the end, Hampshire Colony lost 40% of its membership in an emotional church split and withdrew their affiliation from the United Church of Christ. Many of these members who left formed their own church a block away. Today, Hampshire Colony has a new pastor: Pastor Jack Stites is a man of God alive in the Word of Christ. He is humble, compassionate, caring and bold in serving God in the community of Princeton. Today, Hampshire Colony is a healthy, growing congregation. Yet they continue to mourn as they recall fractured families and broken friendships. Pastor Jack has the Spirit of God upon him as he pastors this flock and raises his young family in the “fog” of Culture War… Another Century, Another Culture War… This year, Hampshire Colony is celebrating its 175th anniversary. In all that history, this church has lived through the fog of Culture War before. It was in 1836 that Rev. Owen Lovejoy became Hampshire’s second pastor. He remained at Hampshire until 1864. The Culture War of his day was slavery. He and Hampshire lived under great pressure to accept the enslavement of black Americans. Yet Rev. Lovejoy preached passionately and courageously against slavery and his home became an important stop on the Underground Railroad that set blacks free to the North.Rev. Lovejoy spoke so regularly about the sin of slavery that it was common to see several parishioners bolt out of the service during his sermons in anger and disgust for his infringement upon their right to own slaves. The animosity grew so strong that Rev. Lovejoy’s brother was murdered for his views on slavery. Despite the murder of his brother, Rev. Lovejoy remained strong and preached even more powerfully against slavery. He was so impassioned that President Lincoln befriended him and spoke of freeing slaves in Princeton on the steps of the original Hampshire Colony church building (which was also city hall). The church lost many members over the years as Rev. Lovejoy continued to preach the truth.Here I was, invited to speak in the halls of this historic church. I was truly humbled and felt a great sense of responsibility to speak God’s Word with great care. I did not know that I would be so deeply touched by the historic roots and pain of this 175 year old church. I thought I was just speaking at a conference – I ended up stepping back into history right into the heart of another Culture War from another century…The Cure for Culture War… I began this article by noting the rich history of New England. That was not entirely off topic for there is something else you should know about Hampshire Colony. It was founded in 1831 by 18 members from 7 congregational churches in Massachusetts. The church that issued the call for this evangelistic mission was First Congregational Church in Northhampton, MA. This church planted Hampshire Colony Congregational (then, First Congregational) on March 23, 1831 and in doing so founded the town of Princeton, IL. Chicago was just an Indian outpost…What is more interesting to me is that over 100 years earlier, First Congregational Church of Northampton was pastored by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, like Lovejoy in his day, faithfully preached the Word of God as the colonies experienced their own Culture War. The elder colonists had come to the United States seeking religious freedom – having a deep appreciation for the freedom they possessed by the Hand of God, they had a keen awareness of their responsibility to be obedient to God and His Word. Yet the younger settlers were speaking a new language of faith…an ambiguous truth that rationalized their morality and judged God’s Word by their moral preferences. God used Edwards’ preaching – among many others – to bring about what we call the Great Awakening…a time of great revival in the soul of our nation. I don’t know about you, but I pray that the soul of our nation would be greatly awakened again. Even that my family and I would be “more” awakened than we are today. Maybe looking back at history gives us some insights that are helpful on the road toward what we can all hope and pray would be another awakening by the Hand of God. Indeed, history holds wisdom about the days of men – both good and bad – that tend to repeat throughout the generations.On this trip to Princeton, I learned a bit of history and the wisdom it contains. I learned that our commitment to Biblical faith can be brittle; our conviction of sin can decay; our courage to stand strong while the world rejects God’s Word can wane; our comfort in judging the sins of others can deceive; and our calling to enter into God’s Will for our lives can go unanswered. I guess what I’m saying is that regardless of what others do, we often do the same things as those we so often criticize. (Romans 2:1-4) While our nation has experienced many Culture Wars, we have within ourselves a tendency to get stuck in our own “Culture Wars” with God. We don’t easily obey Him. We all too easily sin while judging others. We all too easily become weak-willed when God calls us. We all too often choose sin over our Savior.What will the Culture War of our day lead to? The Culture War of Lovejoy’s day led to war. The Culture War of Edwards’ day led to revival. What is the cure for the Culture War of our generation? As I ponder this question, my heart cannot help but drift back in time well beyond the generations of Lovejoy and Edwards to the days of Solomon’s reign. He had just completed the Temple and God knew all too well how easily and repeatedly His people tended to wander from His ways. God appeared to Solomon saying, If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and will heal their land.Could it be that God Himself is The Cure for our generation’s Culture War? Could it be that we as His people hold in our own hearts the key to His blessing our generation with His Cure? Could it be?Lord, make those of us who are called by the name of your Son humble before you…give us desperate hearts to seek your face in prayer…give us deliverance from our many sins and a willing heart to flee temptation…and Lord…please heal not only our hearts…we ask you to be The Cure for our generation…we ask you to be The Healer of our land. Our hope is only in you, Lord… In Christ’s name, Amen.Special Note: Today, Edward’s First Congregational Church in Northampton (MA) is an open and affirming church. The pastor said to me on the phone, We believe the gay identity is God-given and is to be celebrated. Hampshire Colony in Princeton (IL), the church planted by First Congregational 175 years ago, is part of a growing “faithful and welcoming” church movement: Faithful to God’s Word, Welcoming to All Peoples.
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