Pastor Dan Kiehl's Weekly Letter to the Congregation
July 29, 2020
Dear Oakwood Church Family,
Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! This week I'd like to ask you all to meditate on one question - "Where is your hope?" I've been working slowly through Hebrews 11 in my morning devotions, which teaches us that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" and then proceeds to show us what this looks like in the lives of redeemed sinners of the Old Testament era. "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised," but sure of their future hope because they "considered Him faithful who had promised." They considered themselves "strangers and exiles on the earth" because their hope and desire was for "a better country, that is, a heavenly one."
One of the most ironically named villages ever was a place called Neversink, New York. It was a picturesque town of around 2,000 people in a beautiful valley in the Catskill Mountains. But in 1941 New York City decided that it needed more water, so they condemned Neversink and began plans to build a dam and flood that valley for a reservoir. In 1953, the dam was completed, and Neversink was sunk. Consider this... during those last 12 years of existence, how many citizens of Neversink do you think painted their houses, worked on landscaping their yards or started new businesses in Neversink? Where there is no hope for the future, there's no motivation to work to improve the present.
I ask you to focus on our future hope in Christ because I believe that much of the visible church today has lost its focus upon the hope of heaven, and, ultimately, the New Heavens and New Earth. Two different forms of false teaching have deeply infected the American church, either blatantly or very subtly. One is the prosperity gospel, which measures God's blessing upon your life by how much you own and how healthy you are here and now. The other is the progressive gospel, which measures God's blessing upon your life by how much you are doing to change the world here and now. Both of these destructive teachings either deny or de-emphasize the promises of Scripture about our future "city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (Hebrews 11:10).
Christians in our theological circles typically won't embrace the teachings of the prosperity gospel (although our materialistic lifestyles often betray that we live as though it is true), but I've been concerned about an increasing tendency of Reformed Christians to fall prey to the basic ideas of progressive Christianity, which tends to reduce the gospel to mere social activism. The problem with both prosperity and progressive theologies is that the focus of the hope is in this world, in this life. When health, wealth, and social change don't happen, hope dissipates, and, along with it, motivation to serve and persevere. All the efforts turn out to be "wood, hay, and straw" that will burn up in the fire of God's final judgment (I Corinthians 3:10-15).
Psychology Today magazine once made this observation: "Hope provides a haven from pessimism and fear. It galvanizes our courage and mobilizes our energy and vitality. It enhances our mood and our creative thinking. Hope also contributes to the human propensity to help others who are in distress, including loved ones as well as strangers." The focus in the prophetic passages of Scripture are on what God will do in the future to bring justice and salvation, not on what will do. But the beauty of this is that focusing upon what God will do (and it is certain that He will do it) actually motivates us to serve him and work for change in the here and now. The work that we do for justice and redemption here and now, motivated by hope in God's promises, will be shown to be like "gold, silver, and precious stones" and will endure eternally when the fires of God's judgment come.
I say all of this recognizing that Oakwood needs to do much more to bring Gospel-driven change to our community and region. But we must begin with our focus on our eternal hope in Christ if we want our efforts to be both sustainable and glorifying to our God. We need to do more outreach, but it must be hope-driven and faith-driven, not guilt-driven.
Changing gears... we are looking forward to finally seeing Penn State students return in a few weeks, but we also recognize that with them will come to a greater possibility of exposure to the coronavirus. Over the past couple of months, we've been taking slow and deliberate steps toward reestablishing worship services. Every decision that the elders have made has been very difficult. We have to balance a concern for the physical health and well-being of our members and friends with a concern for their spiritual needs and the overall spiritual health of the congregation. We recognize that there is a wide range of assessments of the threat posed by the coronavirus and perspectives on how to respond to it. Many of those different perspectives are also found among the different elders, and our deliberations have been lively and sometimes very difficult. But I am deeply thankful for the willingness of the elders to work together to find consensus and to support the decisions that are made even when there is disagreement. I pray that the congregation will also show a love for one another and unity in spite of all the diversity of our opinions.
In August we are hoping to begin offering nursery care two Sundays a month, during the sermon time only, only in the 11:15 AM service, and with extra precautions. Just as we started the 8:30 AM service with extra precautions in order to allow some of our brothers and sisters who hadn't felt able to attend in person to start coming, we're hoping that these two 11:15 AM services per month with nursery care during the sermon may allow some families with small children who haven't been coming to begin attending services again. We are aware that this increases the risk of exposure to the virus to some degree, so this has been just another in a long series of difficult decisions for us. We are monitoring the medical reports of coronavirus infections in the community, and we are prepared to scale back our in-person activities in the case of a significant outbreak in the community, even to the point of stopping in-person meetings if necessary. You may not agree with all our decisions, but I hope that you all know that our purpose is to do what is best for your total physical and spiritual health. Please pray for us and our church.