When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

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The Disciples Couldn’t Stay Gone

Consider this my Easter sermon….

As I usually do, I spent part of Holy Saturday yesterday thinking about the Disciples’ sadness and despair and fear after Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t think any of them actually expected or even dared to hope for the resurrection on the third day, and I expect that all of them were in shock to varying degrees. After all, scripture says that they “left him and fled,” which was, if not a fulfillment, at least a representation of Zechariah 13:6-7 (which Matthew tells us Jesus quoted at the Last Supper).

And if anyone asks him, “What are these wounds between your hands?” then he shall answer, “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

“Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, against the man who is My associate,” says the Lord of Hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered; I will turn My hand against the little ones….”

So yesterday I wondered what exactly the disciples did on that day of despair.

I imagine that some of them had relatives in Jerusalem or in the outlying areas, and sought refuge with them. Perhaps they went alone, or in twos and threes, but it’s unlikely they would have roamed or lodged together as a group that first day. I imagine that they stayed hidden for a time, and when it became clear they were not being pursued they became comfortable enough to venture out.

I imagine that when they ventured out they probably saw other Disciples here or there. I imagine them looking furtively around, perhaps afraid to signal or greet each other openly. They would recognize one another on sight, of course: not only because they had spent many months together and knew each other well, but because each of them would be marked by the hours he had spent in abject grief.

Resurrection
(Image: “Resurrection,” by fady habib, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But they couldn’t stay gone. They came back together.

We are not told who came back first, or what order they came back in. We are told that at one point Thomas had not joined them yet. But the main lesson, again, is that they could not stay away.

We, like the Disciples, may flee from certain troubles, may hide away for a time before we feel safe venturing out, and may glance about and over our shoulders to see if we’re being pursued. But if we fall away, may we find our way back as the Disciples did — and find the courage to live our faith in the open again.

Amen.

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A Hard Teaching

I’ve come to think of responsibility as, at its most basic, the ability to respond. That presents a high bar to clear, in light of this hard teaching about following the example of Christ:

In carnal wisdom, in earthly wisdom, it is height of responsibility to take responsibility for your own actions. But in God’s economy, in God’s new world, we are called to take responsibility for what we did not do….

I need to think more about the implications of that.

Lord, help me to understand.

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Putting ‘The Gift Church’ on Indefinite Hold

(This is the fifth, and possibly last, entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first four are at the end.)

Scripture tells us to “wait upon the Lord” — in Psalms, in the Epistles, and famously in Isaiah 40 — but how long we have to wait is up to the Lord alone. That point occurred to me when I realized that I’ve been thinking about the “Gift Church” (or “Gift Fellowship”) idea — i.e., of starting a church that would practice radical generosity — for nearly three years.

Sure enough, when I went back to check I saw that my first notes on it were in early March 2015. Over a few feverish weeks I searched Scriptures and drafted guidelines to flesh out the idea before I shared it with my Bible study group. We discussed it a few times, off and on, and I thought doing so would get it out of my system — but the idea had me in thrall.

Eventually, that October, I first wrote about it here on the blog in a post entitled “The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES.” That was akin, I think, to crying out in the wilderness, but I didn’t actually do anything about it: I didn’t recruit people or organize interest meetings or whatever. I did put together a Facebook page and posted on it a few times, but I’ve since deactivated it. And as of now I haven’t written about it for nearly two years, outside of occasional Facebook comments.

But I can’t shake the vision.

Every so often I return to the idea and ask the Lord if I’m supposed to do something with it. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a clear “No” — at least I hope I haven’t just ignored it — but neither have I gotten a definite “Yes.”

I keep asking for a sign, and I think I finally looked in the right place to find one.

Your Family is Waiting for You
Wouldn’t it be great to have a single clear sign? Alas, it doesn’t always happen … so we wait. (Image: “Your Family is Waiting for You,” by Christian Senger, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

What sign have I been given? Simply that the Lord has not prompted anyone to partner with me. A few people have expressed mild interest in the concept, but that’s about it. No one else has had the same or a similar vision, and unless someone does I’ve decided that I need to give up this thought, this dream, this notion. (From a practical standpoint, of course, I suppose you could say I gave up — or gave up on — the notion long ago.)

Partnership is important to me because as I was studying the Scriptures, thinking about how such a church might govern itself, I focused on the fact that Jesus sent out the Disciples in pairs (as recorded in Luke 10), and that Paul always traveled with a ministry partner. Partnership offers support when times are difficult; provides for accountability to ensure vital tasks get done; and makes it less likely that a ministry will serve the minister’s ego more than the people or cause at which it is directed. I’ve come to believe that no ministry should operate except in partnership, and so I’ve put this ministry idea on indefinite hold.

And I’ve come to accept that no one else may ever catch this vision.

I may be the only person dissatisfied with the state of the church these days. Not so much the trappings of church, the worship or preaching or fellowship: the various churches I’ve attended recently haven’t satisfied my spiritual hunger, but that may say more about me than it does about them. No, I remain disheartened by the operations of churches that spend so much money on themselves — even going into massive debt like so many of the rest of us — that they spend relatively little on helping people. I wonder if it ever bothers their congregants to spend more every year on church programming, or more on utilities and maintenance of buildings that stand empty and unused most of the time, than they spend to feed the hungry or clothe the naked. I wonder if they even think about it.

When I was young, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland came to my hometown and spoke at my church. I recall two things about that Sunday. First, before the offering he prayed: “Lord, forgive us when we come before You with empty hearts, and empty hands.” That admonishment affected me deeply, and still does today.

Second, he based his sermon on the text, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That was the day I learned that Christ had first asked that question (until then, I had only associated it with the Beatles). But I bring it up because lately I have come to view many Scriptures as applying to the corporate church as much as they apply to us as individuals, which leads me to wonder: What does it profit a church, if it gains all manner of worldly appurtenances but loses the soul of the Gospel? And the soul of the Gospel is to serve, rather than to be served.

I don’t know if I will find a church that puts serving others ahead of serving itself. I don’t know if the idea for The Gift Church, which would do just that, will ever catch anyone else’s attention.

All I know is that I will continue to wait upon the Lord.

___
Previously in this series:
– 1: The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
– 2: The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
– 3: The Gift Church: How It Might Work
– 4: The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

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Self-Control, Worship, and Life

Those of us who are Christians rightly appreciate the characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians as “the fruit of the Spirit.” A few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out that they form something of a hierarchy with “self-control” as the base. I don’t know where he learned or came up with that idea, but I like it.

I also like what Douglas Wilson has to say on the subject in the latest installment of his “State of the Church” series, Church and Kingdom, Cathedral and Town:

… the Spirit moves throughout the earth, converting and restoring individuals, fashioning them into saints, into believers. As His fruit is manifested in them, one of those fruits is self-control, self-government, or self-mastery. This self-government is the basic building block for establishing non-tyrannical governments in the other spheres that God has established among men. Without self-government, families can become autocratic tribes…. Without self-government, the church can become a grasping and despotic monster…. Without self-government, the civil magistrate can become an overweening and covetous thug….

I love that he starts with the point that the Spirit is what “moves throughout the earth” to convert people. I cannot convert anyone; I cannot restore anyone; I cannot compel or convince anyone on my own. I don’t “preach” to my non-Christian friends for precisely that reason. What I try to do — and here I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t recall the quote or the original source — is to live a life that, if I succeed, may invite someone prompted by the Spirit to ask me about whom I follow, whom I serve, whom I worship.

And, speaking of worship, I love the metaphors in this excerpt:

The worship of God is central to all of life, but it does not devour all of life. The sun does not burn everything up, but it does give light to everything. The water does not flood the world, but it does irrigate the entire world. The anchor fastens the ship, the ship does not turn into a gigantic anchor. The cathedral is at the center of the town, but does not “take over” all the activities of the townspeople — their printing, their auto mechanics, their software designing, their lawn mowing. In one sense all of that is none of their business. But at the same time the church instructs the townspeople in the adverbs — how these things are to be done, meaning, honestly, before the Lord, with one eye always on the text, and with a hard work ethic.

Lord, help me govern myself well; help me worship You in all I do, whatever I do; and help me be about the business of my life in a way that pleases You, and points others to You.

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If Buttercups Can Do It, It Isn’t Ministry

Among the 21 Maxims for Discouraged Pastors — in fact, as part of the very first one — we find this gem:

In 2 Tim. 2:3-6, the apostle Paul compares the work of ministry to three vocations, and all of them involve a goodly amount of sweat — soldiers, athletes, and farmers. The calling of the ministry is not for buttercups, and if buttercups can do it, it isn’t ministry.

The entire post seems as if it would be valuable for every pastor, whether discouraged or not, to review periodically — and for every one of us who has ever thought of going into the ministry to bear in mind when listening for that call.

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Two Warring Spirits

We have two warring spirits inside us, of criticism and of discernment, and of late I have become acutely aware of their battle within me. Even in posting this, and admitting my own failures, I’m tempted toward criticism rather than discernment — tempted to point out the motes in others’ eyes (maybe even yours) rather than acknowledging the beam in my own.

What is this critical spirit I struggle against?

The critical spirit bites and devours. The critical spirit tears down and does not rebuild. The critical spirit speaks without thinking or reflecting. The critical spirit does not have equal weights and measures; it does not apply the same level of scrutiny to itself as it does to the other.

In contrast, what is the discerning spirit that I try — and all too often fail — to employ?

The discerning spirit wants to protect, not destroy. The discerning spirit warns; it does not push. The discerning spirit can speak hard words, and often does, but it is the scalpel of the surgeon, not the cudgel of the mugger.

Do you struggle with this, at all? Or am I the only one?

Lord, help us — help me — discern more than criticize, build more than demolish, and support more than undermine.

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Panic in the Face of Change

It seems as if all of us resist change to some degree, for at least some kinds of change. Like so many things, we vary in how comfortable we are with change, even when we have some assurance the change will be beneficial. Sometimes, however, we are so caught up on what the change is doing or is likely to do to us — per Reaiah’s Maxim, “There is no change without tension”* — that we cannot envision a way for it to turn out well. Yet,

One of God’s great patterns is that of taking apart, and then restoring fully. The restoration, the resurrection, is fuller, deeper, and richer than the original unity ever was. But before God tears, we consistently tend to panic, afraid that this time He will not be able to put anything back together. But He always does.

“We consistently tend to panic” — no matter how often we study the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.** Momentary panic may not be all bad, though, if we eventually return to obedience and trust.

And what do we trust, if we claim to be Christian? That

The death of Jesus was not done in our place so that we might not experience it. Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live.

Lord, help us — help me — not to panic, but to trust.

___
*Bonus points for anyone who recognizes where this comes from.
**Upon which is printed, “Don’t Panic!”

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The Case Against Christian Activism …

I used to feel bad, as a Christian, that I never put a lot of emphasis on the whole “WWJD” question. I don’t think I ever had one of the bracelets. The whole thing seemed like a fad, and I wasn’t interested.

Until now, I never thought about it in the negative: “WWJND” — “what would Jesus not do?” What things do we do that go so far beyond what Jesus said and did as to be at best tangential to the Gospel? In some respects, that question seems just as important.

Consider this tidbit from Empires of Dirt — a book I’m interested in reading:*

The textbook case against Christian activism can be made in one word—Prohibition—the word that would have made the Lord Jesus at Cana into a moonshiner felon.

We err both when we fail to do the things Jesus urged us to do — and still urges us to do — and when we do things he clearly would not. That seems true on the individual level, and just as much on the level of collective action in the church writ large.

Lord, help us. Or, more to the point: Lord, help me.

___
*Along with a few dozen other books, of course.

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Peace on Earth Starts with Good Will Toward Men

On this Christmas Eve, some thoughts leading up to Christmas — for whatever they might be worth.

According to Saint Luke’s research, presented in the Gospel that bears his name, angels announced Jesus’s birth to shepherds as they stood night watch over their flocks. We don’t know whether Luke was able to question one of the shepherds who was there that night or (more likely) the story came to him through untold number of tellings and retellings. What did those angels really say? And what did they mean?

The translation I grew up with, the King James Version, closes that episode with the angelic proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” I particularly like the poetic nature of that version.

Another translation I generally like, the New American Standard Bible, renders Luke 2:14 as, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” “Peace among men” gives a different feel than “good will toward men,” though, and leaves me a little cold. Other translations, notably the New International Version and the Berean Study Bible, give the last phrase as “peace to men on whom His favor rests,” which I do not like at all.

I am not a Bible scholar; I know no ancient Greek; so I will not presume to debate the merits of any translation. It intrigues me that in the Greek the difference comes down to a single letter: specifically, the last letter of the verse in the Codex Sinaiticus was erased (apparently the erasure is visible), and that single change made “on earth peace to men of good will” into “on earth peace, to men good will.” How much does that change the sentiment?

I’ve heard it taught that the proclamation is a promise of God’s peace and good will coming to earth in the person of Christ. I’ve also heard that it is more a prayer — it is, after all, a multitude of angels praising God, since the specific message about Jesus has already been related. That idea is particularly worthy: the angels first give reverence and worship to God, and then ask that peace be manifest on the earth.

But of late I’ve come to think of it in a different way. I doubt that mine is an original thought, but I’m not prepared to conduct an exhaustive search to see who else has presented it. To my way of thinking, “Glory to God in the highest” is clear enough. The creator of everything is worthy of praise. After that, I find that I prefer “on Earth, peace; to men, good will” — giving a definite separation between peace and good will — because it turns the entire verse into a triad that moves from the heavenly to the earthly to the individual.

To God, glory: not peace, because the creature is not in a position to offer peace to the creator; and not good will, because the creature’s good will cannot match the creator’s. On earth, peace: not glory, because earthly glory is more a product of victory in conflict than of peace; and not good will, because good will is something best expressed person to person. To men, good will: not glory, because compared to God men deserve no glory; and not peace, because to achieve peace — especially any secure, lasting peace — requires first good will among and between people.


(Image: “Peace on Earth,” by Sam Howzit, on Wikimedia Commons.)

“There is no peace on earth, I said,” according to the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” — but it seems to me that, if there is no peace, it’s because there is precious little good will.

And so, I will try with the time remaining to me to be a man of good will. No doubt I will fail, and have to try again. I trust that God will forgive me those failures, and I hope my fellows will forgive me as well.

Part of the reason I will fail goes back to the translation that is probably more accurate: “peace to men of good will.” First, that sounds more like a promise of God’s peace than a prescription for achieving peace. Even if it is a promise, it doesn’t absolve us of all responsibility in the matter. After all, Saint Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” — which remains a good principle for all of us to follow.

The second reason I’m uncomfortable with “peace to men of good will” is that it seems no great challenge to wish peace to people of good will or to act peacefully only toward people of good will. It is far more difficult to live peaceably when we are confronted by people of ill will. That’s why “turn the other cheek” is so revolutionary — and so difficult. And, as noted above, I explicitly reject the idea that God’s peace is offered only to those “on whom His favor rests”: I believe God’s peace is offered to all, though unfortunately many reject Him, and it.

All of that being said, tomorrow is Christmas, and tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Jesus’s birth. But even though we are fairly certain he was born in an entirely different time of the year, whenever it happened originally the annunciation still rings out, and the annunciation is fulfilled: Jesus glorified God; Jesus’s teaching, death and resurrection offer a “peace that passes understanding” to any on earth who would accept it; and Jesus empowers us to act as men of good will, i.e., gives us wisdom and strength and discernment to show good will toward others — if we choose to do so.

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

Merry Christmas, one and all.

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