Friday, October 18, 2019

What if the Church...Cared More About the Path of Jesus than Beliefs About Jesus?

Image result for path of jesus classical artWhen someone walks out of your sermon in protest, you know you're doing your job.  When they argue with you in Bible study, you know you've gotten something right.  Because you're challenging their beliefs, making them think, calling them to step out of a smaller religion into a larger faith.  This is one of those times, when you may just walk out of this sermon--but I hope you don't do it without lingering in the doorway and hearing the whole thing.  Because it'll challenge you and help you to grow.  Today, I'm asking the question...

What if the church cared more about the path of Jesus than beliefs about Jesus?

That's a tough question, isn't it?

Because we've been led to understand that beliefs about Jesus are what faith is all about.  When somebody says, "Do you believe in Jesus?" what they're really asking is something like, "Do you believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?  That all the miracles recorded in the Bible are factual?  That Jesus died as a propitiation for your sins, that he rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father?  Do you believe that Jesus will return one day--and if so, what brand of eschatology do you hold to?"  People want to use creeds or other denominational faith statements as a litmus test to determine who's in and who's out of the club.  But Jesus never intended it to be that way.

Jesus makes faith very simple, insisting we come to him with the faith of a child.  "Believe in me," he says--intending no doctrinal statements at all, but simply asking his children to trust him.

That's the kind of thing that'll make you want to storm out of the sanctuary, slamming the door so that everyone else listening to the sermon can know just how angry it makes you.  Because it just might rattle your cage to hear that Jesus cares far more about you trusting him than he cares about your theology.  

Theology is easy.  Trusting God is hard.  Anybody can learn theology through books and the internet.  Trusting God only comes when you're willing to jump into God's arms like a child surprising a poor parent in a swimming pool.  "Catch me, Daddy!" my kid screamed--and it was only then that I turned and saw them already in the air, heading for me.  It's that kind of childlike faith, knowing without a shred of doubt that Daddy is going to catch them, that Jesus wants from his followers.  And you can't get that from a theology book.

Living that way means you're going to trust Jesus enough to want to live the way he lived.  That means loving the unloveable, forgiving the unforgivable, touching the untouchable, welcoming the unwelcome.  It means embodying God's love and grace to a world that doesn't know it and doesn't necessarily deserve it.  It means giving up stereotypes, bigotry, and political agenda, to embrace the sacred Other Person and see God in them.

Yeah--theology is so much easier.  That's why the Church has so often preferred theology, over following the path of Jesus.  All you have to do is agree with the right propositional statements, and you're in!  Of course, when it's all about theology, love can go right out the window.  The results have been things like the Inquisition--you remember, when the church enforced its good theology by torturing people until they either rattled off the right doctrines or died resisting.  Theology happens when arrogant people try to figure God out, like fleas trying to figure out the dog they're on---no---like fleas trying to figure out the celluar makeup of dogs.  Theology is an exercise in the impossible.  

Am I saying that we shouldn't engage in theology?  No--I am cautioning that we should do so with a lot of humility  And I'm saying that we shouldn't let all the things that we KNOW ABOUT GOD overshadow the way we KNOW GOD.  And we shouldn't use theology as a litmus test to determine who's in and who's out.  Jesus never said, "They'll know you're my disciples because you're a premillenialist, or because you use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to understand matters of religion."  No, he said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).”

It's this love for one another that will show the world that you're on the path of Jesus--not the things you say you belive.  It's this love that'll make you get up and walk out of the sanctuary--not in protest--but so that you can go out and embrace the world.  

Sunday, October 6, 2019

What if the Church...Valued Doubt as Much as Faith?

"Don't question God," my Sunday school teacher told me when I was young.  Maybe you were told the same thing.  What they really mean is that you'll be a better robotic follower if you stop thinking so much.  Of course, they wouldn't quite put it that way.  But it's true that free thought threatens the status quo, and my Sunday school teacher felt threatened when I asked questions she couldn't answer from her Bible or her teacher's manual.  Asking good questions was mistranslated as "questioning God," which my teacher deemed a sin. Unfortunately, the church has spent thousands of years squashing good questions when those questions proved difficult.

Maurice A. Finocchiaro's article "400 Years Ago the Catholic Church Prohibited Copernicanism" is a good read, and deserves the few minutes it takes to follow the link, once you're done here.  In it, the author discusses Galileo's trouble with the Church when he taught Copernicus' view that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around.  In 1616, the Inquisition forced Galileo to retract his teaching.  In 1632, when he could not keep his questions quiet, Galileo published a book contrasting the Copernican and Ptolemaic views.  Finocchiaro writes:

This book was a reasonable, clever, and indirect attempt to circumvent the 1616 prohibitions. Unfortunately, Galileo did not succeed. The Inquisition summoned him to Rome, and the trial proceedings lasted from April to June 1633. He was found guilty of suspected heresy, for defending the earth’s motion, and thus denying the authority of Scripture.
“Suspected heresy” was not as serious a religious crime as “formal heresy,” and so his punishment was not death by being burned at the stake, but rather house arrest and the banning of the Dialogue.

I wish this were a rare view of the church's attempts to silence good questions from good people--but unfortunately, it's not.  Historically, the Church has thought that questions are a threat to faith, rather than viewing them as a means to grow in faith.  But what if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  What if the church valued good questions over good answers?

I know many good people today who describe themselves as "former Christians," who reached that point because they had some good questions that were wrong for them to ask.  They were told that they couldn't be good Christians if they inquired whether evolution could be true, whether it was okay to be gay, or whether God were more like The Force than a grandfather in the sky.  Since they couldn't turn off the questions in their head, and they were told they were bad Christians for questioning, they decided to throw in the towel, accept the moniker of "bad Christian" until they finally described themselves as "former Christian."  Then, as a result of their doubts, some were removed from positions within the church, or felt they had to remove themselves, lest they be removed.

Is this what Jesus would have done, when encountering people who doubt?  From his conversations with people like Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Zacchaeus, and others, I believe Jesus would have engaged in compassionate conversation, without forcing his views on anybody.  In the right timing, in the right way, Jesus would express his perspective, but Jesus also welcomed the questions and opinions of others.  One of his disciples, often called "Doubting Thomas" might have felt ashamed of his questions--but while Jesus expressed blessing for those who could believe without seeing, Jesus also accommodated Thomas' questions and met him where he was.

So today I ask, What if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  What if we understood that questions aren't so much a challenge to faith, as much as a means of growth?  If, at the end of a person's questioning, they come to conclusions that are different from yours, if you value their doubt then you're going to honor their journey.  You're going to realize that Jesus doesn't want cookie-cutter followers, but people who are strong enough to think for themselves and relate to him in their own way.  No two people are alike--and neither is their faith or even lack of faith.  But to judge somebody for where they are on their journey is something Jesus never did--and something we should never do.  

So, what if the church valued doubt as much as faith?  We'd probably have better conversations, better relationships, and more engaged church members.  We'd recognize that the Church is made up of both believers and doubters, and we'd embrace both with equal love.  And maybe, just maybe, we'd allow the audacious questions of doubting people to lead us to consider some truths we never believed possible.  Maybe we'll find out that the earth really does revolve around the sun.  Maybe we'll find out that science is right on a few other things, and that we don't have to run away from that.  Maybe the less the Church runs away from answers that come from good questions, they more relevant we'll be in today's society.  We'll look less like a dinosaur and more like an explorer.  We'll learn to ask good questions ourselves--and we'll find answers that will help us to grow.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

What if the Church...Embraced Paradox with Humility?

In the church, you CAN have your cake and eat it too.  I learned that in forty-odd years of potluck suppers.  When bringing food to a potluck, I've found it's best NOT to eat what I brought.  It's better to eat what others brought, and let others eat what I brought.  And when I want to have some of what I brought, the fact that I didn't have any at the meal probably means there will be leftovers for me to bring home.  And if you're in ministry, you're probably given leftovers of other people's cakes as well.

So you CAN have your cake, and other people's cakes, and eat them too.

For two thousand years, the church has embraced paradoxes like this.  Well, maybe not quite like this.  The church's paradoxes seem a little harder to wrangle.  Things like:

  • God is three, and God is also one.
  • The Church is Jewish, and the Church is Gentile.
  • Lose your life if you want to save it.
  • God is in Heaven, but God is here.
  • Heaven is far away, but Heaven is here.
  • Love the ones you hate; hate the ones you love.
  • The one who wants to be great must become a servant.
  • "Jesus is coming soon!"  But it's been 2,000 years.  "Yes, but He's coming soon!"
  • Jesus, the Prince of Peace, said, "I've come not to bring peace, but a sword."
  • Take a yoke upon you if you want to find rest.
  • God exalts the lowly and humbles the exalted.
  • Strength is found in weakness.
  • Salvation is through faith, not good works--but you'll know a saved person by their good works.
  • Some things the Bible calls "sins" aren't sins, and "sinless" Jesus even commits them!

These are but a few of the paradoxes of the church.  Theologians have been battling each other over such paradoxes since the beginning.  When I say battling--I really mean warring.  As in killing each other.  Saul of Tarsus, who later became Saint Paul, started out as a persecuter of the church and a murderer of believers because of their doctrine.  Such zeal has come down through church history so that nearly every generation is marked by Christians killing Christians because of what they believe...when maybe they're both right.

So my question today is, "What if the church embraced paradox with humility?"

It's a very simple profound thing to be able to say to a hard question, "Y'know--I don't know."  Instead of thinking we need to answer every hard question, maybe it's better to say, "I'll share my ideas with you, and I'll receive some of the ideas you're sharing with me--and we can both go home with our own stuff and also some leftovers."

Because in the church, you can have your cake and eat it too.

When I was in drama class, we played a game called, "Yes, And..."  It's a simple game.  Each person in a group presents a preposterous statement.  The next participant's response may inwardly be "No--that's ridiculous," but the object of the game is to say, "Yes, and..." and then present the next step, which may either normalize things or be an equally preposterous statement.  An alternative way to play the game is for each participant to do a preposterous thing, and have the next player play off of that preposterous thing as if it's normal, or in a creative new way.  The object is to practice collaboration, and not competition.  The game may look like this, in a group of twelve participants:

  1. I was talkin with my Aunt Betty, who is a fish.  I love her so much!
  2. Yes, and she's married to a lighthouse keeper.
  3. Yes, and she has twelve children.
  4. Yes, and one of those children is an astronaut.
  5. Yes, and he took me on a trip to the moon.
  6. Yes, and I ate some of the moon, which is made of cheese.
  7. Yes, and I love cheese!
  8. Yes, and I'm lactose intolerant.
  9. Yes, I am, too--but my doctor says it can be cured by standing on my head.
  10. Yes, and I do that while I'm in Yoga class.
  11. Yes, and your Aunt Betty is my Yoga instructor.
  12. Yes, and I love Yoga so much!

This might sound like a nonsense game, but it encourages players to learn to cooperate rather than compete.  Instead of reacting to someone else's statement with an automatic, "No--that can't possibly be," this game encourages players to validate another person's story, and build upon it.  If you want to change the overall narrative, that's fine--redirect it without being confrontational.  But see how the story begins with love and ends with love?  This is what happens when we honor one another's story, one another's perspective.

In the beloved movie, Forrest Gump, the titular character addresses the paradoxical theological question of predestination versus free will.  He says, "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it's both."  I love what he does there--he embraces paradox with humility.  He doesn't have to declare one wrong in order to make the other right.  In typical Gump fashion, he holds both to be true, and says, "Yes, And..."

No matter what church you attend, you're going to have people with different perspectives.  We spend a whole lot of time arguing over who has the best theology, the best way of "doing church," or "doing life."  What if we played a game of "Yes, And..."?  By doing so, we'd be more welcoming.  We'd run fewer people away from the church by our opinionated ideas.  By embracing paradox with humility, we'd learn to say, "Y'know, I don't know."  And perhaps, just perhaps, the church would learn to be a bit more real.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

What if the Church...Focused More on its Own Sin Than the Sins of Others?

Witch hunts are common in the church today--they didn't end in Salem.  You can go to that town in Massachussets and see the 1692 Salem Witch Museum, and learn about all the atrocities that took place when people decided that other people's sin was their business, and their duty to punish.  You can learn about the self-righteousness of those who called themselves Puritans--but don't fool yourself into thinking that puritans are extinct in the church today.  

Witch hunts continue in the church today.  When I was a kid in the Southern Baptist denomination, those "damn liberals" were the ones who had abandoned God's word so much that they actually believed God could call women (gasp!) into the ministry.  In what the right-wing leadership called the Conservative Resurgence, free-thinking professors were systematically dismissed from their positions in denominational seminaries.  Faithful missionaries were pulled from the field because they wouldn't tow the fundamentalist line.  

That denomination's pharisaical leadership continues its witch hunts today.  One of the distinctive features of being a Baptist is that each believer and each congregation is free to interpret the Bible as they see fit, as led by the Holy Spirit.  Yet time and again, the Southern Baptist Convention or its subsidiary state conventions or their subsidiary associations have dismissed congregations for taking a stand to affirm openly gay church members or recognize their legal marriages.  Conservatives who defend this repudiation of fellow believers defend their actions by saying they are defending the purity of the church.  But in reality, they are showing themselves to be modern Puritans, who find it far easier to use the Bible as a rifle scope to focus on what they believe to be the sins of other people, rather than using the Bible as a mirror to inspect their own imperfections.

Don't get me wrong--this article isn't an attack on Southern Baptists per se.  Nor is it a defense of their LGBTQIA+ victims.  Those might be other articles in their own right, but it is not in the scope of this article to go into such details.  In this article, I simply use these examples from my own denominational heritage to introduce the broarder concept that...

It's easier to focus on what you believe to be other people's sin than it is to take a hard look at your own.
Going through the generations-old history books of Baptist churches I have served as pastor, I have found occasions where members were banished from congregations for offenses such as dancing or attending "eggnog parties."  No doubt, the tattlers believed they were defending the purity of the church, when in reality they were maligning the character of others because it's easier to do that than it is to focus on one's own spiritual well-being.  It was the same in Jesus' day.  John 8:1-11 (NLT) records:

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, 2 but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. 3 As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.4 “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”6 They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7 They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8 Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.9 When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”11 “No, Lord,” she said.And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

In this story, the puritanical Pharisees were on a witch hunt.  But as was true in the Salem days, this witch hunt had ulterior motives.  It wasn't really to maintain purity in the community.  It was actually a ploy to trap Jesus.  In my own experienced as a pastor, I've often found that when people have come to me with questions about another person's sin, it's really either an attempt to trap me, or it's out of a desire to have their own purity confirmed.  When one person accuses another of something, you can bet it's not out of concern for the accused.  But Jesus' approach was different.  

Jesus took an approach of non-condemnation.  Modern pharisees would immediately jump to retort, "Ah yes, but he told her to go and leave her life of sin. He called sin sin."  Yes, he did.  But, while he called her behavior sin, he refused to condemn her for it--so different from the rock-wielding crowd.  Jesus began his relationship with this woman from a position of acceptance and love, rather than one of finger-pointing and accusation.  He knew that she'd never have a shot at her hearing his words of wisdom, if he didn't first start with non-condemnation.  

Jesus understood that accusation breeds defensiveness, but acceptance breeds cooperation.  If you want to help someone change their life, first it's a good idea that they want to change it, too.  You can't expect someone to make a change if they don't want that change.  Here, the Pharisees were trying to force the woman to fit their standards, rather than lovingly helping her to live a better life .  If you want to help someone along, it's best to do so from a position where you've come alongside them, instead of expecting them to follow your lead--especially when your leadership is lacking.

And, just perhaps, it's better NOT to try to change a person at all, than it is to expect them to follow your expectations for their life.  Unconditional love means simply showering that person with grace and acceptance, regardless of their behavior that you disagree with.  It means that if they do want to change, you'll support that--but if they never change, you'll love and support them just the same. 

This leads to my next "What if the Church" question.  What if the church focused more on its own sin than the sins of others?   Romans 8:1 (NIV) says, 

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." 

What if the church understood that this means two things?  First, it means that those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer subject to the condemnation of God.  But second, it means that we should no longer have a spirit of condemnation hanging about us.  Since we are freed from the spirit of sin and death, we no longer hold other people accountable to the law that we've been set free from ourselves.  

Being a Christian means being like Christ.  Jesus refused to condemn a woman that he had every right to condemn, under the law.  But instead, he gave her grace.  Before she asked for it.  Before she changed her life.  Not because she'd done anything to deserve it--just because she was a child of God.  What if the church did the same thing?

I mean, don't we have enough sins of our own to focus on?  This past Sunday, I heard a sermon in which the pastor told a story of a fellow minister who set up a confession booth in a local park.  Folks would stop in from time to time--but instead of hearing the confessions of the people, the pastor confessed to them the sins of the church.  He asked the community whether there was anything his church needed to apologize for.  What an impact it made!  Sometimes, the people said, "Yes, there is this thing that the church did," or, "Christians have hurt me in this way..."  Yes, the church and Christians who make up the church have done a lot of harm to others in the name of religion.  What if the church focused more on its own sin than the sins of others?  What if we took the plank out of our own eye before we tried to take the speck out of someone else's?

Again, it's not the scope of this article to discuss the sin or un-sin or the things mentioned in this article that some people may consider sin.  Why?  Because I'm going to focus more on my own sin rather than trying to find sin in other people.  And you know what I find when I focus on my own sin?

Number one, yeah--I've got some things that I need to change in my life.  I've got some areas where I need to grow, and honestly, some areas where I need to shrink.  But that's my business, not yours.

Number two, all my sin is forgiven already in Christ, so there's no need to beat myself up for any of it.

Number three, since I've been forgiven, the natural response is to turn around and give other people grace, too.

So I'll ask again: What if the church focused more on its own sin than the sins of others?  How would it change the way we relate to people?  How would it change the way people respond to us?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"What if the Church...Were More Attractive and Less Condemning?"

"You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar," Mom said.  She was right then, and she's right now. 

Thumper the Rabbit's mom agrees, adding, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."

Yet, if you were to ask the unchurched world what it thinks of the church, most people would say that the church is condemning, judgmental, and rude. 

If that's how we come across, it makes me wonder...are we doing it right? 

Because Jesus didn't come across that way.  Jesus was known as the "friend of sinners," not the finger-shaking judge.  Jesus focused on attracting people to God, rather than condemning them.  In John 3 (NIV), Nichodemus sought the Master out for a secret meeting because he knew his interest in Jesus would be scorned by his fellow religious leaders.  He asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus answered:

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Jesus was talking about an incident in Israel's history (Numbers 21) where venomous serpents swarmed the camp of wandering Hebrews, biting and killing many.  They attributed this plague to God's punishing them for grumbling.  This is fitting, because it underscores that when we grumble, we poison ourselves.  The solution Moses presented was to make a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole.  Everyone who looked to the metal snake for healing was miraculously cured.  Jesus referenced this odd occurence as an allegory.  Just as healing came to the Israelites by attracting their attention away from the grumbling and pain, to focus instead on the source of their healing, Jesus himself would be lifted up as a source of healing.  In John 12:32, Jesus would reinforce this approach of attracting people to him by saying, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Instead of focusing on the negative, Jesus says, "Look at me!" Instead of condemning, Jesus offers hope.  Again, in John 3, the narrator picks up the theme from Jesus' words to Nicodemus.  

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Clearly, Jesus is not about condemning the world, but about saving it.  This is his mission.  And this ought to be what the church is about.  

Unfortunately, the church has all too often been about shaking its finger and sometimes shaking its fist at the world, condemning a culture that doesn't follow the church's way.  This doesn't make sense, because how can we expect a world that isn't a part of the church to follow the way of Jesus?  That's like condemning a cat for not acting more like a dog.  Instead, the church ought to be inspiring dogs to act like better dogs.  Maybe that kind of gentle attraction will one day make cats say, "Can you show me how to be a better cat, too?"  

So, I ask, "What if the church were more attractive and less condeming?"  How would it change the way we operate among fellow believers?  How would it change the way we relate to people we view as "outside the faith?"  I believe if we shift and become more like Jesus in this matter, the spirit of the church would change entirely, and more people would be drawn to Christ.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

What If the Church...

The church must either change or die.  With all the social change taking place in North America, I'm convinced that the church of the next couple of generations is going to look radically different from the church as we know it today.  If it's going to survive at all, that is.

It's not that the Gospel has become irrelevant to people's lives today--the Gospel never changes, and will never lose its power.  But a church that refuses to adapt to the climate of its society will eventually die.

Take climate change, for example.  As the world heats up we will experience an increased number of freak weather occurences.  As oceans rise, people living along the coastlines (approximately 40% of the human population live within 100 km of the shore) will be forced to relocate.  Yes, climate refugees will be a real thing in the coming years.  And with a shifting population comes shifting priorities.  People in transition will need new homes.  Governments will need to figure out what to do with needy people pressing in at their borders.  They'll need to ask themselves whether the humane thing to do is to say, "Keep out" or whether they will adjust their priorities and treat other as human beings in need of care, or whether they will lock and load and meet the coming tide of immigrants with violent resistance.  The thing is, those immigrants are coming, regardless of government reactions.  It's the governments who will need to decide whether the shifting world population will cause bloodshed or whether borders will become permeable and cultures will become adaptable.  Even in the best case scenario where climate refugees are able to resettle around the globe in habitable places, the new problem of how to feed the influx of people will come to the surface.  Again, society will need to change its priorities.  People will need to adapt if these changes are to take place without violence, if civilizations are to remain civil at all.

While the above is very real future scenario, I use it as a metaphor for the church which needs to adapt in light of the huge tides of social change taking place in the West.  The climate is changing, and whether we like it or not, the church must change, or die.  

What will the church look like, a couple of generations from now?  Well, first, we've got to come to terms with church decline.  Unless there's a miracle, another Great Awakening (which we can pray for, but that's in the hands of God), the church is going to continue its rapid decline.  This means that small churches are going to be gone entirely. Their buildings will become little more than clapboard skeletons that are either bulldozed, left to stand as monuments to a bygone era, or sold to become antique stores or daycare centers.  Medium-sized churches will become small churches.  Their once full-time staff will struggle to earn a living with second and third jobs.  Only the megachurches will continue to thrive.  But even those megachurches will shrink--they'll become kilochurches instead.  They'll be smaller--but they'll still be able to support staffs of multiple professional pastors.

Since fewer and fewer churches will be able to support full-time pastors, this means it's likely that fewer who feel called to ministry will actually aspire to be full-time pastors.  Theological education will be for those who see their future in kilochurches, but those positions will be for the cream of the crop with doctorates in ministry.  Pastors with "only a master's degree" will find themselves scraping to earn a decent wage.  This will give rise to more and more self-educated pastors, who rely more on computer programs and books, learning groups, one-on-one mentorships, and denominational resources for their education. 

Denominations, of course, will have fewer resources to allocate towards pastoral education, because they will likewise decline.  As churches shrink, parishioners will allocate more of their giving to the local church to help the congregation survive, to the hurt of the denomination.  That will be okay, since denominational loyalties and influences are on the way out.  

Of course, all of this addresses the symptoms and not the disease itself.  Why is the church declining?  Volumes of books have been written on this subject, complete with survey results, statistical analysis, and well-informed projections.  I'm not qualified to add too much input beyond my own personal observations.  Suffice it to say that as society changes, the church has dug in its heels on so many issues that our culture at large sees the church as irrelevant.  And churchgoers refuse to see that they've created their own problems.  They continue to blame society, saying, "Kids today are more interested in video games than Sunday school," or "Families today would rather go to baseball games than Vacation Bible School."  They refuse to ask themselves, "What are we doing to make our churches so unattractive and irrelevant to people these days?  How have we stubbornly refused to keep in touch with the culture?  What can we do to change?"

You see, the church must change or die.  

If this blog post has felt a little bleak to you, I invite you to embrace the hope I'm going to offer in the coming weeks.  I'll be offering a series of "What if the Church..." suggestions.  Some of them will be radical.  Some of them will be commonsense.  But they offer a vision for the future of the church that accepts the reality of numerical decline, while embracing a faithful and hopeful reordering of priorities.  Numerical decline of the church does not mean the death of the church.  In fact, I think it means the church will become more "real," if it has the courage to change.  I hope you'll travel with me in the coming weeks, as I ask some hard questions, and challenge some well-entrenched misconceptions.  It's going to be an adventure--and the future's going to be an adventure--as we ask, "What if the church..."

Thursday, September 5, 2019

"Love Doesn't Keep Score"

Have you ever wondered where those tennis folks get off, using the word "love" to mean "nothing?"  That doesn't make any sense. Because I'm a word nerd, I looked it up.   Here's one thing I found on Quora:

MAHALAKSHMI MURALIMAHALAKSHMI MURALI, Tennis BloggerAnswered Nov 17, 2017Originally Answered: What does love means in tennis?The origin of “love” in tennis is disputed. It technically corresponds to zero. One of the possible derivations of the word “love” could be the French expression “L’œuf” which translates into the egg because an egg looks like the number zero. Another possible theory of the origin of “love” could be that at the beginning of the match when the scores are zero the opponents have love of each other, hence “Love All”.

Etymonline further illuminates:

Old English lufu "feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of God; Love as an abstraction or personification," from Proto-Germanic *lubo (source also of Old High German liubi "joy," German Liebe "love;" Old Norse, Old Frisian, Dutch lof; German Lob "praise;" Old Saxon liof, Old Frisian liaf, Dutch lief, Old High German liob, German lieb, Gothic liufs "dear, beloved"). The Germanic words are from PIE root *leubh- "to care, desire, love."
The weakened sense "liking, fondness" was in Old English. Meaning "a beloved person" is from early 13c. The sense "no score" (in tennis, etc.) is 1742, from the notion of playing for love (1670s), that is, for no stakes. 

So, love is playing for nothing.  Love is playing for no score.  This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:1-7.  I don't usually, but I'm going to share those verses from Eugene Peterson's The Message:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

Right in the center of all those qualities is that love "doesn't keep score."

I can't tell you how many times I've fallen into the trap of keeping score with someone I love.  "I've given and given to them, but they haven't given back."  Or, "They've hurt me so many times!"  It's like the tennis score is 40-love, where "love" means "nothing," and that's my score.  Zip.  Zero.  That's what keeping score gets you. 

But what if we change the meaning of the tennis score "love" and understand it this way:  "Man, you really got one on me--but I still love you!  Well, you're scoring more than I am, but I still love you."  You get to the point where if your score is "love," you're no longer keeping score at all--becaue what's the point?  In fact, there are no points.  You're not in the relationship to win.  You're in it for the love of the game, for the love of the other person.  So let them score.  Or better yet--if you quit keeping score then their triumphs aren't scores anymore anyway.  You simply get to say, "Good one!  Way go go!  Look at how well you've done!"  And that's a much better way to play the game than competing anyway.

Have you ever gotten frustrated in an argument, thrown up your arms and said, "I can't win!?"

Why are you trying to win, anyway?  That's not a very nice way to play the game where "love" means neither of you is keeping score.  Instead, when you're in a disagreement, step aside.  Go back to 1 Corinthians 13, and remind yourself what love is all about.