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 "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 support its 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.   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.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Sacred Space; Omnipresent God

Do you have a sacred place where you go, to get alone with God?  Maybe it's a mountain stream or a favorite beach, or a place in a park where the flowers bloom.  Human beings long for sacred places--breathing space where we can commune with our own hearts and with God.  For some people, that special place is the church where they grew up.  I remember the song, "Church in the Wildwood", by the Statler brothers:

There's a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale

I have several such places, where my heart goes in memory, as I think of special events that formed my soul.  Yes, one of those, for me, is Mount Olivet Baptist Church, where I grew up.  There, I first learned to trust God, learned to follow, and then learned to lead.  I even had moments when I believed I saw a divine glow in the sanctuary, during worship--but did God LIVE at Mount Olivet?  Well, yes.  But no more than God lives in other places.  Yet, even though God is omnipresent (everywhere at once), God is also often known in sacred places.

For me, sacred places go beyond church buildings.  I think of certains spots by certain rivers where I have felt God's presence strongly (thank you to Nancy Hugo and the River Project in high school).  I remember mountain top experiences where God seemed so near (thank you, BGAV Appalachian Trail Minister's Hikes).  I can also rememeber hospital rooms where we all held hands and prayed, where we all felt the presence of angels.  Yes, God is everywhere, but God is also in certain places at specific times.

When Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, he prayed for God's blessing on the sacred place.  He said, "The lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever (1 Kings 8:12-13 NIV)."  While God's dark cloud of mystery obscures the divine presence, still God condescends to meet us in the tangible world.  

Still, Solomon recognized God's omnipresence.  "But will God really dwell on earth?  The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.  How much less this temple I have built (v. 27)."  Solomon knows that God is beyond time and space, yet he also knows that people need some physical marker to identify and remember their experience with God.  This is why he suggests "praying toward" the temple.  This tradition, called Mizrah, became so important for many Jewish believers that they hung or painted special ornaments on the side of their house that was closest to Jerusalem, just so they could know which direction to pray towards.  It wasn't that they believed that God would hear their prayers more if they faced the temple (or the place where the demolished temple used to be).  It was a way of orienting their hearts toward sacred space. 

Today, I wonder--what's your sacred space?  Do you have a physical place in your life, where you feel close to God?  How do you jive the two concepts of an omnipresent God, and a very present God in a tangible world?  Do you believe God is "up in heaven?"  Or do you believe that God is right here?  Maybe it's both!  Maybe even saying "both" is too limited.  Maybe it's even more than that--far more than words can tell.