Friday, August 7, 2020

One Another

For the past couple of days, we've been looking at the idea of moving into a new community without joining it, based on the real-life example of a small family moving to a new place who has refused to even visit with local churches and plans instead to start their own fellowship venture. We have seen some of the dangers of this type of thinking - both for the community at large and for the fledgling faithful in the new venture. 

But this is also something worth grieving over for the established church, for the fellowships that are already in place. 

When you start your own fellowship, it's usually because you have some ideas you're unwilling to let go of, some things you're so sure you're right about that you're not willing to leave them up to anyone else. It's very difficult to grow in your own fellowship because you're the one who sets the parameters for it, so anyone who pushes the envelope or challenges you can easily be dis-fellowshiped, leaving you stuck in your own limited understanding forever. To someone who wants to start their own fellowship, this is often a very important truth. In fact, it's one of the selling points - I get to do faith my way. 

Fair enough, if that's your thing. But here's something else to consider: When you don't join up with a messy fellowship, you don't make them better. You don't offer them your gifts. You don't use what God has given you for the edification of His people and the glory of His name. You keep it hidden in small, safe spaces where it can never be challenged, but it can never be a blessing, either. You never challenge anyone else to grow in their faith. You never encourage anyone else to grow in their faith. 

Now, a natural response to this would be, "I'm right here." If they want to be challenged and grow, then they should join my fellowship because that's what I'm all about. That's what I started it for. I wanted to reach out to others who want what I've got, who are ready to be pushed by me and want to grow in a certain direction. 

That, of course, is an extremely arrogant attitude. It sets you up as the great teacher, the untoucahble rabbi, the one-to-be-sought after when, let's just be honest, Jesus spent His ministry going to others. Are you better than Jesus? Do you have more to offer than He does? He even went to the disciples, to the persons He intended to call into His close fellowship and inner circle. He went out and made His small group; He didn't just stand on a high mountain and call them to come to Him if they were interested in salvation. He took every bit of His heart and grace and ministry to the people. 

It's also a very lonely place to be. Because when you set yourself up as the standard and hold this attitude that anyone who wants what you've got will come to you, it doesn't take long before you realize that not a lot of persons are coming. Maybe they come at first, but maybe they don't stay long. So your little fellowship fizzles, and it becomes a personal failure. You can't help but take it as a referendum on you, and maybe it is. But it will probably make you angry at some point if you feel rejected personally. 

Anyway, I digress. See, when you don't offer your gifts to the fellowship in a place, when you don't share who you are with a people on the same journey as you, when you don't bring yourself to the work of God ongoing not just in a community, but in the hearts of His people, they miss out on something incredible. Yes, I really mean that. 

I attend a church that has been through a lot of flux over the years. So many of the persons who were there when I entered in twenty years ago have moved on, for one reason or another, and I miss them. I miss the different gifts of heart that they had, the ways that they were shaping my faith. I have had the opportunity to run into a few of them recently and share brief, but meaningful conversations, and I see the way their hearts come out even in the words they speak. And I can't help but think how different my own faith would look right now if these persons were still in my fellowship, if these persons were offering me the gifts of their lives in order to push me to grow in my own. These persons know so much about faith that I want to know. They have lived so well, and I want to live well like that. 

Here's just a small example: a lot of the persons who surround my faith right now are the 'teaching' type. Ask them what they hope for their children, and they'll tell you all of the things they are trying to teach their kids. They'll tell you all of the things they hope their kids learn. They'll tell you the way they are guiding their children toward this or that. I ran into a man who used to be in my fellowship a few weeks ago in the grocery store, and he was telling me about the ways that his kids had grown up. I asked what they were doing now, and he told me stories about how they had come to the places they are and the conversations they had had along the way. And he said, "I told them, 'just tell dad what to be praying for.'" He's not a teacher, like I am surrounded by right now; he's an encourager. It's a whole different skill set, an entirely different heart. 

Listen, I'm not saying that the teachers are wrong. That's not it. What I am saying is that if everyone in my fellowship is a teacher, then I will learn to be a teacher. But an encourager, just one encourager, can change my faith in a dynamic way  - and in fact, one short conversation in a grocery store has. I miss this man in my fellowship. And when I spoke with him, I missed him in my heart. Because of the way his faith grows mine. I miss that. I'm missing that. 

This is what you do when you enter in to a messy fellowship - you bring them a gift that they may not have without you. You offer them something that maybe they're missing. If you truly believe that you have something to offer to God's people, why wouldn't you do that? Why wouldn't you go to where God's people are and bring your gifts with you? The church needs you. It's messy. It's broken. It's getting some things right and some things wrong. It's growing. It's finding itself. It's losing itself. It's probably not everything you want, and it might not be everything it wants to be. But it needs you. 

That's why you join the church.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Where Should We Eat?

There is a real danger - in fact, there are many real dangers - in not pursuing real community within the church. Yesterday, we introduced some of these ideas by talking about the real-life case of a family moving to a new place and beginning a new fellowship in their own home without even considering any of the multitude of existing fellowships in the area. They are a family who is moving in with no intention of joining in. 

The truth is that in communities all around the world, the local church is already in motion. Often, many local churches are already in motion. They have already identified the hearts of their fellowships and the needs of their communities and done what they can to start reaching out in a way that is meaningful. When you refuse to look at the communities that exist, you essentially force yourself to reinvent the wheel again. You know what it is that you want, but you don't do the hard work of identifying where there's already a fellowship with the same heart. So it's incumbent upon you to build it all over again when, in fact, it's probably been thriving in that place for quite awhile already. 

This is a lot of work, unnecessary work, and the sad reality is that most who set out to start their own fellowships will never move beyond what they wanted to get out of them in the first place. They won't take the steps out into their community because it's simply too hard to identify the needs, to figure out the logistics, to make the plans, to take the actions. It's too easy to worry more about feeding your own soul than serving your neighbors, and it's easy to seclude yourself from the real world that you live in. It's easy to miss all the needs around you. 

That's where the local, established church has the advantage. Because the needs of this community have already been knocking on their doors for decades. The people have been letting them know what they need. The poor, the naked, the hungry, the sick, the scared, the homeless, the defeated, the suicidal have always sought out the church for help. They aren't likely to come knocking on the door of "Bob's Small Home Fellowship," but they line up outside the Methodist church on the corner, waiting for the pastor to arrive. You don't have to go looking for need; it's right there in front of you. 

But let's say that you and your little fellowship do find the need in your community and you set out to meet it. How do you do that without stepping on the toes of your brothers and sisters who have already been at it for generations? 

This is a legitimate concern. It's easy to say, "Who cares who's doing it, as long as God's work is getting done?" And there's a certain truth to that. But the bigger truth is that when you compete with your brothers and sisters, you encourage the world to start judging Christians instead of accepting the grace of God. 

Our community churches have teamed up together to provide meals for the hungry. In our county, there is somewhere to get a free meal every night of the week, plus food assistance in between at many places. Now, it could have been that each of these churches decided to feed the hungry and set up their own program without ever talking to one another. In that case, you might have four or five meal options on Tuesday and none on Thursday or Saturday. 

With that kind of system, the hungry have a choice to make. Which meal do we eat? Do we eat the one with the 5-star chef? Or the one with the mac n cheese the kids like so much? Do we go to the one with tablecloths all decked out like a top-notch restaurant or the one with card tables set up in the hallways to accommodate the need? All of a sudden, it's not about being thankful for the people of God who graciously provide food to the hungry - it's a competition. It's about Grace Church providing a better option than Mercy Road Fellowship so that they can justify their costs and build their reputation and so on and so forth, and the hungry? The hungry are trying to figure out which group of believers they like more...instead of coming to know the God that drives them all.

And it leaves the need unmet unnecessarily. When churches work together, the hungry can eat every night. But when they do their own thing and step on each other's toes, maybe the hungry can only eat two or three nights a week.

So to be a responsible member of your community, you're going to run up against the communities you refused to even consider at some point. You're going to discover the ongoing work you didn't even bother to investigate. You're going to meet brothers and sisters with the same heart as you, if you're responsible about coordinating the work together to make sure the glory of God is primary and the needs are truly met. And you might just be surprised to find what you were looking for all along.

That's why it's important to not just go out and do your own thing. First, it's a lot of work that you don't have to be doing. If you team up with an established fellowship, you can trust that they already know the needs of their community and are already mobilizing in that direction. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. (You're still free, of course, to start a new program or to help draw attention to a need they haven't picked up as a cause, but the groundwork is all there.) Second, you don't end up competing against your brothers and sisters and drawing away from the glory of God that you all intended to show in the first place. Third, you make sure the need is being met in a meaningful way. And finally, you might find that the fellowship you were looking for was there all along. You just missed it because you didn't even look. 

But wait...there's more. Come back tomorrow to discover how your little fellowship not only competes with established fellowships for your community's affections, but cheats those churches out of something very precious and valuable. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Making a Church

Recently, I've been watching a couple planning to move to a new city. They are taking their small family with them and are excited about all of the opportunity that awaits in a new place to call home. But they have also made clear that when they get there, they won't be looking for a local church. Rather, "after much prayer and consideration," they've decided to move into town and start their own church - a small, intimate fellowship in their own home. And they've already given it a name. Before they have even arrived.

It's one thing to come into a new place and find it lacking, which would necessitate starting your own thing. It's one thing to look around and not find what you're looking for, so to then go out and create it. But this couple, sight unseen, have decided that not one of the dozens of churches in the area to which they are moving offers them the kind of solid Biblical teaching and real sense of community for which they are looking. So instead of investing their time to join the movement of Christ already afoot, they're just going to do their own thing. And they talk not only like this is better, but like this is good.

That's a hard sell.

We don't see any examples of this in the New Testament. What we see in the New Testament is a growing, thriving church in any number of areas. What we see is a group of preachers going around and preaching to the same churches in the same places, to the same groups of persons. When Paul goes into a town, he doesn't say that the church doesn't need him and go out to start his own thing. He doesn't say that the church is flawed and not worth his time; he invests in correcting and growing the church that is there. We even see places where there are deep, deep divides in the church and tremendous conflict, and the advice is it out. Not to separate into two fellowships. Not to go off and start a new thing.

Here's the reality: someone who is unwilling to invest themselves in the messiness of coming into a new community is likely going to be unwilling to invest themselves in a messy community at all. That means that when their home church becomes unfaithful, when it's harder to get families to show up, when disagreements arise or their teaching is challenged or the kids have a spat, this small family is more likely to simply stop meeting together than to do any real work of fellowship and community. What they are looking for is not a church; it's an affirmation group. A place where they will have the authority and won't have to submit to anyone else.

Oh, they won't say it that way. In fact, they don't. What they say is that they want to devote themselves to 'real' Bible teaching and to mutual growth, but what that really means, in practice, is that they have certain things they believe and certain behaviors they've justified, and they want to be beyond reproach. The only way you can be in a community without accountability is to make everyone else subservient to you. It's to elevate yourself as leaders of the community and then, if anyone dares to try to make you better, you can just tell them this is probably not the community for them.

It's just a whole lot easier than investing yourself in real fellowship. It's a whole lot simpler than finding a bunch of other broken persons to join.

If you're troubled because you're sure that the local church is going to get things "so wrong" and fall "so short" of everything you know you're looking for, and you haven't even looked yet, then what you have is not a heart set on God. If you already believe your way is better when you haven't taken the time to see how anyone else is doing it, you're holding the heart of a Pharisee. If you believe your interpretation is so right that no one else could ever come close to getting it as right as you do, you're not looking for a fellowship; you're looking for an audience.

This whole thing about coming into a place and saying, "after much prayer and consideration" and officially naming your little small group and maintaining your distance from the broader fellowship and calling yourself a "house church" when you have no connection to the greater body of Christ in your area - and don't intend to - it's just a shield, in Christian language, to keep yourself from having to commit to the messiness of real community. If you're moving to a new place and refuse to plug in to the work already ongoing in that place, then that community is not your home and never will be.

I'm not saying it's wrong to ever start something new. I'm not saying it's wrong to want to start a home church or a small group fellowship or to grow something organically. The trouble comes when you're willing to say that there's nothing in a place for you, when you haven't even looked. The trouble comes when you condemn what's already happening as lesser when you haven't even experienced it. The trouble comes when you step out and say that you need something new when you haven't even had something old. The trouble comes when you think yourself better than the fellowship of the faithful who's been doing it together for thousands of years, when you rush into a new place not knowing anyone and have no interest in getting to know them.

The trouble comes when you enter in with the heart of a Pharisee, 'knowing' without any evidence at all, that no one in this new place is getting it right and refusing to commit yourself to making any of them better, but hoarding your gifts and talents and callings into a small place you're already comfortable in.

More on this tomorrow. And maybe the next day. Because there are a lot of important things here. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Where Grace Meets Grief

If peace and justice flow down from the highest places like rivers, poured out by God Himself and carving their path through the rocky terrain of a broken earth to reach us, why do these things so often end in tears and sweat? Why must we work so hard for and grieve so deeply over these beautiful things that God gives us so freely?

Again, the image of the river is helpful here, but we have to step back to see the whole thing. We can't just rely on what we see when the river passes us at one moment in time or in one specific place or we'll miss the certain truth about the river. And that certain truth is this:

All rivers run to the ocean.

Rivers are, overwhelmingly, made of fresh water. But they all run to the oceans, which are infused with salt. And then from the ocean, the water is taken back up into the air and rains down all over again as fresh water, which rushes back to the ocean, full of salt.

That means it shouldn't surprise us that God's justice and God's peace so often come in contact with our tears and our sweat. After all, this is the way that fresh water runs. It runs right into the salty places, and what of the human experience has the most salt in it? Tears. And Sweat.

So God pours out these beautiful things, and they come rushing into and through our lives where they meet up with our passions, where we dip our toes in for awhile, where something about them gets down into our soul and starts carving out an even deeper place. And then all that longing that we have for holy things, all that ache we keep inside of us for eternity, all that hope for better days, all that confident assurance in the promises of God, all that deep yearning that just doesn't go away feels the force of that fresh water rolling in, and it moves us.

It moves us either to tears or to action. It moves us to grieve what we do not have, what this broken world can never offer us. Or it moves us to try to put a few of those broken pieces back together, to try to carry this fresh water in leaky buckets to a thirsty world. Either way, the goodness of God meets the salt of our flesh, and something beautiful happens. Something so vast and expansive and tantalizing as the ocean.

And it is from here, from this place where our tears and our sweat meet God's fresh waters that new prayers, new offerings, new longings are lifted up into the heavens, back to the place where the rivers begin again and the fresh water rushes new, poured out again into our lives, into our homes, into our communities. This is how we partner with God in bringing living water that gives life. This is where our faithfulness and His righteousness meet to do a beautiful thing, pouring out and forming another river. Another stream. Another place where peace and justice rush wildly through the rockiest places, bringing promise and hope to a hurting world until they meet up once more with tears and sweat and go back to where they came, only to start all over again.

That idea that God hold every one of our tears? That's this. That's this moment when our deep involvement and investment in His grace creates pure offerings, somehow makes something new and fresh again. Somehow turns oceans into rainwater into rivers of justice and peace that He pours out anew all the time.

This image of the river, then, is beautiful. It has so much to show us about how God works in our world and how we work with Him and how faith makes a difference, how grief makes a difference, how our toil makes a difference. We just have to step back from the banks a little and get a bigger vision for it. For all rivers run to the ocean, just to be taken up and poured out again. 

Peace Like A River

Yesterday, I was reading in Isaiah where God promises peace like a river in the lives of His people. It's not the only thing God promises as a river - in Amos, for example, He says that justice will flow like a stream. But it's an image that I think is too easy for us to misunderstand, given our limited perspective. And here's why:

Most of us encounter a river at one specific point. We come to its edges, and that's where we find it - a force of water rushing right past. We come to this place, and this is where we step in. Or this is where we cast in, waiting for the fish to bite. We put our toes in the water and feel it rushing by. And even if we get in and ride the rushes for a little while, at the end, we pick up our canoe and trek back to the place where we began. This kind of relationship with the river can lead us to believe that the promises God makes are fleeting. 

That peace just rushed by in our lives, that justice is just passing through. That it's up to us to come to these things and stick our toes in if we want to get a little glimpse of what they really are. That we have to cast our lines in and wait as it all rushes through, wait to see if any of it is biting today. Wait to see if peace is hungry to come into our lives or if justice will take the bait. It's an unhealthy relationship to have with peace and justice, and it's a profoundly unhealthy relationship to have with God's promises. What are we to make of a God who rushes His promises through our lives in such a way that we simply might miss them, even if we're sitting on the shore in humble expectation? 

In order to understand what God really means when He promises peace like a river, we have to take a step back from the shore and get a bigger picture. We have to get a vision for the river itself, the whole length of it, and not just the place where we stand. We have to understand where these holy waters come from, where they are going, and what's going on along the way. 

The river begins in the highest places. Rivers do not flow "up;" they only flow down. That means that peace, justice - these always begin with God. They always come from the highest places. They do not organically rise on their own, but are poured down upon us by the very Lord who has promised to send them. 

And then, the river carves its own path through the world. Through years and centuries and generations and lifetimes, the river rushes through and over and around and makes its own path through the world. It cuts through rock and digs deep into soil and determines the places where it will turn or where it will keep straight, where it will be deep and where it will be a bit more shallow, where it will flow gently and where it becomes rapids. The river makes its own way through the world, and while we might be able to dig our own little trench for it to fill, it continues to carve its way through the landscape by its own power, by its own force. 

Perhaps that is one of the greatest errors we make when it comes to justice and peace. We think them passive things, quiet and gentle and unassuming things. We think them inanimate, the kinds of things that we must move in the world if ever we want to see them active. But the truth is that they are their own force, their own power, their own might. They push through and carve their own path and often, it is up to us simply to meet them where they are. They are not inanimate, and they are certainly not passive things. Just look at the way that they dig in on the mountain. No, peace and justice are not weak. 

They rush through the world and then, just as they come to the place where it seems that they end, something sends them back to God to begin all over again, to be poured out anew on the highest places. That something is our prayer, and it does not come easily. It does not come without pain. It does not come without grief. And we think that perhaps this is the place, then, where peace and justice have failed, but the opposite could not be more true. This is the place where they have had their greatest impact in the quietest of ways. More on that tomorrow. 

For today, what you need to see is how this river is not just a single point in time or space. It's not just a place where you go and dip your toes in. The promises of God are not fleeting as the waters that pass you by. Rather, they are eternal, as the waters that pour out from the highest places, from the heavens themselves, and rush forcefully through our lives, carving out their own paths, only to reach what seems like their end but is actually their beginning, where they rise to the heavens to be poured out again. 

This is the river. This is the river of God.