Friday, March 30, 2018

A Waste of Flesh

Now, in our Holy Week, we have come to Good Friday. By the time that you are reading this post, there will already have been a sacrifice, already blood dripping down from the Cross, already fatigue setting in on His body. For He was slaughtered with the morning sacrifice, the echo of the horn from the Temple heard all the way on the hill; not a faithful Jew in all of Israel would have failed to hear it. 

And we who have the benefit of hindsight, who know how the story ends, who are not stuck on Friday but know full well that Sunday is coming, call this Friday "Good," although at the time, it would have been no such thing. 

Remember that it was less than one week ago that Jesus triumphally entered the city of Jerusalem. Finally. After all of the waiting, after all of the prodding, after all of the begging for Him to come to the central city of leadership in Israel. The faithful had lined the streets with palm branches, singing and shouting and dancing for the long-awaited coming of their promised King. In the days that had followed, He had done not one particularly kingly thing, but they were still hopeful, still expectant. 

Not any longer. Not this morning. This morning, as their long-awaited King hangs on a Cross just outside the streets where palm leaves have already begun drying and decaying, there is no hope in Israel. No expectation. This is not their King. How could He be? He's dying.

Remember that it was just a couple of days ago that a woman, a prostitute, had put it all on the line to walk uninvited into a leper's house and anoint this Man, this Rabbi, this Teacher, who was supposed to become their priest. He had commended her for her act of faithfulness and obedience. He had changed, to some degree, her reputation, and everyone had seen it. He still smelled a little like nard, even this morning. 

But this morning...this morning, none of that matters. This man who had spoken so kindly to her is nothing more than a criminal. This Rabbi who received her tremendous gift is going to waste. It was, it turns out, no anointing at all; it was an embalming. He who was supposed to bring life has walked the road to His own death, and it was all for nothing. He has just a few hours left.

Remember that it was just one day ago that He was in the Upper Room, celebrating the Passover with His disciples, talking about the wondrous things that God had done. Remembering the mighty act of God in sparing the firstborn children of Israel so that He could lead them out of captivity and into new life. He spoke like a prophet, the bold truth of God rolling off His tongue so eloquently, so assuredly. 

And for what? For nothing. Because this so-called prophet who speaks such beautiful truth has been condemned by liars and now? Now, He barely has breath to speak. It won't be long until He has no breath left in Him at all. 

On this Friday, this Promise - this long-awaited King, this priest, this prophet - hangs dying, along with all the hope and expectation and anticipation of Israel. For years they have believed that this truly was the Son of God, the presence of Him in the flesh. 

But what a waste of flesh. 

On this Friday, it's almost over. No, hold that - it's done. His limp, lifeless body hangs shameful on the Cross, just breaths removed from all of the hope that things were finally, finally about to be different. "Good" Friday? "GOOD" Friday? There is nothing "good" about this Friday....

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Preparing the Passover

On Thursday of Holy Week, what we often call Maundy Thursday, the disciples inquired of Jesus wherein they should prepare the Passover meal to eat, and He directed them to a man's house in Jerusalem, to the Upper Room. There, the disciples set to work preparing the lamb.

By the structure of Israel's sacred society, it was traditional that it was the priest who would prepare the sacrifice, but the exception to this rule was the Passover. At Passover, every family prepared for themselves the lamb. If one family was too small to eat a full lamb by itself, they prepared it with a neighbor family. Here, the people slaughtered the lamb, divided it, prepared it, and ate it as a feast unto the Lord. 

This, of course, is what the disciples were doing. 

Our narratives don't give us the fullness of this feast as it was, taking for granted that those who would have read about it in the early church would have understood the significance of Passover from the Hebrew roots of the faith and would have known all that this feast entailed that evening. All that our narrative tells us about is the new thing - the bread/the body that is broken for us and the wine/the blood poured out. 

Make no mistake about it, however - the disciples also prepared a Lamb.

It is an interesting way to think about what was going on in that Upper Room, not just as a historical feast of Israel's faithfulness for which a lamb had been prepared according to tradition, but the preparation of the Lamb Himself for the Passover. It makes you wonder what Jesus was taking in that the disciples probably didn't even notice, what was feeding Him or fueling Him without their awareness, that perhaps they only realized much, much later (if, of course, at all).

Looking around in the Upper Room, what did Jesus see? He laid eyes on the diversity of humanity, represented there in His disciples. A tax collector. A faithful Jew. A Zealot. Men who knew the story and didn't know the story and were living out the story with Him. Men who had been broken, men who had been healed. Men whose personalities were sometimes too big for them but were always just right for Him. He looked around and saw the kinds of men that God so loved that He sent Him into the world in the first place, and certainly, this had to steady His heart to love them through the Cross.

Looking around a borrowed room, what did Jesus notice? He noticed the hospitality, the space that had been made for Him to walk among them. Just like the old days, just like the first days - when God had walked so openly with man. Here, He walked openly once more and men sought Him, really sought Him, and certainly, this comforted His heart that He would be found.

Looking around the Passover feast spread before them, what did Jesus realize? He realized He was among people who could remember with both gratefulness and anticipation the powerful acts of God that were done among them, who looked forward to His next redemptive movement, who celebrated with great joy what they thought they knew even in the midst of what they could not possibly understand. And certainly, this assured Him that He would not be forgotten.

We so often think about what Jesus gave us in that Upper Room - a new feast, a new paradigm, a new Passover remembrance and hope and anticipation that we celebrate each week in the Last Supper - but let us not forget that there was a Lamb prepared there, as well. A Lamb who would, in just a few short hours, walk to slaughter as an offering.

No longer because the firstborn son was spared, but because He was given. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Woman in Bethany

For many, the story of Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and skips straight to Maundy Thursday, from the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem into the Upper Room in which He shared the Last Supper with His disciples. But there is on this Wednesday a moment that is so Jesus that we cannot dare ignore it in our celebrations. 

It is the story of Jesus in Bethany.

Take yourself there. Bethany was a place with which Jesus was intimately familiar. A number of His friends lived there, and several of the Gospel stories take place within its bounds. Several beautiful stories, of which this one is no different. 

Today, Jesus is in the house of Simon, whom Matthew calls "the leper." Now, you know the Old Testament Scriptures as well as anyone - the lamb that is to become the sacrifice can have no uncleanness. It has to be a perfect, a spotless lamb. Yet here He is with the leper, the outcast, the contagious, the unclean (although we must say that since there was quite the crowd gathered in the home of Simon, he likely was a healed leper, a cleansed one, though no one would have forgotten his spotty white past). He comes in a weary traveler, and it is in this story that He chides Simon for not being the most gracious of host - he did not even bring the Rabbi some water to wash His feet. 

A large crowd here has gathered; Simon's home is packed to the brim. Like we said, Jesus had a lot of friends in Bethany, and although many may not have known what His presence in Jerusalem this week truly meant - they might not have been present for His prophecies of the sort - they relished a chance to see Him again, and so they came. We can imagine that Mary and Martha are there. Lazarus, too, having once died yet lived again. Simon the Leper is of course present, as it's his house. And the whole thing is a general gathering of good nature. 

Until a sinful woman walks in. 

She would have been noticed right away. She had, after all, a reputation. There were probably not a lot of places she could have gone in a place like Bethany, perhaps even in Jerusalem proper, without being spotted. And she knew it. She was fully aware of her position. She knew that all eyes would turn on her in an instant, that the room would fall silent, that it wouldn't take long for the whispers to begin once she invited herself into this party. 

That's why she kept her eyes focused firmly on Him. 

What she was about to do wasn't about her. It wasn't. She knew it probably looked that way, making a spectacle as she was. Uninvited as she was. Known as she was. But for her, it wasn't. For her, it was about Him. It was about this one opportunity - who knew when she would have another - to give back to Him some measure of what He had given her. You see, she was a sinful woman, but for all those who had "known" her, this Man knew her. This man alone had taken the time, we don't know precisely where or how, to acknowledge her, and He had given her back something she thought she had lost forever - her dignity. 

The full bottle of nard was not enough. She knew it. Expensive though it was, it paled in comparison to His tremendous gift. But it was all that she had, and there was no better use for it. Traditionally, it might have been used in preparation, when the woman had finally become betrothed to a man and was to wed. But let's be real about this: there was no man who was going to marry her. Not this sinful woman. 

And so, the nard was His and she tried her best to give Him the moment, too. Forget all the whispers. Forget the stares. Forget the pointing fingers and the crossed brows and the shouts for her to get out of this place, this unclean woman in a leper's house. (Are you catching the irony of that alone?) 

She walked straight through, straight to where the Rabbi was sitting, and she knelt before Him, letting her long hair fall as it may. She pulled out the bottle of nard and broke it, and if there had been among them any who had not noticed her presence yet, let them notice it now, for she was making truly a scene. She poured it out upon His feet and began to wash them with her hair, and among all the whispers, what does Jesus say about all of this? 

He says, She has anointed me.

Anointed! By a sinful woman. And by the way, "a sinful woman" is probably a nice way of saying, "a prostitute." A prostitute just walked into a leper's house and performed the sacrament of a priest, anointing our Lord just days before He will offer His sacrifice. Let's not miss this. It is a vital and beautiful and wonderful part of this Holy Week. 

And it is so Jesus, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Living Into the Living Lord

Holy Week, perhaps like no other week in the Christian calendar, serves as a poignant reminder of how severely we have diminished the story of Christ...and an invitation back into the unfolding drama of His redemption.

Throughout their history, the people of God have always had a living faith. That is, their lives were led by the sacred rhythms of their story in His story. Israel lived her story through sacrifices, feasts, and remembrances, all events that invited them to live out what God had done for them in an act of faithful living. The early church gathered in its own rhythms, breaking bread together as in the Upper Room, gathering their resources in an offering, living out the Passion of the Christ in the new Passover, the same kinds of Holy events that we are invited into this week.

But somewhere along the way, perhaps in the vein of a modernism that determined that all things could be rationally explained and empirically studied, the contemporary church shifted from the living out of a living faith into something much less - the learning, perhaps, of it. 

For years, we have preached, taught, lectured, and written about God, as though to know Him is the same as to know anything else in the world. We have said that we could study Him the way that we study, say, history or mathematics. We have said that we could study ourselves as His people the way that we study any anthropology. We have invested a great number of our energies in knowing all that we can about Him, though somewhere along the way, we have forgotten simply to know Him. 

And then, in reaction to such a dramatic shift in our theology of knowing, we attempted to recapture some of what we had lost by deciding that perhaps God was not best lectured and preached and taught and written, but that perhaps He should be done. That is, we can "do" God in the same way that we "do" church or "do" our grocery shopping or "do" our chores. So in an attempt to bring back the living aspect of our faith, we brought in a doing element of it, and today, there are all kinds of things we can (and do) do. Yet we are still not experiencing it. 

This is the kind of approach that I cautioned against yesterday. We cannot allow our faith to be something else that we "do," just one more thing on a long list of tasks to be completed, one more activity on our resumes. We cannot let it be that we go to church in the same way that we go to the grocery store or the gas station or the bank or the doctor, as though our mere participation in the activity of the church or the Christian faith is somehow a justification for its existence...or our identification with it. 

There's something in us that understands this. There has to be, or we would not have turned our faith into an act of doing; we would have been content with the mere knowing of God. But we are not. For somewhere, we know that the real knowing of God is the loving of Him (and the loving by Him) and the loving of Him is the living of Him. 

We must have a living faith.

That is the greatest blessing of this Holy Week.

It is a week that is meant to be lived. It is one that requires experiencing. There can be no mere sentimentality about the Cross, not if we are truly to be the people of God. No, there must be a loving of it. And if there is to be a loving, there must be a living. And if to be a living, there must be an experiencing. 

There are all kinds of things to "do" this Holy Week - bread to break, prayers to observe, tears to weep, silences to mourn, graves to investigate, hopes to hold onto, but if the noise and the dust and the dirt of Jerusalem doesn't catch in your throat, you have not really done anything. You have been busy, but you have not been present. 

Be present. Get into the story. Live into the living Lord on this amazing week in which He has given us the opportunity to truly live in both remembrance and anticipation by actually being there, being right there with the Upper Room, in the Garden, on the Cross, in the grave, on the road. There is this week a Christ to be lived in His dying; let us never forget that.

For the people of God have always been those living His story, not those merely learning it. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Holy Week

As we enter into another Holy Week, the Christian calendar really picks up its pace. Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, our Lord has come into Jerusalem, at long last arriving on the streets that have called Him from His very birth, for this very moment. In the days to come, we shall break bread with Him in the Upper Room, stand with Him on Gologtha, mourn for Him in the silence, and search for Him in the grave, where He will not be found. 

And with all of these events taking place this week, I have but one prayer for the Christian who will journey the Cross this week:

Don't let it be just one more thing.

Don't let this week be just like any other week, a week in which you go to work in the morning and come home at night and cook dinners and pay bills and take the kids to practice or to their performances or to their friends' houses and stop by the grocery and have the oil changed in the car and, oh yeah, this is a special kind of week and so you must also swing by the church a time or two for a thing or something.

It's all too easy for us to do church this way, especially "special" church. And if we're not doing church this way this week, then perhaps we are doing some sort of Bible study or devotional or personal prayer time that is supposed to help us to celebrate this Holy Week. Because, of course, it is important. Because, of course, it's just for this one week. 

Because, of course, we will "make time" for it. Just pencil it in somewhere between all the other things we're doing this "regular" week.

But Jerusalem is not a day trip; it's a sojourn. It's not a place you go and take in just a little bit of this or that, hitting a couple of the hot spots, and then go back to your home, to your "real" life until the next time. This is the time, and Jerusalem is the place to be.

It's the place to be from yesterday, from that very moment when our Lord stepped foot onto its streets. He's been telling us about this for a long time. He's been preparing us for what will happen once He comes, and now, here He is - entered into the city with the fanfare of a coming King. You expect that that noise would have just...died down? Quit for a few days? Quieted into a boring kind of hum-drum week? Hardly! 

Jerusalem has come alive! We, of course, know how the story plays out, how it ends - or at least, how it seems to end - in death, but today, the streets are buzzing with all the enthusiasm of a promised Messiah, the chosen one of God, the long-awaited King finally come in to take His throne. He's here!

And most of us...most of us will content ourselves this week to just stop by for a bit. If, you know, we have the time between all the other things we're doing. Because it's a normal week first, right? It's the Monday-through-Friday grind first, and oh yeah, it also happens to be Holy Week, so maybe we should church or something. 

...or something. 

Don't let this Holy Week just be "or something." Don't let it be another errand on the list. Don't let it be a chore that you have to complete. Don't let it be the kind of thing you pay attention to if there happens to be some time left over at the end of your day and certainly don't let it be the kind of thing you come to resent because it's another act of "busy" on your already-busy schedule. 

Listen to the echoes of the shouts of joy. Listen to the whispers of anticipation. Listen to the people as they buzz with excitement over this incredible thing that has happened. After so long in waiting, He's finally here - the Lord Himself is here, come into Jerusalem to take His throne. Get a little bit of the dust on your feet and don't worry about washing it off. Add your voice to the chorus. Shout Hosanna! 

For it is Holy Week, and the Lord is come. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Bible Before Us

From time to time, a certain meme (or set thereof) makes its journey around social media, snowballing in popularity among a subset of Christians. This meme shows a picture of the Bible and says something to the effect of, "This book is playing out right before our very eyes, and most people don't even realize it." 

Eh, not really.

Although it's very popular among some circles for Christians to read the Bible as though it were God's Word for today, doing so ignores the two biggest movements of God among us, and this makes it a very dangerous theology indeed. 

First, when we read the Bible as though it is a foreteller of the events of today, we miss the very real context in which the Bible was written. When we think that the Bible speaks of Trump or Obama or American economics or Ugandan famines or whatever, we miss the Bible that actually speaks about Caesar and Nero and Jerusalem's economics and Egyptian famines. In other words, we miss that God spoke His entire word into a very real context, into a very time and place where it was meaningful and relevant for the people who were hearing it.

In other words, this Bible that we so easily want to say is playing out before our very eyes...was playing out before their very eyes. Let us not forget that.

It's one of the reasons we have to be careful about how much of the Old Testament Scriptures we convert into Christ-ian prophecy and exactly how we do this. When David speaks words that Jesus also spoke, it is not because David simply faithfully wrote down an eloquent paragraph for which he had no context or understanding; it is because these words were on David's heart, too. Not just for the coming Messiah, but for the real world in which he also lived with God. When Isaiah writes about the Suffering Servant, it is not just that he is speaking for a Christ who is still centuries and generations away; he is speaking from his own experience as a prophet. 

We must realize, too, that even as we say that the Scriptures were written for us and speak about our time, so everyone else across history has said much the same thing. In the 1200s, in the 1300s, in the 1400s, etc., Christians have always interpreted the Scriptures as God's "amazing" prophecy for what's happening today. If God spoke about today, then which today? Every today? If the same things are true across all time such that we can say that God's Word applies to all of it, then either God's Word is never victorious because it lives in the same cycle again and again and again and again and again or God's Word is so vague and non-specific as to be empty and void, as though God had not spoken at all. 

That's one reason why we have to leave God's Word where it was written and let it speak about the context it was intended to speak about.

The second reason we must leave it there is because if we do not, we will miss God's Word for today. And this is perhaps even more dangerous a theology than the first. 

If God spoke 2,000 years ago about the events of today, then what do we believe He's doing now? He already told us this was going to happen, so there's no reason for Him to continue speaking. No reason for Him to say a new word. No reason for Him to be active among us if this is the way things are supposed to be and it's always been that way. 

When we read our Bibles as though they are God's Word for today, we miss what He is speaking to us because we relegate all of His speaking to the past. This is difficult because the Bible is unchanging, but our Lord lives on. And it's so easy for us to say that the Bible is the best we're going to get from Him, but the truth is that the best we get from Him is still unfolding. Right now. In our own lives. In our own times. 

The canon may be closed, but the revelation of God is ever-developing. We have to keep our eyes open to the new movements of God among us and stop trying to fit our times into old stories. This is the day the Lord has made, and it's brand new and wonderful and amazing and God is here in it among us. 

I think this is probably one of the most disastrous things happening in our churches right now - we don't seem to be aware of the God who is the same today as He is yesterday and forever. And that is a direct product of our reading our Bibles as though God spoke yesterday and will one day speak again and in the meantime, it must be our job to figure out what He's already said. 

No, friends. God is still speaking, and it is our job to listen to what He has to say today. 

Is the Bible playing out before our very eyes and we're just too blind to recognize it? Eh, not really. But the Lord Himself is dwelling among us, writing a new word in our time and place, and we've got our noses too stuck in a book to see it.

(Note: this is not at all to say that the Bible is not relevant or that it is not good and beautiful and wonderful. This is to caution against misusing the Bible at the cost of missing the living Lord not just today, but then, too. Reading our Bibles incorrectly makes us miss who God was, who God is, and even who God will be, which means we miss Him entirely.) 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sunday Service

If we are worried that having our house lights up will introduce too many distractions into our congregations, then we have to naturally ask ourselves two questions regarding our concern: what are we worried they will be distracted from? And what are we worried will distract them?

As we saw yesterday, the things that often "distract" our congregations may actually be good and holy and beautiful things. They may be "distracted" by the fellowship itself, such that they are now in a place to see one another, to whisper to one another, to bless and to curse one another, to build each other up and to recognize that this whole "church" thing is not about a "me," but a "we." 

Quite honestly, if our people are "distracted" by realizing they are actually a fellowship, this cannot truly be considered much of a problem at all. If our people, with the house lights up, come to recognize themselves as a people, well, that's a good and beautiful and holy and wonderful thing. 

Let's be honest. Our real concern when we talk about distractions in the church is not that our people might have a lot of things to look at, but rather that our people might not be looking at us, the ones who spend our entire week putting together the Sunday service for them. The ones who rehearse, who write, who rewrite, who practice, who pour, who serve in the service. Our real concern is that one hour a week, we're putting on a show, and if we don't focus our congregations' attention on what we're doing, they're going to miss it. 

Sometimes, this is selfish - we want our work to be recognized. But most of the time, it's not. We honestly believe, and we hope that we are right, that what we've done in preparation for the Sunday service is enough that on Sunday morning, we are leading our congregations to God Himself. We believe we've cut through the path, laid down the stones, and that we are now inviting our congregations down the narrow road with us that leads to Him. We believe that they will have a powerful encounter with the living Lord if they'll just follow our program. So we turn the house lights down in hopes of Him shining brighter.

It's noble, yes, but dangerously misguided. 

It's misguided because it still presumes that the road to God leads through us, His servants. It presumes that the map that we've drawn is the only way. It presumes that God is just as programmable into our Sunday services as any other element, as though we could show Him the order of worship and circle in bold red ink the part where He comes in (you know, for maximum effect). 

We're building something here, and it leads to God. 

And man, it's frustrating when the people don't play along. It's frustrating when things don't go according to plan. It's like having the birthday girl sneak in through a back door and ask, "Why are you all crouched behind the couch? And is that cake in the kitchen for me?" No, no, no, this is not how it was supposed to go! This is not what we planned for! 

The truth is that if our primary concern is that God show up in our services, if our absolute aim is that our people come to experience and encounter Him in our churches, if we want the Lord living among us in vibrant fellowship and beautiful community, then we ought to be doing everything we can to facilitate His movement among us. We ought to be making room for God to do whatever God wants to do and let the presence of the Lord become organic among us, a natural outflow of our being together and looking toward Him.

Not of our coming together and looking at us. 

We ought to turn our house lights up and let God out of our planograms. We ought to boldly proclaim, The Lord lives and moves among us when we are gathered as His people! We ought to make space for the testimony of the Holy Spirit and let our people tell us where God showed up for them on Sunday morning, whether that's in our well-rehearsed worship, our painstakingly-crafted sermon, or the witness of the guy three pews over or the mom two rows back or the grandparent two sections away or even the little kid who yells, "Daddy!" during the prayer (it's happened; it was hilariously adorable). We ought to not only make space for it, but we ought to expect it.

...and we ought not let ourselves be threatened by it. 

For, I don't know about you, but I would rather our people walk out of our churches and say, "The Lord is truly among us," than to walk out and say, "That was a good service." 

After all, shouldn't our real "service" be to the glory of the Lord?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


The objection, of course, would be that if we turn our house lights up, our congregations are likely to be more distracted. With the house lights up, there's more to look at than just what is happening on the stage. With the house lights up, it's easier for them to recognize faces next to them or one row over or even across the room and then put more of their attention on their friends or family than on the service. With the house lights up, it's harder to keep the congregation quiet; they might start to talk amongst themselves. 

In fact, we know that they will...because most of us came of age in churches filled with whispers and stifled giggles and quiet jokes.

When I was coming of age, we used to sing a song called, "He Touched Me," lights up, and I remember well how a good friend in the youth group gave me that look, then reached out one finger and started touching other persons, ever so lightly, every time we sang the title phrase. I remember sitting next to some of the parents of some of my friends in the church, and the preacher would say one thing or another and the dad would lean over and whisper something in my ear. I remember looking around and noticing who was talking to one another and who was in "the zone" and who was somewhere in between, taking in the testimony of the example of those around me - those I could see clearly with the house lights up - and how their witness helped to form my own faith. 

Oh yes, I know well that if we leave the house lights up, our people are going to have a lot more to engage with than just whatever hard-rehearsed, painstakingly-planned, perfectly-timed "event" we're producing on our stages. 

But we should hardly call these other things "distractions." 

Because these are the very things that form our faith. These are the things that teach us not what worship is, but how to worship. Not what prayer is, but how to pray. Not what community is, but how to be a part of one. These are the things that take us from being persons of God and make us into a people of God, a bunch of stories coming together into one story and into the life of a thriving, vibrant church that is not just watching a service unfold but is witnessing to one another in the presence of God. 

As afraid as we are that having our house lights up will be a distraction, the real danger in our churches is that having our house lights down will be a discouragement.

Dim the lights, and I can't see any longer how others are worshiping, and I wonder sometimes if I'm doing it "right," if this is the way I'm supposed to be doing it. Let me question long enough, and I'm bound to stop. I mean, I don't want to embarrass myself by doing it wrong...or worse. Dim the lights, and I can't see any longer how others are praying, and I wonder sometimes if the way that I'm praying is "right," as though there's only one way to pray. Or maybe I even get stuck in my box and forever believe that there really is only one way to pray. I can't see anyone else praying, so there's no one to teach me. No way to look around and see another way. And maybe it doesn't take long before prayer becomes "boring" to me or I need a prayer that doesn't fit this mold, and I don't have one. So, naturally, I just stop praying. 

Dim the lights, and I can't see any longer how other families are doing church together, and I wonder sometimes about my own. Maybe my kids are the loud kids. Maybe my kids are the quiet kids. Maybe I brought little toys and Cheerios. Maybe I brought nothing at all. Maybe I let my kids crawl around on the floor. Maybe I demand they stand there and at least pretend to pay attention. But I have no idea what other families, what other children, are doing, and now, I question myself as a parent because there is no witness in my community to show me how having a family in the church works. My way way. Is it a good way? I don't know. 

Here's a scary truth: we have families, right now, leaving our churches because they don't know if their children are behaving "properly" in our worship services. We have families walking out our doors and not coming back because they're afraid they are embarrassing themselves, that we're judging them, or that they're a distraction to what we're trying to do. 

Let's turn our house lights back up and let them see all of our distractions...and let them see that it's fine. Maybe then, they will stay. 

Because we're a people of God, we really are. At least, we're supposed to be. But we can't be a people if we can't see each other. Turn the house lights up.

Doesn't that mean there's a lot more to look at than what's happening on the stage? Yup. Doesn't it mean that our people might be tempted to look around instead of constantly looking forward? You bet it does. Doesn't it mean that we might encourage our congregations to start whispering or even, *gasp*, talking when we're trying to talk? Absolutely.

But that's what makes us a people and not just a church.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Fellowship of the Assembly

There is but another reason why turning our house lights down is a detriment to what we are doing in the church, beside the fact that it turns our congregations' attention from the act of worshiping to merely the act of worship, and that reason is that it turns our congregations from a fellowship into a mere crowd.

A crowd is a great number of persons gathered into one place at one time. Depending upon the size of the place, almost any number (as small as three, perhaps even as small as two) can be a crowd. The emphasis here is on the number of bodies present and not really on anything else. 

A fellowship, on the other hand, is a number of persons gathered into one place with the intent and the attention of being together there. Again, almost any number (as small as even two) can be a fellowship. The emphasis here is on togetherness and on whatever is going on mutually among the persons. 

Since the earliest days, God's emphasis has always been on the fellowship of His people. He wants them together in togetherness. He wants them sharing mutually among themselves. He wants them to have a focus on what it means to be among the people of God as a person of God. 

And so many beautiful things happen in fellowship. From the very beginning, love budded in fellowship, as God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone and gave him a helpmeet - the first fellowship, of two. In Israel, the fellowship came together to confess and atone, to bless and to curse, to fight and to rest, to remember and to worship, to live and to love, to move and to stay, to plant and to harvest. Everything the people of God did was truly a movement of the people of God, the fellowship of the assembly.

The same things can happen in our churches today, if we'd let them. The assembly is still the same. When we come together, we come for the very same reasons that the people of God have always come.

Imagine your church in the spirit of this fellowship. Imagine what it would look like if your church came together to confess and to atone, humbling themselves before God and one another...together. Imagine what it would look like if blessings and curses were spoken there, affirming one another and holding one another accountable to the life of professed faith. Imagine what would happen if your congregation fought together; what battles could you win? ...if you rested together; what sacred rhythms would you learn?

Imagine if your congregation remembered together the work of the Lord, offering testimonies and continuing on the witness to God in this world, and then worshiped together the living God who still lives and works among us. Imagine if your congregation did life together, helping one another as necessary and being part of one another's big moments; wouldn't we call this also loving together, particularly if we could then turn this outward toward our communities? Imagine if you moved together, stayed together, planted together, harvested together. 

Imagine if your congregation was truly a movement of the people of God...together. 

How are they ever supposed to be that if, when they come to the church, they can't even see one another? How are we supposed to be "together" when the house lights are down so far that we're convinced we're "alone"? How are the people of God supposed to be a fellowship if we've made fellowship into a verb and relegated it to the few minutes before and after our formal service, to the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee? 

Turn the house lights up, church. Let your people know they are not alone; they're together. They're not a crowd; they're an assembly. They're not a bunch of persons; they're the people of God. Together. 

A true fellowship. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

House Lights

One of the trends creeping into the contemporary church is that during worship, we turn the house lights down ("we" being the contemporary church, not any congregation in particular). There are a number of reasons for this. It enhances the experience, we say. It keeps the congregation focused, we also say. With the words to all of the songs plastered across an array of digital screens and a well-rehearsed band on stage to lead the music, all of our attention should be up front. 

What else would we possibly focus on?

Let's not mince words here: how about...God?

All this show that we put on on Sunday mornings, the way we've tuned our congregations to our ear, the way we lower the house lights so there's nothing else for them to look at has put a huge emphasis on the act of worship, but it draws away from the act of worshiping, which is very, very different. 

Throughout her history, the people of God have come together to worship. They have come together to lift their voices as one. They have come together to read His Word as one. They have come together to speak life over one another and to give glory to God. That is not often the case in today's churches, where the people of God have simply come together to...come together. We even say it like that, "It's great to have you with us today." "We have come together today as an honor to God." "How great it is that we can come together like this." As though coming together is what congregational life is all about.

You don't have to look very far in the Bible to know that this is not what God had in mind. There is not one scene in all of Scripture where God calls His people to come together, they do, and He says, "Good. Now, go home." The people of God always come together for a purpose. To worship, to praise, to pray, to celebrate, to sacrifice, to fight, to honor, to glorify, to break bread, the list goes on and on. They never come together just to come together. They certainly never come together to watch someone else worship, praise, pray, celebrate, sacrifice, fight, honor, glorify, break bread, whatever. 

And that's the problem with this trend where we turn our house lights down. We're no longer inviting our people to worship.

We're only inviting them to attend.

If you want to put a little more skin on this, just take a look around. Congregations where the house lights are up are congregations where you're more likely to hear the voices of those not on the praise team. Because most persons don't want to sing in the dark. They don't want to sing when the focus is up front, when they're not part of the "official" worship presentation. They don't want to be that weirdo singing along and getting caught, like when you're rocking out to a good song on the radio in the car and catch the guy next to you at the stoplight staring. Turn the house lights up, and all of a sudden, the congregation feels like they've been given permission to join. 

Because the focus is no longer up front. Their attention hasn't been pointed in one way or another. They're allowed to wash in the worship, letting it rush right over them and wrap them in its invitation. And all of a sudden, in the light of the Lord, they sing. And no one thinks it's weird.

See, turning the house lights down sends a subliminal message. "The focus is up here." The focus is the stage. The focus is what the professionals who have practiced for this is doing. Let them worship. Let them be the ones to sing. After all, they're good at it. You, maybe not so much. You, just stand there. You, raise your hand if you want. You, sway a little bit. You, watch this. 

Turn the house lights up, and there's no longer a "you." There's no longer a "you" because there's no longer a "them." There's a we. All of us gathered here together under one roof in one fellowship for one act of worship that includes all of our voices. There are no mere attenders in a church with its house lights up. 

We have come to worship. 

Not for the act of worship, but for the act of worshiping, which is a completely different thing. 

Don't get me wrong. All your laser lights are neat. Your 4-screen, hi-def lyric projections monitors are pretty cool. Your praise band is well-rehearsed and that guy on the drums? Yeah, he's got it goin' on. But if the atmosphere you're creating puts all the focus up front, then your people are missing what's happening up on high. 

Which is the greater thing?

Friday, March 16, 2018

A Humble Question

As we wrap up this look at the rich young man, we have to take a moment and give credit where credit is due. For all that he had going for him in this world, and for all the things this product of the Pharisees thought he had right, for whatever reason, he did come and ask Jesus a question about just how right he was getting it. 

It's easy for us to say that his question was about his pride, that he really just wanted to be affirmed in front of the crowds, to show off his wealth in one more way and to add to it the approval of the public's so-called great Rabbi. Maybe. 

But maybe not. Maybe that's just our self-centered, wealth-centered, head-shaking Western eyes reading into the narrative something that seems so natural to so many of us. Maybe this man whose faith was so deeply rooted in the law honestly just wanted to make sure he knew the depth of the law, that his faith was grounded well and correctly in it. 

We still say, well, that's the wrong question to ask. Faith is not about the law! There's something in us looking for every rhyme and reason to write this man off, even though Jesus clearly did not. 

I think we need to give him credit for the question. I think we need to give him credit for coming to Jesus in front of everyone and asking, hey, am I getting this right? I'm doing all of the things that I think I'm supposed to be doing; am I forgetting something? Did I miss something somewhere? What can You, Rabbi, teach me that I have not yet learned about this life-giving law? 

For to the rich young man, the law was, indeed, life-giving. It was the heart of his whole faith.

And let's be honest - it's not a question a lot of us would ask. 

Most of us are pretty content with our faith. It's growing, we hope, but it's growing in a predictable direction according to what we already know. We know what is important to us, what is important (we think) to God, how this whole "faith" thing works, and we're busy living it. We're busy trying to make it all that it can be according to what we believe about our believing.

It doesn't occur to us to take a step back and ask Jesus what He thinks. It doesn't occur to us that there might be something in our faith that we're missing. It's our faith, after all, and it's our faith because it's meaningful for us. If it's meaningful for us, it must somehow be whole for us. It must be all that we're desiring it to be or it wouldn't be so meaningful. So we must be already getting it "right." What, exactly, is there to ask?

And here's what we should love about the exchange between the rich young man and the Rabbi - the young man doesn't ask, "Hey, I've based my entire faith on the law. Is that cool?" Rather, he asks, "Hey, I've based my entire faith on the law. Am I living that faith to its fullest?" Jesus, likewise, does not respond, "You fool! Faith is not about the law." Rather, He responds, "You're missing the heart of the law in your living."

Sometimes, I think we don't ask the question because we're scared that God is going to scrap the whole thing, throw it all out and make us start over, strip us down to nothing and make us stand naked in the public square. The Gospels make clear that that's just not the case, and this story of the rich young man is only further confirmation. For Jesus responds here with gentle grace, just as He responds to us.

So give credit where credit is due. The rich young, arrogant, law-abiding, Pharisee-tutored man at least asks the question. 

And that's far more than most of us are willing to do.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


The faith of the rich young man, so grounded in the teachings of the Pharisees and in the following of the law, was not really a "problem," except insomuch as it was a problem for the man himself. In following his faith to the letter, he condemned only himself. 

When he walked away sad from Jesus, Jesus hung and shook His head, for the man's faith would not permit him to come out of his own box and follow Jesus. The man had signed his own seal, his own death warrant.

The sin of the Pharisees is greater because it was their sin that condemned the man, as well. They're the ones who had convinced him that this was the true faith, that this was what God had desired from him. The man himself had not condemned anyone else by his boasting, but the Pharisees had condemned the man by their teachings. 

That is why when Jesus encounters the Pharisees, He does not shake His head; He shakes His fist. He raises His voice. He condemns them out loud, for they have condemned so many.

The same dynamic remains at work today.

There is none among us who can say that we have it all right, that we know exactly how it is that God desires for us to live, that we understand perfectly every word of His revelation. There is none among us who can say we live perfectly consistently, all the time, with all that we believe, let alone with all that God desires of us. And yet, there are some of us who try. 

We have to be wise in discerning these situations, not just as outsiders, but as insiders - as those who are getting it wrong despite our desperate attempts to get it right. On one hand, we absolutely have to teach others about Christ. We have to tell them what it means to live by faith. We have to pass on His story so that it continues to grow and develop and reveal Him in this world. 

But we have to be careful about how we do this. What we don't want to do is indoctrinate others into our own particular brand of Christianity, into the exact set of beliefs that we hold. We can't set them up for the same sins that we are committing, the same errors, the same slants. We have to pass on the faith in a way that, should we come to Christ and ask how we're doing, our shortcomings would condemn only ourselves. 

We have to minister in such a way that God shakes His head, not His fists.

It's a difficult line to walk, particularly in light of the arrogance of our flesh that only lives the way that it lives because it is convinced that it is right. If we weren't convinced that we were right, we wouldn't be living this way. That wouldn't make any sense. 

Yet we remain fallen, finite. We remain limited in vision and in insight. Even the best among us remains the least of these, and that ought to thickly paint our witness with humility. We ought at every turn to remind ourselves, and those who come after us, that we may not have it quite as right as we think we do, lest we condemn them by our teaching. 

We ought at every turn focus our eyes on Jesus and declare, "I don't know if this is the way, but this is the Lord." 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Vain Faith

The great sin of the Pharisees, the testimony of the rich young man, and the dangerous trap for many who call themselves Christian today is that for them, the faith that they hold has become about appearances; it is a way that they make themselves look a certain way (namely, "good") and justify their own goodness and perhaps even celebrate it. 

The Pharisees did it, calling themselves the keepers of the law, a phrase that had for them double meaning. They kept the law themselves, and Jesus calls them out for wanting applause for that, for standing on street corners to be seen and for taking the places of honor as often as they could, and their excellent keeping of the law made them, in their own eyes, protectors (keepers) of the law, authorized somehow to force their understandings upon others.

The rich young man did it. When he came to Jesus, he came, essentially, boasting. There was quite a crowd gathered, as there often was around Jesus, and the rich young man comes in proudly declaring that he has kept every word of the law, even since he was a younger man. He likely was looking for a "well done, good and faithful servant" that didn't require that messy, you know, death and judgment and all that. He wanted to skip right ahead to God's approval and praise of him and, well, if the crowds also happened to hear and be impressed, then that was all part of the plan, too. 

The same is true for a many who call themselves Christian today. They are in it for the appearances of it, to be able to say that they have a church, that they perhaps even go to church, that they aren't "bad" people because they are really "good" people who do "good" things and Jesus loves them on account of their goodness. They, too, want to hear "well done" without the full cost of sacrificial living, without the cross, without death. For them, their faith is a status symbol, all for the benefit of keeping up an image. 

But the Scriptures say plainly that this is not how it was meant to be. This is not what the law is for; it's not what faith in the living God is about. 

All the way back in the words of Moses, in his final sermon in the book of Deuteronomy, there is a word of stern caution against falling into such a trap. Moses has just laid out the whole of the law one more time for the people, Israel, as they stand on the edge of the Promised Land and Moses faces his own death on the far side of the Jordan. After recounting the entirety of God's command and covenant, Moses says, Set your heart on these things.

For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life. (Deuteronomy 32:47)

It is not a vain thing. It's not for appearances. It's not for making you look "good." It's not for approving of yourself when you look in the mirror or having others approve of you when they see you in the square. It's not for standing in public spaces and taking the seats of honor. It's not for boasting. It's not about how you look, to yourselves, to others, or to God.

It's a real thing. A vital thing. A life-giving, life-changing, life-thriving thing. And I think it's fair to say that if that is not the case for you, then you've missed the very heart of it all. 

The Pharisees missed it. The rich young man missed it. Many who call themselves Christians today are missing it. Because they have made it about appearances, about how they look, and they have sought the "well done" without the death...

...and it was supposed to be their life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Making It Personal

When we talk about the story of the rich young man, we must be careful to avoid a great temptation, and that temptation is to make Jesus's response to this man into a new commandment for the rest of us. In fact, many have already succumbed to this temptation and have written this word in stone:

You must sell all you have and give the money to the poor.

But the Scriptures are very clear here that this is not Jesus's word to the entire assembled body; it wasn't even His word to everyone present in the encounter with the rich young man. The Bible, which is so careful about its second-person plurals (creating a ya'll in its theology) uses the second-person singular here (just you, just the rich young man). It's Jesus's word to one man, not to all men. 

That's important for a couple of reasons. First, it's important because to attempt to make this into Christ's word for all of us is to twist the Scriptures and lose the heart of the message. Second, it's important because it loses the heart of the message. What's beautiful about this encounter is the way that Jesus responds personally, intimately, and meaningfully to the man in front of Him. 

It's not about what He said, but rather, about why He said it.

And He said it because this was the place where the young man's theology was failing him. This was the place where a little depth could be easily added. This was the paradigm that He was given to speak into; it was a word that the young man would quickly and easily understand because it was rooted in what the young man already knew and believed, the way that he already defined his own faith. 

Jesus was saying to this young man of the law that it was not enough to keep the law, but he must fulfill the law. The letter of the law was not a solid theology; it was the spirit of the law that mattered. For this young man, his wealth was what kept him from the spirit of the law, so for this young man, what was important was to let go of his wealth so that he could know the full richness of Love.

That may not be the case for you or I. It may not be that our wealth is keeping us from the spirit of the law, from the full richness of Love. In fact, I guarantee you that my wealth isn't an issue because, well, I'm not wealthy. I haven't even figured out how I'm not destitute already. far, far off my radar right now. 

But there are other things, just as there are things for you. There are things in our lives that keep us from the fulfillment of the law, even if we are obedient to the letter of it. Entitlement is a big one. It pulls against the tension of forgiveness. Most of us know we are called to forgive our brothers and sisters when they have done wrong against us, and so we say that we forgive them, but something inside of us holds onto the bitterness, onto the hate, onto the entitlement to revenge or repayment or restitution. We still want something out of it. We say that we have forgiven because we know we have to forgive, and we have followed the letter of the law.

The spirit of the law, however, remains far away from us.

It's so tempting to say that Jesus here made a new command for all of us, that we should all sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. It sounds nice. It sounds "Christian." But it's not at all what Jesus said. 

What Jesus actually said is that we all need to examine what it is that keeps us from fulfilling the very law that we are following, whatever that is, and that we need to turn that on its head and commit it to His purposes, offer it to His hands, put it on His altar. That's a lot harder. It doesn't sound as nice. All of a sudden, it sounds...personal.

And it's supposed to.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Gentle Grace

For all of the contentiousness between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, there is one man living quite the Pharasaical life that Jesus does not so sharply condemn, and it is his story that must draw us into a deeper story of grace ourselves. 

That man is the "rich young man," or as we often call him, the rich young ruler. 

It's an interesting proposition to hear "rich young man" and grace in the same sentence, particularly as the story does not end well for him, at least as far as we know. But there is something about this story that we have to pay attention to, something about it that will shape the way (or should shape the way) that we interact with others.

The Pharisees, as we know, were chided by Jesus again and again for making the law the thing. They had spent their entire lives invested in the law, fine-pointing the law, preaching the law, holding everyone accountable to the most minute details of the law. They had turned "faithfulness" into "perfect obedience," and it had nothing to do with love and everything to do with performance. No man can be in a love affair with a God who is always judging him, and this is the wall that the Pharisees set up between the people and the Lord. 

The rich young man is a full byproduct of this teaching. He comes to Jesus quite confident that he will be approved of, by virtue of his perfectly righteous living before the law. In fact, it's his opening line. "Jesus, I have kept every letter of the law that the Lord has given us. Aren't I great? Tell me if there is anything else in the law that I must do to be even more perfect." 

It's Pharisee 101, and this man has bought it hook, line, and sinker. Now, every time the Pharisees say something like this, Jesus responds with harsh words. "You vipers! You brood of snakes!" He minces no words telling them how wrong they're getting it and just how terrible they - and their theological error - is. But that's not the response that He has to the rich young man. 

Jesus considers the rich young man for a moment, then responds. "Sell all you have and give the money to the poor." In other words, Jesus takes the man's question...and answers it according to the needs of the man's heart. He hears the man's dependence upon the law and crafts a response that does not reject it, as Jesus Himself says that He has not come to do, but fulfills it, just as He says. 

So what is the difference between the Pharisees, whom Jesus speaks so venomously against (see what I did there with all the snake references?), and the rich young man, for whom the answer is a gentler grace? 

The rich young man wasn't attempting to hold anyone else to his standard.

The rich young man wasn't teaching this bad theology. He wasn't holding others to it. He wasn't proclaiming in the streets that this was the way to gain God's approval. He wasn't turning others away from the Temple. He wasn't chastising them or berating them or degrading them on the basis of their failure to follow the law as perfectly as he. The Pharisees were, which is how they got the rich young man in the first place. 

But the rich young man himself was just trying to live his life as best he knew how, by the understanding and the theology that he'd been given. He'd been told this was it, and he was doing his best to live it. 

Something must be said, too, of the little bit inside of him that was still humble enough, even in his boast, to pose a question in this moment, rather than just to brag. "What else must I do?" He believes he's got the right theology - the law - but he's not sure he's got the full law, so he wants to make sure that he's doing the fullness of what he believes, that he's got it all, that he's not missing anything. 

This matters. Even though he's way far off in his theology, even though we know that the law is not the way to the living Lord, this is extremely important.

It's important because we are surrounded every day by Christians whose theologies are...a little off. We're surrounded by those who are living these lives by the words that they've been given, but those words are no good. And it's so easy for us to go off on them the way that we would on the Pharisees themselves. "You vipers! You brood of snakes!" or in our more modern vernacular, "You morons!" We're very quick to want to tell other Christians how wrong they're getting it. 

But we have to remember that most of these Christians are not Pharisees, not by any stretch of the imagination. Most of them are not standing in pulpits or public squares trying to hold everyone else accountable to their own interpretations of the Scriptures. (Ironically, in condemning them, we are doing this very thing.) They're just men and women who love God and are trying to live according to the story they were given. 

Condemn the Pharisees who gave them that teaching in the first place, yes. But most of the men among us are not Pharisees; they are the students of the Pharisees, those who have bought into the interpretations hook, line, and sinker, and are just doing their best. Our response ought to be one that invites them to do better by a bigger word.  

Which means that our response to them must be as gentle as Christ's was to this rich young man. Which means that we must answer them with grace. Which means that we must seek not to condemn their theology, for such condemnation will never work, but rather to expand it. We must take the law that they hold and not reject it, but fulfill it, and draw them into a deeper life with the living Lord.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Doing Church

At this point, the objection from those who have left the church and struck out on a social justice mission for Jesus is going to be, "But I do go to church. I go to church at..." my house, the woods, the soup kitchen, the coffeeshop, whatever. "That's my church."

Not really. 

See, church is not doing good works for others. That's part of what the church does, but it's not church. 

Church is not hanging out with your friends. It's a place of fellowship, yes, but just hanging around with the persons you like and sometimes, maybe, talking about Jesus is not church. 

Church is not praying every morning and reading your Bible every night. These are things that you should be doing, but they're not church. 

Church is not turning the worship music up in the car or listening to that super-hip pastor's podcast, even if you take notes while doing it. You might do these things at church, but that's not what the church is. 

The church is the body of Christ's disciples, and if what you're doing doesn't make any effort at all to connect to that body - to become part of the one that Christ calls us to be, to work in harmony with those who fill different roles than you, to fellowship with fellowshippers, to worship with worshippers, to contribute to the overall mission of the church that is undeniably connected to Christ and professed and recognized as such - then what you're doing isn't church. 

You can't do church by yourself. 

You can't do church by yourself. You can't do it with just your family. You can't do it with a small group of close friends who like to do cool stuff with you. You can't do church unless you are deliberately, intentionally, holistically doing church with the millions of other Christians around the world and across time who have been working together as one body since Christ walked His out of the grave. 

In other words, you can't be a disciple unless you're willing to get in the boat with the rest of us. That's what the church is, and it's beautiful that way. 

That doesn't mean you can't love God by yourself. It doesn't mean you can't worship Him on your own. It doesn't mean you can't tell His story or He can't tell His story through you. The Gospels are full of stories of men and women crying out in the streets, calling out to Him. His story is told through what He did for the least of these. 

You can certainly be the least of these. 

But it's much better, I think, to be the church. That's what God had in mind all along. It's what Jesus prayed for. It's where the Spirit showed up. It's how the believers got through tough times, by clinging to each other the way they clung to God, by knowing they were given a fellowship under the wisdom of His Lordship. It's how the disciples got through the storms, by being in the boat together. By traveling together. By walking together. By praying together. By breaking bread together. Everything in the Scriptures leads us to together. 

No matter how hard you try, you can't do together alone. 

So yes, you need the church. Yes, you need the broken, hypocritical, not-always-your-style church. Yes, you need the drag-yourself-out-of-bed-on-Sunday-morning, might-miss-kickoff, arguing-the-kids-into-the-car church. It's God's beautiful gift to you. Why would you settle for anything less?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Special Emphasis

Did you know that the Bible places a special emphasis on the community of believers? We have so expanded Jesus in our culture to include "everyone," thinking that all persons are essentially the same and if we are connected to any of them, that's good enough for God. But there are all kinds of evidences in the Scriptures that our first and strongest connections ought to be to the church, to the people of God.

To each other.

For example, you'll notice that there's an awful lot of "one another"ing in the Scriptures, particularly in the Gospels and in the New Testament. Jesus was a big fan of "one another"ing. But the whole nature of "one another" is that it is an address used to a crowd where they could easily look around and identify who "one another" are. It's not the same as "everyone." It's "those present." So when Jesus or Paul or Peter talks about "one another"ing, they are talking about the kind of fellowship and community and commonality that we share (or should share) among ourselves as the church.

The same is true with "each other." Jesus talks about the kind of love we should have for each other and about being given to each other and about being committed to each other. Again, "each other" is not the same thing as "everyone." It is a word that indicates "those present," which means, again, that when Jesus talks about us in the context of "each other," He's talking about an intimate, connected body of fellowship, community, and commonality. He's talking about what will become the church.

I've written before about Jesus's famous prayer in John 17, the prayer in which He plainly says that He prays not for the whole world, but for those given to Him. Contained in this prayer is also His plea for unity, that His people would be defined by their oneness and would be recognized by it. Other Scriptures say they will know us by our love.

In other words, there is a "them" and an "us." There is someone outside of the church that recognizes what's going on inside of the church by what "we" are doing together, with "each other," with "one another."

This creeping theology of ours that tries to say that the whole world is the church misses out on this distinctiveness. We just can't show this kind of community with "everyone." And by Jesus's own words, we weren't meant to. The world is not your church; the world is the world. The church is the church. And if you're inside her walls, you aren't in her fellowship. Period.

Or look at the way that Paul and the apostles handle the nature of churching throughout the rest of the New Testament. They're constantly shuffling messages and offerings and persons and all kinds of stuff from one church to another. The churches in Paul's regions took up offerings for the church in Jerusalem, and the church in one place was sending their resources to the church in another place.

It's not because there were no poor people in Ephesus. That's not it at all. It's not because there were not needs in Corinth. It's because the church is bigger than the place you're in and, at the same time, more intimately connected. The charge for Christians is to take care of each other or one another, and we see that plainly when Paul admonishes the churches to build one another up, to support one another, to give generously to each other. He doesn't say to start a community outreach program. He doesn't tell them to take their funds down to the homeless shelter. He doesn't preach them into doing "good works" in their neighborhoods, although there are plenty good works to be done there and yes, Christians should be doing them.

But there is a bond to the church that we just can't shake off, and there is a special emphasis on being a part of this community - the community of God's people. We were called for one another, given to one another, charged with the care and accountability of one another.

(This is true, too, by the way, of Israel in the Old Testament and even today for faithful Jews. Being a person of God is being in a community of God. It's being accountable to that community and holding that community accountable. It's providing for and being provided for by that community. It's loving one another so that we can love the world.)

More and more, you hear it - I don't "need" the church. Or the church "isn't for me." Or that church just isn't "my kind" of church. And it's all bull. It's all junk. It's a shallow, at best, or junk, at worst, theology that ignores what God had to say about Israel, what Jesus had to say about His disciples, and what the apostles - and earliest Christians - had to say about the church.

The plain, simple fact is, on the testimony of God Himself, of Jesus Christ, and of the Spirit, you cannot be a Christian and not be in the church. You can't. You can call yourself whatever you want, but if you're not in the body, you're not part of this living, breathing, life-giving movement called Christianity. You're

And that is a sad, terrible, horrible thing, particularly when you are oh so close to being...His. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Striking Out

In taking the stance that Christianity is an intimate personal decision that one must make in favor of Christ in order to gain the benefit of His sacrifice for the eternity of not going to Hell, the church has not only created a generation of Christians who believe their faith is a private matter, but she has created a generation of Christians who believe they have no need of the church.

After all, if the mission of the church is to convert and I am already converted, then what am I "wasting" my Sunday mornings in this sanctuary for? This is even more true for those who further believe it is not their "job" or their "interest" or their "calling" or their "gift" to call others to Christ. 

Hey, man, in this world where we have to make our own decision for Christ, you can't just force that Christ on someone else. They have to find Him on their own.

And this is where we started building a culture of "church shopping."

A couple of generations ago, this idea was unimaginable in the church. The church was your people because it was God's people; it was your place because it was God's place. Having accepted God's sacrifice for your life, you gave it right back to Him and joined the community of His people - a community that is an extension of literally everything God says about His people in the Bible, a people He always calls a "ya'll." (Never a "you.") 

Today, the church probably isn't your people. Because it's not a community. It's a "house of worship" or, in some cases, a "Jesus shop." Church is where you go when you're missing something or looking for something or think there might be something there for you, and the persons that you find there in the church are either 1) there for the sake of providing the service of religion that will fill your need or 2) coincidental shoppers in the same Jesus store. For the same reason that the cashier at the local super-mart is not your community, and neither are the persons who stand in the checkout line with you, the church is not your community, either. It just is. You take it when you need it, and when you don't, you're gone - out in search of other things.

Did you know that overwhelmingly in the New Testament, "Christians" is a plural word? There's not a lot of talk about "a Christian," as though that was something you could be all on your own. There's much more talk about "Christians" (or in the case of the singular, "one of those Christians"), a community of believers that was growing and expanding and springing up all over the realm, not because the number of individual believers was increasing but because the number of fellowships was. Men and women, young and old were coming to Christ and joining up with one another. They weren't striking out on their own.

And maybe you're one of those that says, hey, I don't "need" the church. Maybe you say the church doesn't "feed" you. Maybe you think it's enough that you just read your Bible and love Jesus. Sorry. That's not the way this works. That's not the way this has ever worked. You're not a community all by yourself. You're not a community if you're just spending your time around other persons and not sharing something fundamental with them. You're not a community if it's something that's merely "convenient" for you or something that "sounds good." 

That's why you need the church. The church is the community. It's not a Jesus shop or a house of worship or an on-call prayer service; it's a community, and a vital one. If you're not a part of it - a legitimate, connected, wholly-in, authentically in, committed part of it, you're missing something not only incredible, but important. 

Because the community of Christ is fundamental to the essence of Christianity. It always has been, and it always will be. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Love of Christ

Yesterday, we set the stage for this discussion a little bit by looking at how the church has approached evangelism - as a personal decision that you have to make for Christ - and how, despite overwhelming numbers of individuals "coming to Christ," the church herself is struggling. What gives?

They took us seriously.

We put so much emphasis on the personal nature of making a decision for Christ and on how your faith is something you and God work out together and on the eternal redemptive aspects of Christian belief that the world thought that's what we were all about, that's what God is all about. 

So today's Christian converts feel perfectly comfortable skipping church and going out into the world doing "good things," whatever they determine that those "good things" are and saying that this is their worship, this is how they "do" "church." Or this is how they "do" Christ.

It doesn't matter, they say, if their "good works" are specifically attributed to Jesus or if they ever even mention Him at all; what matters is that they are doing these good works at all, from their personal starting point of "faith," and so...Jesus approves. 

In other words, we told them that being a Christian was an intimately personal decision, they took our word for it, and made their Christianity their own intimately personal secret, then set about the world being "good" people and doing "good" things and figuring that Jesus, if He even really cares much past the point of the prayer of conversion, would know that He was at the heart of it all and be cool with that. 

They also figure that others, the recipients of their "good" works, will know that it's because they are Christians, and if they don't, well, it didn't matter anyway. You know, if you go to the soup kitchen and ladle soup for an evening, clearly everyone there knows it's because you're a Christian. Or if you pack bags for the homeless and pass them out under the overpass, it's obvious that Jesus is your motivation for doing so.

And if they don't figure that out, then it's because they aren't really interested in Jesus and, well, in that case, isn't it such a good thing you didn't try to "evangelize" them? That could have been disastrous.

The central ethic of all of this is that our Christian faith is We made a personal commitment to Jesus in the privacy of our own hearts. We do good works because we love Him, and that doesn't require us to make a show of Him. It's about Him and us. And...He approves.

So, you know, faith by works, which cannot possibly be dead.

Again, that's what we told them it was all about. Who could blame them for thinking we meant it?

But this has two extremely dire consequences for the church. First, those we invested our energies in are abandoning us, and the church itself is struggling because of the number of "Christians" who don't figure they need it. Second, these "Christians" who fill the world with "good" works that don't require them to ever share the name of Jesus...are not sharing the name of Jesus. They aren't telling others, not even trying to get the same minimal buy-in of an intimate personal decision for Christ that they had. Which means these Christians who have left our churches and struck out on their own are nor making new Christians; their faith lives and dies...mostly dies...with them.

What was it Paul said? "How will they know if no one tells them?" How, indeed.

Therein lies one of the greatest challenges to today's church. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Church on Mission

For years, the church thumped its Bibles and banged its lecterns and boldly declared that Jesus was a decision that you'd have to make for yourself. No one else was going to save you from hell-fire and damnation but Jesus, and no one else was going to welcome Jesus into your life but you. 

And this, we thought, was the mission of the church. 

The mission of the church was to get as many individuals as humanly possible to make a private commitment to Jesus Christ as the Savior of their own personal lives, in order that they might go to Heaven when they die and reap the benefits of His death upon the Cross. We told you that was important. We told you that was what this is all about. 

In fact, it's how we kept our statistics. How many lives did we convert this week? How about this year? It's how we trained our congregations, teaching them to knock on doors and invite their way into the lives of complete strangers in order that these strangers might then invite Jesus into their lives. (Why someone would invite Jesus into their lives when we pushed our way in without an invitation is beyond me, but that's what we said, and that's the approach that we took.) 

And when all the church doctrine and decorum and decoration stood in the way of getting you to give your life to Christ, we changed it. You said you weren't sure about all this baptism stuff and public declaration and whatnot, so we told you it was much simpler than that - all you had to do was pray a little prayer in your own heart, you didn't even have to so much as whisper it out loud, and Jesus would come and dwell in you and you'd be good as streets of gold, at least as far as salvation and all that. 

You said you didn't want to come forward with your family and be recognized as placing membership with us, so we stopped doing that. We even stopped making you stand up so we could all wave at you. We looked the other way when you weren't sure about chipping in on the offering. We didn't say a word when you passed the Communion tray without taking any. We cheered in support for your kids at their sporting events/clubs/contests/whatever, even when they interfered with your being with us on Sunday mornings. (Sinners.) 

Because, hey, this Jesus thing? It's important. And it's something you've got to do for yourself.

So we stood beside you as you did it, and we counted you among our ranks, whether you were whole-in or half-hearted or whatever. Whether we'd dunked you or sprinkled you or you whispered once that you think you might have said "the prayer." Welcome. That's what this Jesus thing is all about. 

And it worked. Countless numbers of individuals count themselves Christians because of this work that we did, because of this evangelism. Counted this way, there are just swarms and swarms and swarms of Christians, like locusts in Egypt. 

Yet, the church is struggling. These Christians are leaving our congregations in droves, striking out to do their own thing or nothing at all, but still calling themselves Christians. Today, all kinds of places are called churches - hunting stands, athletic contests, sleeping in on Sundays - and all kinds of things are called "Christian" - social activism, justice movements, good works, non-profits. Yet, the church is struggling.

What happened?

They took us seriously. 

(Stay tuned.)