Friday, April 3, 2020

Having Church

     God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 
-Acts 2:32-33 (NIV)

Last week, someone contacted our church wondering if we would be having services at our usual time. This person, who as far as I know has never worshipped with our church, just couldn’t believe that we didn’t trust God enough, or love God enough, or something, to remain open during the pandemic and in spite of Illinois’ stay-at-home order. 
     We’re far from the only church that’s had those interactions in the past couple of weeks. A pastor in Florida was arrested this week for continuing to keep his church open for Sunday services. “We’re going to have church,” he insists.
      Never mind all the evidence that the best thing we can do to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on our health care system is to stay at home. Never mind the doctors and nurses fighting this thing, never mind the many, many people who won’t get the medical help they desperately need if we don’t slow this virus down.
     We’re going to have church.
     Look, no one thinks meeting together matters more than I do. No one dislikes having to suspend gathering for worship any more than I do. But it wouldn’t be right for us to meet right now. It would create an obstacle for the gospel with our neighbors, who are expected to stay away from their offices, schools, gyms, friends, and family. It would endanger people. It does not show love for our neighbor to insist on a course of action that will ultimately cause much more suffering.
     The longer this goes on, though, I  wonder if it’s all bad.
     It’s hard to argue, when we look at the church in America (and elsewhere too) in 2020, that we’re very much focused on our buildings. Last year, our church spent 20% of our budget on our building: maintaining, improving, heating, and air-conditioning it. I think that’s probably a fairly conservative number; our building is relatively small, relatively old, and not exactly state-of-the-art. Still, it was more than we spent on missions and benevolence combined.
     Thing is, I’m not sure how to change that number much. To own a building is to incur expenses. I guess what I’m saying is that, with the building such an important part of life for most churches, it’s easy to see how we’d leave the impression that we can’t “have church” if we’re not at the building on Sundays.
     As an exercise, I’d like to list below all the Bible verses that mention the church owning a building:

     Now I’d like to list all the Bible verses that indicate that church life is all about showing up at a building at a predetermined time on Sundays:

You get the point, right?
     There are problems that start to arise whenever we too closely connect “having church” with a building. For one thing, worship becomes an appointment instead of a lifestyle of offering yourself. Taken to its extreme, you can never miss a “Sunday worship" and still never know what it’s like to give yourself sacrificially to honor God.
     In addition, the worship service becomes all about receiving something. “Going to church” and “going to Wal-Mart” don’t just sound the same; they’re about the same thing. You go and pick up what you need, and think little about what you give to others.
     That’s because of the third big problem: you start to imagine that everything God is doing revolves around being at the building. If we can only “have church” in a particular location on Sunday, then we don’t give much thought to “having church” anywhere else: at our offices, our schools, our neighborhoods, even our homes. 
     The early church’s experience, though is that the Holy Spirit was poured out on a people, not a location. When people repented and turned to God through faith in Jesus, he enabled them to do wonderful things. They met together when and where they could. They took care of each other. But they weren’t rooted in a place. When they were persecuted in Jerusalem they scattered and preached the gospel wherever they went. 
     Wherever the Spirit took them, they had church.
     That makes all the sense in the world, given the subject of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost of the church’s existence. Peter told them about Jesus being raised from the dead. He told them that the Lord wasn't in the tomb, but alive and active in the world. It only makes sense that his church should be too. We aren’t dead and confined to our ornate, comfortable, and fashionable tombs, but alive and bursting with the Spirit’s energy. 
      The church has never been about the building. If you’ve been thinking of the church in that way, then you’ve been thinking of it wrongly and this is an excellent opportunity to change your perspective. Being together is good. It’s necessary that we gather together for encouragement, to worship with one voice, to pray for each other, and to teach each other and proclaim the gospel. But being together isn’t how we have church.
     We have church because of our Father who loves us. We have church because of his Son’s faithfulness. We have church because God raised him from the dead, and we have church because of the Spirit who lives in us.
     Maybe, through the disruption of this pandemic, we’ll learn new ways of having church.
     Maybe we’ll be more engaged with each other, even though we see each other less.
     Maybe we’ll be more thankful for the opportunity to interact with each other, even though those opportunities are fewer and farther between.
     Maybe, as work, school, kids’ activities, and friends have left our calendars, the Lord’s work will find more of a place. 
     Maybe this crisis will create opportunities for us to live out what we say we believe. People are anxious. They’re in need. If the Gospel is real and relevant, and the church is truly bigger than our buildings, now is the time to show it!
     When the stay at home order is lifted, when we can leave our homes, let it not be to just rebuild our church life around a building. Let it not be just on Sundays at a building, but sharing each others’ lives. 
     I miss all of you. I look forward to seeing you on Sundays in a few weeks. But in the meantime, we’re still having church. Let’s be Spirit-filled people in our world. Preach Jesus wherever you are, in whatever way you can.

     I can’t wait to hear about it when we get together again.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Singing at the Head of the Army

     Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 
-Colossians 3:15-16 (NIV)

How’s your singing voice? Depending on where you live, the coronavirus crisis might give you the chance to exercise it.
     It started in Italy, during their lockdown; neighbors singing from balconies across narrow streets to pass the time and remind each other that no one was alone.
     Earlier this week, Chicago picked up the idea. Using social media, residents coordinated a Bon Jovi singalong (Livin’ On a Prayer) and later a Queen singalong (We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions). I’m not sure my neighborhood quite got the word; there was one group of people on the sidewalk singing Livin’ On a Prayer, but I don’t think they were quite in the spirit of the event. They weren’t inside singing out of their windows, or even social distancing, for that matter. 
     I get it, though. I get why people want to join together with others in a time of stress, anxiety, and difficulty to sing. It’s very human. Songs are a part of shared experience. They bond us, draw us together. Do you remember as a teenager singing along with a group of friends to a pop song during a car ride? It’s why we sing Happy Birthday together at a party. It’s why the military has marching songs. It’s why we sing The Star-Spangled Banner at patriotic occasions, it’s why camp songs exist.
     It’s also why people who worship God have always been singing people.
     I love the biblical story of Jehoshaphat’s singers. It’s not one of the familiar ones, so it might need a little setup. Jehoshaphat was a king of Judah who did his best to please the Lord (unlike some of his predecessors and successors). Facing a battle against an overwhelming army, Jehoshaphat went to God for assistance. God told him that he wouldn’t have to fight this battle, that God would win the battle for him before it had even started. He told Jehoshaphat to send his army out to be spectators, to have them take their positions “and see the deliverance the LORD will give you…”
     So the next day, the day of the battle, Jehoshaphat sends the army out as he normally would for battle. Except — well, that’s not quite true. He makes one little change, one that’s easily missed in the text, even. But there it is: “Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army…” 
     I’m no military strategist. I don’t know who usually goes into battle at the front of the army. Cavalry? Archers? Infantry? Your best soldiers? Your worst soldiers? At Normandy it was paratroopers and amphibious units, I think. The Germans in World War II used tanks and bombers to lead their forces forward. These days we usually fire some missiles from ships, planes, or drones before we send in the rest of the forces. I know this, though: no army, anywhere, at any time, puts the choir first. 
     Yet, that’s what Jehoshaphat does. I wonder what his Joint Chiefs of Staff thought of those plans. He doesn’t even have them singing a good militaristic song like Battle Hymn of the Republic or Marching to Zion. It seems like their repertoire consists of one song:
“Give thanks to the LORD,
For his love endures forever.”
     They’re heading out to battle with far superior forces, and their vanguard is a choir singing about love? I mean, I know God promised to fight this battle for them, but wouldn’t you have wanted to hedge your bets a little if you were in Jehoshaphat’s position? Wouldn’t you have wanted to lead with your cavalry or archers or infantry or something, just in case?
     Well, sure you would’ve. And that’s why Jehoshaphat didn’t.
     What Jehoshaphat does is an act of faith. Conventional wisdom says, sure, have faith in God. But also have a Plan B. If God doesn’t come through, Jehoshaphat’s Plan B is to probably lose the battle.
     Where’s your faith? Sometimes it’s easiest to tell by what you’re singing.
     There’s comfort in facing down a pandemic by singing Bon Jovi or Queen in solidarity with your neighbors. There’s a defiance in singing. Think of the string quartet in the movie Titanic playing Nearer, My God, to Thee while the ship sinks. (I'm not crying. You are!) I mean, sometimes you sing because there’s nothing else to do, and that can be an expression of trust that where your strength ends, God’s is just beginning. Sometimes maybe it seems like whistling past the graveyard. But one thing people who trust in God have always done is to express that trust by singing of his love in a world that seems filled with hate, or of his peace in the midst of chaos, or of his kingdom while petty tyrants flex and strut. Or of his salvation while enduring a pandemic.
         Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they left the upper room and went to Gethsemane.
      Paul and Silas sang in prison.
     Later, Paul assured the church in Colosse that the message of Christ would live among them through singing. 
     As churches all over the world shift their worship services to live-streams during the COVID-19 crisis, one of the casualties has been singing. Preaching and teaching can survive the transition quite well. Communion can, to some degree. But singing? One of our worship leaders said it well: “I hate not being able to sing with people and experience the collective effort live. That’s a big part of the reason we do it.” He’s right, isn’t he? There is something lost when we sing by ourselves, or in family groups, at home as opposed to being together. It’s not the same.
     The loss, however, is only from our perspective. Singing is an act of faith, even when it feels like you’re the only one singing. Faith tells us that many others are too — family in Christ that you know, and family in Christ all over the world that you don’t know. Singing is an act of faith in a Father who loves us, a Savior who has given his life for us and who has risen to intercede for us, and a Spirit he has poured out to fill our lives, transform us into his image, and unite us together. 
     Psalm 137 is the counterpoint to the story of Jehoshaphat's army. Composed during the Babylonian captivity, the psalm tells of the Babylonians taunting the assimilated Israelites by asking them to sing some songs from home. “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a foreign land?” the psalm asks. 
     Yet…it is a song. The psalmist must have found his voice. Our voices won’t always sound certain, either. Our songs won’t always be impressive. But singing them anyway is always an act of faith in our God, whose love endures forever and who will not abandon us now. We’ll shelter in place and watch for his salvation, knowing that in Jesus he  has already assured us of it.

     Let’s sing that out of our windows!       

Friday, March 20, 2020

Why Are You Afraid?

     Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
     He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
     The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”  
-Matthew 8:23-27 (NIV)

     Last Sunday, our church food pantry was open. That’s normal, but we had some unusual guidelines in place, intended to keep people from being too close together and potentially transmitting the coronavirus. It was nothing extreme, nothing that authorities haven’t been suggesting for a couple of weeks now. But it was different from our usual way of doing things, and one of our clients wasn’t having it.
     “You’re being paranoid,” she said. 
     Were we? I don’t think so. If we were being paranoid we probably wouldn’t have been there. 
     Context is everything, right? If not for the social distancing guidelines we’re trying to follow during the coronavirus pandemic, not letting all of our clients into the building at one time, keeping six feet of distance from each other, and cleaning every table between each client would definitely be seen as paranoid. Given what’s happening, though, I think of the precautions we’re taking as reasonable. And I tend to view attitudes like our clients’ as dangerously negligent.
     Given the context of Matthew 8, it’s kind of hard to understand why Jesus asks his disciples why they’re afraid. It seems pretty obvious; they’re afraid because they’re caught in a terrible storm. They’re afraid because they’re in danger of being swamped and drowned. They have every reason to be afraid.
     People have said to me, “I’m not going to let this virus make me live in fear.” That’s great, but inevitably it seems to me that the people who say that the loudest are responding most fearfully to it. Hoarding supplies is a symptom of fear, a selfishness that disregards the well-being of others to serve our own interests. I wonder if the cavalier attitude toward social distancing some of us are showing isn’t at least partially a fear response of the whistling-past-the-graveyard variety. The mismanagement of this crisis by leaders in many countries comes from a fear of what this virus might do to the economy, to jobs — and thus to their re-election chances. 
     The fact is, we’re all afraid, to one degree or another, of one thing or another.
     I’m not afraid that my health is going to be affected, not really. (Though that might change the first time I cough!) But I do worry a little about my parents, my in-laws, the older members of my church. I’m a little fearful about mine and my wife’s IRAs! I’m a little afraid that my son, who’s graduating from college in a couple of months, will face an uncertain job market. 
     Your fears may not be mine, but I bet you have them. I think we need to acknowledge that. Given a storm, our responses aren’t that different from the disciples in that boat. We’re a little afraid. Fear, of course, can be a positive thing. It can keep us safe. It teaches us to avoid unreasonable danger and make good decisions. Fear is a warning light, an instinct that helps us to survive.
     As a guiding principle for life, though, fear is terrible.
     I’m wondering if that isn’t why Jesus asks his disciples why they’re afraid — not because fear is an overreaction, but because it’s a terrible thing to build your life on. Let fear set the alarms off. Listen and pay attention when the bells ring and lights flash. Make the changes you can make, protect yourself as you can when fear tells you that you should. 
     Once you’ve listened to fear, though, and let it tell you where you’re being stupid or careless or just uninformed, then fear has done its part.
     Notice where Jesus is when the disciples come to him panicked. He isn’t wrestling with the sails or pulling at the oars or bailing water. Jesus is sleeping. A couple of things you should notice about that. One, he’s asleep. Why? My deep theological take on that is that he was tired. He wasn’t somehow above human beings. He had laid down in that boat and dozed off. This would have been a small fishing boat. The rain, the wind, the tossing of the boat, and the activity of the disciples wasn’t enough to wake him. He was exhausted because he was a human being who was not exempt from the physical limitations that go with humanity. That also means that if that storm had swamped the boat, Jesus would have been in danger of drowning too. The seawater in his lungs would have killed him just like it would have killed the disciples. 
     But here’s what else to notice: he’s asleep! In a storm! Matthew uses a word for the storm, seismos, that he uses in other places in this gospel to describe an earthquake. (We use it in words like seismograph today.) It wasn’t just that it was raining hard and windy. The sea was whipped up. Waves were tossing the boat around. And yet Jesus was asleep. I think it’s because he trusted his Father, sure. He believed that whatever his limitations, God didn’t have them. What he couldn’t control, God could. He believed that God was faithful, and that he could rest secure in that faithfulness.
     He also trusted his disciples. They were his friends. He loved them, and they him. Some of them were the experts on boating, and he was resting, too, in their competence and ability.
     Of course, when they reached the end of their ability, he was more than willing to step in. “Why are you afraid?” he asked, because he wanted them to know that God had the power to save them.
     When I was 3 or 4, I went to spend a weekend with my grandparents. Apparently, when it was bedtime, I got scared. I started crying for mom and dad, for home. So, without much argument, my grandfather picked me up, put me in the car, and took me home. 
    Home, at the time, being near Atlanta. Two and a half hours away. 
     Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with me crying, but I choose to believe that my grandfather took me home that night because he loved me and would do pretty much anything for me. 

     Here’s the basic thing that we should be remembering as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic: our God loves us and will do anything for us. That includes sending his Son to save us. The wind and the waves obey him, and we can come to him with our fears at this scary moment in our lives too. When we come to him with those fears, and take refuge in his love and power, maybe we’ll find that we’ll sleep a little better too.

Friday, March 13, 2020

How to Be a Christian During a Pandemic

  Do not call conspiracy 
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear, 
and do not dread it. 
The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, 
he is the one you are to fear, 
he is the one you are to dread. 
He will be a holy place…     
-Isaiah 8:12-14 (NIV)

So what have you been talking about with friends and family the last few days?
     Maybe it’s the NBA and NHL suspending their seasons, or Major League Baseball delaying the start of theirs, or the conference tournaments in college basketball being canceled. Maybe you’ve been talking about a scheduled trip that you’ve decided not to take — or maybe it was decided for you. Maybe your work is encouraging you to work from home. Maybe your kids’ school schedule has been interrupted. Maybe you’re talking about buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper on the black market.
     It’s likely that you’ve talked about at least one of those topics recently. But none of that is what you’ve really been talking about, is it? At the root of all of that, of course, is the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus that seems like it’s threatening to cause the world to stop spinning entirely for 14 days to a month. It isn’t, of course. Sooner or later this pandemic will run its course. Coronavirus might be part of our medical lexicon from here on out, but the disruptions will eventually stop and life will go back to normal. Until then, though, things may feel pretty out of whack.
     What tends to happen at moments like this is that we can lose sight of our faith. It’s easy to listen to the fear and hysteria, forgetting that there are those in our world who trade in fear and hysteria, and forgetting that even in difficult times we’re disciples of Jesus first and foremost. 
     It’s especially in difficult times that our world needs us to follow him.
     So how should a Jesus-follower live in a post-coronavirus world? Is there a Christian way to go about life during a pandemic like this?
     I think there is, and I hope the following suggestions might help you.
     First of all, I think it’s important for us to have the humility to listen to reputable and informed sources. Proclaiming that “this is no worse than the flu” and grousing about how all the “hysteria” will cause a recession would be kind of silly, frankly, if it wasn’t so irresponsible. There is a reason that medical people, like the Centers for Disease Control, are making the recommendations that they’re making. There are people in our world who study epidemiology and public health, and who have simulations for scenarios exactly like this that tell us exactly how we should act to control the virus as much as possible. Taking their advice, and ignoring the people on social media who make claims and promote conspiracy theories, is a good place to start. We’re people of faith, and we don’t need to control our environments by making unilateral decisions in our own little petty kingdoms.
      Related to that, we have to realize that our response to coronavirus is about others as much as it is about ourselves. Jesus teaches that we should behave toward others as we’d have them behave toward us. You may not be particularly susceptible to COVID-19, you may not be part of an at-risk population (the very young, the elderly, those with underlying heart and respiratory conditions or compromised immune systems), but someone you have contact with definitely is. Those of us who claim to follow Jesus should be full of compassion and concern for others, even if it means some inconvenience for ourselves. 
    Maybe you know this already, but the issue with COVID-19 isn’t really how many people have come down with symptoms so far. Nor is it the mortality rate. The real problem is how fast the virus can spread, and how people who show no symptoms seem to be able to transmit it. The concern is a spike in infections that overwhelms our health care system. That's what all the cancellations and postponements of large events are all about. The good news is that there are things we can do, both individually and in communities, to control that. Washing our hands thoroughly (I’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer to myself as I wash mine), being careful with sneezes and coughs, avoiding unnecessary travel, disinfecting our homes, businesses, and churches regularly, checking on each other by phone and social media — these are all things we can do to help keep someone who’s particularly vulnerable from getting the disease. You would want that if you were vulnerable, after all. 
     We need to resist the temptation to draw into ourselves. Fear and uncertainty can make human beings self-centered. It’s precisely at moments like these that we need to think about others as well. Buying up everything on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Costco is a selfish response to this crisis. It ignores the needs of others, especially those who aren’t able to buy in bulk. We can’t let the virus keep us from serving others, loving our neighbors, and sharing our lives with the church, though we might have to change how some of that looks temporarily. Perhaps this crisis will help us to reexamine our tendency to think that the life of the church is all about what happens in a large group on Sundays. Maybe it will help us to get better at ministering to one another in small groups and one-on-one. Maybe it will help us to consider how we can be better at ministry in more remote, “socially distanced” ways.
     Don’t give in to fear. There is always something to fear in our world, but Isaiah reminded the people of his day that they weren’t to fear the things that everyone else fears, nor join in the conspiracy theories of those looking for someone to blame for their fears. When we fear other things, it can cause us to lose sight of God — the one we should truly fear. Fear makes us blind and deaf to him. It makes us operate purely out of anger and self-interest. It activates our fight or flight responses. Worst of all, it can make us forget that we have a sanctuary, a place of safety, in God. Jesus has died and risen again. We believe in life because of him. Therefore we aren’t afraid of any of the forms death takes.
     I like the words of C.S. Lewis in reference to a global concern of his day:    
 “....The first point to be made and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

     When coronavirus and its effects come to our communities, let it find us with minds and hearts led by the Spirit of God doing the things that Jesus has called us to do.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Quiet Hero

     For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
     Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!  You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ,  but you are so wise in Christ!  We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!    
-1 Corinthians 4:7-10 (NIV)

I lost a good friend this week.
     I guess I’ve been losing him for a few years now (Alzheimer’s is like that), but this past Monday Darrell Hutchens traded in his earthly life to be with the Lord. He got the best end of that transaction, that’s for sure. I know that, but I still miss him. Been missing him for while, but still — seems like there’s kind of a hole in the world now that he used to occupy.
     It’s hard to describe that loss, isn’t it? But it’s real, that feeling of someone’s absence. Darrell was an elder at my church for 40 years, so the fact that I won’t ever see him in his accustomed pew again, or stand with him at the back doors to the auditorium “shaking out the brethren,” as he used to say, or hear him crack a joke — that makes me pretty sad. But it’s more than his physical absence. Back in my early years as a minister, I’d call him pretty often. He wouldn’t usually tell me what to do, that wasn’t really his style, but somehow talking to him about this thing or the other was pretty comforting. Even better was the way he had of making me think that he believed in me, that he trusted me, that he knew I’d make the right call. (And when I didn’t, that he knew I would the next time.) I’ve had minister colleagues tell me about elders who undermined them at every turn, and when they do I can only shake my head and say how sorry I am. Never once did I receive anything but support and love from Darrell. 
     I knew Darrell for 26 years. For all but the last couple of those years, we were together two or three days a week. We made difficult decisions together, prayed together, stood beside deathbeds together. I thought I knew a lot about him. But at his funeral this week, I discovered a secret he’d been keeping from me. 
     I knew he was retired from the Army, and that he was in Korea during the Korean War. I had the impression, from what he had told me about his service time, that he’d spent most of his time there as support, not right on the front lines. He didn’t seem to mind talking about his time in Korea, but he mostly did so by making jokes. I should have known it was deflection, but that never occurred to me.
      At his funeral, though, some of his grandkids had put together a table with military memorabilia. There was his dress jacket. A scrapbook. A Sharpshooter medal, like my dad has from his time in the National Guard. But also the secret, in its pretty velvet box: a Bronze Star.
     There was an accompanying note, from the verification for the award. It told of Darrell being part of a company of soldiers under attack, being knocked to the ground by an explosion, and then getting to his feet to carry a wounded man to safety “at risk of his own life.”
     My friend of 26 years was a Bronze Star recipient, and I had no idea.  
      In retrospect, though, I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised that Darrell would have done some courageous and selfless thing to help someone because I’ve seen him do that kind of thing for as long as I’ve known him. 
      Neither am I surprised that he never mentioned it, that it never came up in conversation. He would have felt the recognition was unnecessary because he wouldn’t have thought of the act as particularly heroic. In his mind, probably, he was doing what anyone would do and should do if they found themselves in that situation. Had someone else mentioned the medal, he would have probably blown it off with a joke, maybe about just being in the wrong place at the right time, or something like that.
     Self-promotion is easier than it’s ever been. All you need is a Twitter feed, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or any of a hundred other social media platforms. You can promote your own opinions, accomplishments, brand, business, talent, or status in any way you want to. I suppose there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, even if we wanted to. And sometimes that ability to self-promote is necessary and comes in handy.
       We’ve even perfected the art of the humblebrag, wherein you can tout your achievements in a way that sounds self-effacing. (Here’s a clumsy attempt by actor Jared Leto.) 
     Darrell, though, was a relic in that way. He was a product of and a throwback to a time and place in which you didn’t boast about your accomplishments. You didn’t humblebrag; you just didn’t mention it. 
      There’s a place and time for self-promotion, maybe even for a strategic humblebrag. But I think it’s better for people who want to follow Jesus to keep the self-promotion to a minimum. Paul reminds us, after all, that what we possess, attain, accomplish, achieve, or earn doesn’t make us different — read, better — than anyone else. Oh, we may be better at this thing or that thing, but not a better person.
     We tend to brag, I think, because we have a sneaking suspicion that we’re not enough. We want to be seen as competent, successful, interesting. We want to be admired. Boasting is our defensive reaction to feelings of inferiority and insecurity. It’s our clumsy attempt to vault over someone else in the rankings that are really only in our heads.
     Jesus taught us, though, that we’re loved and valued by God just as we are, even stripped of anything that other people might find admirable. God doesn’t love us for what we can do. He loves us for who we are.
     Paul reminds us, too, that the things we have achieved and attained aren’t only about us. They are, in one way or another, a gift. Ultimately, everything we have comes from God. Indirectly or directly, other people contribute, too. None of us only have ourselves to congratulate for our success. All of us need to thank God for his grace and generosity, and all of us have a long list of other people who have contributed to our successes. That doesn’t diminish what we accomplish, but it does put it in perspective.
     Not only that, but there is a time to accept dishonor over honor, poverty over wealth. There is a time for us to accept the judgment of others that we are, even, fools. That’s because, when we follow Jesus, there will be times that we’re misunderstood by those who don’t. When those times come, we must resist the impulse for self-promotion. We must pull back from the reflex toward self-aggrandizement. Because, after all, the One we follow did exactly that. He accepted dishonor, ridicule, mockery, and even violence and death. 
     In accepting the hatred of other people and returning love, he found God’s life.
     I’m convinced that Darrell didn’t brag about his accomplishments because he was clear on whose approval he most wanted.
     Thanks, my friend, for one last lesson.    

     I’ll do my best to do you proud.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Habit of Going to Church

     Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together,  as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.   
-Hebrews 10:23-25 (NIV)

The first time I can recall ever missing church just because something else sounded better, I was in college. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and what I missed was a Sunday night service. There was no one around to tell me to go, so I decided to watch the Super Bowl with some friends.
     I know. My rebellion was shocking.
     I grew up going to church. We were three-times-a-week people: Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. It wasn't a decision I made every week; there was no decision to be made. We went to church. I wasn’t always happy about it. There were times when I wouldn’t have said I got much out of it. None of that mattered, though. When it was time to get into the car, we got into the car. As a teenager I sometimes missed Sunday night for a job. Other than that, I was there. 
     When I left for college, it was to go to a “Christian university.” I was a Ministry major. Where most people in college probably are dealing with pressure not to go to church, the pressure I got was very definitely pro-church. It was less strength of character than it was going along with the crowd, which happened to be heading to church.
     What I’m saying is that I don’t see going to church as something to be proud of, or something that makes me better than someone who didn’t. It was, as much as anything, a habit I picked up. I have some habits that work against me. My church habit, I think, works for me. But it is a habit. 
     Now, of course, it’s part of my job description. Folks would likely notice if I didn’t show up. I’d probably get a phone call. Still, if I changed jobs tomorrow I think the habit of church attendance would kick in again. 
     It seems like we disregard doing anything habitually, as though doing something out of habit doesn’t really mean anything. Of course, I know people who make going to the gym a habit. They don’t necessarily enjoy it, aren’t always motivated. But they go because they believe that it’s a habit that makes a difference in their lives.  
     I wonder if maybe we need to rediscover the habit of going to church.
     Maybe you want to stop me right there, with my use of the phrase “going to church.” I do understand that the church is people, not a place. In that sense, of course, you can’t “go to church.” You’re a part of the church. Here’s the thing, though: the church does get together at a set time and place.   
     Only, I’m not sure that for a lot of believers it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll be there.
     I get it. There are a lot of reasons not to be. We’re busy, busy people. (Where are those 30-hour work weeks folks used to predict were coming?) Our kids’ schedules are booked as tightly as our own. There are a lot of reasons to miss church. 
     Besides, what are we actually going to miss if we average, say, twice a month?  
     Let me just ask this question: Why should all the other things we have to do be the reason we miss church? Why shouldn’t church be the reason we miss everything else?
     The answer to those questions says something about our priorities, what we consider important, or at least what’s most urgent to us. I know that  things can get complicated. I know there are times when it’s inevitable that you’ll miss church. There are exceptions to every rule, but exceptions exist as exceptions because they are not the rule. And I’m afraid that the rule for some of us goes something like this: “I’ll be at church on Sunday morning if there isn’t something more pressing going on.”
     If that, or something like that, is the rule for you, then I don’t think it’s because you’re a bad person. I don’t think it’s because you don’t love the Lord. I think it’s because you’ve convinced yourself, somewhere along the line, that church is one of several alternatives. It’s on the menu, but why would you order it every week? We have a tendency to see church with a consumer mindset. It’s an option, not an obligation. 
     Let me just quickly point out, if you’ll allow me, a few reasons why I’m convinced that church attendance is an obligation, a habit we should develop:
  1. Your attendance will be an encouragement to someone else, often in ways you don’t understand or can’t anticipate. Believe it or not, just seeing you there will help someone in their spiritual life. 
  2. The gifts God has given you are not for you alone. They are to be used in ways that lift up the whole church. How will that happen if you choose not to be there when the church is together?
  3. The New Testament is full of instructions for how we are to treat “one another.” In those texts, the “one another”s in question seem most naturally to be the church. The church gathered together (as opposed to the hypothetical church) is the laboratory in which we live and experience what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God, both receiving and distributing God’s grace in all its forms. 
  4. Paul pictures the church — the local church — as the “body of Christ.” In that body, he says that God has arranged the parts just as he wants them and that there are no unnecessary parts. (1 Corinthians 12) To functionally absent yourself from the church is to remove a part of the body of Christ.  
  5. I have never known someone whose spiritual life and walk with the Lord were improved by casual church attendance. 
  6. Why should we expect future generations of believers to take the church seriously if they see us treating church attendance as an option and not an obligation?
     I know very well that not everything that happens at church is good, or uplifting, or helpful in our walk with the Lord. I know that not every sermon is a home run and not every song sounds great. I know that the church can even do great harm. Still, God has chosen the church to be about his work in our world, and he’s chosen us in all our diversity, disunity, and even brokenness to be imperfect vessels of his grace. 
     Darrell Hutchens, an elder at Northwest and a guy I’ve admired and loved for 25 years, used to often pray publicly for those who were “careless” in their attendance. I think he was on to something. We can be careless in our commitment to being at church. We can develop some bad habits.

     But we can also change our habits. Let’s develop the habit of church attendance. Let’s be willing to miss other things for the sake of that habit. Our churches will be stronger because of it. So will our spiritual lives.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Rats and Cockroaches?

    You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  
-Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)

Very few people, I assume, buy a Valentine’s Day gift for their ex. But the San Antonio Zoo has a deal this year that might make you think about it. 
     For a mere $25, the Zoo will name a rat after your ex
     You say that’s not worth twenty-five bucks? All right, then, see how this sounds: After naming the unfortunate creature after your ex, the zoo will feed the rat to a snake on February 14th.
     Still not sure you want to drop $25 to buy a gift for a person who’s no longer your Valentine? Understandable. That’s why the Zoo has another deal that might be even better. For a mere $5, you can name a cockroach after said ex. And, yes, the zoo has plenty of birds and other animals that will be happy to wolf your ex’s namesake down. 
     You can even join in the fun — remotely, of course. The Zoo will be live-streaming the event on Facebook.
     Not only that, but you’ll also receive a certificate suitable for display on your social media.
     The zoo is obviously doing all this as a fund-raiser/PR move, with tongues in cheeks. Judging by the level of contempt and outright hatred that a lot of people seem to have for their exes, though, I imagine the zoo will have plenty of rats and cockroaches to feed to the animals on Valentine’s Day — ironically, a day that’s supposed to be all about love. 
     On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate those we love. We give gifts and do special things with spouses, romantic interests, sometimes best friends. We go to dinner together. We give candy and flowers. We celebrate romance, if we’re in a romantic relationship.
     In short, we celebrate Valentine’s Day by loving those who love us.
     And — the San Antonio Zoo hopes — maybe by resenting or hating those with whom we once shared something, and don’t anymore. 
     I don’t know if it was intentional or fortuitous, but a scheduling quirk put the National Prayer Breakfast the morning after the State of the Union Address last week. After one of the most contentious State of the Union Addresses in recent memory, political rivals had to sit in the same room together and pray. 
     The day after President Trump took a smug victory lap after the Senate impeachment trial, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripped up her copy of his speech, they and their colleagues had to listen to author Arthur Brooks keynote the theme of the Breakfast: “Love Your Enemies.”
     It’s worth a few minutes to read Brooks’ speech. But one thing he said in particular resonated with me: 
“How do we break the habit of contempt? Some people say we need more civility and tolerance. I say, nonsense. Why? Because civility and tolerance are a low standard. Jesus didn’t say, ‘tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
     When it was President Trump’s turn to speak he began by saying he wasn’t sure he agreed with Brooks’ remarks. I imagine that was OK with Brooks, since as he pointed out they weren’t strictly his remarks, anyway. In point of fact, President Trump was disagreeing with Jesus. It was Jesus who seemed to come up with the revolutionary idea that love can’t be restricted to those who love us, to those about whom we have good feelings, who have done nice things for us, who make us laugh and who make our heart rates speed up. 
     Jesus called that kind of love easy. Almost anybody can love like that. What’s harder is to love like God loves: without discrimination. He loves the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous. He loves by doing good to all people, no matter if they love him or not. God loves proactively. He loves first
     Jesus embodied that love: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 
     So he demands that those who follow him love like that. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.
     Be honest, now: President Trump isn’t the only one who struggles with that, is he?
     We often say that’s the hardest thing Jesus asks us to do. Well, maybe it is. But I don’t think it’s quite as hard as we sometimes make it out to be. Part of the problem might be that we hear “love your enemies” and think that means we’re supposed to have warm feelings and pleasant thoughts about people who’d just as soon stab us in the neck than talk to us (or who we’d just as soon stab in the neck). But a minute’s thought will tell us that can’t be right. In Scripture, God is sometimes angry toward human beings who have disregarded him or hurt other human beings. Jesus himself was downright rude at times. But, as he points out, God sends his sun and rain on everyone, however he might be feeling about them at a given moment. God loves primarily by doing, not by feeling. And so should we.
     So Jesus gives us something to do: “pray for those who persecute you.” One way to love your enemies is to discipline yourself to pray for their well-being. When you ask God to heal your ailing parents, or to help your friend with her job concerns, or to bless your children, you can also ask him to bless those people you don’t feel nearly so good about. And the more bad feelings toward them are in your heart and mind, maybe the more you should pray for them.
     Maybe you’ll have the chance to do something more for them. Visit them in the hospital. Send them a Christmas card. Maybe, one day, talk with them about what happened between you. Maybe you’ll never have that chance. But your prayers will be a real act of love on your part. And, incidentally, they’ll make that enemy of yours seem less like an antagonist to you, and more like, well, a person. Over time, praying for someone can’t help but reshape your view of them. And even your feelings.
     Maybe right now you’d rather think of them as cockroaches. Rats. 

     Pray for them, and you’ll likely start to see them the way God sees them. And love them like he does.

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