Friday, March 22, 2024

Split Decision

 Back in 1978, the Church of Christ on Oakton Street in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines had a decision to make. I don’t know what all the decisions were. I was 10, and living anywhere near Chicago would not even be on my radar for at least another decade. But it came down to this: stay where they were, or buy a school in a nearby suburb that had been closed a couple of years earlier to use as a new building?

     Decisions like that can be difficult for churches. On the one hand, churches usually come to exist because they have a mission in a particular place and context, and it’s right to think long and hard about giving that up. On the other, sometimes God calls us to other places, and it’s right not to shut the door on that possibility without a lot of prayer and consideration. 

     Some decisions come down to, not right vs. wrong, but what’s the best of two valid choices. Maybe it’s like that more times than not. From a distance, as someone who was never directly involved in the decisions, that’s certainly what it seems like was the case with this church in the Chicago suburbs. One building had a high-traffic location on a major street. The other was in a residential area with lots of neighbors around. One had the church’s history. One was full of potential.

     I don’t know exactly how the decision was made, but it was made, and in May of 1978 the church bought that school and made the move.

     At least most of them did. A few families, convinced they shouldn’t leave Des Plaines, rented a field house and decided to keep meeting there. I don’t know if there were hurt feelings on both sides — I can imagine there might have been.

     Within a couple of weeks, though, and through a series of circumstances so improbable that a person of faith might seriously doubt that they were coincidence, that church that remained in Des Plaines had bought another building, on the corner of Illinois Street and Everett Avenue. Its members started referring to it, informally and affectionately, as “Little Des Plaines.”

     I know this because my wife and her mother and father were one of those families who stayed. They helped to buy the building, do maintenance, teach classes — they helped to sustain Little Des Plaines and helped it to survive and even thrive on that corner. 

     The rest of the church moved to Cardinal Drive, in Rolling Meadows, and they did the same there. 

     And a few years later, when Laura was a teenager and Cardinal Drive had a very active youth group, their family moved there. Another tough decision, another one that was more about two valid choices than right or wrong. They didn’t lose the friends they had at Little Des Plaines. And they were able to reconnect with friends they’d had at Oakton Street. 

     A few years later, when Laura and I married (at Cardinal Drive!), I preached a couple of times a month for a year and a half at Little Des Plaines. I helped teach and work with the youth group at Cardinal Drive. In both cases, I’m sure, because of the history Laura’s family had in both places. Both churches nourished and encouraged us. A few years later, our son even went to preschool at Cardinal Drive. 

     That’s my experience. I wasn’t part of the tough decisions, but was blessed by both churches. 

     In the Book of Acts, chapter 15, we get a look at some of the controversy that most people would rather think doesn’t and shouldn’t exist in the church. Paul and Barnabas, partners in a very successful mission trip, are planning to go back on the road. Barnabas wants to bring along a young man named John Mark, who had started off with them on their previous trip but had left them to go back home. Paul is adamant that he not go along. Barnabas is just as adamant that he should. (Maybe because John Mark was his cousin?)

     The result is that they go their own ways. The team breaks up, seemingly for good. That must have been hard; Barnabas had vouched for Paul when no one else in the church would trust him. He must have felt hurt that the partnership could end so easily. Paul must have felt the same. 

     But, notice this: they both go to share the gospel and encourage Christians. Neither of them stay home sulking. Paul picks another partner, Silas. Barnabas takes John Mark. Off they go, two missions, not one. 

     That’s how it works sometimes. 

     We don’t always know what’s best, none of us. Sometimes there will be disagreements in the church. Sometimes serious ones. The only way there won’t be is if part of the church is suppressing their sense of mission. Or someone else’s. 

      Because when you have a sense of mission, when you’re convinced that God is up to something that you want to be part of, you won’t be talked out of it. So when missions conflict, then maybe the best thing to do is not argue until someone gives in. Maybe, at least sometimes, the best thing to do is for both sides to follow what they think God is telling them. 

     Too often, churches suppress their sense of mission because influential members don’t want to do that

     Sometimes, church leaders give in on important things so they don’t upset members or “cause division.”

     Sometimes, churches find it easier to stifle the creativity and passion of members who see God’s possibilities for new paths. Or dismiss the conviction of members who want to stay on the old ones.

     There doesn’t always have to be a right and a wrong. Sometimes even “sharp disagreements” can serve the Lord’s purposes. One path becomes two. One church becomes two. One mission becomes two.

     All through Acts, we see Paul’s and Silas’ partnership thrive as they preach the gospel in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. We don’t hear much about Barnabas and Mark. But we have this, in one of Paul’s letters, a decade or two after he and Barnabas had their falling-out. Paul writes to Timothy: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. “ He’s in prison and feeling alone, and he asks for Mark to come. Mark — who he barely remembers left him on that first trip. Mark, who is helpful.

      We see what people are now, if that. Not what they can become. When we make tough decisions, let’s do our best not to demonize those who disagree. Let’s recognize that sometimes disagreement is exactly what God will use to do his work in the world. 

     By the way: both Cardinal Drive and “Little Des Plaines” still exist, doing God’s work in their neighborhoods. 

     Are you even the slightest bit surprised? 

Friday, March 8, 2024

The Center of the Universe

 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created:  things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

-Colossians 1:15-17 (NIV)

Last month, designer Matt Webb debuted his new app. And the minute I read about it I decided immediately that I absolutely did not need it and positively had to have it.

     I downloaded the app, called Galactic Compass, from the app store while I was still reading the article. When you open it, you see a big green arrow on your screen. That’s pretty much it. There’s a secondary screen you can click on with some numbers, like latitude/longitude, pitch, yaw, heading, and a few others. And those numbers, if you understand them, maybe give you a hint as to what the arrow on Galactic Compass actually points to.

     Open up the app, put your phone on a flat surface, and the arrow points toward the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, that is the rotational center of the galaxy we all live in, relative to our position on the earth and its position in orbit and rotation.

     To hear him tell it, Matt taught himself to find the center of the galaxy living in an apartment with a great view of the stars at night. He originally used augmented reality and astronomy apps to identify the stars and figure out where Sagittarius A* was, but eventually was able — supposedly — to point in the direction of the galaxy’s center, wherever he was and wherever the earth was in its rotation. It has to do with math and physics and identifying the constellation Sagittarius, and — well, I understand it completely, as far as you know. I just  don’t have the space here to explain it.

     Eventually, he was able to code an app that will enable you, too, to point out the center of the Milky Way. All you need is a phone and a flat surface to place it on. (The math “breaks down,” Webb says, if your phone isn’t held flat. Something he’s working on for an updated version.)

     The app’s free, so there’s no reason not to try it out. It’s a whole new way to procrastinate! Or, while you’re waiting for an oil change or a doctor’s appointment, you can ponder your place in the universe as you look toward the fixed point around which everything we know spins. That is, as a matter of fact, what Matt says about his app:

"Once you can follow it, you start to see the galactic center as the true fixed point, and we’re the ones whizzing and spinning. There it remains, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, steady as a rock, eternal. We go about our days; it’s always there.”

     He uses what amounts to religious language to talk about the center of of the galaxy. Of course, what’s there isn’t God. It’s an unapproachable singularity that would “spaghettify” anyone who got near it. There’s no love, no compassion. It doesn’t make or keep promises. It doesn’t care about justice or righteousness. You can’t even see it; it’s just a big wad of darkness that draws everything toward it. Knowing where it is won’t matter when you’re sick, or when someone you love dies, or when you’ve lost a job or are struggling with financial problems or are depressed. And while knowing about it may indeed tell you something about your place in an impersonal universe, it tells you nothing about your nature as God’s creation, made in his image. 

     It serves pretty well as a center for the galaxy, I suppose.

     It’s not nearly as effective as a center of your universe.

     So what is? What’s at the center of your universe? When life has you “whizzing and spinning,” where do you look to keep your bearings? What’s the fixed point for you, steady as a rock, eternal? 

      Some of us choose family, friends, people we love. Our children. A spouse. A social group. We find our identity in these people. Our lives revolve around whether we’re making them happy or they’re making us happy. We can’t conceive of what we would be apart from them. But if that’s our center, then when those relationships change we’re left adrift.  

     Some of us choose a career. The work we do becomes our orbit. Our arrows are constantly pointing toward what we accomplish in our chosen field. We evaluate the success or failure of a given day by how productive we’ve been. But if our work is our galactic center, then a career setback is a catastrophe. A layoff is universe-destroying. 

     Some choose wealth and financial security as the fixed point around which everything else spins. Others might choose experiences, joy, pleasure. Health is a popular center for a lot of universes. But none of those things are solid enough, powerful enough, or eternal enough to hold everything together indefinitely. Eventually, all of them will be lost to our sight and we’ll be left drifting in cold, empty space, without adequate  bearings to tell us which way is up.

     Paul begins his letter to the church in Colosse with something to say about what holds everything together. A big green arrow, pointing toward galactic center. “The Son,” Paul calls him here. Jesus, who is the image of a God who can’t in any other way be imaged. His is the power by which everything has been created, and his is the power that continues to hold what God created together. 

     But it’s not just that God through Jesus created and sustains everything. This power is not impersonal — Paul goes on to write that “God was pleased  to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus].” God created through Jesus because he wanted to. He wanted to make this universe we inhabit, he made it for us and he called it “good” and he intended for human beings to represent him in it. And when we failed, in Jesus he created us all over again. He “reconcile[d] to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”  

     Jesus is the center of the universe. He’s the center because it’s in Jesus that God’s power to create, sustain, and reconcile all come together. And every one of his created beings, especially us, needs to be sustained and needs to be reconciled. Jesus made us. Jesus holds everything together for us. Jesus gives us peace. 

     Whether you can ever point to the black hole at the center of our galaxy will likely never make an appreciable difference in your life. But if your internal compass doesn’t point to Jesus as the center of your universe, steady as a rock, eternal — well, there will come a time when you won’t know which way’s up.

     But point all your arrows to him, and you always will. Even when everything else seems out of control.