Tag Archives: Community

Sacred: Everytime the Doors Are Open

“I really miss the songs.” -Ex Church of Christ gay man talking on HBO Documentary about Leaving Church

“Wherever Two or Three are gathered, I will be with them.” -Jesus

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I’m on study break for the month of July, but while I’m away I want to try and keep keep up with what is going on at Highland. Specifically, with the sermon series that Highland is going through.

This past Sunday Ben Siburt preached a great sermon on why church, the gathering of God’s people, is a sacred thing. Which is not something we talk about that much. Many of us grew up in homes where going to church was a given, we didn’t just go on Sunday mornings, we went every time the doors where open. In fact, that became a common saying to describe our family. It was the way we delinated between us and the pagan Sunday only crowd.

And then, we reacted to that legalistic view of checking off our God card. God didn’t care about us showing up to a particular building during a particular hour of the week, right?

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At the church I serve, there are several senior saints who are caring for their spouses in various stages of bad health. Some of them are dealing with some of the most tragic of diseases like Alzheimer’s, and yet these people show up every week to sing and pray and take communion with other saints and sinners who have gathered together. In a church the size of Highland, I don’t get to talk to everyone every Sunday, but I always try to talk to them.

Not just for their sake, but for mine. 

Because I knew what it took for them to get here. I know that for them Sunday morning started a few hours earlier than it did for me. In order to get there on time, they had a thousand more things to accomplish before they could head out the door. But they do it, not out of some legalistic sense of earning God’s favor.

They do it because this is one of the most tangible way’s to experience God’s favor.

One of my favorite guys at Highland is caring for his wife through a particularly painful illness. And each time he comes in late, and has to leave early, but when I asked him if he would be interested in someone bringing communion to them, he told me, “No. I need to be there to shake some Christians hands.”

Which is an interested way to say that.

The Image Of God In Others

C.S. Lewis once said it this way:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Think about what he’s saying here. the people that we rush past the rest of the week, are on their way to becoming something more or less than they are now. And this is a reality that we are mostly blind to.

Except, sometimes at Church.

Orthodox Christians have, for over a thousand years, referred to the Assembly of God’s people as a Sacrament. That means it is something that God uses to infuse the sacred into the world.

That’s why my friend comes to church. He is watching his wife slip away slowly and surely, and he needs to be reminded of the presence of God in a world where it might not feel He’s that present. He needs to shake some Christian’s hands. 

Every day, he is watching himself and his bride of many decades, become less. He needs to be reminded that ultimately they are on their way to becoming more.

I remember all throughout growing up, there would be Sunday’s where I would all of a sudden notice that Bro. Frank or Sister Ruby had suddenly gotten older. I saw them three times a week, but there was a tipping point where they moved past just “getting up there.” The seeds of death were starting to become more visible. And they still showed up.

Because for them, Church was a Spiritual discipline,  it was also a way of giving and receiving a gift. They were watching the younger people gather along side them, realizing that the Gospel was going to be just fine. I was watching them die, realizing that they were teaching me how to live.

So we gather, and we look for the Jesus hidden among us. We look for the people that we are becoming, and one day will be. And we realize that everytime we gather it’s more than just a variety of people gathering in a room. It is Sacred space.

So back to that old phrase, “Every Time the Doors Are Opened.” Since I’ve been in ministry I’ve come to appreciate the mystery that is the gathered church. Because every Sunday there is a chance that no one else shows up. Some people open some doors and turn on some lights and wait.

But every Sunday God draws people, believer and unbelievers alike, to come together to worship. We learn again to see each other, and how to see the world.

And the word for that is Sacred.

Inspi(re)ality: God in the Neighborhood

inspireality-navy This month Inspi(re)altiy is dedicated for churches/ministers who are wanting to develop vision. I’ve asked my good preaching friend Steve Cloer to give some practical advice for what it means for a local church to develop a vision.

Steve is an incredible leader and preacher who works with the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth.  A couple of years ago, Steve and I were having lunch together and I asked him how ministry was going, and his eyes lit up talking about the new local medical clinic they were starting in their property. He’s passionate about serving the neighborhood, and just being a good local church. If you are interested in being a part of a church that serves the community than here’s some great practical advice on how to do it.

Meet my friend Steve:

A minister’s job is to be active and discerning in three spheres: God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world.  Alan Roxburgh suggests the image of a poet as a metaphor for a preacher.  A minister is called to discern all three spheres and weave together a vision based on what God has said, what the congregation is gifted to do, and what the world’s brokenness demands.  While this all sounds good, the practical problem is that ministers often get held up in the first two spheres, they never get to the third.  With sermons to write, lessons to prepare, the sick members to visit, and the hurting members to counsel, often there is not enough week left to actually get outside of the walls of the church building to spend time in God’s world.  Yet this is crucial.

If the church is going to be the instrument of God’s redemptive presence in a location, someone must be exploring that location, venturing out to see what is God is doing within the neighborhood.  I believe the preacher has that responsibility.

I have seen many examples of churches that were disconnected from its surrounding community.  My family was on a trip a couple of years ago and we decided to stop for worship services in a small, rural town off the Interstate.  I knew there was a congregation in this town, but I was unsure where it was.  To save time (and an argument), we stopped in a gas station to see where the location of the building was.  I asked one attendant if they knew where the Church of Christ was located.  She did not.  She asked a few others in the store: they did not either.  So they picked up the phone book to look for the address.  When she found it, she remarked, “Oh, that is right down the street!”  She was right.  Less than a half-mile away was the building, but no one in that store knew anything about it.  The adage of “If our church closed our doors, would anyone in the community care?” comes to mind.

Lesslie Newbigin suggests that the Spirit’s work in the world is the prevenient work of the kingdom of God.  There are occasions in Scripture where the Spirit is pointing the church out into the world in directions they were never thinking.  Acts 10 and 16 are great examples.  Peter never suspected to be in Cornelius’s house (a Gentile).  Paul never thought he would be taking a ship ride to Macedonia.  But the Spirit was pointing the way.  The Spirit is not just located within the church building.  It is in the house of the Gentile.  It is in Macedonia.  It is in the neighborhood.  The question is will we take the time to step out of our “church realm” to see what God is doing and seek to join Him?

But how does one do this?  Let me offer some practical suggestions on how a preacher can venture into this third realm, discerning the Spirit’s work in the world and the opportunities to be a blessing to the community.

First, take the position of a learner.  Focus in on the immediate neighborhood surrounding your church building.  Then decide you will learn as much as you can about that area.  A preacher told me one time about a visit with Ray Bakke in Chicago.  Bakke took him and his colleagues around to see the city.  He “exegeted” Chicago for them and afterwards, the preacher remarked that after learning what he did about the city, he was ready to minister there.  It is hard to be a blessing in a location, if one does not know the location.  Take some time every week to do just that: get a tour of nearby hospitals, meet up with business leaders, see if the city has a guided tour, visit colleges and talk to administrators, meet with school principals.  You will be surprised how impressed these leaders will be that a preacher cares to learn about what they do and their city.

Second, find some kind of neighborhood organization that you can be a part of.  Typically, in every city there are different organizations that seek to bless, build, or revitalize the city.  It could be a civic club, a neighborhood association, a business group, or something else.  A good rule of thumb I use is if I am only the minister present in this organization, then I am probably in the right place (obviously this principle does not always apply!).  But I am a part of two neighborhood revitalization groups.  Routinely, I am the only minister present along with bankers, real estate investors, business owners, residents, and other leaders.  Immediately respect for our church went up because they could see we were interested in the neighborhood.  But also, through these avenues, partnerships have been created to bless our community.  Regularly, businesses contribute to various compassionate ministries of our church.  Neighbors have volunteered in some of our ministries.  I was asked to sit on a board of a development fund to help low-income areas.  The list goes on and on.  At one meeting, I was telling one person about an upcoming ministry outreach to the area our church was doing, and he committed on the spot to give me a significant amount of money to help the cause.  When the neighborhood finds out the church cares, they will join with the church in accomplishing God’s vision for the city.

Finally, beware of demographics.  Often when someone thinks about getting to know their neighborhood, they immediately think of doing a demographic survey of the area.  There are different groups that will help do this for a fee.  I have done this.  The results are sitting in my office collecting dust.  Numbers can help provide an overview of the area, but they are not as powerful as narratives.  It is far more motivating to mention in your sermon about the middle school nearby that you visited where 90% of the children are low-income and many come from unchurched homes.  Or to tell about the conversation that you had with a community leader who desperately desires justice in the neighborhood but is unsure how to make it happen.  Or to describe the apartment complex that you visited in the neighborhood where a single mother has no bed, no food, and no hope.  These stories help the congregation not only get a picture of the neighborhood, but it stirs their heart to join God in His mission within the neighborhood.

A minister cannot be all things to all people.  He cannot know everything about the Bible, counsel every member, or help everyone in the neighborhood.  Boundaries are critical, especially in this third sphere.  But if a minister can bridge the three areas, God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world, and be able to articulate the intersections to the congregations, then, as Roxburgh suggests, the poet comes forth and the preacher is able to lead the congregation to discern how they might be the instrument of God’s redemption in that neighborhood.

A Graceless World

So I’ve been thinking and writing the past few weeks about the need for Christians to be able to “judge” each other in healthy ways. It seems to me that we have reacted so much to the condemning, judgmental things that we’ve seen and experienced, that we’ve lost being able to see the value in allowing the people we share life with to speak an occasional hard word into us.

We need people in our lives who love us enough to speak these words, but not only those words.

One of the things that is so central to Scripture but so foreign to our church cultures, is the idea that we create with our words. The Bible starts off with the famous lines, “In the Beginning God Created the Heavens and the Earth.” God said “Let there be Light.” And because God gets what God wants, light had no choice but to exist.

Now we use this story a lot to argue with science, as if Genesis was trying to have a conversation with Darwin. But the point Genesis wants us to pay attention to is that God creates with language. He creates a world with words.

The Bible tells a story in which the words we use with each other matter a lot.

And that’s important because we talk quite a bit.

Did you know that the average person has, on an average day, 30 separate conversations? 1/5 of our day is talking. An average year of your talking fills 132 books with 200 pages. You are a walking annual encyclopedia.

The University of Denver recently did a study where they discovered that language was the biggest indicator of a healthy marriage. The most accurate predictor of whether or not a marriage was going to stay together was if the couple used a lot of negative language. They found that if a couple had 5 negative comments per 100 comments, than it was almost guaranteed that they were going to stay together, And If it was 10 negative comments per 100, then it was almost guaranteed that they would eventually split up.

We grew up saying that Sticks and Stones can never hurt us, but does anybody really believe that? Our words create, they name, they can heal and destroy.

There’s another part of the Bible that talks about the power of words, a letter written by James says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

The tongue leads to life and it can lead to death. Continue reading A Graceless World

The Sin We Shouldn’t Judge

In the world that I live in everybody loves Jesus, he’s like Raymond, but less threatening. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t think Jesus is great. College Students, Hippies, Seniors, Hippies who are now seniors, Buddhists, Muslims, Nietzsche, heck even Richard Dawkins has started liking Jesus.

And while most of us don’t know a whole lot of what he said, at least one thing Jesus said has been passed around more than other in the West.

Do not judge.

So I’ve been writing for the past few weeks about why Christians need to live in the kind of community where confrontation and a generous judgment happen. And I know it may sound like I’m trying to get Jesus followers to not follow Jesus. But it’s only because we haven’t read the rest of what Jesus says there. So here is that whole section, in it’s entirety:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

I’d like to point out a couple of things here. First off, Jesus calls the person doing this a hypocrite, they are an actor, just pretending to care about them but really having an ulterior motive. It sounds like Jesus is being so…judgmental.

And then notice what Jesus actually says, “Remove the plank, so that you will be able to see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that we shouldn’t judge, he’s just saying we have to start with ourselves first.

In his book, Beyond Evangelical, Frank Viola tells a story about a couple of the most famous preachers in the past 200 years. Charles Spurgeon was a Baptist preacher in England, and he had been impressed with the ways God was using D.L. Moody, a famous American evangelist, to bring revival to cities in America. So Spurgeon invited Moody to speak at his church. Moody accepted, took a ship across the pond, and preached an entire sermon…on the evils of tobacco.

Because Spurgeon smoked cigars.

So Spurgeon goes up to Moody after the sermon, and pokes him in his overweight belly and tells him. “I’ll put down my cigar when you put down your fork.”

Needless to say, the friendship got off to a rocky start. Continue reading The Sin We Shouldn’t Judge

Judging the Cost

If you get a chance, watch the video above. I think this is a good parable for what it’s like to live in Christian community.  It’s an actual intervention. With people actually judging other people on national television.  A woman named Amber is about to lose her daughter and her life to alchohol, and her friends are taking the step to “judge” her.

It’s heartbreaking.

You can tell that her friends and family really do care about her. You can tell she’s angry and bitter. And you can tell that this is an extremely awkward situation to have put on cable T.V. She doesn’t want to be in that seat.

Nobody wants to be in that seat.

There was a season last year when I was going through a difficult few weeks in ministry and life. I had begun to make some personal decisions that were not very healthy. And at one point a very good friend sat me down and asked me about what was going on. And then he suggested that I make some behavior modifications.

And I on the outside I was great. I was smiling like an Olsteen, but inside I was immediately defensive and upset.. I suddenly realized this was no dear friend I was talking to, this is Judas. Outside I was trying to diffuse the tension with humor, but inside I was asking, “Who does this guy think he is? I have a mother and she’s not here.”

I immediately started wanting to point out the log in my friends eye, or at least make one up.

It’s often pointed out that Western Churches are not very good at Discipleship. The surveys show that Christians in America live shockingly similar lives to people who are not Christian. Churches are great at helping people become “Christian” but not very good at helping them become disciples of Jesus. We can get people into buildings or programs, but not much Jesus into people. Continue reading Judging the Cost

A Generous Confrontation

So for the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about how and why Christians are called to judge and be judged by one another. Not in the condemning, self-righteous way that we all tend to have in our mind, but in a gentle loving way that is concerned for the restoration of the person involved. And while that sounds all good in theory, in my experience it almost never goes like that. Maybe because we rarely are able to confront each other well.

Now I know that there are plenty of stories about Christians coming to other Christians with a spirit of condemnation and smug self-rigteousness. I’ve had it happen to me, and I bet you have too. But we shouldn’t use the abuse of something good to write off it’s use in healthy ways. And I think that’s why Jesus gives some of his most practical straight forward teaching on how to do this.

In Matthew 18, the same book that Jesus says his famous “Do not Judge” line, Jesus tells his followers how to approach someone who has sinned against us. Here’s exactly what he says:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Notice how practical Jesus is here. He’s not going to talk about mustard seeds or the birds of the air here, he’s going to be as direct as possible because he knows what a cancer sin and gossip can be on a community. So he tells us very specifically what to do, and even the order to do it in. But today, I just want to talk about the first sentence that Jesus says:

If your brother or sister has sinned against you.

If.

Because maybe they didn’t. What if they didn’t mean that the way you took it? What if they were actually going to pay you that back? Or what if they hadn’t actually told that person that thing about you? There is a big leap between If a person sinned against you, and When a person sins against you. And one of the reasons that I think Jesus wants  us to go to the person is so that we can know what is actually happening, Maybe that gesture didn’t mean what you thought, or maybe they really didn’t get the email. Continue reading A Generous Confrontation

The Symphony of Grace

So there is this one time where Jesus is talking with some religious leaders about their view of God. They have taken offense at Jesus for the way he is ministering, and more specifically the kinds of people he is ministering to. They are criticizing him for spending time with the “sinners” of their day. And so Jesus tells them a story.

Unless you live under a rock somewhere,  you’ve heard this story before.  It’s the one about two sons and their dad. And the younger of the two sons goes off and blows his inheritance on the same things that most young men blow their inheritance on. And eventually, after he hits rock bottom, this young man decides to finally come home. And the entire way back he’s working on his apology speech. Because when you’ve blown it as bad as he has, you need to have a pretty impressive apology.

Now you know this story, the Dad runs as soon as he sees him a long way off. Which means the Dad never stopped looking. He doesn’t let him even finish the apology speech before he starts going into party planning mode. They throw a party with music and dancing and roasted calf. And then dad notices that another son has gone prodigal on him.

So, like before, the dad who is always watching out for his boys, goes to him and tries to get him to join the party.

And If we just knew this about God, we would understand how He feels about the Human Condition.

He’s trying to get us all to join the party.

I’ve been writing the past few weeks about the deep need for Christians to live in community with each other. It seems like Christians in the West have such an allergy to all things related to judging, and maybe rightfully so, but we still have this deep need to be able to hold each other accountable and speak the redemptive and hard words into each others lives.  And last week, I wrote about one passage in Galatians that seems to be get at the heart of our objections to judging others, but hold on to the heart of what it means to live in God’s community. Here’s what Paul wrote:  Continue reading The Symphony of Grace

Everyday Restoration Movements

So I’ve been doing a blog series on Judging and Judgmental Christians for the past few weeks, and why we need them…kind of. I know this seems kind of counter-intuitive. At least it is for me. It’s so much easier to talk about stories of Prodigal Sons and grace and compassion than it is to try and talk about this. But I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, and I’ve realized that what we call Grace can be  just a cheap cop-out for not wanting to live life deeply rooted in community and appropriate accountability.

So last week I talked about ways that have been helpful for me to receive correction from a brother or sister, and the next couple of weeks I want to talk about those moments when we feel called to approach another and initiate these difficult conversations ourselves. We’ve seen something in their life that we think they may be blind to, and we want to make sure they are aware of the danger, so we approach them.

Last week, I wrote about one of the great pastoral case studies of this. It’s where Paul corrects a Corinthian church for tolerating a man sleeping with his step-mother. He actually tells them to kick the guy out of church. He wants them to disfellowship this guy. Now, I’ve seen this happen a handful of times in my life, and it almost always goes badly. The person being disfellowshipped is hurt and filled with righteous indignation. And almost always, the church leaders who had to do it are too.

But go back and read 1st Corinthians 5. This isn’t Paul giving them a permanent solution, this is rooted in Paul’s hope for both the church as well as the guy who’s sleeping with his step-mom. Paul is asking the church to let the guy feel the full weight of his decisions, and then as soon as he has, Paul asks them to accept him right back into the community. Paul’s hope isn’t for condemnation for this person. Paul’s hope is for his restoration.

There’s another time where Paul is writing another church in Galatia. And toward the end of the letter Paul tells them this:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.

Gently restore them. I like that phrase. The word gently is actually a word for meekness, it means the way we approach the person should be as non-threatening as possible. This is the part I think we miss the most. We approach these difficult conversations with ultimatums and power plays and, all too often, quite a bit of self-righteousness. This is especially true when we are confronting someone with a sin that we don’t struggle with ourselves. So of course it gets messy quite quickly. Continue reading Everyday Restoration Movements

A People of Maybe

Have you ever seen that show Intervention? It’s an incredibly heartbreaking show about people who have gotten caught up with an addiction that has completely taken over their lives. And so their friends and family all gather together and surprise them with an intervention asking them to get help. It’s gut-wrenching. These people who love this person beg and cry and plead for them to turn their lives around.

And the person almost always says no.

So there is this one time in 1st Corinthians, where Paul is writing a church that he had helped to plant, and Paul is having to address one of the earliest church scandals. The Corinthian church is situated right in the middle of the ancient world’s version of Las Vegas or Amsterdam. Which by the way, I think is really cool. Not even 30 years after Jesus Resurrection, there are churches sprouting up in some of the darkest parts of the world.

Now God wasn’t calling His people out of Sodom and Gomorrah, He was sending them into it.

But the problem that Paul is addressing isn’t the sin around the Corinthian Church, it was the sin inside of it. Specifically, there was this one guy who had recently started sleeping with his step-mother.  I know it all sounds so Jerry Springerish, but this is one of the earliest examples of a pastoral church case study we have. The Corinthians have this gnostic idea of Spirituality, and so they think that the flesh doesn’t matter, and that because they are so “spiritual” they are acting like nothing is wrong with whole incredibly dysfunctional situation. But Paul thinks otherwise. Look at what Paul says:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.  And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourningand have put out of your fellowship  the man who has been doing this?  For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.

 I’ve already passed judgment in the name of Jesus. 

Obviously Paul didn’t read Jesus. We like it when Paul talks about Love being patient and kind, but this just sounds so judgmental. And I think Paul would say to us,”Yeah, it kind of is being judgmental.” Continue reading A People of Maybe

The Agony of Judgment

It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live together.-Dedrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together (written from a prison cell)

It’s been said that the most quoted verse by my generation is Matthew 7:1, Where Jesus says “Do not Judge” And to be honest, I can relate to that. I  have seen some of the most heinous things done in the name of religion. In the name of their god, people have flown planes into buildings, committed genocide, drank Kool-aid, and started Christian Cable Television programming. We’ve seen street preachers, and regular preachers stand on their soapboxes and name everything and everyone they hate, and then throw Jesus’ name on it. We have seen religion divide relationships and make people more hateful.

But the truth is that we haven’t gotten less judgmental, we’ve just changed the criteria.

Almost everyday on Facebook I get a notification by some application asking me to compare my friends. We are accosted by people asking us if they are “Hot or Not” We are constantly looking to our left and our right to figure out how we are doing in comparison to others. We want to gauge ourselves so we look to our peers wondering if  I’m smarter/dumber, faster/slower, funnier/boring than someone else.

My generation has seen the rise of peer-rating sites like no other. We’re constantly being taught to ask am I hot or not? We’re being conditioned to wonder if I am acceptable, and now we even have a convenient 1-10 scale.

We live in a beauty pageant.

We judge people all the time.

And the real tragedy is, that we’ve also used that command  of Jesus to live in pseudo-community.

We have developed the ability to live around people, but not necessarily with people. And the great irony of our day, is that we live in a world where so many of us feel alone and isolated, but not many of us are willing to do the hard work that it takes to live together. Here’s what I mean by that. Continue reading The Agony of Judgment