Does the church have anything to offer the world in the 21st century? This seems to be a question that plagues pastors, writers, theologians and thinkers alike in the church today. You see articles and books about church growth or reaching millennials or connecting families on an almost daily rate. The church seems to find itself at a crossroads of crisis and our offerings to me, and I imagine to a lot of the world, just seem lack luster at best. “Oh, you’ve got another program for me to attend?” “This book study will make me a skinnier, wealthier and happier Christian?” “This program is guaranteed to make church stick for me and my family this time?” I don’t mean to sound too cynical, but why bother? If all the church is trying to do is to compete with other social activities in the world, then why bother?
A couple of nights ago I sat across from a couple from our church in my living room. We were meeting to talk about a new (I’m reluctant to use the word because it just sounds like another program) ministry they’ve launched. Well, I guess it’s more of an inter-generational small group (even that sounded programmatic). But I asked them to sum up the rationale behind it and the gentlemen responded with, “Well, it’s more or less our attempt to build a family in the church.” YES! In a simple statement made on my sofa while my kids were all sleeping (I hope) in the background I heard the why bother answer resonate loud and clear. And it all goes back to the birth of the church. What does the church have to offer to the world? It goes like this in the second chapter in the book of Acts. “All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47 Did you see that? The church, at it’s core, is a family that wants to be together, takes care of one another and shares life together.
So church, please hear me in regards to your existence in the 21st century. We have the greatest hope to share with the world. But if we just make it another program, social event, to-do list, check mark or any other means of clever marketing we will continue to fail. The world will look at our existence as simply another ploy to get them to commit to something that at the end of the day adds very little value to their lives. But if we, and I know it might be a stretch, actually began to mirror the lives of the early church and became that Family of God we used to sing about all the time, then perhaps those outside our walls might see the life we share and come to realize it might be the very thing they’re missing. In a world of broken families, fractured homes, disenfranchised lives, social media virtual communities, depression, anxiety and fear we as the church have something to offer that nothing else can compare with. The Kingdom of God goes beyond all other kingdoms and programs when our family’s head calls us to remember, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:12-13 It’s high time we started being that kind of family again and I can’t wait to see what happens when we do.
Yesterday was one of the longest days of my life; at least in recent memory. You see it all began when our five-year-old had a stomach bug over the weekend…Holy Saturday night…you know, the night before Easter Sunday. So here I am the night before one of the biggest days of the church calendar changing bed linens and caring for a very sick child and thinking all the while, “I’m staring down the barrel of a gun.” For most of Monday and Tuesday I thought maybe, just maybe I had escaped the clutches of this foul intestinal bacteria beast. But alas, that was not the case. Tuesday night, although not in the same fashion or severity, I slept maybe about two to three hours total due to stomach cramps and anxiety over what might come next. The most worrisome part about all of this was my lack of sick day accruing as a teacher and so I knew the next day would be rough.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life…and I was a youth pastor for eleven years with annual lock-ins. After a day of stomach cramping, heavy lids and middle school students I was barely able to drag myself in the door. Luckily I have a wife who was looking out for me and allowed me to sleep for 12 hours…12 hours. She handled bed-time and even kept the kids or pets from waking me. But the next morning she had one important direction for me. I had to wake our three-year-old and spend time with him before going to school. Evidently him not being able to see daddy for a day was a little much and he was suffering from major daddy withdraws. So after recovering from my early spring hibernation I roused my little monster a little early and he spent about thirty minutes on the couch with me watching Thor or Hulk or some other super hero that inspires our special relationship. And I began to think about how important these moments are.
Sometimes in the midst of our hustle and bustle we forget about the most important things we have here. Was it important for me to be at work? Sure. But perhaps it was even more important for me to recover so I could be the best for those around me. In The Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks a bit as to our most important investment. “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19-21 I came to an epiphany earlier this year as to the treasure that Jesus is pointing us to. What does God value more than anything else in the entire world? His children. So the treasure we are called to invest in is…(wait for it)…each other. So yes, there will be times when we are busy or sick or spent or worn out, but we are called to take those moments that we do have to invest in those who are a piece of God’s heart as we seek to reveal God’s heart to the world. This is the treasure that we seek to store up for heaven’s sake.
Next week is Holy Week. I repeat, next week is Holy Week. I know, I can’t believe it either. It really did sneak up on me this year. I’m not going to say I was too busy or anything like that, but I feel like Ash Wednesday was just the other day. So now, maybe like some of you, I am scrambling to prepare myself for what is to come: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, our Easter Eggstravaganza, and Easter Sunday itself. Even as I sit here and type this out I think I can actually sense my blood pressure going up. But regardless of how I feel or if I seem too busy, the resurrection still breaks through. I mean, think about that first Easter Sunday for a second. Do you think any of the players in this amazing drama actually truly expected resurrection? Mark’s gospel records it this way, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb” – Mark 16:1-2 Everyone was doing what they had always done when something like death enters the picture and then, out of nowhere, the resurrection breaks through.
I am thankful though, that nature has an incredible way of reminding us even if we seem too busy or overwhelmed. Maybe it’s the increasing minutes of sunlight. Or maybe it might be like my back patio where the smell of blooming wisteria almost bowls you over. Or maybe it is even like the photo one of my friends from Michigan posted of a small flower fighting its way through the snow encrusted landscape. Whatever the sign might be for you, the world around us is never surprised by resurrection and new birth. It’s built into the very fabric of being of all that is. Yet for some reason we often become so busy, overwhelmed, anxious, scheduled, (fill in the blank with your appropriate adjective), etc. that we NEED the resurrection to break through in a way that reminds us that this is built into our very identity as well.
So maybe you find yourself coming into this Easter season overwhelmed. The resurrection still breaks through. Maybe you find yourself coming into this Easter season lost in grief and sorrow. The resurrection still breaks through. Perhaps you find yourself coming into this Easter season fearful of the future and the unknown. Guess what…the resurrection still breaks through. Whatever emotion or feeling or predicament you find yourself consumed with today still doesn’t stop resurrection from breaking through. For once the world was covered in sadness and sorrow from that which had taken place on Calvary and yet, Sunday morning still came and the universe was reborn because Easter broke through.
I am by nature a relatively lazy person. Truthfully, I think we all have to fight this. I mean if I were given the choice of doing something I do in my every day routine or taking a nap, I think would always opt for the nap. I even find myself resonating with my 11-yr-old every time I ask him to do the simplest of task, you know like brush his teeth. “Ugh. Right now?!?” And yet, it’s the procrastination, the laziness, the not wanting to stay ahead of the game that so often adds stress and frustration to an already hectic life. My wife and I were talking recently and she mentioned something she had learned once. A speaker had shared a talk about “five minutes”. Basically the person shared that if you were staring something in the face that you didn’t really want to do, but you knew it would take five minutes or less, that you should go ahead and crank it out. I know it seems overly simple, but it speaks volumes into our overly hectic lives.
We truly are over-scheduled people. We have work and school and church and rehearsals and practice and gym time and lessons. And somehow in the midst of all of that we are called to foster healthy homes and families and spiritual lives and do you see where I am going…? So sometimes we do need something as simple and as profound as “five minutes” to help us take back some semblance of order with our lives. In the 90’s there was a Christian record label called 5-minute walk. And 5-minute walk’s motto/vision was simple. They urged people who listened to their artists to begin to spend five minutes a day with God. Just five minutes; and see where it would lead. Now think about this for a minute…each person in their life has an average of 39,000,000 minutes. Of course some have much fewer and some have a bit more, but if we take out five minute increments from 39,000,000 it really doesn’t seem like that much and yet the impact could be huge.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes these words, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15-16 And Ephesus was a very busy place at the time. It had the temple of Artemis and an extremely healthy guild trade system, while also being a port city for the Roman empire. So when Paul urges the believers there to make the most of every opportunity he realizes how busy their lives are. But maybe the same challenge exists for us today. If it only takes five minutes to go out of your way and be nice to someone; do it. If it only takes five minutes to write a hand written note to someone you know is going through a difficult time; do it. If it only takes five minutes to stop and pray for someone you know is hurting or someone that has hurt you; do it. I think we will all be amazed to see how profound of an impact five minutes can have on us and the lives of those around us.
I was very hesitant to write today. Not that there aren’t a lot of thoughts running through my head. Honestly if people heard my inner monologue I think they would think I was even more strange than I appear to be. No, I think my hesitancy to write today’s blog post stems from the type of dialogue that I see going on in our world…particularly from those of us who claim the name of Christ. You see, for a couple of weeks now I’ve been listening to and watching the rhetoric going on between my friends about issues surrounding things like guns and rights and everything in between. And I honestly think as Christians we’ve evidently been operating under a very false pretense that has absolutely nothing to do with the gospel of Christ. I hear people say things like, “It’s obvious it’s a gun problem.” Or, “It’s obvious it’s not a gun problem, but a people problem.” Or even, “If they take away one right, what’s to stop them from coming for all my rights.” And I don’t want to invalidate any of your arguments or stances. Hear me again, I don’t want to invalidate any of your arguments or stances…but…
I think as Christians we need to have the veil pulled back from our eyes. I think we find ourselves in this world operating with an illusion created by sin and it mask itself in the most clever of ways. It looks like rights, defense, independence and even love…and yet, it’s an illusion. The illusion is the belief that my life, or the life of any one I love matters more than the life of anyone else on earth (I know I just lost some friends with that one). But honestly, if the gospel doesn’t teach us that we all come to the foot of the cross as equals, then we have misread the gospel. The writer of Matthew puts it this way in the words of Christ, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them’.” – Matthew 16:24-25 If you wish to follow Christ, then you must realize your life is forfeit. If you choose to follow the crucified Messiah, then you must realize your life is worth no more than the person you despise the most.
Now you may say to me, what in the world does this have to do with all the debate about guns and rights and sin…honestly, everything. Until I can come to the table with any one of the human race realizing that Christ gave his life for them as much as for me, then I might as well not enter into the fray. So by all means, continue to have your debates and discussions and solutions ad nausea, but if you don’t pull back the illusion and think of each and every life as just as valuable as your own and those you love, then you need to reevaluate the Christ you have chosen to follow. Because he may have ended up looking more like you than you think. I’ll leave you with one more thought that I think continues to pull back the illusion for us all and it comes from Dorothy Day. “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” You are loved, Grace and Peace.
Today, instead of boring you with my words, I think I will let others share their words. This video was a surprise that my wife made for me for my 40th birthday. I am both humbled and blessed by the words of my friends…who just happened to be former youth group students. I think 40 is going to be pretty great.