Last night we gathered for our regular Wednesday night church gathering. And I’m not sure if it was the result of Daylight Savings Time or the fact that so many have been sick, but we had a very intimate gathering (that’s pastor talk for a small crowd). But we sat around the table and we began to discuss what Relational Holiness/Mission looked like. We talked about healthy relationships in a digital world and helping new people feel connected to a local church body. We talked about the challenges of the contemporary world and how the church is called to embody healthy and whole community as a reflection of the Divine Life of the Trinity. And the best part about this discussion…I was the only one around the table under the age of 40.
The description of the conversation above may have sounded like a gathering of Gen X’ers or Millennials, but I am so excited to say that this conversation took place with people who are old enough to be my parents and possibly even my grandparents. I sat with these amazing church people as we discussed problems that church faces with it’s mission in the 21st century and that had as much or more insight into the dilemma as many of my peers. They spoke about days gone by when they would incorporate people into the local church by having them into their homes, going out to eat with them, having volleyball nights or picnics. Our verse for the evening even reflected this approach to ministry and sharing the gospel. “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18
It’s funny sometimes how there truly is nothing new under the sun. Often times the younger generation (present company included) think we have a monopoly on forming healthy communities. But honestly this isn’t something we need to reinvent. Our elders have been doing this for a long time…how do you think the gospel got to us anyway? So I have a challenge for us today. Let’s take that passage of scripture from John’s epistle at face value. Let’s not just give lip service to ideas or concepts or strategies etc., but let’s love with actions and authenticity and truth. I look at the world around us even now and am astounded at the words we hurl back at forth at each other…sometimes even lined with scripture. I think we have all had enough words. Let’s love. Love truly. Create churches and communities where people feel loved and connected to something bigger and greater then themselves. After all, Christ himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35 Those you are called to love may not always look like you, think like you, believe like you or lead life like you, but that doesn’t diminish or negate your calling to love them. May we find true salvation and holiness in the communities we are called to give our lives to.
First of all, I am a Red Sox fan. Even as I type this, I am wearing my Boston hat; after all, it’s all even again. But last night I sat in solidarity with many of my friends who are diehard Cubs fans who know what heartache feels like (to my Cleveland friends, my sympathies). Last night I found myself sitting on pins and needles as the game was tied up in the bottom of the 8th inning. Then I rolled my eyes as they rolled the tarp onto the field for a rain delay after the 9th inning. And then I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief for my Chicago friends as I refreshed my screen in my bed just before midnight. This morning I reveled in their celebratory posts and jubilations all over the internet. Knowing the feeling I had in 2004, I can only imagine the excitement that is pouring out of them today. And so this morning I celebrate with them.
Empathy is a funny emotion. Empathy is defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Some would even argue that this is a distinctively human trait, although I know some dog owners who might take this to task. But empathy is something that ties the human experience together. We seek to understand and relate to each other based on common experiences and feelings or emotions. Most often empathy is though of in terms of loss or grief, but it is meant to be shared in other experiences as well. When addressing the church in Rome, Paul says this, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” – Romans 12:15. This does include feelings of sadness, but it also includes feelings of celebration and rejoicing.
The funny thing is, sometimes we aren’t that good at this. It’s almost easier to see the other guy lose when we don’t feel like we don’t measure up. I’ve even heard of churches being jealous of other churches success?!? “Well they aren’t staying true to the call.” “They aren’t holding true to doctrine like we are”. How about instead of criticizing we get excited about the fact that more people are hearing about Jesus. How about instead of refusing to celebrate their success we get on board trusting the Holy Spirit to do the work that was promised. How about we celebrate and rejoice with any success and excitement we see in the Kingdom of God because we are all in this together. You may not have been excited about the Cubs winning last night, but I think we are all called to get excited about the Kingdom successes of our sisters and brothers even when they don’t look quite like we think they should. Let’s trust God and rejoice with each other!
I remember it still to this day. I was on the playground of my new school and I really didn’t know anyone. I had just entered sixth grade and suffice it to say, I wasn’t at my most confident. So there I was standing by the basketball goal watching some of the other kids play basketball when one of the bigger, more talented sixth graders comes down off of a lay-up, looks at me as asks, “What are you trying to be, some kind of dork?’ Even sitting here typing this today my 38-yr-old self cringes a little. But I wonder how many of us have ever been made to feel small, left-out, cut-down, diminished or less-than because of the words of another. The old adage ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’, really is a bunch of phooey. It is really quite easy to be made to feel good for nothing by the words of people around us.
This morning I stumbled upon a passage of scripture in 1 Kings…mainly because I hadn’t read the reference very well in my devotional as my eyes were still waking up. But in this passage it is speaking about Solomon’s building of the temple and one of the ways he attempted to pay back Hiram, King of Tyre for all of the resources he gave for the temple. The writer puts it this way, “King Solomon gave twenty towns in Galilee to Hiram king of Tyre…But when Hiram went from Tyre to see the towns that Solomon had given him, he was not pleased with them. “What kind of towns are these you have given me, my brother?” he asked. And he called them the Land of Kabul, a name they have to this day.” – 1 Kings 9:11-13 King Hiram called them Kabul, which roughly translated in Hebrew meant, ‘good for nothing’. King Hiram looked at Galilee and called it good for nothing. Similarly, a few hundred years later, Nathaniel asks another question of that region, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” – J0hn 1:46 And of course, we in the Christian faith realize that both Hiram and Nathaniel couldn’t be more wrong. For out of Galilee came salvation for the whole world.
I wonder if we ever think of insignificance in this way today. In a world where power, looks, money, ability, etc. is social currency, do we ever pay attention to those who may not measure up? Let me take you back to that 6th grader for a moment. I never really made it onto that court of my peers with full acceptance, but I did start playing with and encouraging some of the other younger students who were also on the playground. All of a sudden I was able to become the big sixth-grader mentor to some third and fourth grade students who often would get overlooked by their older siblings. I may or may not have even played basketball with a kid who eventually went on to play Division I NCAA ball (though I am not taking credit for that career…unless I should). But all that to say, no one is good for nothing. And you are not insignificant. May you not be defeated by the opinions of others today and may you also come to realize that you have the ability to lift up those around you as well.
Yesterday I was in a funk. I’m not sure if you are familiar with this terminology or not, but it basically amounts to a feeling of being overwhelmed, anxiousand even feeling physically ill. And what does one do when they are in a funk? Well dive deeper of course. I withdrew, isolated myself even further and simply tried to disconnect from everything. The only problem with this is that anyone who knows me knows that I am an extrovert. And the last thing an extrovert needs to do is withdraw from others. So by the end of the day, with my wife’s help, I had doagnosed said funkiness and started to reconnect and finally went to bed feeling a little less funky. It’s almost as if we really do need each other.
At face value this seems like a really simple statement. Yeah sure, we really do need each other…but at what costs? In his letter to the church at Rome the apostle Paul writes these words, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” – Romans 12:18. Live at peace with everyone? That seems like a pretty tall order. Especially in a world where we are rewarded for our individualism. Especially in a world where we are defined by our differences and by our distinctions and by the lines that are drawn in the sand every day to make sure we fall on one side or the other. But surely this is not the case in the church… Contemporary culture often serves as a wonderful assessment tool for the health of the church. Is the church reflecting the culture, or is the church transforming the culture? Right now we are surrounded by a culture that is at best divisive and at worst hostile to the ideaof healthy community…so how is the church doing?
The word most often used in the New Testament for the church is the word ekklesia. It means, “the called out ones” and it was a explication of the church’s distinctiveness. The church is always meant to be a different embodiment characterized by love and unity and community. In fact, the term heresy is translated from the Greek hairesis, which means, “a taking or choosing for oneself”. In other words being divisive by finding difference over commonality. The very first way heresy was understood was as the division of community. And now we as the church are meant to be a model of healthy community for the world and are we doing this or are we just reflecting contemporary culture?
One thing we need to understand in all of this is that unity doesn’t always mean uniformity, but it does mean that we live at peace with one another. We really do need each other but when we reflect the cultural wars and attack and belittle and show disrespect to the members of the body of Christ, we divide His body all over again and this should not be so. It was once said of the characteristics of the church that we come to our ideologies and doctrines in the following fashion: In Essentials Unity, In Non-essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity. Maybe this is the way forward; remembering that the things that bind us together and the things we have in common are stronger than the differences we allow to divide us. We really do need each other. I don’t think I can say that enough. And the world needs to see that we understand and live this out; living together at peace reflecting the Christ who called us out to be a community in a world that really needs us.
I’ve never really been too into politics. I can remember my first introduction as an elementary student and all of us 4th graders trying to figure out if Dukakis or Bush was the better candidate (The eyebrows made it obvious). And throughout the years I was always curious and would usually form an opinion, but it was rarely something that kept me up at night. It seems like more and more these days, especially with the advent of social media and 24/7 news coverage, that the political landscape has come to dominate culture. Everyone has to have a side and depending on where you land your opinion and your worth is validated by those around you or you are completely written off. Our nation has become a nation divided and the same spirit of the age of politics has even begun to infiltrate the church and it’s becoming bit worrisome.
I guess the reason it disturbs me so much is that this is not supposed to be the way in which the church transforms the world. We were never meant to grab hold of the reigns of kingdom and political power and yet for many it seems that this is our only recourse. How do I know this is not our way? As his ministry began Jesus was carried off into the wilderness by the Spirit and for forty days was tempted. Matthew’s gospel records the temptations in a certain order and the last temptation Jesus faces should give us some insight into this dilemma. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” – Matthew 4:8-10. Jesus was offered all the political power in the world. He was offered all the kingdoms and glory and prestige that comes from earthly rule and all he had to do was compromise his mission. All he had to do was for a moment set aside his true mission of worshiping and serving God and all that power would be His. But that wasn’t God’s way.
Jesus came to show us what it meant to live a life that fully honors God. And even at the beginning of His ministry he was offered the opportunity to seize earthly power and political sway in order to accomplish that mission. But he knew bowing down to the Ruler of this world would destroy His Divine purpose of showing us what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like. I wonder if we as a church have sometimes lost our way in an attempt to grab onto this earthly power. Sure, we want to influence culture and see God’s way become the one true way…but at what cost? Have we compromised the mission of God because we thought we could accomplish His mission through other methods. Sometimes we have allowed allegiances to political systems to tarnish the mission of God and our witness to others and this should never be so. The apostle Paul said this, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” – Ephesians 6:12.
Before you write this off completely hear one last thing. I am not saying to not be political. But just be careful that when you are working within the systems of this world that you don’t forget your citizenship is in Heaven and your allegiance is to a God whose Kingdom goes beyond what we see. And in this way you can still be political and remember we are solely called to worship and serve.
In William Shakespeare’s definitive work Hamlet we get to have a front row seat as the title character slips into madness. As his condition begins to take hold there is a poignant scene in Act II where the Danish prince is confronted by Polonius in his attempt to ascertain what is troubling the prince. “Polonius: What do you read, my lord? Hamlet: Words, words, words.” Sometimes I feel like I can relate to the young prince as it seems as if all of our society is slipping into madness. “What troubles you young pastor? What do you read?” “Words, Words, Words”. And that’s a lot of what seems to be wrong today. All around us we see print, posts, quotes, rants, etc. of careless and misused and misaligned words. And at the end of the day, what good is it doing?
Time and time again the writers of scripture warn us about the dangers of words and their usage. Paul in writing to his young protege Timothy says this, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” – II Timothy 2:23 James in writing to the church has this to say, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” – James 3:9. Obviously the writers of the New Testament new the danger and the responsibility we have with our words and yet…this lesson seems to have fallen short on modern readers. All to quickly we jump into the fray on social media. All to quickly we have to make sure people know our opinion before we even get into a conversation. All to quickly we have to make sure people know what we are against before we actually take the time to get to know them. And all of this accomplished through words.
In late February my wife and I took in two foster boys. As is often the case with foster situations we have face some developmental challenges. The younger of the two is about to turn two and he still hasn’t developed the ability to speak words. He’s quite good at shrieking or even growling, but the cognition to form words isn’t really there yet. But just think about that with me for a minute. The gift of speech is quite incredible. We take breath into our lungs and then pass it over our vocal chords while forming our mouth in a certain fashion and it becomes spoken word. Our very ability to speak and even type or write words is nothing short of miraculous and yet it is a gift we so often take for granted. With this gift we have a responsibility. Do our words give life? Do our words bring the Kingdom of God? Or are the words we share, form, write, rant, etc. simply contributing to the madness around us? Today may you measure your words a bit more carefully. Today may you find the words you speak, the articles you share, the posts you engage with having eternal meaning in a world so fixed on the next temporary thought. And may it not simply be words, words, words.