Monday, January 30, 2012

The Death of the Church

Acts 5 tells an interesting story about Ananias and Sapphira. This is the couple who sold a piece of property and agreed to withhold some of the proceed when they brought it to the disciples for distribution. Ananias was challenged by Peter, who explained that Ananias had not lied to him, but to God. The resulting revelation led to Ananias' death. Later his wife came in and met the same fate because she too could not be honest before God.

Now, as easy as this statement is to link to a story on tithing and stewardship before God, I also believe that its a lesson that the modern, established church would do well to remember and re-visit. I always wonder what made this unfortunate couple decide to withhold part of this gift. Were they worried? Scared? Selfish? Was there a lack of faith? In some ways I think all of these issues helped contribute to their foolish decision. Holding back from God, whatever part of ourself that we do whether financial, physical, or emotional seems to be a path that will lead us toward death.

And yet, I am afraid that this is exactly what some of our current churches do. Especially those "establishment" churches that have long and sometimes grand histories (at least in their opinion). There is an ongoing question being asked in the fellowships today of how to increase our membership. How can we get young people to come and support our local church. (This is true for other organizations as well, not just church.) I would offer that this question is closer to the thought process of Ananias and Sapphira, and is a dangerous question for a church to tolerate.

For what is at the heart of such a question: How can we get people come to church? Church seems to be the focus of this question, lifted up as the paramount goal of such a person/community. What is important in this question is the survival of the local church in whatever form the questioner perceives it. Most important to the questioner is the state of this "church". There is more to it than this, the questioner is also asking, "How can I get people to come and support something that is important to me so that they can help me preserve and extend this entity that is so important to me?" See the issue here?

This question reveals a self-interested goal. It exposes the selfish nature of survival. How can I preserve that which is important to me, and how can I convince others that this is so important that they should agree with me and work to help preserve it? Is there any wonder why this question is usually asked by a dying church. I believe this is a question that the contemporary Ananias would ask. Its hard to condemn such a question since it could that this comes out of one's own fear and concern for the local church. There is an aspect of love in trying to preserve something so important that others too might have a chance to respond to the blessings of church life.

So while I will indict the questioner for such a question, I will not indict the love they have for others. Yet we must come to understand the fruitless nature of such a conversation. Asking how others might come to help us runs contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ who came to serve and not be served. The Great Commission holds nothing in it about building large buildings and convincing others to help preserve them. Our call is to go and make disciples...

In the messages I have shared with our local church family I have invited them to turn the idea of bringing people to church on its head. Instead, we talk of bringing church to the people: to our families, our schools, our jobs, and our community. What we are really called to do is share this life changing love of God through Jesus Christ with those outside of our building. Our charge is to make this love known to people by caring for them, serving them, and thinking about them and their needs. A church who asks people to come to worship is revealing a selfish nature. A church who sends people out to care is living the gospel.

What would happen if our members were challenged to do something good for someone this week? Ask our bakers to bake a nice dessert or treat and deliver it to a neighbor for no other reason than to be neighborly? For us to offer a neighbor a helping hand even if it is something as simple as carrying in groceries for them, sweeping off a sidewalk, or making a delivering a casserole to a single mom and her family? And not to do so with an invitation to our church's service or with a tract about how to become a Christian- when we do this it makes the gift more about the giver than the gifted.

Its a simple piece to the puzzle but an important one. Let people know that they are important to God, loved by God, and that God has their best interests in mind.

When we ask people to come to our church. We ask them to believe a lie that we are more interested in them than our own self. This behavior, this mindset is what continues to paralyze and erode the established church.

And yet, we serve a God who specializes in resurrection. For every sin we make, every mistake we confess there always remains forgiveness and reconciliation. Though we might appear to be dying, the promise of Christ leads us to life in greater abundance. It is not too late to rescue this dying breed of church life. There is hope in the midst of decay that those who serve God will find life. But it will not be found in trying to rescue it out of can only be found when we surrender it to our Savior.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bad "Church"

Just recently I heard of a young man who, in the depths of his despair, took his own life. In an attempt to help others make sense of this tragic news a separate person, completely unrelated to the events, made a comment that their church teaches that people who commit suicide go to Hell. And yet by the tone of the delivery of this statement it was obvious the person thought they were being helpful.

Now, my first response is to start a long discussion about the concept of Hell and all of the non-Biblical connections that have popped up over many centuries. Maybe some day we can talk about this more.

More importantly to me, is the fear that there are people in our world, nation, and even communities who believe that there is some sort of Biblical statement about suicide and Hell. Let me be clear in my understanding: THERE IS NOT!! I always wonder how this value can be connected to Scripture. In all my studies and reading of Scripture I have yet to find anyone condemned to any version of Hell for the taking of one's own life.

A weak argument might be made from referencing the 10 Commandments, specifically the commandment about not committing murder. I can see that the taking of one's life could be construed as murder, and therefore might agree that this is a break with God's command and desire for us as human beings. But if we are going to start claiming that violating this commandment is a way to punch your one way ticket to the Underworld, then how do we deal with the other 9 statements held together with this one? Is a violation of any of these statements an eternal death sentence?

Even more important to this discussion is the absence of any statement about the consequences for such a violation. Later in the law there are some explanation about how to treat these individuals within the framework of society, but there is never any eternal damnation statement there either (even more problematic to this is the lack of Hell in Jewish theology...Sheol is not the same as our Christian view of Hell).

On the other side, and from within the Christian framework, we have other statements that seem to offer us a different perspective. Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, states that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God that is Jesus Christ. In his largely rhetorical statement he mentions that not even death can do this. Does Paul believe that God's ability to love us is greater than the power of death and transcends even this Great Mystery? It would appear so.

Jesus himself makes a statement about the forgiveness of sins. All sins will be forgiven, except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Is suicide blasphemy? Would it have been considered so in Jesus' time? Then how could we claim that it is now. So if Paul, the most prolific author of the New Testament and Jesus, the very Son of God would claim that love is greater even than death and that all sins (with one exception) could be forgiven then how can we lay claim that suicide victims go to Hell. Are we qualified to make such a statement in light of another command to judge not, lest we be judged.

And then how would we respond to all of the people in the world who are, as we speak, participating in habits (or refraining from good habits) that would help them live healthier lives. Are they also not in a way taking the same steps, yet on a slower pace?

Too many people whom I have loved dearly have taken their own lives forcefully. In every case these have not been rotten wicked people. They have been wonderful, love sharing, beautiful, talented people who in a state of depression, shock, and fear made one bad decision. But this decision does not invalidate all of the love shared or the fact that they made a formal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Their deaths have brought grief to friends, families, and loved ones. Grief because these men are loved!

For me, this boils down to one simple understanding of faith: Do we believe that God's ability to love us is greater than our ability to sin?

If the answer is yes then we have hope for our lives in the future as well as in the present. This faith can be a transformation of body, mind, and spirit. If we say no, then why are we Christian? The futility would be staggering.

I believe that there are enough bad "churches" or communities of people passing judgment on others and condemning them to all kinds of terrible places. Please do not let yourself become one of them and share incorrect information with others about God's love and our Savior Jesus Christ!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Our McAlister's Manager

I do not make a big secret that one of my favorite dining places for lunch is McAlister's Deli. I love the food, and have even spotted a celebrity there (Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts). Since I visit regularly I have gotten to know a lot of the staff that serve there. I have not really ever talked to them about what I do for a living, but I thought I had tipped my hand by my choice of reading books that usually come with me to lunch.

Recently, one of the managers who works there asked me if he could talk to me for a moment... He sat down with me and shared some of his personal story and asked me a simple questions about a phrase he had heard mentioned the other day (prayer warrior...he did not understand that phrase)... After I explained what I could of this idea he then shared with me a desire to re-kindle his spiritual life and asked me about my church.

I was happy to share with him my love for its people...of how kind and caring I found them. He then surprised me by asking what our pastor was like...
I was amused. I told him our pastor was a bit long winded and sometimes talked too much.. He saw the gleam in my eye and then asked me if I was the pastor. I admitted my calling to the Crooked Creek Baptist Community.

I shared this story at church on Sunday morning and used this story to remind our members that sometimes the best testimony we can make is with the life we live. Something about the way I conducted myself in those frequent lunch visits impressed that manager enough that he felt comfortable in asking me questions about faith. I was honored by his expressed confidence in my character (Remember the old prayer: Lord please me the person my dog thinks I am).

As I reflect upon this more I realize that there is more to this story. For I believe that everyone has a "McAlister's Manager" in their life. Watching them. Judging them (fair or not, this happens). We have a chance every day to live out our faith in Jesus Christ- our Savior every day! And we have the chance to affect others with our actions and by our lifestyle. Our faith is not just something we believe is something we act upon. And this faith of action can have a long and lasting impact upon those we encounter in EVERY aspect of our life.

Who is watching us right now? Who can we impact with the good news about Jesus Christ. A good news that does not only mean new life for us, but also offers the possibility of new life for the McAlister's manager.