“This church isn’t loving enough!”

Why do you suppose it is that some churches are considered to be “loving” while others aren’t? Maybe a better question would be, “Why is my local church more loving sometimes than it is other times?”

I remember one time several years ago when I received a phone call one Saturday evening from a very ticked off woman from church who spent at least 20 minutes yelling at me because someone else in our church had been rude to her: “What happened to the love in this church?” she demanded to know.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t exactly feeling the love in that moment either. She abruptly ended the call by telling me that unless I did something pretty darn quick that she was leaving for good.

So often I hear things like this…

Why are some churches “loving” and others aren’t  why is my local church more loving sometimes than it is other times?

I don’t know about anybody else, but I think the answer to these questions lies in the very nature of love itself. Perhaps we can find a clue in the great “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13…

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (13:4-7 emphasis added)

These are some of the most beautiful and familiar verses in all of Scripture, and I’m sure that if anyone reads these verses and then goes back to the little incident I just recounted, you’ll come up with a working theory on the questions I posed… I hope that before going further, everyone will read the entirety of the chapter for context… Of course, speaking of context, this chapter is in a larger section on spiritual gifts that runs from chapter 12-15 and thus love is a side note. Theologically speaking the real “Love Chapter” in the New Testament is 1 John 4, a very interesting bit of writing to say the least.

In verses 1-6 John is speaking about the spirit of antichrist which is afoot in this world and that may seem odd in a chapter about love, yet God’s love in us is the perfect antidote for the spirit of antichrist. John tells us that we have overcome that dark spirit already (4:4).

At first glance vv. 7 ff. appear to be redundant in the extreme. Yet upon closer examination this isn’t the case, for John in these verses is making the case for love itself, and he is doing so in a manner that is simplicity itself: God loved us and sent his Son to die for us, therefore we love Him. God loves our brothers and sisters, therefore so do we. Since all of this is true, anyone who does not love their brother and sister does not love God.

Notice how John links God’s love to us in 4:10 to Christ as “atoning sacrifice”, and recall that it is by his atoning sacrifice that our sins can be forgiven tying God’s love together with His forgiveness. Look carefully and you will see the same approach again in verse 14 where John tells us that by God’s love we have received the Holy spirit and give testimony that Jesus is Savior (by forgiveness of sins). Notice the same linkage in both verse 17 and verse 18 by making reference to the connection between love and forgiveness on the day of judgment. And then go back to the end of verse 17:

In this world we are like Jesus.

What was Jesus like? Jesus was the very embodiment of love in action who brought forgiveness into the world.

The chapter ends with this:

Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (4:21b)

We are commanded to love one another, and what is plain in 1 John 4 is that love is inexorably linked to forgiveness, and how many times should we forgive our brother, seven times?

Well, I think you already know the answer to that one.

Combine this with 1 Corinthians 13:5… love does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love forgives first and foremost.

“Church” is not an institution. Rather it is a community of people who love Jesus Christ and wish to follow Him. Yet it is the human condition that as long as each of us is imperfect, we will all sooner or later say or do something that we shouldn’t have said or done. If anyone who reads this believes him or herself immune from error, please let us know in a comment so that we might recognize you for your achievement of perfection!

If on the other hand, you like I myself have not quite achieved such an exalted status just yet, them please understand that you will need forgiveness right along with everyone else at some point in time, and that all of us need to forgive if indeed we love one another, for there is no love without forgiveness. Since church is not an institution, but instead is a collection of believers in community, when someone stumbles, it is our place to love them, not to complain about them to others. If they have upset us, then it is our place to forgive them, not to condemn them, and if we feel that our local congregation is not loving enough, then it is for us to love more and forgive more, not for us to complain more and to become angry, for anger and complaining are not the actions of love.

Does that sound crazy to you?

If so, please remember this: You ARE the church; if you don’t love, then who will?

Kitchen Table Conversation: Justice Here and Now

And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

Justice is one of God’s key attributes; as such, there are so many aspects of it, so many different direction we can go in discussion it, and I suppose that’s why it is a great topic for our Kitchen Table Conversation.

For me, the more pressing aspects of Justice are those that concern the here and now, those aspects of Justice that the prophet Micah wrote about so very long ago in 6:8. For each of us to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God is, for me, the priority in this life.

Jesus took this to a higher level when He travelled around Galilee proclaiming the Kingdom of heaven, for when He did so, there was healing, wholeness, sight and… Justice.

Justice isn’t usually in this list, is it? Yet Jesus demonstrated what Micah was talking about as He preached and healed, for He took His message of the Kingdom of heaven to both Jew and Gentile. He healed both Jew and Gentile. He gave sight to Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, saint and sinner, breaking all of the cultural boundaries that had kept God from the masses of humanity for far too long. He respected the disrespected, He valued the humble, and He loved the unlovable, and that is Justice in the here and now.

There are times in this life when acting as Jesus acted isn’t the easiest thing to do; I sometimes fall short in my efforts and for this reason, I have little time to worry about the eschatological implications of Justice. I say this because I earnestly desire to serve Him as He called me to serve, and I desire to do so because I love God and I love humanity You see, I am a work in progress and I have not yet attained the goal that is set before me in Christ Jesus.

So I content myself with doing my best in Christ to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God, for it seems to me that if I do so, then if nothing else I can walk along with Jesus, secure in the knowledge that I have followed God’s ways, and done harm to no one along the way.

 

I’m Not Very Good at Saying “I Love You”

I received a wonderful comment on The Life Project today from our own paulfg; why was it so wonderful? Because it made me think, always the element that makes a post or a comment great, at least for me. The part that served as the catalyst for me was this:

“Maybe it is why I have an “issue” with the heavy sacrifice, burden and “work” of being a “good Christian”. It is too closely linked (in our hearts and minds and culture and very being) to earning and worth and personal effort. Maybe that is why Love appeals so much as the answer.”

In my reply, I offered this (in part): “Love is the question; now what is the answer?”

I’m not very good at saying “I love you”, if you don’t believe me, ask my wife!

In my Neanderthal male brain, just saying the words is kind of cheap, almost a way out of actually doing something about love; anybody can say it, but how many put it into practice?

This morning, I got up at O-dark-thirty; boy was it ever cold: Brrr…

I went downstairs as I normally do to make breakfast for my wife before she went off to her office for work. When she was ready and came downstairs, her coffee was hot and ready, and her breakfast was awaiting her arrival. I don’t have to this, nobody forces me to do it, and some have even asked why I do it; I do it because I love my wife. It isn’t difficult, it isn’t a hardship, it isn’t a sacrifice of any kind; it is a joy. My wife would probably be just as happy if I just said those magic three words, but serving is so much more of a joy.

I’ve had people express surprise that I do this, saying that it must be a chore; difficult or some kind of a burden, but expressing love is never any of those things, is it?

As for serving our Lord as His followers or servants, I hear a lot of people say that this is a duty, an obligation or a requirement of some kind. I hear this described as difficult, burdensome, work, and most of all, “too hard”. Honestly, I find that difficult to comprehend. That is, of course, unless the person who thinks in these terms is serving God for all of the wrong reasons. Do they serve Him because someone told them that they must do it? Are they trying to earn “points” of some kind? Could it be that they are trying to earn God’s favor?

I think it is so very important that we understand a few things about serving God. First and foremost is that there is nothing we can possibly do to “make” God love us, and even if there were something, we don’t need to make Him love us anyway, since God loved us long before we ever knew about Him; He loved us before we were even born, because that is His nature; He loves His creation, and He created us to love. Second, there are no brownie points to be earned, because God doesn’t play favorites. Third, an argument can be made that we have some kind of duty to serve, but we don’t serve simply because it’s our duty, and finally, nobody can make you do what you don’t want to do; just say no, if that’s what you want to do.

Do you really think that Almighty God takes time out of His busy day to keep time cards?

Frankly, I doubt it, and I’m afraid that none of us are so important that His Kingdom will crumble without our “work”. No, His Kingdom will do just fine if you and I sit on our hands.

So then, why should we even bother?

The answer to that is simple, and it is the same reason that I get up long before dawn to make breakfast for my wife: It’s because I love her. Why bother to serve God?

Because we love Him. Service is a natural response to love, and it is one of the greatest joys associated with love. Thus, I am willing to serve God because doing so is the greatest joy I have ever known. It isn’t a burden, work, too hard or any of that, unless I am doing it to get something in return, in which case I must assess the benefit to be gained against the cost of doing the job, and God simply doesn’t operate like that, for He’s already done it all for me.

There’s one more thing we might consider: Serving God always seems to involve serving other people, and why would that be the case? Because God loves them just as much as He loves me. The result of serving God by serving other people is actually a double joy, for it is the joy of doing something for another person, and the joy of serving God and His Kingdom, and the truth is that God is really the one doing the work, I am only His vessel for doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding in this life.

I’ve done quite a few things over the past half century. I’ve also been to some very interesting places and met some very interesting people; I’ve even made a little bit of history, yet the times in life that provide the most happiness, joy, peace and satisfaction are the times I spend serving God by serving others in a way that advances His purpose.

Work, duty, burden, obligation, difficult, sacrifice?

Hardly! At this point in life, the one thing I can think of that could be described by those words would be for me to be forced to stop serving Him. I agree with paulfg: I’ll go with the love (even if I’m not very good at putting it into mere words.)

Would a Muslim know you are a Christian?

I was planning on this topic before Susan’s excellent post on a story out of Kenya (read it here).

In the ancient Roman world, before Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s state religion, Christians were under constant persecution in varying parts of the Empire. Even during the times when Rome itself did not openly outlaw Christianity, local authorities would take it upon themselves to jail, if not execute, Christians to keep the peace and the population appeased. Even Roman soldiers would take joy to go out of their way to make life difficult on the Christians they encountered.

Throughout all of this one thing remained consistent, Christians (for the most part) followed Christ’s teachings

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matt 7:12)

If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles (Matt 5:41)

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)

Christians showed agape not only to other Christians, but to everyone they encountered, friend or foe. Citizens knew that if they were in trouble, needed help, were destitute, or were ill, they could go to a Christian household, ask for help, and they would be given whatever they needed, no questions asked. Even Roman soldiers knew they could go to a Christian and seek healing for wounds or illnesses and not be turned away.

Today, would people know you were a Christian because of how you treated others, even those who would do you harm? Would you invite a Muslim into your home if they needed your help? Would you allow refugees into your country, knowing there is the possibility that they might do you harm?

A short tale. Recently I had the opportunity to help a local food bank collect much needed funds. At a holiday fair near where I live we asked patrons to donate whatever they could afford. I was pleased at the generosity of the people, but two things surprised me:

  • A gentleman who looked like he should be receiving assistance walked up to me. I looked down at the cracked screen on his cellphone, and was prepared to give him one of the free meal coupons we were giving out. To my surprise he put $5 into my container, wished me a Merry Christmas, then disappeared into the crowd. I was moved, and remembered Jesus’ comment about the widow he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.” (Luke 21:2-4).
  • The other thing that struck me odd is that during the entire three hours we were collecting contributions not a single “suit” (male or female) contributed anything. While their attitude towards us was no different than any other person, not one contributed so much as a single dollar. These are people who could have easily afforded even a small contribution. Asking others there about what they noticed (as this was my first year at this event) I was told that was not unusual.

So, how does the world see your Christianity? Would those that knew you say that you lived your Christianity? If you were taken to court and accused of being a Christian would you be found guilty?

Greatness defined…

‘At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”‘ [Matthew 18:1-6]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I was younger, this text mystified me a bit. I mean, on the surface its meaning is obvious… innocence… simplicity… yadda yadda. But when you know children, I mean really get to KNOW children… they can be a real pain. Hence, my confusion.

I mean, frankly, while this seems like a lovely image… have you honestly ever met a “humble” child? Really? I haven’t. Children can be brutal. They clamor for status and primacy. Some of the cruelest people on the face of the earth I’ve ever known have been children.

So… what is Jesus saying here, really?

I’ve finally resolved that for myself, but if your ponderings lead you to a different place, that’s fine, too. Just thought I’d share this.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The disciples are in the time where Jesus is preparing them for His crucifixion. He has told them He is going to be killed, but that He will rise again three days later. He is extremely clear about who He is… Son of Man, Son of God. So, in the midst of sorting these confusing things out, they ask a question only someone in His unique position could answer…

“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”

Pretty big question. Pretty bold question. I suspect they were expecting a pretty big bold answer. What about you? If you had been standing there listening, or even if you had had the chance to ASK this question, what answer would you expect?

Something like, “He who does the will of the Father, He is the greatest…”

Or, “He who upholds the Kingdom in righteousness, He is the greatest…”

Or, “He who speaks the truth of God, He is the greatest…”

Right? I would. Or perhaps they were thinking of all the history… the patriarchs, the prophets, the judges, the kings, King David. Perhaps they expected Him to name one of those.

But no. As per usual for Him, He does something totally unexpected. He calls a little boy to Him from among the bystanders, and has him stand in front of the disciples like an artist’s model. He answers them in a very odd way. He does NOT tell them WHO is the greatest in the Kingdom. Instead (again consistent with how He usually does things), He tells them HOW to BECOME the greatest in the kingdom. (Perhaps that’s really what they wanted to know in the first place, bless their competitive little hearts.)

“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

WHAT?

I bet they didn’t see THAT coming! Remember, they’d just shortly before been at the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus, Moses, and Elijah appear before their very eyes, and take counsel with Jesus. Peter wanted to make a shrine on that mountaintop. So I am more than certain that when they inquired about heaven’s greatest soul, they weren’t expecting some little kid in the street!

So what was so special about kids? Or… what was so special about THIS little kid? What do kids have, that we don’t have? Why does Jesus use words like “converted” and “become like” as He points to this boy? How did this boy so dramatically “humble himself” that Jesus uses him as a model for the greatest in heaven?

Only in recent years have I figured it out. What do kids have, that we don’t? What did this little boy show, that we lose over time and must be transformed to recapture?

Trust

Children raised by loving healthy parents, learn “Trust” from the cradle. At least, trust of their parents. They learn to trust that they are provided for… mom and dad will make sure they have something to eat. They learn to trust that they are safe and protected… mom and dad will make sure others don’t hurt them, that they don’t get lost or injured. They learn to trust that they are valued, treasured, affirmed… they will carry on the family legacy, delighting the heart of their father, bringing joy to their mother.

As trust grows, obedience grows apace. When a child is secure that mom and dad seek only their good, their provision, safety, and security… parental directives are far more likely to be seen in that light. The child may wonder, or even ask, “Why?”. But the question is more likely to come even as the child is assenting and obeying, as opposed to the suspicious argument and immobility of the child who has learned NOT to trust.

Are there such children? Untrusting children? Those who have learned to be insecure, suspicious, perhaps rebellious and disobedient? Oh, yes. Both kinds of children surround us all the time. We adults, parents and others, can send a child down either of these two paths. Jesus tells us how in the lament that follows:

And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus didn’t pose as His model just a “little boy”, but rather a “TRUSTING little boy”. Why do I say this? How do I know this? Because the text says Jesus “called a child to Himself and set him before them“. Let’s see… Jesus calls on a stranger boy in a crowd, as He talks Kingdom-of-God-stuff with His disciples… AND HE COMES!

[Pause]

Think that through a minute. So… imagine yer a kid in the street. Maybe you’re alone. Maybe you’re passing by with mom and dad. Maybe you’re standing there with them listening to this (now) notorious or famous Preacher-Guy everyone’s talking about… and He looks your way with a simple, “Please come here a moment…” What do YOU do?

Ever been called up onstage for a Magician… or a hypnotist? Ever been there when this happened to a friend? It’s SCARY! But this kid COMES!

Why? Because the kid trusts Him and obeys Him. OR… perhaps it’s more accurate to say… this kid obeys Him BECAUSE he has been taught to trust adults in the first place.

This boy obeys, yielding to Jesus’ invitation and will, TRUSTING that nothing bad will happen to Him because of that trust. Or, he may have trusted that his loved ones nearby would make sure nothing bad happened to him.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Gentle Reader, I believe we’ve lost that capacity. I think the disciples, like ‘most all adults, had lost that capacity. We have to weigh the alternatives, look at it from both sides, consider the pros and cons, and come to a reasoned decision about what to do.

Want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Want to attain greatness there?

Gotta find another way to live. Gotta rediscover “trust”. Gotta get “reborn”, and then “grow up all over again”, reestablishing the sort of trust for God that we once knew as little one’s with our loving parents. When we do, we discover that God will ALWAYS provide for us, ALWAYS keep us safe, and ALWAYS cling to us as the delight of His heart and apple of His eye.

When we honor that trust in one another, dealing uprightly, sacredly, honestly with one another… we fulfill the promise of His last words on this. Sometimes, our trust is abused and we are betrayed. Sometimes, even though we walk  in trust honoring Him, we will be hurt by others. It is not our role to protect from that, or avenge it. Our part is to forgive. But Jesus is unmistakably clear that when we honor our Kingdom citizenship, living in trust and transparency, the King Himself, Our Father, will deal with those who abuse our trust.

Jesus closes with His lament of such foolish people…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Good news? Bad news? Well, it is certainly unexpected news… do you aspire to greatness in the Kingdom? Then aspire to Trust and Reliance on the unknown will of God. Trust Him enough to obey. Treat others as equally sacred children. And as gradually our trust transforms us into yielding to Him (as we lose our self-protective fear), watch what happens!

Create in Me…Secret Santa Worship Day

FullSizeRender

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51

This psalm, for me, defines what worship is all about.  It is through the process of “creating” that He inspires me to worship, drawing me closer to Him.  My love for God compels me to create (sing, write music, poetry, take photographs) and as I worship, He is at work within me- renewing me, purifying my heart, and filling me with joy!

Worship is how I connect to Him. I pour out my heart to Him and seek to know Him more. Worship is loving God, and allowing His love to flow through me in my everyday life. I am learning how to love Him more every single day…and that all begins with worship.

IMG_4293

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Romans 12:1

Worship in itself is an act of obedience. He is worthy of our praise- no matter how we feel or what our circumstances are because He is God!  I worship Him by allowing Him to use all of my life for His glory.  As someone who is a creative person, it is a challenge to “create” when I do not feel inspired…but it is through that process that He fills me.  Even though worship is not based on emotion- there is no greater joy for me than feeling His presence when I am sitting at the piano creating music.

For we live by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

This is a song I wrote based on Psalm 51 last week. Singing and creating music is a huge part of how I worship and connect with Him. Last week, I was not feeling very “joyful”- but through the process of creating music, He was at work- restoring the joy of His salvation within me.  And praise the Lord, today I can honestly say- He has restored my joy!

 

The Heart of Worship: Secret Santa Worship Day

Worship is such a huge topic; writing a blog post on “Worship” is a much more daunting task than I thought it would be at first. Whole books have been written on worship, there are magazines devoted to it, and oh yes, and people love a good argument on the subject.

I really don’t feel much like arguing today, and I don’t quite have the time for a book-sized post, not that anyone would read such a thing. So, with all respect for the proper technical definitions and academic discussions about the forms and categories of worship and all the rest of that stuff, I thought that I would simply share a little bit about how worship plays its role in my daily life. Now you must understand that as I do this, I’m not suggesting that your experience must, or even should be anything like mine, for God comes to us where we are, and in this respect, one size not always fit all. Rather, I hope that you might get an idea here, or maybe some encouragement to pursue His presence in ways that perhaps, you haven’t thought of before, if anything here makes sense to you.

The way I see it, worship has very little, if anything, to do with rituals or forms, even though it can be individual, in a small group, or in a large body of people; all are equally valid and important. Yet whatever the setting, worship is actually about a relationship, as opposed to a ceremony. You see, ceremonies are the inventions of men; there aren’t any “Christian rituals” in the New Testament that I know of!

Thus, for me, worship is all about spending time in His presence, at His feet, before the throne…

Sometimes, worship is a conversation in which I share my thoughts, feelings, challenges and/or questions or struggles with Him. Other times, I find worship to be found in serving other people, or sharing or in the message of the Gospel, or in giving. Yes, and sometimes I even find blogging to be an act of worship when I am sharing, in spite of my obvious imperfections, the Gospel or the Word with others.

Over the years, I have come to recognize that worship finds more situations, and takes on many more forms than I ever learned about in Seminary! Yet along the journey of a lifetime, I have also learned that worship is never found in certain situations, like when I am too busy feeling sorry for myself, or in times when I am fuming because I didn’t get my way in something, or when I am refusing to help another person. It isn’t found in a situation that I know I shouldn’t be involved in; you know, the ones when I’m off doing something I know I shouldn’t be doing. Yet, whenever I am doing something that I know to be part of God’s will or God’s purpose, such as sharing the Gospel, He is always there and I am engaged in an act of worship. I’ve come to the conclusion, after much thought and prayer, that this happens because worship is not supposed to be about me, what I want, or about my convenience, but rather that it is entirely about God’s will, God’s needs and expectations and accomplishing God’s purpose by serving others.

A reasonable person might read that last sentence and ask if worship is a difficult burden to carry through life, something that we must somehow do to please God, and to have over with. It doesn’t hit me like that at all, in fact it is the best of times in this life, for when we are worshipping God by living our purpose, the very purpose for which we were created in the first place, not only does He sustain us, but we are filled with an indescribable joy, the sort of joy that I, at least, miss when it isn’t there, the kind of joy I want to get back as soon as I possibly can.

That brings us back to the place where I began, talking to Him, a conversation, asking for people to serve, looking, listening and responding to His lead; for me, this is the heart of worship, whether corporate, small group or individual.