reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “church life”

God’s Housecleaning

“It is wDSCN1165ritten…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” – Matthew 21:13

I recently read an article that made me wonder if I had time traveled back to the 1980s or ’90s. The surprisingly young author was calling Christians back to the social battles of the last Bush-Clinton era (are we really headed for another?). She unflinchingly used the term “culture wars,” and the article was illustrated with a young, tattooed and pierced couple respresenting the “Christian Left.”

I think many American Christians, myself include, now recognize the long detour we took to the wrong battlefield while that writer was still a child. Not that sin has become virtue; many of the things Christian leaders campaigned against 25 years ago were and are contrary to God’s laws. But to revisit one of my recurring themes, it’s not our job to save secular culture or purge it of what offends us. Our job is to call people out of that culture. No one should take my word for it, however.

What did Jesus do? He didn’t campaign against Rome’s corrupt tax-collection practices. He called tax collectors to abandon their morally hazadous profession for lives of integrity. He didn’t call for stepped-up prosecution of adulterers. He saved an adulteress from a stone-wielding mob, then privately, gently called her to repentance. And even as he spoke against divorce, He proclaimed good news to a serial, cohabitating divorcee.

Jesus was not silent toward institutional or cultural corruption. But when it came to that, notice where His wrath was directed. It wasn’t toward the Roman government and culture, which did what secular governments and cultures always do. It was toward the rot within God’s house: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the thievery of the money changers and merchants in the temple. And lest we think He called out only the Jewish establishment, remember His words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-18:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

The apostle Paul, too, spent little time on secular culture and institutions, except to seize opportunities to preach the Gospel to them, or to remind Christians of what they had left behind and warn them against backsliding or compromise. His first letter to the Corinthians, for example, was primarily a lengthy warning and exhortation to a morally crumbling congregation, and the second letter responded to the growing influence of troublemakers in the Corinthian assembly.

So if Christians as a body tackle any kind of collective sin, maybe like Jesus and Paul we should look within our own house. Are we being torn apart by factions, turf wars and petty feuds? Are we all about the bank balance while we turn our backs on the poor and the marginalized? Are we winking at immorality in our midst? Are struggling individuals, loved and sought by God, getting trampled in our marches against this or that cultural evil?

Some Christians may feel called to the fight against particular cancers in society. It’s certainly not my place to tell individuals what God is calling them to do. That’s between them and God. But as a body, we shouldn’t be making collective enemies of those who practice or promote what we oppose. We should be looking for Matthew, Zacchaeus, the ashamed adulteress and the woman at the well. And we should be inviting them into a clean house.

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What Would the Walls Say?

DSCN0563You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house… – 1 Peter 2:5

I must have driven by the old church hundreds of times without knowing what it was. Dense trees, brush and vines yielded glimpses of a roofless square of rough stone. The cemetery next door was completely obscured.

For several months now, volunteers have been reclaiming the church and the headstones from nature. It’s an artifact of local history recovered for a new generation.

The building’s front wall is intact, one side is gone, and the back is completely fallen into the sanctuary. The head of the preservation effort noted that it was engineered that way – to fall inward. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that the church builder looked ahead to the congregation’s demise.

A little is known about how the church began, less about why it closed its doors before the turn of the 20th century. What story would the walls tell? In the best case, the church had its time, played its part in God’s plan, and then He scattered it. But maybe like those stone walls, it got lost in a thicket of worldly entanglements (Matthew 13:7, 22). Perhaps it collapsed inward in a storm of petty infighting and selfish ambition (2 Cor. 12:20). Maybe it became a place where the spiritual dead outnumbered the living (James 2:17).

A hundred years from now, what will the walls of our churches say? God willing and if Jesus hasn’t returned, they will still echo with the praise of another generation of disciples. They will, if we keep the weeds cut back, each stone where it was placed, and the people inside spiritually alive. Because that pile of rock in the woods, fascinating as it is, should sadden any believer.

In the Grip of Freedom

Hiatt type 2010 handcuffs. Circa 1990s

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Bow your neck to His yoke alone, and to no other yoke whatever; and be careful to see that you never bind a yoke on others that is not placed by Jesus Christ.” – Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

A good friend and I went back and forth recently over tithing. He is leery of applying the concept to Christians; I argued for it as a powerful spiritual discipline that can deepen our relationship with God. This much I will grant him: you can’t hold Christians to tithing as a commandment or law that we disobey at our peril. We are “not under the law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14 NIV) And yet there are concepts and spiritual disciplines that Christians have carried over from the Old Covenant, some as if they were law. If we’re living under grace, what do we do with these things? Cast them aside?

I think it breaks down to our position before God, and our walk with God. A Christian’s position before God is as an adopted child (Romans 8:15), a place that once gained can never be lost. God’s love for us is unconditional; nothing we do or fail to do can cause Him to love us more or less than He does. Nor can we become more saved or less saved through action or inaction, once we have received adoption as sons and daughters.

But like any parent, God wants us to grow, to mature, to succeed, to live lives pleasing to Him. He gives positive reinforcement when our walk pleases Him, and sometimes discipline when we sin. When we live by Jesus’ teachings and refrain from evil, we meet the baseline expectation for a child of God. But can there be more? How do we deepen our relationship with our Father? One very important way, as Paul told the Galatians, is by loving and serving one another: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13 NASB)

But in that place where it’s just me and God, some of those transcendent principles and practices from the Old Covenant can come into play. These are ways of living that no longer bind us by law, but that remain open to us to enrich our walk with God – disciplines such as tithing, fasting and keeping the Sabbath. God won’t withdraw His blessing or lessen His love if we don’t practice these things. But they represent to me a kind of guide to How Life Works in submission to God. They’re not hoops to jump through or God being a killjoy, but treasures God sets out for us to discover, for our benefit.

A man I know owns a restaurant. Sundays off are out of the question. He struggled with this for a long time and finally spoke to his pastor, who advised him not to fixate on Sunday. Just take a Sabbath at some point during the week. My friend followed this advice. Unless the place was burning down, his staff couldn’t call him on that day. The respite did him wonders, and though he feared to take his hand off the wheel for a day every week, the business ran better than ever. He did something pleasing to God that he didn’t have to do, and he found a blessing and no doubt a deeper walk with his Father.

And then there’s tithing. The Bible tells us not to give reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). You may give 2% of your income cheerfully and with sincere thanks to God. I have no business judging you for that; you alone can discover God’s will for your giving. Beware of people who say God has told them what you should do. But in such areas, I believe God sometimes tests us – as with any test from God, to show us what He already knows. These tests don’t always have an answer sheet. Should I fast? When, and for how long? What’s permissible on the Sabbath? God’s answers may vary for you and for me and for different circumstances.

In giving, the scariest version of the test we can choose is the open book version, the one where the answer is 10%. You write that first check with a trembling hand, but the very act reveals how deeply God has drawn you into faith and trust. What follows will further reveal how faithful He is: “Test me in this,” He says (Malachi 3:10), an unparalleled invitation in Scripture. And like my friend committing to a Sabbath rest, if you accept the challenge, your walk with God gets closer.

In all such things we have freedom, but in that freedom I have found the pull of these disciplines to be paradoxically stronger. Maybe it’s because God first gave me the freedom to choose Him, and proved Himself so worthy of choosing.

One for the Team

Team Huddle

Photo credit: jeffk

“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 (NIV)

The team huddles in the locker room, catching the captain’s fire. The coach piles on inspiration and last-minute instructions. The players join hands in the center of the circle, shout their rallying chant, break and head for the door. They turn left as one and make for the parking lot, scatter to their cars, and head out for a week of friendly, one-on-one pickup games.

Huh?

That may sound like a recipe for forfeiting a championship, but the life of the church should look something like this. There’s a tension in the functioning of the body of Christ. We as believers need one another for fellowship and encouragement, and we need to gather for worship, prayer, and the teaching and study of God’s Word. When one is hurting, we need to love like the Louisville Cardinals love Kevin Ware. Yes, we are a team, but like no other in the world. The challenge each of us faces is not to help our team defeat other earthly teams, but to struggle in God’s power “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

That battle is fought on our knees. The contest we fight in the world is to add to our team’s roster, one name at a time. Most often, the work is done one recruiter at a time. It has to do with individual identity and group identity. When we relate one to one, each person’s uniqueness is in play, and the connections are personal. When we face the world as a group – and collectively confront another group – the overwhelming temptation is to pit the shared identity of “us” against the perceived, stereotyped and feared identity of “them.” It’s almost guaranteed to be adversarial on both sides.

There are healthy ways we as Christians can show a united face to the world: missions trips, food and clothing drives, events that embrace the community in a positive spirit. In these we can demonstrate our love toward one another – the way Jesus said we should be known (John 13:35) – and we can offer God’s love to the world. But even so, the real work is likely to be done as individuals connect in the context of believers extending friendship, help, healing and hospitality. In a personal setting marked by trust, the unavoidable questions of sin and the need for the Savior can come to the fore.

When we leave that locker room we call a sanctuary every Sunday, we should be primed for the one-one-one. We shouldn’t be heading for the arena as Team Jesus to take on Team Secular Humanist, or Team Gay Marriage, or whatever team stokes our fear and makes us want to close ranks.

Hypocrites Are People, Too

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'” – Matthew 15:7-8 (NIV)

"No drama" sign with the dramatic ma...

“Church is full of hypocrites.”

This refrain surely keeps thousands if not millions of seats empty in sanctuaries every Sunday. For some people, religious hypocrisy makes church truly distasteful. Others find it a convenient excuse when really, their weary bones want to stay planted on the sofa for the Sabbath. For still others, the real issue is indifference or hostility toward God, if not outright unbelief.

Whatever the truth behind the excuse, let’s be clear about a couple of things:

• Yes, there are hypocrites in church.

• All of them are human.

The “so-what” of hypocrisy in church depends on how you define it. If Jesus were talking today about hypocrites in the religious elite, I wonder if he might have used use the term “posers.” The word he used literally meant “actors.” He was speaking of a cynical, fraudulent religiosity adopted for personal gain – social status, power, influence, money, whatever motivated the Pharisees and teachers of the law in His day. So yes, if you see a church full of Christian posers, it’s probably best to stay away. Pray for them to one day find authentic faith. But unless God clearly calls you to be a light for Him in their midst, steer clear. If the poser is in the pulpit, steer doubly clear. Such a person has a long road to real redemption, as he’s apt to believe his own press clippings, even if he’s the one making them up.

If your definition of a hypocrite is someone who professes to be a Christian but still sins, still shows negative personality traits, still struggles with pride or prejudice – meet the human race. If you’re a believer, you’re still commanded to love those people, as they are commanded to love you with all of your foibles. That doesn’t mean you grit your teeth, shut your eyes and grunt until the feelings of love well up within your heart. It means you draw on the love the Father and the Son give through the Spirit, and you behave lovingly toward those people, personal feelings aside. You can only do that by being with those people, obeying the Bible’s teaching: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Also, ask yourself this: If you look around church, or any assembly of Christians, and all you see are hypocrites, what is the real problem? Maybe you’re holding your brothers and sisters in Christ to a standard that no one, including you, can meet. If we could achieve that standard in this life, we wouldn’t have needed Christ to go to the cross for us. Or as Paul succinctly put it: “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” (Romans 14:10 NIV)

If you’re outside the faith, and you say hypocrisy repels you and destroys the church’s credibility, then please understand the meaning of faith. The cross is not a magic wand that ends all sinning, nor is it a token earned through good behavior. It is, to use a well-worn metaphor, a bridge between us and God. Jesus’ death on the cross in your place makes you clean in God’s sight as soon as you receive the free gift – even though you’ll continue to struggle against sinful behavior until the day you die. Jesus’ resurrection ensures that your death will be merely a passage to eternity with Him, where all sin will be gone.

So if you see Christians still sinning, there’s a reason: they’re still human, still works in progress. Their bad behavior will give you no excuse when you stand before God. It will come down to one question: What did you do with Jesus?

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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