Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Best

This past Sunday, the “Mother’s Day” sermon basically boiled down to, make sure you give your children The Best, which is, of course, Jesus. The importance of our sharing Jesus with our children can’t be argued. I also appreciate the pastor’s reminder of the importance of praying for our children.

Other than that, the two roads largely diverged. Most of the sermon was on making sure that, as a parent (Mother especially, as Sunday’s theme reflected) you take your children ‘to church,’ preferably every time the doors are open. The pastor gave examples of upstanding Christian families who do this. One was a family who drives two hours each way for Wednesday evening service. Another was a family who had an errant uncle show up on a Sunday morning wanting to visit, only to be told no, this is when we go to church.

The pastor also made a big point of “serving Jesus.” It bothered me to hear this emphazized the way it was. The verse from John 15 came to my mind: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends…”

My parents made sure I was taken (sometimes dragged) to church nearly every time the doors were open. I grew up with the idea that God dwelled in the building (another basic misunderstanding promoted at this organization we’re now attending). My parents did not teach me by word or example about Jesus much at all in the home; he was someone we went to the building to talk about. Certainly the pastor was promoting our teaching our children in the home as well, but I’ve seen that the emphasis on making sure they’re in the building without fail can sometimes end up being detrimental.

Popular creationist teacher Ken Ham advocates the idea that we’re losing our young people from ‘church’ as soon as they graduate high school because we haven’t taught them the facts about their faith. Presumably, as soon as they leave the nest of their parent’s particular doctrine, they go to university where secular professors and heathen fellow students convince them that their Christian faith is a bunch of bunk. Thus, their ‘faith’ goes down the tubes.

I assert that in such cases, the rubber met the road and the tires went flat. There is a big difference between what you believe and what you KNOW. You can have belief in a set of facts and in a book all day long, but until you’ve experienced a Person’s intense interest in and care for you, it isn’t faith. Youth aren’t inclined to settle for duty and commitment the way tired, discouraged adults are. They are looking for the real deal – something that grips their heart irrevocably. They have already spent countless hours in the classroom learning about things they’ve never had hands on experience with at school. I say that the ones who leave, haven’t seen that the church is any different.

I think the best we can give our children (and everyone else for that matter) is to BECOME the message. How can we be Jesus to our child, or to an errant uncle who shows up on the doorstep on Sunday morning?

Uncle Joe probably won’t be impressed if we tell him we don’t have time to visit on Sunday morning because we’re going to church. Perhaps he wouldn’t think of going because he thinks he’ll be judged (and perhaps he’s right). Maybe we could invite Uncle Joe to church and if he doesn’t want to go, stay home and visit with him. Ask him how he’s doing, really listen to his responses, and ask if we can pray for him while he’s there. If not, be a good host and a friend, then pray for him when he leaves.

We can leave Uncle Joe in the dust and hope he’s impressed by our piety because we chose “church” over him. Or, we can BE the church to him, given the face to face opportunity, and offer him company and support. We can talk about the Message, but it’s more effective to BE the Message.

As for our children, how can we be the message, how can we be Jesus? I was plopped in Sunday school for years. I sat through hundreds of church sermons, mostly doodling on a note pad. I see bored teenagers yawning in this place we’re attending now. I see children doodling on note pads just like I did.

Sometimes, the traditional route works, and adults who love God credit their parents for making sure they were “in church” all those years growing up. I daresay that statistics reflect that most of the time, that isn’t the case.

Could it be that sometimes as parents (the collective whole) we have left out the most important thing, making our children feel deeply loved? If we don’t make them feel loved as parents, we can’t hope to lead them to a true and abiding relationship with God. They don’t just want to hear about Jesus, they want to meet him.

I also believe it is crucial that we straighten out the erroneous thinking that God/Jesus are primarily found in the building. If we don't really understand the magnanimous difference of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, how can we teach it to our children? God no longer dwells in a building, he dwells in the human heart.

If all they have distilled from their church experience that Christianity is about a bunch of facts, following the rules, being good, trying to quit sinning and showing up to a building religiously to listen to endless admonishments about not sinning and not falling off the straight and narrow, it’s likely they won’t want anything to do with Him, because they’ve never truly met Him. They feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods, led on a “Where’s Waldo” chase that has left them literally disillusioned. It happens. A lot. As the old Wendy’s commercial says, where’s the beef?

“Jesus?” he whispered as his voice choked. “I feel so lost.”

A hand reached out and squeezed his, and didn’t let go. “I know, Mack. But it’s not true. I am with you and I’m not lost. I’m sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost.”

“I hope you’re right,” Mack said, his tension lessened by the words of his newfound friend.

“C’mon,” said Jesus, standing up and reaching down for Mack. “You have a big day ahead of you. Let’s get you to bed.” He put his arm around Mack’s shoulder and together they walked back toward the cabin. Mack was suddenly exhausted. Today had been one long day. Maybe he would wake up at home in his own bed after a night of vivid dreaming, but somewhere inside he hoped he was wrong.

- from “The Shack” by William P. Young

Monday, May 3, 2010


Being back “in church” again is already proving to be a real "where the rubber meets the road" experience. I’m trying to remember the things I’ve learned and seen the past 2 ½ years out ‘in the wild’ and apply them as needed, back inside the walls.

I will say, the pastor at this place is one of the most sincere and good-hearted pastors I’ve ever met. I don’t think for a minute that he sits scheming over his sermon notes, wondering how he can make the people a little more afraid. I honestly think even the best of pastors in organized church preach some degree of “hybrid covenant” theology, whether they realize it or not.

This past Sunday’s sermon was on holiness. Early in the message, the pastor quoted the verse that says “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14) I didn’t actually keep a tally sheet, but in my subconscious I was ticking off each time he repeated this phrase, and I think it was up to 8 or 9 times by the time he finished his sermon. Even after nearly 3 years of not going “to church” regularly, each time he said this I winced. He raised his voice passionately, whereas my ears were already stressed by over amplification of the microphone in a small sanctuary. I felt like a hamster in a cage being given a little shock jolt.
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(While we’re on the subject, one big problem area I’ve seen over the years is the tendency for a teacher to start with one or two verses and make a whole sermon out of it, a whole doctrine, or even a whole religion. Other than “God is Love,” this rarely seems to produce a totally balanced and truthful picture).

We were reminded that we can’t go our own way and be holy, or follow the desires of our flesh and be holy. We can’t live a life of sin and say “but the Bible says I’m positionally right with God.” Remember, without holiness, no one will see the Lord!

I see a vicious cycle at work in most sermons I’ve heard inside the walls – the pastor tells the flock that God is grace, but implies that they better watch their step or they might slip out of grace. The people are afraid he’s right, so they keep coming back to hear more preaching on making sure to walk the straight and narrow, or else; which feeds their fear that they might screw up, so they come back for more preaching, so their fears can be fed again…

While the pastor talked, I read through chapter 10 in Hebrews. (The whole book of Hebrews describes what was accomplished by Christ). I think it would have been much better to focus on what has already been done. Like it or not, in God’s sight we ARE holy. We can’t erase this or screw it up by having a bad day or even a bad year. The trouble is, most Christians do not understand or believe this. It’s like we’ve all somehow gotten the message that Christ did not really accomplish too much at the cross, except to show just how angry God really is over this sin business and He had to take it out on Someone.

To be fair, the pastor did preach part 2 of his sermon later in the day, on love. He took us to the book of Jude where we are reminded to keep ourselves in the love of God, and he did preach that in its proper context. I think we listeners would have been better off if the pastor had stuck to part 2 and left it at that. If only pastors (and everyone else) would realize that our focus needs to be on our God, and his love - NOT on our sin, or any potential to sin, real or imagined.

The pastor summed up the main thing we need to know in regards to what holiness is: “Christlikeness.” We’ve all been taught in mainstream Christianity that God wants us to become just like Christ, who is God incarnate. But what is Christlikeness? The pastor described it as abstaining from sin and loving our neighbor. I can’t argue with either of these things, but is there more?

As I listened to the latest Into the Wild podcast, I paid special attention to a couple of comments made on holiness. Darin said that he thinks holiness is not just defined as abstaining from sin, because sin is not even a part of who God is. Holiness is so much more than we can altogether define. Darin thinks that our holiness is becoming more “whole” as in “whole-i-ness.” Fully ourselves, who and how we were meant to be as God created us.

I’ll ponder this one. Many earthly fathers seem to most want that their children not screw up, not get into trouble, to not do anything bad. They are also pleased if Junior is a “chip off the old block.” In other words, like Dad. There are numerous stories of dads who didn’t like Junior anymore once he decided not to become a lawyer or a doctor like Dad. This parenting agenda might produce results of clean-looking Dad clones in some kids, but totally alienate others. And I bet all folks who came out of a household of this parenting mindset have a hunch they missed out on a lot of real love. “Don’t screw up, and become like me” seems to be an incomplete picture of love at best.

Even with a book as good as “The Misunderstood God,” I feel like I’m gleaning great but still largely second hand information. The God described in this book sounds wonderful. But much of the time, it still feels like trying to hook up a seatbelt when the latch is busted. It doesn’t fully connect, it doesn’t click and stay put. Even so, I can imagine it might look something like this:

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illustration by Pamela Barcita

When a child is safe in her father’s care, she becomes the most beautiful, vibrant, whole and complete person she can be. How much more so with our heavenly Father than with even the best of earthly fathers. I don’t fully know this in my heart yet, but I can imagine.

Meanwhile, I will keep hanging on for dear life to remembering how important it is to focus on being first and foremost, rooted and grounded in love. As the pastor repeated that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” for about the seventh time the other day, I fixed my eyes on 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.”

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. – 1 John 4:18