Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Seven Deadly Words of the Church

           “We've never done it that way before.”  Any church leader or board who has this as their mantra is on a one way road to death.  I know that’s a harsh statement, but sometimes we need eye-opening statements to shake us from our denial about how things are really going.  Jesus did not just change people’s lives; he changed the systems that kept people in bondage.  If we have no substantive spiritual growth, and no real evangelism occurring, our church system is giving us what it is set up to do.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem and took a whip to the existing system of buying and selling and money-changing, needy people came and filled-in the space where the vendors were.  Praise to Jesus by the children could now be heard.  Jesus, as he has done so many times before, healed the blind and the lame.  The Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ time forbade anyone who was lame, blind, deaf, or mute from offering a sacrifice at the temple.  The picture here is one of needy people streaming to Jesus to be healed so that they can worship God along with everyone else.  By engaging in his healing ministry, Jesus was attacking the establishment by making the way clear for all to come to God, which was God’s design for all nations and peoples to do in the first place.  Jesus will not tolerate a system that practices profiling based on anything, whether it is age or disability, when it comes to worship.  He wants no obstacles to anyone who wants to come to God.

            Any time any existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are.  It is a myth to think that when a church changes something, whether it is a new program, cutting an existing one, or introducing different ways of doing worship or ministry that there ought to be 100% acceptance.  When the American Revolution began only about 25% of the people believed that a revolution ought to take place.  Most were either loyal to Britain or thought fighting wasn’t the way to go.  After the revolution, you would be hard pressed to find an American who didn’t rejoice over it.  The chief priests and the teachers of the law were incensed and angered by the systemic change Jesus brought.  They especially didn’t like the accolades that Jesus received for cleaning house.  At its core, the real reason the religious leaders didn’t like it is because it challenged their authority, and they were jealous and envious of the praise Jesus received.  They tried to dress up their indignation and hide their intense anger with a question that was designed to point toward the fact that Jesus ought not to be receiving such praise.  But Jesus sloughed it off, identifying himself as the promised Messiah.

            Jealousy and envy stand in direct opposition to the values of God’s kingdom, which prizes humility and mercy toward others.  Proverbs tells us that envy rots the bones (14:30), and the Apostle James tells us that envy and selfish ambition is unspiritual and of the devil and accompanies every evil practice (3:14-16).  The real culprit behind the religious establishment’s system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is sin.  But in order to try and appear better than we are, people often confront another with something that is not the real issue. 

            Back in the Old Testament, Numbers 12:1 says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife.”  Miriam and Aaron were the siblings of Moses, and they had a problem with a black woman (Cushites were Africans) being a part of the assembly and of the family and worshiping along with the Israelites.  But the very next verse tells what they said to Moses.  Instead of coming clean about what their real problem was, they attacked Moses with a different issue which wasn’t the real issue for them:  “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?  Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”  Even the issue they raised was really one of jealousy and envy.  They were acting like the chief priests and teachers of the law in Christ’s day, and Moses was a Christ-figure, exhibiting humility and trust through the situation.  God acted by making Miriam a leper, a person who would be excluded from the assembly, and left her to ponder how it feels to be treated as Moses’ wife was.

            Jesus was all about alleviating any and all obstacles for all people to the worship of God.  He cared about it enough to attack a system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was, and taking on the establishment that prevented certain persons from coming to God in prayer.

            The way for us has been made clear through the death of Jesus.  He has removed the old system and replaced it with the new.  Hebrews 8:13 says that “By calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”  What is more, Christ’s death has made us clean, and as white as snow, having purified us from all unrighteousness.

            It is not our job to put limits on people on how they might serve or worship God according to race, ethnicity, class, disability, age, or gender.  The New Covenant demands it be so.  Jesus insists on it.  And, so, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise to him by eliminating any system or rule or practice which conflicts with Jesus’ ministry.

            It is an act of grace to be the voice of the voiceless, to work for change that brings people closer to God.  It is the grace of humility that helps us to keep questioning what we do, and don’t do, so that others will be blessed through our church.  We must keep exploring the frontiers of church ministry because we do not exist for ourselves.  Ego and hunger for power can get left at the door.

            May we be like Jesus, and be active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God by first having God clean out our own hearts.  May the seven deadly words of the church be replaced with a new set of seven life-giving words:  “We are always changing to reach people.”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A House of Prayer

Prayer is one of those things in church ministry that gets assigned a lot of value and importance, but when it comes right down to it prayer often gets lost and sandwiched in a worship service between the singing and the preaching.  Church meetings get the bookends of opening and closing prayer, with the “real” work of business and ministry taking place on our own. Our own contemporary reality of church ministry and prayer may not be far off from the ancient world.  When Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he strolled into the temple area and found a situation that disturbed him to the point of making a whip and driving out all who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice.  Christ’s reasoning for taking such violent action was:  “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”

This bit about Jesus in the temple sounds a lot like an old western where the sheriff strolls into town and acts like he owns the place, shooting up the bad guys, defending the women and children, and cleaning up the town.  This is a side to Jesus that might surprise some.  It can be tempting to reduce Jesus to one-dimensional qualities like ‘compassionate’ or ‘accepting.’  But this story reminds us that Jesus defies stereotyping, and that we need to see a fuller profile of who he is, and what he is up to.

Jesus is not just a merciful and modest king who graciously heals and forgives people; he is equally a mighty and awful judge who does not tolerate sinful systems and cleans house.    Because Jesus is superior over the temple and Lord of the church, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use.  He did not come to this earth to simply supplement our lives with some occasional answered prayers, to hang around in order to bail us out when we need it, or to help us get ahead in life with the thing we want.

            Instead, John’s Gospel tells us that zeal for his father’s house consumes him.  Jesus is all about pleasing his father and seeing that his church is what it is supposed to be.  It is our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around.  That will happen as we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and restore prayer to its place so that people can truly and genuinely connect with God.  Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw in operation.

            At the time of Passover all pious Israelites would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Cattle, sheep, and doves were used for sacrifices and the only place where those sacrifices were made was at the temple in Jerusalem.  That meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling.  Over time, a system was set up in which there would be vendors that would line the temple courts who would have animals for sale as a matter of convenience.  Since there were folks that came from a long way, often from outside of Israel, they brought their foreign currency with them and it could be exchanged at the tables set up by money-changers.

            This situation all makes a good deal of sense, so what is the problem with a little capitalism taking place by providing a service for the people?  Jesus doesn’t have a problem with capitalism per se; his problem with the whole system is that it should not even exist – these guys should not be in the temple at all!  Jesus attacked the system and made a huge scene because the vendors and money-changers, even if they were using sound business practices (which they weren’t), should not even be there because it trivialized the temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.

            Here is how the system was supposed to work:  coming to the temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient; in fact, it was supposed to be difficult.  A family would spend the whole of a year raising, for example, a lamb.  The lamb would actually become part of the family, much like a beloved family pet.  But when Passover came, the family would pack up, bringing the lamb along – to be slaughtered as a sacrifice.  The miles and days of walking to Jerusalem would be a sober reminder of sin, and a time of contemplation anticipating worship at the temple.  Coming to Jerusalem with no animal, just money to buy one would be like entering into the Lent season by paying someone off to not eat chocolate for you, so you don’t have to go without it.  It misses the entire point of the system, and actually hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer.  Jesus will not put up with it to the point of rather violently driving the whole system out of the temple.

            Jesus is not one to play around with sin.  He didn’t ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals and doves to sell them at cost.  Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was an act of terrorism against the right and true worship of God!

            It has been the sin of the Church through the centuries to find ways of doing ministry and worship by not actually doing it (just think of the Reformation and the abuse of selling indulgences).  We might feel good by coming to a worship service and giving money and going home without ever having done anything to meaningfully connect with God because our orientation may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice, using our spiritual gifts, and laying our lives down.  It is really a heart issue.  For example, we might give to missions, and that is right and necessary, but if we give without any real thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having Jesus clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts. 

            So, what sacrifice do you bring for worship?  What would we do if Jesus came in to our churches, started moving the furniture around, and driving the whole system out of the way we do things?  Jesus will actually put up with a lot, but the thing he will not tolerate is having obstacles to worship so that people do not genuinely connect with God. Not only was the business done in the temple, it was done in the Court of the Gentiles so that non-Israelites were not able to pray.  So here is the question that this story creates for us to ask:  Does the way we do things help people to connect with God, to pray, or does our system prevent other people besides us from worshiping God?

            In order to be a house of prayer, the first step is to identify any systemic change that needs to take place.  Trying to lay elaborate plans for a prayer ministry, or just trying to motivate people to pray in the church will bear little fruit until the systems underlying the lack of prayer are dealt with.  I wouldn’t suggest taking a whip into the next worship service you attend, but I would encourage us all to think about what changes need to take place that will put people in a position to hear God, and help them to truly pray and know God.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Ministry Legacy of Scrappy

This summer my family has had its share of both highs and lows.  Without question the most difficult experience of the summer for us was watching our nearly fifteen year old cocker spaniel, Scrappy, go from health problem to health problem which finally ended in needing to put him down.  He was very much part of the family, and my daughter, Mikaela, really did not know life apart from him.  As I have reflected on Scrappy, and his place in our family, he really taught me a lot about life and ministry.

            Recently I was reading in the psalms and was struck with this verse:  “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land, and befriend faithfulness.  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:3, ESV).  I believe that all God’s creation has something to tell us and ways to teach us.  My family has been through a lot in the past fifteen years while having Scrappy as our pet.  I can remember about ten years ago going through a particularly difficult time and not always coming home at the end of the day with a good attitude.  There were times I even wept and wondered if God was even paying attention.  It was in that time that good ol’ Scrappy, no matter how I acted or what I said would be so happy to see me that it seemed like he would wag the tail right off his backside.  Even when I yelled at him, he would just come up and lick me like I was the most important person in the world.  There is no one quite like a dog to embody the words:  befriend faithfulness.  If I could have just an ounce of Scrappy’s faithfulness I think I would be the best Pastor in the world.

            Then there is the matter in the psalm about delighting in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Scrappy was happiest and never more in sheer delight as when he was with the family.  I didn’t matter much where we were; he just wanted to be with us.  And that is exactly the thing that he taught me about going through those rough stretches of life – that no matter what was going on around me, no matter what the circumstances and situations I had to face, God was with me, and I could choose to delight in him in the midst of anything.

            Over the years we learned to trust Scrappy as the family watchdog.  He was actually the runt of his litter, and was really a wimp.  Any feral cat could have beat him up.  But no one knew that by the way he acted.  Scrappy would bark the living daylights out of any stranger, or make a growling gesture toward the packs of feral teenage boys that would seek to date one of my three daughters.  Yep, Scrappy was a keeper.  You could count on him to secure the perimeter of the house, and guard against any and all danger that might be lurking about.  One day we came home to find Scrappy going nuts.  I couldn’t figure out what set him off.  A few days later I was walking around outside the house and noticed that someone had tried all the basement windows, and damaged some of them, to see if they could get in.  That night Scrappy enjoyed a steak with the family.

            I know that I can trust the LORD.  I know it, in part, because a crazy old cocker spaniel that God decided to throw my way for a few years on this earth helped me understand what trust is.  God’s grace can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.  Has God taught you things about himself, and about life, in unconventional ways?  Through people you never thought he would use?  In situations you would rather not find yourself in?

            May we all learn together the enjoyment of God, as well as the nature of God, through all of life’s ups and downs.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Imitation of Ministry

One day, several years ago, while driving through an intersection, a car turned right in front of me and caused me to slam my brakes. After getting on my way (and proud of myself for not saying a word) my daughter, who was five years old at the time, leaned forward from the back seat and asked me, "Dad, is that guy an idiot?"

               Kids often imitate their parents in everything, whether good or bad. This is no less true for adults. When it comes to Christianity, the faith is passed on not just from individuals reading their bibles in seclusion, but is handed down from person to person (2 Timothy 2:2). Christians learn from leaders how the faith is lived out and practiced, not primarily from listening to sermons, but through imitating what they see.  It is good for us to ask the question: who do I imitate? We pass on things we learn from others, so it is imperative that we learn from the right people.

               Consider just a few biblical verses on this: "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us" (Philippians 3:17). "We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what was promised" (Hebrews 6:12). "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7).

               We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in the faith in the face of pain and suffering, and have done it with great humility. This does not necessarily mean that we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean that we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ and are not self-promoting peacocks who go after being admired and praised. Paul chose Timothy to go to the Philippian church because Timothy had proven himself as being genuinely concerned for others, and not for making decisions that would simply further his ministry career (Philippians 2:19-23). Timothy had learned from his mentor, Paul, how to cultivate a life of service to others rather than to be self-serving.

               We are to imitate those who have proved themselves in hardship. A Christian leader who has not undergone the purgative fires of trials in this life may more easily become seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating.  Put in this light, the choosing and electing of church deacons and elders is greatly important.  Just getting a warm body willing to serve is not really an option.  Perhaps it could be that many young people are leaving the church, and even the faith, because they have not seen genuine Christianity lived-out with passion and integrity among those who hold leadership positions in the church.

So whom will you follow?

What Christians will serve you well as good models of faith and ministry?

Be alert for Christian leaders who exemplify genuine meekness, selfless service, and are in the habit of being helpful and doing good to others. Imitate such persons.

If you do not have someone in your life you can truly consider a "mentor" in the faith, begin today to search for a person for whom you can imitate.  It’s not only biblical, but will change your life for the better.