Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Church Conflict

            Conflict in inevitable.  Put a bunch of sinners together in one place (like in a church building), add a few grumpy old people and not a few know-it-alls and sit back and watch the fireworks happen.  I think every church is about one or two good fights away from being non-existent.  It’s a miracle that more congregations don’t call it quits every year, especially after their annual congregational meetings!  I myself have a long resume of handling ornery folks, family squabbles, and cantankerous curmudgeons that could make your head swim – or just get you down right angry.

            When we peek into the bible, the Apostle James is blunt about where the heart of conflict comes:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it.  You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.  You quarrel and fight.  You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. 

            All people have things they want and desire.  When those desires go unmet it can begin to be a burr in our saddle that leads to a lack of satisfaction.  The focus then becomes not my own heart but another person or people that are standing in the way of my desire.  Within the church we have expectations, whether they are reasonable or not.  If those expectations are not fulfilled, we ourselves feel unfulfilled.  Someone has to pay.  Thus, passive-aggressive behavior, sins of the tongue, and bitterness begin to consume us.

            Let me entertain a question:  Are your desires and expectations so important to you that they have become your idols?  In other words, is your happiness dependent upon what another person does or does not do?  If so, you have crossed over into that arena of idolatry and conflict is not far behind.  In his fine book on conflict, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande describes the progression of an idol.  Conflict, he says, begins with some kind of desire, and if it is unmet, moves to being a demand.  Our idolatrous demands usually lead to judging other people.  After all, if you really care about me you will meet my desires.  Finally, the progression ends in punishment, typically by simply withdrawing from a relationship with the intent of hurting another.

            The only legitimate and biblical answer to all this crud is grace.  Finding our true and lasting satisfaction in God alone is the only way to deal with the idols that we hanker to bow down to.  John Piper has said that “sin is what you do when you are not fully satisfied in God.”  Returning to the foot of the cross and receiving the grace of God’s forgiveness helps us to not only experience personal contentment, but frees us to give grace to the people for whom we think stand in the way of how we think things ought to be done.

            So, before we point the finger at another person let’s first take a good look at our own hearts.  
Before we jump to interpreting and misinterpreting another’s motives, let’s examine what is going on with our own desires.  A good place to start is looking in the mirror.  Maybe today is the day that you need to leave your religious offering on the altar and go reconcile with that person you have a problem with.  Or perhaps it has been too long since you cracked open your bible, and you need to be reminded again that it is the person who looks intently into God’s Word that experiences freedom and is blessed in what they do.

            May the peace of Christ overshadow us all as we seek grace in all things.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Observing the Sabbath

             At a conference many years ago I heard the late Dr. Howard Hendricks, who was a professor at Dallas Seminary, tell a story of being picked up from the airport for a speaking engagement by a local pastor.  This pastor, in the course of conversation in the car, droned on about how he worked hard for the Lord.  He bragged about laboring seven days a week because, as he put it, “the devil never takes a day off.”  Dr. Hendricks’ was known for his pithy comebacks, and so he calmly replied to the over-functioning pastor:  “Gee, I didn’t know Satan was your model for ministry!”

            Somehow pastors and committed church leaders and servants have gotten the wrong-headed idea that working long hours and doing ministry every day of the week with no break is godly.  Needless to say, burn-out among church leaders is common.  Every day pastors walk away from their churches never to enter vocational ministry again.  Loyal church members might put so much effort into their ministries that eventually they quit, unable to do any more due to sheer overwork.  The pressure of responsibility, fear of failure, perfectionist impulses, and the just plain stress of dealing with people and conflict can all contribute to crack-ups and breakdowns, both emotionally and physically.  Those in leadership find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down.  But the irony is that the constant movement only leads to an eventual and abrupt stop. 

            There is, however, a very biblical answer:  observe the Sabbath.  And there is a clear theological reason for it:  God himself rested from all his work.  It sounds easy.  It is anything but easy.  Our society prizes hard work and self-sufficient behavior.  To need a day, an entire day of Sabbath rest is counter-intuitive to our current Western cultural sensibilities.  Some months back I asked my church to help me in keeping a Sabbath each and every week by contacting me and calling me, if at all possible, on the six days of the week that I am working.  To be honest, it wasn’t easy for me to say.  Furthermore, some of my parishioners didn’t like what I said.  They mistakenly thought I must not like my job.  People who don’t like their jobs have no problem staying away from work.  But most pastors, including me, love what they do and enjoy being ministers of the Word.  It is hard to stay away.  Yet, if we are to take the Scriptures seriously, all of us, whether preacher or parishioner, pastor or pew-sitter, will avoid loading up our Sabbath day with all kinds of work.  Instead, we will rest – really rest!  We will use the time to restfully connect with and worship God, take leisurely walks with family, enjoy good friends over a meal, and, of course, delight in a well-deserved nap.

            It is time to stop making excuses, engaging in ridiculous hermeneutical gymnastics, and offering crazy rationalizations for neglecting a very clear scriptural command:  obey the Sabbath.  For many a church leader, finding hope in the midst of darkness and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel begins with putting in the planner a weekly Sabbath to the Lord.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested Christians.  The Sabbath affords an opportunity to know God in ways that we cannot on the other six days.  So, may you rest well and know God better.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Loving the Triune God

Each year on the Christian calendar there is a Sunday set aside to especially focus on and celebrate the Trinity.  This year Trinity Sunday is May 26.  While every Sunday is a celebration of our triune God, Trinity Sunday helps us to remember the mystery, power, and beauty of the Father, Son, and Spirit – three persons, one God.  Both our identity and mission are completely wrapped-up in who God is.  We are baptized into the name of all three persons of the Trinity.  Our worship together is an expression of the unity and common purpose of the church.

            Everything comes down to God, to the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The distinctive manner in which we are to live is to be an expression of the triune God who exists in perfect unity, harmony, love, and mission.  Whether it is in our families, our neighborhoods, our jobs, or our church, God wants to exercise his very personhood through us.

            The Scripture says that our triune God is love (1 John 4:16).  His nature and purpose is love itself.  The reason we are to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength is that God himself is love.  As people created in the image and likeness of God, there is within us a deep desire to know and love God.  Yet, it is possible to lose touch with this primal instinct to love God.  We may be so familiar with hearing about God that we go about our days not really knowing Him, going through the motions of Christianity but doing it without love.  Like spiritual zombies we might walk about the earth, but are really dead to what is going on in God’s world.

            As Christians, our first love is Jesus.  We may live moral lives, operate with sound ethical principles on our jobs, and diligently serve family and church but miss the heart and soul of loving God.  Jesus himself said to the church at Ephesus whom had performed good deeds, that they had forsaken their first love (Revelation 2:4).  Paul put it this way to the church at Corinth:  “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

            We are able to love because the Father first loved us, sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, and gave us His Spirit in order to display God’s love toward one another (1 John 4:10-13).  As we think about and take the time to meditate on the blessed Holy Trinity, His love takes root in our hearts and then overflows toward others.

            We know from the Lord Jesus that all of Scripture hangs on the dual command to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40).  This has been understood throughout church history as the Great Commandment.  We also know from our Lord Jesus that the supreme task of the church is to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).  This has been rightly discerned through Christian history as the Great Commission.  We are, then, to have a “Great Commitment” to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.  Why?  Because our great triune God - Father, Son, and Spirit - exists as a community of love and desires that His love extend to every kind of person throughout all the earth.

            A crucial question for church leaders and committed believers is:  how do we, in God’s 21st century world, faithfully and obediently live into this calling we have been given by our Lord?  How do we effectively engage this primal quest of loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor? Let us all seek to discern fresh ways of being faithful to this fundamental calling.

            May the God who is and who is to come fill all our hearts with faith as we journey together on the way of love.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Good Life

The human spirit has within it an irrepressible longing for a better life.  We were originally intended to live in a garden paradise and enjoy God every day forever.  But when our ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God the world was plunged into sin.  As a result, we often have an odd hybrid within ourselves of genuine spiritual longing and just plain selfish desires.  We are primarily motivated by our vision of what the “good life” is.  For example, if we believe that power, control, and recognition constitute the good life, we will seek to gain whatever titles and positions we can to leverage and live that good life.  If we believe that health, safety, and security are the best means of the good life, we will work hard to make as much money as we can in order to pad our bank accounts for the feeling that all is well in my world.  If we believe the good life centers in faith and family, we will make sacrifices on behalf of church and family members in order to have some sort of satisfaction of a life well-lived.

            All of these options concerning what we understand as the good life motivate us to do what we do, and say what we say.  However, in the process of pursuing our vision of the good life, we might discover we been pursuing a pipe dream that has not produced what we thought it would.  What is more, in order to achieve our vision of the good life we may have did or said some bad things that have left us ashamed and holding secrets that we hope no one will ever know.  Our lives can feel like some sort of prison where we are locked behind bars of shame and despondency.  Deep down we know there is more to life than paychecks and obtaining more and more stuff.  We feel the sense that there really has to be something more than just sitting in a church pew.  There has to be more to rolling my eyes at family re-unions.  We might feel trapped in routines and rhythms of life that only re-enforce our constant ruts and habits.

            Actual prisoners, probably more than anyone, feel the longing for life outside the penitentiary which is the reason for prison breaks.  In the history of failed prison breaks, maybe the one that ranks as the worst attempt was a prisoner years ago at the old San Quentin prison.  His plan for freedom involved hiding in a dirty laundry bin, and when the laundry company came to empty the bins they would empty him along with the laundry and he would drive right through the prison gates in the laundry truck to the outside world.  There was only one problem with his brilliant plan:  the laundry trucks never left the prison property; they just shuttled back and forth between the prison buildings.  After a stinky ride, the prisoner went back to his cell and continued his sentence, having gotten nowhere.

            We might think we are going somewhere in our pursuit of the good life only to find that we are still imprisoned, locked away in a cell of shame, doubt, and fear, afraid of what others may think if they knew our past or our current struggles.

            But what if someone really did break out of prison?  And what if that someone not only broke out but came back as a liberator?  God in the person of Jesus Christ became a prisoner with us.  He entered this world with all of humanity’s misguided ideas and failed attempts at the good life.  Jesus talked about a different place, a beautiful kingdom in which there was love, forgiveness, and healing – a garden paradise of peace and satisfaction.  And he didn’t just talk about it – he lived it.  Jesus actually loved unlovely people, forgave sins, and healed people.

            But then something horrible happened.  This Jesus who provided his followers with a beautiful vision of the good life was sent to the electric chair.  All the talk of breaking out and taking them with him just died, literally.  This is exactly how the disciples felt in those three days after the death of Jesus.  Their dreams of the good life were dashed, and they didn’t know what to do.

            But that isn’t the end of the story.  With complete humility in facing death was an equal authority over death itself.  Jesus rose from the dead!  The prisoners can hardly believe it; he’s alive!  There really is new life beyond these prison walls of sin, evil, shame, and death.  Broken lives can be healed!

            The whole wonderful story hinges on three words in our English translations (Matthew 28:6) - he has risen (which is actually one word in the original Greek).  One little word has completely changed the course of history – and of our individual lives.  There is freedom in Jesus Christ!

            It meant freedom for people like Mary Magdalene.  Mary was delivered from seven evil spirits (Luke 8:2), and had lived a life far from God and was imprisoned in shame and dishonor.  The deliverance she experienced changed her life.  It was Mary who was there when Jesus died.  It was Mary who was there early Sunday morning at the graveside of Jesus.  Two women and no one else were there (Matthew 28:1).  Why them?  Because God wants to prove once for all that he relates to us all by grace and not by our achievements.

            The power of the resurrection means that broken lives can be restored; no one need live in a cell of shame and insecurity any longer.  There is a little Mary Magdalene in all of us; we all carry secrets that we are ashamed of that leave us feeling vulnerable and afraid.  The issue is whether we will let Jesus free us from our prison, or instead go about pursuing our vision of the good life that believes if we just get into a laundry bin we can get outside the prison gates and into freedom by our own ingenuity. 

            For spiritual prisoners who have been set free, nothing can prevent God from being with them in the person of Jesus – not failure, not sin, not other people’s evil, and not even death itself.  There is victory in Jesus Christ.

            We no longer need to be defined by our past sins.  We no longer need to worry about what other people will think.  It doesn’t matter because Christ’s resurrection has changed everything.  So, let Jesus lead us into his agenda of the good life – a life of unconditional forgiveness and radical openness; and, a life of joyful obedience to all of Christ’s teaching.  It is all possible by giving our lives unreservedly to him.

            May Easter be for you and me a powerful reality to live into every day.