Friday, June 28, 2013

Live in Harmony with One Another

The Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  That conviction highlights the great need for community.  We are not to live in isolation from our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, doing our own thing and keeping to ourselves.  God’s ordained means of working is in community.  We are to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.  To do that takes unity and harmony.

“Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16) quite literally is “be of the same mind toward each other.”  It is a both an attitude and a practice of unity and harmony based on our common confession of Christ.  In other words, we are to regard everyone in the church the same way – by not playing favorites, or looking down on others in a condescending way.   We are not to stick up our nose at others, but are to be willing to interact and minister to every kind of person.  The Apostle Paul’s thought here is that we don’t just hob-nob with the people who help us get where we want to go, or who feed our ambitions; we treat everyone in the church with the same respect and attention. 

            We cannot have harmony without unity because people are to work together for a common purpose in the church.  Being of the same mind and working together are not things that just appear out of thin air – there must be a great deal of effort expended to maintain them.  Paul told the Ephesian church:  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3).  If there is to be unity and harmony in the church there must be a humble willingness to associate with everyone, not just one’s family and friends; there must be patience and a willingness to lovingly tolerate people’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, opinions and perspectives.  Every one of us is unique and distinctive, and, so, we must not think that everyone has to be like me or that my way is the only way.

            Paul’s point to both the Ephesian and Roman church, churches that had very different people within them (think President Obama and Rush Limbaugh in the same congregation!), is that unity and harmony is not natural to us in our Fallen state.  Left to our own devices, apart from the grace of God, we keep to ourselves and only interact with those who think and act like us.  Unity deteriorates unless we make every effort at working together toward a common purpose.  Paul’s message to the Philippian church was to be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (Philippians 2:2).  Joy, which is such a dominant theme in Philippians, comes only as a by-product to the people in the church pursuing and working hard at unity in the gospel.  Conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel is to kick up a sweat for harmonious living.  To do this there must be genuine conversation, listening, and dialogue; simply stating opinions past each other won’t do for Paul.

            The Scriptures tell us to work at unity and harmony because we have this nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is really true, and of others what is not so good.  We often inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed this tendency to overestimate ourselves. For instance, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60 percent of students believed they were in the top 10 percent; 25 percent rated themselves in the top one percent. Learned college professors were just as biased about their abilities. Two percent rated themselves below average; 10 percent were average and 63 were above average; while 25 percent rated themselves as truly exceptional.  Of course this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: "It's the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person." Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, "One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves."

            As long as there is pride there will not be harmony.  The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly.  One of the greatest preachers in the church’s history, St. John Chrysostom (4th century Bishop of Constantinople), had this to say:  “If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress, but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

            The church cannot function apart from harmony.  Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Instead, harmony comes through a shared mission and purpose.  If we wholeheartedly pursue together the values of God-honoring worship, open and real fellowship, and a concern for outreach, then we will experience harmony.  A divided church is a church that has lost its sense of mission, and is confused about what values they are to embrace.  But a harmonious church knows why they exist, who they are, and what they will do together.

            But what if someone offends or hurts me?  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14).  The great American preacher of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, handled this from a Reformed perspective:  “Love to God disposes people to see his hand in everything; to own him as the governor of the world, and the director of providence; and to acknowledge his disposal in everything that takes place.  And the fact that the hand of God is a great deal more concerned in all that happens to us than the treatment of people is, should lead us, in great measure, not to think of things as from others, but to have respect to them chiefly as from God – as ordered by his love and wisdom, even when their immediate source may be the malice or heedlessness of another person.  And if we indeed consider and feel that they are from the hand of God, then we will shall be disposed meekly to receive and quietly to submit to them, and to own that the greatest injuries received from other people are justly and even kindly ordered of God, and so be far from any ruffle or tumult of mind on account of them.”  Edwards was saying not to get all up in someone’s grill about something they did or didn’t do, but to realize that God is working behind the scenes, providentially accomplishing his purposes.  We are to take solace and comfort in that truth, and not create division where there is to be harmony.

            The Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  Believers in Jesus are in this church thing together.  We are to view everyone in the church as my Christian brother or sister.  No adjectives needed to describe us - on-fire Christian, lukewarm Christian, super-Christian, or carnal obnoxious Christian.  Let’s just take responsibility for one another, for we are our brother’s keeper.  So, let us do community by working together in the common purpose of loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Showing Brotherly Love

We are to show brotherly love toward each other in the church and honor one another above ourselves (Romans 12:16).  That means that we do not play favorites.  We are to affirm everyone’s inherent worth and dignity in the church.  We do this because God does not show favoritism, but loves each and every believer.  God demonstrated it by the sending of the Son, Jesus, to handle once for all through the cross the divisions and pride of people who exalt themselves above others.  The early church father, Origen, the bishop of Alexandria, said:  “It happens that we hate things we ought not to, just as we love things we ought not to.  We are ordered to love our brothers, not to hate them.  If you think that someone is ungodly, remember that Christ died for the ungodly.  And if you think that because your brother is a sinner you do not have to love him, remember that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.  And if he is righteous, then he is to be loved because God loves the righteous.”

            Showing familial love toward each other and honoring one another means that we treat each other as if we had been born of the same mother.  To keep a devoted affectionate spirit means that we would neither purposely insult another nor be deeply hurt if someone insulted us.  Sometimes we are too sensitive, and need not take things said and done so personally.  When offended we are not to return insult and offense (Romans 12:17).  Nor are we to hold it inside and nurse a grudge, only to withdraw then run away when things don’t go our way.  We are, instead, to honor the other person by going out of our way to work out an issue. 

In our society today, like no other society before us, we rely on paid professionals to take care of problems and issues that arise between us.  In our country right now we have 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, 30,000 life coaches—and hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors as well. Ross Douthat, in his book Bad Religion points out that "Most of these professionals spend their days helping people cope with everyday life problems, not true mental illness." He concludes that "under our very noses a revolution has occurred in the personal dimension of life, such that millions of Americans must now pay professionals to listen to their everyday life problems."

            This does not mean we should avoid therapists and counselors (I myself have been greatly benefited by such professionals and I think we ought to avail ourselves of their services).  However, there are many situations and problems and issues that can be resolved by a healthy church dynamic of loving one another with a family love that listens to and cares for each other.  We are to be real and honest enough with each other in the church to allow others to care for us.  There is nothing to be ashamed about in sharing what is going on in our lives with each other.

            Pastor Eugene Peterson has said that “being a church member is a vocation, a way of life. It means participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God's grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who don't fit are welcomed, where neglected children are noticed, where the stories of Jesus are told, and people who have no stories find that they do have stories, stories that are part of the Jesus story. Being a church member places us at a heavily trafficked intersection between heaven and earth.”  In other words, we are to practice our given privilege and responsibility as the priesthood of believers, occupying a place between heaven and earth where others can come and find life.

            Having affection for one another in brotherly love and honoring one another above ourselves means that we will be persistent in our service and patient in our efforts.  It means we will share our lives and practice hospitality.  One pastor had this story to tell about a couple in his church (not their real names):  John and Julie were happily anticipating the birth of their first child, a son. They had already decided to name him Paul. But when Paul was born, there was a big problem: Paul was born without eyes. John and Julie would later discover that their son had other serious issues, including severe autism and a growth hormone deficiency.  Two months after Paul's birth, as John was looking at his son hooked up to tubes and sensors and surrounded by medical professionals, he quietly told God, "God, you are strong, that's true, and you are wicked. You are mean. Do it to me—not to this boy. What did he ever do to you?" Shortly after that prayer, John and Julie quit going to church.  But one couple from the church refused to give up on them. Karl and Kathy never pressured John and Julie about spiritual issues. Instead, they would often stop by and leave simple gifts, like a loaf of fresh bread or a basket of soap and shampoo for Julie. John said that it was like Karl and Kathy were saying, "I notice you. I see you. I know you're hurting and I love you."  Eventually John and Julie accepted a dinner invitation from Karl and Kathy. During dinner John told Karl, "You can believe whatever you want. I don't care. I have evidence that God is cruel." Karl softly and simply replied, "I love you, John. I have regard for you, and I love your boy."  Karl and Kathy's four children also displayed unconditional love for their son. John described it this way:

‘They'd throw [my son] up in the air and make him laugh and do funny bird sounds and—and that was confounding, because most people, most adults couldn't do that. And so I would have this extraordinary expression of love and affection at the dinner table here, and I would turn to my left—and there would be at least one of these children playing with my boy like he was a real boy. I wasn't even sure he was a real boy at times.’

Based on this family's quiet, persistent love, John and Julie finally returned to the Lord and to their local church. And when they returned Karl and Kathy stayed by their side, making sure their son made it into the nursery. John would later say, "They persisted. That was a big deal that they persisted with us."

            A Christian congregation is a compassionate congregation, devoted and committed to one another.  That means when someone shares something with you that is difficult and personal, you are to respond.  No response (no affect) is just as damaging as saying the wrong thing.  If we work at keeping our spiritual fervor and being joyful in hope, then we will have a compassionate response to people.  You can never go wrong with these three caregiving basics:  1) listen well (don’t give unsolicited advice); 2) show respect by allowing others to share their grief and tell their story (rather than tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel); and, 3) pray for the person right then and there.

            In addition to those three caregiving basics, you can add the following practical ways to show you are devoted to another in brotherly love:  thoughtful gifts (i.e. grocery or restaurant coupons); words that help (i.e. “I truly care”, “I appreciate you”, “Count on me”, “It must hurt”); special services (i.e. offer to babysit or do some chores); and, outings together (i.e. go to a baseball game together).

            So, may you express your devotion and commitment to Christ’s church through words and acts of compassion, kindness, and love that reflect the love of God.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Politics of Fear

            We all have personal fears.  They may be different, all the way from snakes and creepy clowns to public speaking and talking on the phone.  Whatever the fear, being afraid can multiply exponentially when a group of people collectively fear something.  When that happens, the politics of fear takes over and faith is replaced by what a church thinks might happen.  Most church problems and conflicts do not arise out of doctrinal differences, but out of a clash of fears. 

Consider just a few scenarios.  One group of people think women should serve in leadership capacities the same as men, and another group believes that women can only serve in limited leadership roles.  The former group fears that if women are not allowed leadership status that the church will wither for lack of fully utilizing the giftedness of half or more of the congregation; they fear the church will not grow.  The latter group is afraid that if women attain leadership roles that the men of the church will become lazy and not serve; it is only, they fear, a slippery slope to an all-female run congregation with no men leading.

A more obvious scenario is the so-called “worship wars.”  One group holds to a more traditional and liturgical form of worship with hymns and responsive readings.  They fear that if this form changes it will dilute the true worship of God and degenerate into an unfamiliar form that they will not like; they are afraid of change.  Another group believes that “contemporary” worship (usually understood as praise songs and choruses with a simple sing and speak liturgical model) is the way to go because they fear people will leave the church for another if things do not change.  One group fears change, the other fears not changing.

Fear is a reality that all pastors and church leaders must navigate.  And God himself knows it.  This is why the command to not be afraid is common throughout Holy Scripture. We find, as well, that the command to not be afraid is given often to leaders.  The patriarch Isaac was told to not be afraid because God was with him (Genesis 26:24).  The prophet Jeremiah was told to not be afraid because God was with (Jeremiah 1:8).  Jesus was pointed with the synagogue ruler concerning his dead daughter:  “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mark 5:36).

Non-anxious leaders help congregations deal with fear because their calm presence in the face of competing anxieties creates the environment that everything is going to be okay, that engaging in faith will work out, and that God’s promises and presence trumps all realities.  Before facing the conquest of the Promised Land, the Lord commanded Joshua to be strong and courageous and boldly engage the enemy, with the result that the people acted in faith and took Jericho.  David courageously and confidently faced down Goliath, and later led the people of Israel and Judah as king because he understood that the Lord was his strength, and, so, fear could melt away.  David’s best friend, Jonathan, acted in faith while all his fellow Israelites were hiding in fear from their Philistine enemies.  His courageous stepping out emboldened everyone else to win the battle.

Jesus Christ has promised that he will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  We have the promised presence of the Holy Spirit as we engage in Christ’s mission to be witnesses.  God’s steadfast love is with us.  Therefore, we choose to live above the fray of naked fear and trust the kingdom values of humility, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace-making in facing down whatever issues are gripping the church.  God, in his sovereignty, has ordained certain persons to take the lead in recognizing the presence of the Spirit and moving forward in faith, not fear.  Faith and fear cannot co-exist.  “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying not to give in to the politics of fear within the church.

So, how will you live?  How will you lead?  In what ways can you bring a non-anxious presence to the people for whom you minister?  How does knowing that God is with us change how you face difficult problems and people?  Can you think the thought that courage is a spiritual discipline?  How will you stretch your faith muscle so that the weakness of fear can take a back seat to your decision making?

May the power and presence of God’s Spirit fill us all now and always with faith to accomplish God’s will.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Loving One Another

The Church was formed to represent Christ on earth.  The Church is a new community of believers in Jesus, called and empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission.  Christianity was never intended to be just a personal faith; it was designed by God to be a community.  Community is not optional equipment for Christians, but is absolutely vital to every individual’s faith.  John Calvin said with conviction that “No one can have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother.”  In other words, to have a loyalty and commitment to God is to have a dedicated and devoted spirit to one another in the church. 

Since the Church is not a random collection of individuals but a community of redeemed persons with a common confession of Christ, it is love that is to be the rule of this new community (John 13:34-35).  Church ministry is to be governed by loving one another.  Jesus is the model of love that we are to emulate.  The love that the Lord Jesus demonstrated was a service-oriented love which is the compassionate meeting of a need for another, regardless of who that person is.  When Jesus told his disciples that they should copy what he had done for them, the washing of their feet, it included washing the stinky feet of Judas. We are to love everyone in the community of saints, and not just our friends or the ones we like. 

Loving one another means we will be realistic about community.  Idyllic views of church and community as perfect unity and harmony always working together and moving forward in mission while singing Kum-ba-ya isn’t very realistic.  Community is often as messy as a pile of manure.  But God is expert at turning the mess into something useful and productive.  He uses the conflicts, idiosyncrasies, and even sin to grow his people in a more vibrant faith and ability to follow in Christ’s steps.  Jesus has loved us with a love that took care of our brokenness once for all through the cross.  Because of that love, we have motivation to love each other (1 John 4:9-11). 

            This is the kind of love that we cannot simply will ourselves to do because it only comes as a grateful response for the grace shown us in Christ.  We need help with this love which is demonstrated in both action and attitude.  And, thankfully, God in his grace has given us the help we need to engage in godly love by providing his Holy Spirit to help us.  The Spirit energizes and enables us to love each other.  There are times when we may lack the ability or spiritual energy needed for the work of loving each other.  It is in those times that we need to check our spiritual electrical box to make sure we haven’t tripped a breaker by trying to live the Christian life our own strength. 

We need the Spirit.  People who are full of God’s Holy Spirit don’t walk around like Droopy poodle with no affection on their faces.  The Spirit gives us the zeal we need to love one another.  It’s just a reality that we don’t do anything in life unless we have the motivation for it.  The Spirit is like the Christian’s personal and corporate trainer, encouraging, exhorting, getting in our face, comforting, and spurring us on toward Christ’s way of love. 

When believers in Jesus are energized by the Spirit and loving one another because of their collective love for God, then the mission of world evangelization begins to take shape.  All people will know you are Christ’s disciples if you love one another.  The way we treat each other in the church is foundational and fundamental to the mission of loving our neighbors.

            The medieval mystic, St. John of the Cross, said:  “Mission is putting love where love is not.”  When the church has a healthy and even supernatural dynamic of loving one another, they joyfully proclaim the good news to every person that Jesus is the one and only answer to the terrible brokenness of this world.

            Community for us as believers in Jesus is not optional, but absolutely necessary to mission.  Lesslie Newbigin was a British missionary to India for forty years.  After retiring and returning to Britain, he found his homeland was very different than when he left.  He was astounded to find the British people were more like the Indians – the society had become very less Christian and was now predominantly un-Christian.  It was clearly a post-Christian society.  What to do about it?  Here is Newbigin’s answer:

            “I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation.  How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?  I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel (that is, the only way society can discern or interpret who Jesus is) is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.  I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one.  But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”

            This Christian congregation is the means by which a watching world will know about Jesus, if you have love for one another. The implications of community for our faith are significant.  If we keep other Christians at a distance and give them the stiff arm, we are really giving God the stiff arm.  Jesus identifies so closely in love to his people, that to love them is to love him.  It is fallen sinful humanity that keeps secrets and hides, making for themselves fig leaves to cover their nakedness.  It is not the way of love. 

            Will we take Christ’s way of love, and model ourselves after his life and teaching?  Will we give ourselves not only to Christ, but to each other because of love?  Will we allow love to characterize our life together to such a degree that a watching world desires to be a part of the community that we are a part of?

            The late African-American preacher E. V. Hill told the following story about an experience with a white Christian leader in the 1950s. Hill writes:  “As a freshman at Prairie View College (Texas) I was actively involved and was one of two students selected to go to our denomination’s annual meeting in Memphis.  The trip through the South was by car—three whites and two blacks traveling together. I had no idea how we'd eat or how we'd sleep. So great was my anxiety and hatred over how the trip might turn out that I almost backed out entirely …. In all my experience I had never seen a white man stand up for a black man and never felt I would.  But then Dr. Howard, the director of our trip and a white man spoke up. ‘We'll be traveling together,’ he said. ‘If there isn't a place where all of us can eat—none of us will eat. If there's not a place all of us can sleep—none of us will sleep.’  That was all he said, but it was enough! For the first time in my life I had met a white man who was Christian enough to take a stand with a Christian black man.” 

May the Spirit give us the courage for community.