Monday, December 30, 2013

Church Attendance and Other Life and Death Matters, Part 1

We are quickly approaching the New Year, and for many people, that means making New Year’s Resolutions. I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of such resolutions; but if you are one for them, or are considering making one this year, can I make a suggestion for one? Why don’t you commit to being a regular, active member of a local church? If you are a Christian, this is vital. It’s not an extra, an add-on. It’s at the heart of what the Christian life is, and it has increasingly become neglected in our society. Many who call themselves Christians NEVER attend a church, and regular church attendance has been redefined to include people who show up once or twice a month. Over the next several posts, I hope to convince you, if you fall into either of those two categories, that this should not be! And if you are at church every time the doors are opened, I hope to also convince you that mere church attendance is not even enough, that we ought to be striving for real community with our fellow believers.
            Let’s begin with that first step; understanding the importance of regular church attendance. There is simply no Biblical way to defend avoiding a regular gathering with fellow believers, certainly not for any extended period. Take a look at what Hebrews 10 has to say about this.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23:25)

Take a look at several things from this passage. I want you to notice the connection between perseverance and church attendance. The passage begins with a call to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” Now, notice what he says. We do so, knowing that God is faithful. I’m Southern Baptist through and through, so I believe in the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints,” or the promise that all those God saves, he will keep. So the writer of Hebrews says we should hold on, recognizing his faithfulness to us. Jesus has died for our sins, and he has created a way for us to have relationship with God. So we are to hold fast.  How do we do that? We get the answer in the next verse, with a positive and a negative command.
The positive command is this - We consider how we can stir one another to love and good works. So the means by which God causes us to persevere in our faith is by having us be around people who will stir us to love more and live better. This is how our faith grows, and it is how we hold fast. And then the negative command follows the positive one – we don’t neglect meeting together. We cannot stir one another to love and good works unless we are regularly meeting with other believers. And we will not persevere in our faith unless we are constantly stirring one another to love and good works. And notice what else this passage says. We shouldn't neglect meeting together, but we should encourage one another all the more as “we see the day drawing nearer.” What’s the point here? Our society says that church attendance is less important than it once was. Hebrews says regular gathering with the saints is more important. Every single day, it gets more important. The closer we get to the return of Jesus, the more important it is that we meet together.
Now, it requires more than simply showing up at church to make this happen, but it will most certainly not require less. God has given us the church, and one of the main reasons he has given it to us is so that we will last, we will persevere, until the end. If we ignore regular church attendance, we have no reason to think that our faith has the kind of legs that will last.
Does this mean that we must be at church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night? I’m afraid this passage does not go that far, much to the chagrin of some of my pastor friends, I’m sure. But what it does say is our meetings ought to be regular and not-neglected. So if you are a believer, look back on your last year of church attendance. Was it regular? Was it neglected? Might the New Year be the time to re-commit to regular church attendance? Could you set a goal to be there a certain number of times this year? I think it’s quite clear; this is life and death. It’s not simply an extra. Your faith depends on it.
Now, I know I have made this issue much simpler than it is in reality. There are a myriad of reasons why people who profess to be Christians do not attend church. I hope to address them in a post coming up in the very near future. I also plan to talk about the difference in simply being a member of a church, and committing to it in a way that will truly help you grow in your faith. Finally, I hope to suggest a few reasons when it might be okay to leave a church, with the idea that you immediately begin looking for another one. Be on the lookout for those posts in the near future!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Everything is Not a "Thing"

For many years, David Letterman had a segment on his show called, “Is This Anything?” In that segment, the curtain on the stage would be raised to show a performer of some kind doing an act of some kind. Most of the time, there was real question as to whether this “act” was actually an act, or just some random person doing something equally random. After a few seconds of watching them performer, Dave and Paul would then discuss the question, “Is this anything?” The basic idea was this: “Does this performance rise to the level of something of value?” Now, it was done purely for comedic purposes; the bit itself had very little value, which was, I think part of the point. Take a look here at one of the segments.

I say all of that to say this: I think it would be good sometimes if we Christians asked that same question: “Is this anything?” This is a question that could resolve a lot of stress in our personal relationships, in our churches, in our families and in our communities. Anytime we see ourselves beginning to get upset or stressed, to simply ask ourselves, “Is this really anything?” Is this the kind of thing that is worth the stress and worry I’m putting into it?
Let me explain to you what I mean: we live in a society that seems to want to make a “thing” out of everything. Far too often we are quick to rush to judgment about a person we care about, or a politician we don’t like, or a cultural issue that we disagree with. So my wife forgets she told me she’d watch television with me tonight, and I quickly assume that it’s because she doesn't care about my feelings. Or a politician you don’t care for says something that could be taken one of two ways, and you automatically choose to take it the way that makes him look the worst, or makes you feel the angriest. Either way, we're both far too quick to assign wrong motives to people, even before we could even begin to have a clue what their motives were.
            The Biblical mandate for avoiding this kind of rush-to-judgment is clear. Jesus said you are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) And loving your neighbor as yourself simply means giving them the same benefit of the doubt you would like for yourself from others. We don’t like it when people jump to conclusions about us. We should not do it with others. We must understand that this kind of neighbor-loving both believes and hopes and endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7) So as a Christian, I should prefer to be wrong about someone’s motivation in a way that believes and hopes in them rather than wrong in a way that cynically suspects the very worst of them. There is a time, and I think it’s fairly often, just to let stuff go. Everything does not have to be a “thing.” There is also a "boy who cried wolf" syndrome at work here. When everything is something, nothing is anything.

This kind of living very quickly runs up against our own fleshly desires, our demands for our "rights," our hopes to have things our way. And that's part of the point. As Christians, we don't have the right to be easily offended.
Now, Jesus told us to gentle as doves, but he also told us to be as wise as serpents. (Matthew 10:16) So this is not a call to gullibility for the sake of the kingdom. I’m not telling you that you must let yourself get burned again and again and again by someone. What this is, is a call to diligently hope for and seek the best in our neighbors, whether they be a wife or husband or mother or father or pastor or mayor or governor or president. Don’t automatically assume the worst. This kind of attitude has the ability to change families, to change churches, to change communities, to change countries, to change the world, for the better. Always hope. And be willing to endure being wrong. Go into this recognizing that you will be wronged, and you will be hurt. But love isn’t safe. Love doesn’t come without pain. Ask Jesus about that. And then ask yourself, in comparison, “Is this anything?”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Offended by What?

My Facebook feed is full of people who are offended by something. Maybe it’s something political. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe it’s religious. But I would guess one of four posts in my feed are about someone who has gotten offended by something. Right now, there are a lot of people who are offended by people are offended by their Christian beliefs. And they’re asking the question: why is everyone offended by us? What is it about our faith that they find so offensive. I hope to answer that question in this post.

I would argue Christianity is offensive on three levels; two of them are not unique to Christianity as it relates to the other major world religions, at least the major monotheistic ones. But the last one is quite unique, and what I believe separates Christianity from the others. It’s also one of the reasons that I believe Christianity seems to get an extra helping of scorn from some people in the world. Not the only reason, but one of the reasons. Finally, it’s the reason we ought to trumpet above everything else. It is the thing that makes Christianity unique, and I think, ultimately satisfying.

The first reason Christianity is offensive is because of the moral demands it makes on the world. Christianity says certain things are wrong and certain things are right, and this does not sit well with people who would prefer to set their own morality, be their own moral compass. Most people like to believe they are pretty good blokes and know right from wrong. But Christianity says there are many things that seem right to a man, but lead to death. Now, this is not different from almost every other religion. Islam, Judaism and Mormonism, among others, all say that certain things are wrong and certain things are right. And cultural winds shouldn’t really change what are timeless moral truths. Even when the cultural mores of the day say there is nothing wrong with something, Christianity says something else. So it was Christians, among others, who said that slavery was wrong, even when other said it was right (man were Christians who claimed to use the Bible to defend their beliefs, but these beliefs could not ultimately hold up). The power of the slave trade could not ultimately hold up against the truths of the Bible. So religions that make moral demands on people will always be unpopular among the larger society, for just that reason.

The second way that Christianity is offensive is because of the truth claims that it makes. Christianity claims to be telling the truth about the way the world is. It is not alone in this. Islam, Judaism and Mormonism all do this. And those truths can’t all be correct. They could all be wrong, but they can’t all be right. And those who say that each person can pursue their own particular truth don’t really get what truth is. There are certain truths that can be true for one person but not for another. It is true that I like Snicker’s bar. This is not true for my son. But religious truth claims are not that way. Religious truth claims say that this is the way the world operates. And if every religious truth claim is true, then none of them are true, or they can’t be all true when they conflict with one another. Islam says Jesus was a mere prophet. Christianity says Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. But of these cannot be true.

Again, both of those ways that Christianity is offensive are not unique. Every religion that says it is true and the others are not can be offensive to those who do not believe. Every religion that makes moral demands on a person can be offensive to those who do not want to submit to those moral demands. But I think there is a third way Christianity is offensive that is unique to the faith, and is really the essence of what it is all about. It combines the truth claims of Jesus with the moral demands of Jesus, and explains how he deals with them both. And it is a stumbling block, an offense to many, many people.

The main offense of Christianity is this; it tells people that there is nothing they can do to make themselves right with God, but it tells them they must be right with God. Christianity says that every single person is radically sinful, and has grossly disobeyed the moral demands of God. It makes this is a main, foundation truth claim. And then it says that man’s only hope is to cease his efforts to be good enough for God, and trust that God has already accomplished what needs to be accomplished for them, through the coming of Jesus. Christianity says that God decided to come to the earth as a person, and live a perfect life as a human, but then take a punishment he didn’t deserve in substitution for all the sins of the world. Then it says he rose from the dead, claiming victory over the forces of evil in the world, and breaking the bonds of death that held the universes in its grip. And it says that man’s only chance is to stop trying to earn his way to God, and to accept what Jesus has done for him.

This does not sit well with our natural minds. We believe that if we just try hard enough, if we just act good enough, if we just sacrifice and serve and love, then God will accept us. Christianity says the opposite. It says the only way we can find the ability to be good enough, sacrifice enough, serve or love enough, is to stop trying and accept what Jesus has already done for us. This the paradoxical offensiveness of Christianity. God demands that we obey him perfectly. God says that we can’t obey him perfectly. So God himself grants us perfect obedience through the work of his Son.

This is gloriously good news. It is freeing news. It calls us to cease from our efforts. It begs us to stop trying to be good enough for God. It grants us the grace we so desperately need, but are too proud to ask for. But it’s only given to those who are willing to admit their inabilities. And this is why it is offensive. No one wants to hear that they are not good enough. But God says we can only be good enough through accepting the work of Jesus. This will always be offensive to the world, but to those who accept it, it is life!


Friday, December 20, 2013

And another thing . . . .

I don’t know if you noticed, but the internet blew up yesterday. I am still cleaning black and grey beard trimmings ofF my keyboard, and wiping camouflage from my screen. The controversy over statements made by Phil Robertson, the now-suspended star of “Duck Dynasty,” has fueled internet traffic like few other things I've seen in recent times. I added a very small part to this with my post, “Outrage is Not a Fruit of the Spirit,” which has turned out to be the most popular post in the history of my little blog. But as I've thought about this situation, there are a couple of more things I’d like to add to that.
Let me start by reiterating what I said yesterday. If you are fired up about this issue, you have every right to be. I won’t stop you or even try to stop you. Instead of stop signs, I've tried to put up a couple of yellow lights, cautions to help you think before you speak on this issue. So this is what I’m doing again today. And it goes for not just this particular story, but whatever issue has hackles up of American Christendom tomorrow. Issues like this demand that we look at principals, not particulars. And there are some principals that I think have been missing from this discussion.
One of the things I think I have noticed, not just with Duck Dynasty, but with many, many “Christian” culture war issues over the last several years is this; there is a tendency to treat these issues as if the future of the world is dependent on them. The idea seems to be that if Christians don’t “win” on these issues, then we’re going to lose our country. So let me be clear here; if the United States is your country, there is no doubt you’re going to lose it. This kingdom is passing away, like every other kingdom in the history of the world. It won’t last. We Christians believe that we belong to a kingdom that doesn't have actual borders at this moment, but one day will. We believe that Jesus is going to return to THIS earth, and fix every problem and set up HIS kingdom here, and it will last forever. So if you’re trying to hold on to any kingdom that is currently here on earth, you need to understand that it WILL. NOT. LAST.
Here’s the thing. If you are a Christian, the promise you have is a BILLION years as a perfect person in perfect relationship with other perfect people in this perfect kingdom ruled by a perfect God. And when those billion years are over, you will have another billion years. And another. And another. And another. Forever. You will get happier every day. It will never get old. You will never get tired of it. Every single problem that you currently have in your life, or currently see in our society, will pass away. Everything else that happens in the world must be seen through this lens, because no matter what happens in this world, you have the promise of a perfect world to come.
            Now, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to affect change in our current world; that we shouldn't work for justice and making our society better now. It simply means we do it with the end in mind. We don’t have to worry about tomorrow. We can turn our outrage-o-meters down a few notches and trust. God wins. Everything will be set right. There is no injustice that will not be set straight. There is no problem that will not be fixed. There is no sin that will not be judged. And there is no kingdom that will not be brought down. We can count on this truth. We can live by it. And I'm pretty sure Phil Robertson would agree with me on that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Outrage is Not a Fruit of the Spirit

            The outrage machine is currently turned up to 100 over Duck Dynasty. In case you've been under a rock for the last 24 hours, here’s a recap: Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Robertson clan, stars of the A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty,” has been suspended from the show for remarks he made about the sinfulness of homosexuality in an interview with the magazine GQ. Some of what he had to say was a simple restatement of historic Christian beliefs. Some of it was, to be honest, pretty crude. But the purpose of this post is not to re-hash what he said. Others can, and will so much more eloquently. The purpose of this post is to talk about the Christian reaction to this “scandal.”
            Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: if you are upset about this issue, that is absolutely your right. I’m not telling you not to boycott A&E or not talk about it on Facebook or not tweet about it until your fingers hurt. My concern is people who scream about “Christian values” on the internet, but whose lives don’t reflect those Christian values anywhere else. Social media activism is not the same thing as sanctification. But very often, we believe if we are angry about the right things, then that proves we really do love Jesus. That’s not how it works.
            If you are screaming about A&E’s attack on the faith today, you’re a hypocrite if you’re not in church on Sunday. If you’re eating at Chick-Fil-A because of their stand on Christian morals, but you cheat on your wife and beat your kids, then it doesn't count for much. If you tweeted about Hobby Lobby yesterday, but are fudging on your time sheet at work today, then you really don’t get it. If you spend half your time reading about the latest Christian controversy on the internet, and the other half looking at porn, then something is not right.
            Growing in grace has nothing to do with posting, “Like if you love Jesus, keep going if you love Satan,” on your wall. I’m afraid we have far too many “Facebook” Christians, who live one life on their social network, and a completely different one in the real world. Maybe they can’t tell the difference between the two.
            The bottom line is this; let your reaction to culture be informed by your faith, but please don’t let it be the whole of your Christian faith. Growing in grace is not mainly found in what we’re angry about. It’s mainly found in how we love, how we serve and how we share the Gospel with the world. Outrage is not a fruit of the Spirit.