Monday, April 24, 2017

A Gloriously Imperfect People - The Church

The Church receives a great deal of bad press. Her sex scandals and stories of hypocrisy make their rounds. Her "outdated" morals, "inconsistent" Bible, and logical lapses get attacked. Her members are pegged as judgmental, hateful, bigoted, and naive. At 2.1 billion members of various tribes and tongues, the Church is a big and broad target.
Not all the criticism is unfounded. Any social group includes examples of excellence and miserable failures. Look at any corporation, political party, classroom, or sports team, and both role models and cautionary tales stand out. The Church, and each of her local embodiments, has its faithful witnesses and fumbling wretches. Most of the members fall well within the margins: average, ordinary, up-and-down, inconspicuous examples of Jesus Christ.

Early Church was no stranger to this reality. As her story emerges in Acts, develops in the epistles, and runs her course in history, she displays humility in her self-critical posture. The book of Acts exposes sins of deception, division, and jealousy. The letters reveal a penchant for sexual immorality, disunity, drunkenness, favoritism, and pride. Patristic literature echoes similar correctives.

Such self-criticism does not excuse sin (e.g., Romans 6:1-2), but acknowledges the work of spiritual maturation is incomplete. By calling out these errors, without blushing, biblical authors do not assume holiness, but admit sinfulness. In fact, this awareness only intensifies their longing for Jesus' return, who would make them blameless, spotless, and glorious in his coming (see Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Corithians 15:50-57; Jude 24-25).

Somewhere along the way -- many blame Constantine or the Religious Right -- the Church's criticism turned outward. Rather than striving for God's internal cleansing, she sought to scrub the dirt off society. Rather than being content to live as a window into God's New Creation, she acted like a mirror of secular morality. Rather than bowing like a servant for public good, she took an elevated stance on political grounds.*

The time is ripe for Christ's beloved bride, for God's called out people, for the Church to reawaken to the Spirit's work within her (Ephesians 3:20-21). The long-term, tedious work of developing Christ-like character through corporate worship, shared life, and spiritual disciplines will put a fresh shine on God's gloriously imperfect people.

Bad press will not disappear--Jesus forewarned us--but good faith may triumph. If not now, when the bridegroom returns to put his finishing touches on his fragile people.

Come, Lord Jesus.

________________
These thoughts are inspired by a recent sermon: Church - Chapter 5 of God's Big Story.

*Certainly God may raise a prophetic voice or two for social causes, but the Church, as a whole, does not serve these purposes. Her mission is more about being a Christ-like, Spirit-empowered people (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 4:11-16), than propagating political and moral opinions.






Monday, April 17, 2017

Following Jesus at a Reduced Price

My mother instilled the value of living frugal whenever she announced her savings at the grocery store. Sorting through weekly flyers and clipping coupons was a religious act. The receipt at Kohls, with its crudely scratched circle over final savings, was sacred. I, too, learned to love the clearance rack, shop for lightening deals, and recite the mantra: BOGO.

Unfortunately, this notion of saving money and stretching my meager resources, at times, translates to cheap faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church against cheap faith. "Jesus bids us come and die," he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. This is costly faith: We cannot cut corners or coupons in our pursuit of Jesus.
A college student at our church has recently wrestled with "cheap faith" pervading evangelicalism. Following a sermon about "tensions" Christians feel in our culture, he emailed the following sentiments:

I seem to always conclude that something is off. Something is very wrong with how comfortable people are, and how just with the tension being felt right now, so many Christians are already getting weak and, like you said, they are drifting. What happens when the real persecution comes? How many Christians will there be in America if things get violent, if laws are created against God's law, and if people start to be physically and mentally targeted and attacked? I sometimes feel like I want that persecution to come [here], because maybe that would push me over the threshold of timidness or whatever holds me back from really making a stand, from really being different, from making excuses why it isn't a sin to see certain movies, listen to certain music, and such. I would probably regret it if that kind of persecution came upon us, but right now it seems like that would be the best way to get myself and the church to really recognize what righteousness and the pursuit of God looks like.

Last week I picked up the conversation with the student while we jogged. I confirmed his feelings and talked about keeping a pure conscience. Convictions and passions differ among Christ's followers, and each person is responsible to live according to his convictions. Complacency comes naturally in a culture of comfort and ease.

I cautioned against pursuing discomfort and pain as an antidote. Masochism and asceticism are no more discipleship, than weekly church attendance and lukewarm, religious affections.

We ended our run and conversation, committed to talk again about the cost of following Jesus. In the meantime, Easter has come and gone, and the shadow of the Cross looms large. Moreover, I've started reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, in which author, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield recounts the losses she sustained (e.g., lover, social connections, career) upon leaving her lesbian identity in pursuit of Jesus. Her conversion and Calvary contrast sharply with my personal account of debits. For your reading pleasure, I disclose the following costs of following Jesus:

  • a monthly tithe of a few hundred dollars, which I could otherwise spend on myself or family
  • several hours of sleep each week, given instead to spiritual disciplines
  • the prospects of a prosperous career in something other than full-time ministry (e.g., international spy)
  • the weight of conscience and the reduction of pleasure (including binge sessions of TV shows)
  • the restless concern for others, and not just what they think of me, but what they think and how, giving the opportunity, I might connect with them
  • a sense of purpose I will never fully realize this side of death
I admit the list is pious. Worse, it is remarkably painless. These costs comprise personal habits, at first difficult to hone, but once established, they require little notice to maintain. Giving a tithe does not feel like death. Skipping TV has not stopped my heart. Waking up early brings more joy than hurt. 
Jesus took nails for me. Bonhoeffer lost his life for Christ. Butterfield lost her career and more. Apparently I am getting a pretty good deal. In the end, however, I wonder how much I've actually saved?

Monday, April 10, 2017

I Farted in Church and Other Embarrassing Moments

I farted in church yesterday. The noise was subtle, but the PA system picked it up. It amplified the sound. When I muttered "Excuse me," I left little room for doubt. The pastor, indeed, broke wind.

To clarify, my flatulence was not live. It was background noise on the back end of a YouTube video I shot the day before. I've aired a reflection on each of Jesus' beatitudes during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. "Blessed are the pure in heart," started yesterday's reflection. Like each preceding video, this one closed with an invitation to meditate on the theme for forty seconds.

The infamous fart occurred as I recorded the last scene in my garage with my thumb pressed over the camera lens. I remember immediately thinking, "I have to mute that," but haste subverts short-term memory. I exported the video, uploaded it to YouTube, and left it with the A/V team to broadcast.

My rude reminder came in the company of my congregation. "Take a minute to meditate on what is beautiful, pure, wholesome, and holy," said my recorded self.

[Fade to black. Boost the music. Cue the fart.]

Pfft... "Excuse me." 


My meditations were cut short. A string of panicked questions ensued. Did I forget to mute that? Did anyone else hear? Do I say anything? Do I plunge forward with no remark? Do I blame the kids?

I was not sure how many people noticed the offence, so I played it cool. I feigned meditation on purity. I dismissed the kids quickly. I commenced with my sermon immediately.

All illusions of ignorance, however, dissolved as soon as I returned home. My children betrayed looks of embarrassment. "Daddy, why did you fart in the video?"

"You heard?"

"Yes, we heard. And you even said, 'Excuse me.'"

"I was hoping no one heard," I confessed.

Unfortunately, my family was not alone. My kids witnessed a family across the aisle suppressing their laughter. Later that day my friend told me his wife could hardly keep from cracking up. And at the close of Sunday evening, I received a text from a friend telling me he "heard a toot during the sermon."
I'm guessing most of the congregation heard my fart. My cover-up failed. My haste indited me. Purity of heart is no rival to a pastoral fart. Had I checked and double-checked my work, I would have avoided this party foul. But, alas, haste makes waste (and funny noises).

I will merely add this incident to my list of embarrassing moments. I once preached an entire chapel message to high school students with my fly down. I once made an awkward comment about my conjugal rights in a sermon. I once read a quotation from Augustine about boys playing with "balls and nuts" without a second thought to it being misunderstood by modern (i.e., perverted) ears.

I often sing off-key and tell lame jokes. (What kind fish is in the circus? Pause: An acrobat fish.) I regularly misstate dates names. (I've called Peter, Paul and God, Satan.) Weekly I misplace my sermon notes, Bible, or clicker during the service. And I always mispronounce words. (In fact, I once confused flatulation for flagellation when talking about disciplines gone awry.)

The more time one spends in public light, the greater his exposure to humiliation. Hopefully pastors find the occasional dose humility becoming. It purifies the heart, which is especially important when he's breathing in his own exhaust fumes.