Ten Things that Must Change in Church

Follow Jesus. If we make it about anything else, then it is not church.

Welcome all. Jesus never discriminated against anyone, nor should we.

Be real. God created human beings. We should not be afraid to act like one. We must openly confess our shortcomings and never act like we are better than anyone else.

Embrace mystery. No human being can grasp the full meaning of God. If we think we can, then our concept of God is far too small.

Love unconditionally. We are to love others expecting nothing in return without any reservations. Jesus never said to love “some” of our neighbors.

Practice forgiveness. Loving the sinner and hating the sin will not cut it. Love simply keeps no account of wrong-doing.

Be ministers. We don’t pay clergy to be ministers for us. We are all caregivers, grace-givers and hope-givers to one another.

Never judge. Jesus did not misspeak when he said: “Let those without sin cast the first stone.”

Focus outwardly. It is not about getting people to come to our buildings, participate in our programs, believe our creeds and support our institutions. It is about going out and loving others where they are.

Take risks. Jesus’ love for others got him killed. If we make church about sanctuary, comfort, safety and security then we have missed the whole point of who Jesus calls us to be, where Jesus calls us to go, and whom Jesus calls us to love.

Consecrating Our Lives

cartoon on giving

Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV

Today is Consecration Sunday. Consecration—It means to bless, to sanctify, or to make holy. This is the Sunday that we consecrate the pledges that we have made to the mission and the ministries of this church for the coming year.

Now, how do you suggest, pray tell, we do that? Exactly, how are we going to make these pledges that are in this box holy? I know how some churches do it. They get themselves a holy man with some holy hands to make the pledges holy. The holy man simply comes, reaches out and everything the holy man touches is consecrated, sanctified, blessed and made holy. The holy man might even have some holy water to help really make some things holy.

Problem is: where are we are going to get a holy man? Does anybody know one? Look around. Does anybody see a holy man in this room? Oh, no. Don’t look at me! Wearing a robe with the pretty stole does not make one a holy man!

And you know better than that as many of you have known me a long time. I have been called a lot of things, but I don’t think anyone has ever called me a holy man. And the only holy water I ever had (if coming from the Jordan River makes it holy), was poured out earlier this month in our baptismal pool.

So, how in the world are we going to consecrate this box, sanctify this box, make this box of pledges holy, without a holy man or a holy woman?

Well, let’s turn to that place that all Christians should turn when they have questions about faith and the church. Let’s turn to the Bible, and more specifically, let’s turn to Jesus.

In this morning’s lectionary lesson, we find Jesus doing something he absolutely loved: telling a story. And not just any story, but a story about who God is, how God acts, and what God desires. And if we want to truly live in the image of God, the story is also about us.

Jesus said, the way God is, acts, and thinks is like a landowner who went out around 6 am to hire some workers for his vineyard. He said, “I will pay you the going rate for 12 hours’ worth of work: 120 bucks.” They agreed and went to work.

At 9 am, he goes out and hires some more workers, and tells them that he will pay them whatever is right. He hired a few more people at noon and told them the same. Then went out and hired some at 3 pm and then even a few more at 5 pm and telling them, “Come and work and I will pay you what is right.”

At 6 pm, when the work day was over and the time had come to settle up with all of the workers, he called up the ones he hired last, who had only worked for only one hour, and shocked everyone by paying them each $120.00.

Well, the ones who had been working for 12 hours started to get a little excited. “Boss man paid them $120 an hour! Let’s see, $120 times 12 hours, uh, that means we are going to get paid $1,440 for our work!”

It is then the boss does something that is even more shocking. He gives those who had worked all day the exact amount he gave those who had worked for just one hour. And you better believe that when they got their check, they got pretty upset: “We have worked out here all day in the scorching heat. And you paid us the same as the ones who worked only an hour in the cool of the day!”

The boss replied: “Did you not agree to work all day for $120? Or are you just envious because I am so generous?”

Of course they were upset because he was generous, too generous. He overdid it with generosity when he paid those last workers, and there was nothing fair about it.  It was shockingly offensive.

This, Jesus says, is who God is, how God works, how God thinks, and what God desires. In other words, this, says Jesus, is holy.

So what is it that makes something holy? According to Jesus, it is an amazing grace, an overdone generosity that is so unfair that it is shockingly offensive.

Now, back to the box. Once again, are we going to make the contents of this box holy? Well, according to Jesus, we do not need a holy man or a holy woman with holy hands or any holy water, which, by the way, is good news, because we certainly don’t have any here.

I believe Jesus would say that these pledges in this box are made holy by the way we give our offerings to fulfill our pledges, and by the way we use these offerings after they are received.

First of all, the ones who made the smallest pledges in this box have as much worth as those who have made the largest pledges in this box. And those who joined this church just a few weeks ago and their pledges, are as important to this church as the ones who joined this church 50 years ago and their pledges. No, it is not fair. It is shockingly offensive. But it is holy.

Secondly, all of these pledges will be made holy if the offerings that are given to fulfill the pledges are given generously and graciously. Jesus says that when the landowner paid an entire day’s wage to those he hired at 5:00, he was essentially paying for nothing. He paid for labor that he did not receive. Therefore, he gave freely, selflessly and sacrificially. He gave generously, expecting nothing in return.

It is interesting to hear some people say that they give to the church expecting to somehow be blessed by God. I cannot tell you how many testimonies I have heard from people on Consecration Sundays about giving a large offering to the church on Sunday, and then on Monday morning, opening their mailbox to find an envelope with an unexpected check inside of it. Or how after they gave to the church their business grew, their sales increased, or a rich uncle died and left them a bunch of money.

The landowner paid some of the workers for 12 hours of labor and only got 1 hour. Therefore for 11 hours, he paid for nothing. He got nothing in return. It is not fair. It is shockingly offensive. But it is holy.

Thirdly, all of these pledges will be made holy, if the offerings which will be given to fulfill the pledges are used to give to others, graciously, selflessly, sacrificially and generously.

We are to give to those who cannot give us anything in return. We are to love those who will never put a dime in our offering plate. We are to use our offerings to reach out to those and care for those who will never do anything whatsoever to benefit our church or our lives. They might live as far away as Nicaragua, West Virginia, and many live right here in Farmville.

I believe this gracious type of generosity that Jesus expects us to have is evident in the way we minister to children and youth: those little ones who have no job, no income, nothing to offer us in return.

Now, I know some churches will say: “if you minister to children and youth by having good and strong programs, then you will get their parents to come and give, maybe even their rich grandparents.” But during the next year, I believe God wants us to minister to our children, finish our basement, purchase children’s choir robes, overdo it with Vacation Bible School, buy some playground equipment, send some kids on a mission trip and send them back to camp, expecting absolutely nothing in return. It is not fair. It is shockingly offensive. But it is holy.

Fourthly, we are also to give generously to those who simply do not deserve our generosity. The landowner gave to workers who did absolutely nothing to earn their pay.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is a lot of talk in the media about giving. During this time of the year, many organizations try to raise money to help the less fortunate. In nearly every plea I hear, someone will say something like “Donate this year to a deserving a child.” “Give to the well-deserved needy in our community.” Through this parable, Jesus implies that when we give, we should give maybe especially to those who do not deserve, have done absolutely nothing to earn our generosity. It is not fair. It is shockingly offensive. But it is holy.

This is how we make this box of pledges holy. And we can do it without a holy man or a holy woman with holy hands!

Which brings up an interesting question: If we can make this box holy, if we can consecrate and sanctify our pledges and our offerings, can we then consecrate our lives? Can we make our lives holy? Can we perhaps be holy men and holy women with holy hands?

Through the parable of the workers in the vineyard, I believe Jesus is suggesting that we can.

To make this happen, I believe Jesus wants us to simply get over the envy that we possess by the overdone generosity of God’s grace. And I believe the only way to truly get over it is to understand that we are the recipients of it. We need to understand that there is nothing any of us have done to deserve or earn the gifts of God’s grace. No human being ever did anything to earn the gift of life: the gift of birth; the gift of breath and a beating heart; the gift of feeling the warmth of the sun or a cool autumn breeze or a purple and gold sunset. And no person has or will ever be able to earn, do anything to deserve rebirth, unconditional love, forgiveness, salvation, and life eternal. They are given as free gifts of an amazing grace and an overdone generosity by a loving God. I believe when we understand this truth that all is gift, all is grace, and when we embrace this truth, we will begin to live this truth. We will live it by giving our lives freely, selflessly, sacrificially and generously and thus live in the very image of God. And guess what? Our lives are consecrated and sanctified. They are blessed and made very holy.

Well, how about that! Look around this room. I see a room full of holy men and holy women and holy boys and holy girls with holy hands to go with, what we are going to make together in this next year, a very holy box.

Why Bother with Church (Renewing Our Partnership Mission)

church-why-botherEphesians 4

Over the last several years, I have talked to many people about church, specifically, about why they no longer are, or have never been, a part of a church. The four most common responses are as follows:

#1: “Faith in God is something that is very personal. Thus, my relationship with God is a very private matter between God and me and no one else. I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”

Then there are all the criticisms.

#2: I used to go to church. But I kept hearing church people say that everything that happens in this world is God’s will; that God is in control of everything. Then, some very bad things started happening in my life.” They will then share something like: “Our child was killed in an automobile accident” or “my spouse was diagnosed with a chronic illness” and then they will say something like: “So, frankly, if the church thinks all of this bad stuff in my life is the will of God, then I don’t need the church in my life.”

#3: “The church is full of condescending, judgmental, mean people who think they are better than everyone else. I believe in God, and I love Jesus and his teachings, but I can worship and serve God better by myself while having a cup of coffee on my back porch, or on the beach, a mountain or a lake, than I can sitting in church all dressed up with a bunch of hypocrites.”

And lastly, #4: “Organized religion has always been bad. Much of the hate and violence that has been a part of our world, and is in our world today, is because of religion. Not only do I think the world is better off without church, I am better off without it too.”

Now, during the first half of my ministry, back in my good ol’ Baptist days, I used to defend and make all sorts of excuses for the church. I used to argue with people who said negative things about the church, telling them that they really did not know what they were talking about. But today, in what I hope is only the beginning of the second half of my ministry, I am no longer defending the church. As a Christian pastor who feels more free than ever to simply tell it like it is, I am no longer making excuses.

Because the truth is that almost everyone I have spoken with who has given up on the church has made some very valid points.

Of course, faith is very personal. For God is personal, and I believe God desires to have a very personal, intimate relationship with each one of us.

And yes, I cannot agree more that the church is guilty of preaching some very bad theology. Preaching that everything that happens in this fragmented world is God’s will has led many to believe that God is an uncaring, immovable, distant God who is sitting on some throne arbitrarily pushing buttons making some very bad things happen to some very good people.

And people are absolutely right when they say some church people are condescending, judgmental and mean-spirited people who really do think they are better than everyone else. Some are arrogant, rude, pretentious, and are just not any fun to be around.

And, to the charge that organized religion has done, and is doing, some very bad things in this world, I will be the first to say: “Amen!” After all, it was organized religion that killed Jesus.

I believe it is time for the church to stop making excuses and honestly acknowledge that the church is certainly at fault for the number of people who have decided once again to stay home this morning or go any place this morning except to a church. However, although I believe the criticisms about the church could not be more accurate, I believe the conclusions that these criticisms have led to cannot be more inaccurate.

When Jesus went into the Temple and saw some very bad things happening, he did not make excuses; however, nor did give up on the Temple and stay home on the Sabbath with a cup of coffee to worship and serve God on the back porch. Jesus confronted the badness by flipping a table or two, telling the religious folks that they had made “a house of prayer” into “a den of robbers.”

More than anything else, not only do I believe the church today needs to confess that we too have been “a den of robbers,” I believe the church needs to rediscover what it means to be “a house of prayer.” And I believe we need to be the house of prayer that Jesus taught us to be.

Of course, faith in God is personal. We worship and serve not a static thing, not some vague idea or some spiritual force, but a very personal God who desires more than anything else to get personal with us. However, one’s faith in God was never meant to be, and can never be, a private matter.

There’s a very good reason that when Jesus taught us to pray, he said pray: “Our Father who art in heaven,” and never: “My father who art in heaven.” There’s a reason Jesus said, pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” and never “give me this day my daily bread.” God wants us to pray, not alone on our back porches with a cup of coffee, not in the park or on the beach, but together, as a community, as partners in faith and ministry.

Of course, the church has taught and currently teaches bad theology, and no one needs bad theology in their life. However, I believe everyone who wants to have a relationship with God needs the church in their life. Church is where you can hear some bad theology, but it is also the only place in the world you can hear some very good theology, theology that helps us grow into the persons God is calling us to be.

In spite of what you may hear a few people say, church is where are reminded that everything that happens in this fragmented world is not the will of God, as Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If everything that happens on earth is God’s will, then there would be no need to pray for it to be done. Church is where we pray for it together, where we seek to be the people God is calling us to be together, where we partner together to use our individual gifts and our talents to do the will of God together in our communities and in our world.

Of course, churches are full of people who can be mean; however, it is simply impossible for one to serve God better alone than it is being a part of a congregation with those mean people. Over and over in the gospels Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies and forgive others as we have been forgiven.

Jesus never said stay home away from people who get on your nerves, who push your buttons and pray: “Forgive me of my trespasses, period.” “Come into my life and save me, period.”

As we have seen for several weeks now, Jesus never calls us to a selfish, self-absorbed life. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, give of ourselves, partner up with one another, and together, pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, (comma; not period) as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Being a part of a community, especially with people who have trespassed against us, is the only way we have the opportunity to practice forgiveness, to love our enemies, to live as Christ calls us to live, to move beyond a selfish, self-absorbed temporary religion into a selfless, sacrificial, eternal life.

And of course, organized religion is bad, and many churches are bad; however, I do not believe anyone one is better off without a church.

Like all human organizations, churches can give into the great temptations of the world: power, exclusivity, greed, hate. However, instead of sitting at home and complaining about how bad the church is, Jesus calls us to join the church, to partner with and pray with the church, “Lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Being the church that God is calling us to be requires all of us praying this prayer together. And sometimes it may require someone summoning the courage to flip a table or two.

Nowhere in the New Testament are we taught that one can be a Christian alone, at home, on a beach, mountain or lake. We were not given life, grace, and salvation so we could have some sort of private, self-absorbed relationship with God, but we were given life, grace, and salvation, and we were given certain gifts and talents to selflessly partner with others to do ministry. We are called to build up the Body of Christ, to share with all the life, grace and salvation that has been given to us.

So, next time you encounter someone who criticizes you for being a part of a church, or the next time someone gives you an excuse for why they no longer attend church, or the next time someone upsets you at church and you are tempted to start staying home on Sunday mornings, remember the words of Jesus that we have been talking about during these last four weeks.

Jesus said, if you want to be my disciples, you must deny yourself, pick up a cross and follow me. Jesus is continually calling us to give ourselves away, lose ourselves, die to ourselves. Jesus expects us to suffer with others. Last week we read a story about Jesus praising a woman for giving away everything that she had to something larger than herself, all that she had to live on. Now ask yourself: “Where else on this planet, other than the church, is this type of lifestyle being encouraged?” “What other group is asking you to give your life away?” “Where in this world does another group meet together in a room where a cross, a table, a loaf representing a broken body and a cup representing a life outpoured?”

The church is not perfect and will never be perfect. The church often teaches some bad theology and has some bad people. Organized religion has been and continues to be bad; at times it is even evil. However, despite all of its badness, I believe the church is the best way in this world we can truly be the people God is calling us to be.

Renewing Our Stewardship Mission

faith and giving

Mark 12:41-44 NRSV

As we give some thought to renewing our mission to be good stewards of what we have, as we consider what we give back to God as a response to all that God has given us, I believe as Christians we need to consider the responses of Jesus to those he encountered who gave and those who did not give.

One day Jesus sits down and watches the crowd put their offerings into the treasury of the temple. Many rich people come and drop in large bags of money. Then a poor widow comes and puts in only two small copper coins which were only worth a penny. Jesus immediately calls his disciples together and says, “The truth be told, this poor widow has put in more than any one else today. While others have been giving out of their abundance, she gave out of her poverty, putting in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

I imagine the disciples being absolutely shocked by this, asking:  “But Jesus, isn’t that just a bit too generous? Everything she had? Don’t you think she was overdoing it just a bit?”

And I imagine Jesus responding: “Why are you surprised? Too Generous? Overdoing it? Have you not learned anything about who God is and how God relates to this world?  Do you know nothing about the grace of God? Were you not paying attention in Sabbath School or Vacation Torah School? The whole story of God is about God surprising us by generously overdoing it!”

Adam and Eve selfishly decide that they want to live in the garden on their terms instead of on God’s terms. In the process, they gain the painful knowledge of good and evil. With all of their sin exposed, in fear they hide from God whom they hear walking through garden in the cool of the day. But God lovingly and generously makes garments of skin and clothes them with a grace they did not deserve.

Cain does the unthinkable and kills his brother Able. He is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him, graciously protecting him.

Moses kills an Egyptian, breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But God surprisingly chooses that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

David not only commits adultery, but kills the husband of his mistress. Yet, the Bible surprisingly calls David “a man after God’s own heart.”

When it comes to grace, when it comes to love, God always surprises, shocks, and generously overdoes it.

I then imagine Jesus reminding the disciples all that has taken place since they had chosen to follow him.

“Don’t you remember the first sign of God’s grace that I showed you?  Do you remember what happened when we ran out of wine at that wedding reception? I turned water into more wine. And not just some water into a little bit of cheap wine. But I surprised everyone by making 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine anyone ever tasted. And yes, I admit it. I overdid it. But that was the point. It was the first sign that the Kingdom of God was coming near.

It is why I overdid it feeding five thousand people that day. Don’t you remember all of those leftovers?

And think about all of the stories I tell everyday about the nature of our God.

A farmer sows way too much seed. Most of it is “wasted,” falling on the wrong type of soil. But when sowing good seed in bad soil, you have to overdo it. And the seed that did take root produced an abundant, overflowing, overdone harvest.

A father not only welcomes home his wayward son, he way overdoes it with the hospitality. He says to his servants, “Quickly bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on my son. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the best calf we have and barbeque it. Then let us eat and celebrate!”  The older brother is shocked by the whole generous, overdone scene.

The Good Samaritan not only stops and helps a wounded man in the ditch, he overdoes it, by pouring expensive oil on his wounds, by putting the wounded man in his SUV, by taking the man to the hospital and telling the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my checkbook, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”

And then, in the greatest story that will ever been told, the one that I have been talking about for months that you still don’t quite understand. For God so loved the world that has sent the very best gift that God had to send into the world, all that God had, all that God was and is, all that God had to live on, the gift of God’s life. But the world is going to reject this gift. The shocking, overdone grace of it is too much for this sinful world to handle. They are going to torture, humiliate, and kill this gift in the most painful and degrading of ways.  But three days later, God will transform death into life, forgiving the sins of the entire world, proving once and for all, that when it comes to grace, there is something built right into the very nature of God always generously overdoes it.

The question for each of us as we think about stewardship is: how have we responded to this grace? As people who have been called to inherit the generous, self-giving nature of God, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live? How do we give? Are we stingy with our love?  Are we miserly with forgiveness? Do we scrimp on grace? Are we tight-fisted with the good news? When it comes to giving to God, when is the last time any of us have generously overdone it?

When we talk about stewardship in the church, Christians love to talk about tithing: giving ten percent of one’s income to the church. We keep 90% and give God 10%. There are a few verses in the Old Testament that allude to it. It seems reasonable, comfortable enough. So we pick out those verses, and we preach it. The problem is: Jesus and the entirety of the Holy Scriptures never once even hint that, when it comes to giving, when it comes to responding to grace, God wants us to be reasonable and comfortable. And when God gave to us, thank God that God was not reasonable. Thank God that God did not remain in the comfort of some heavenly cloud. God came. God emptied and poured out God’s very self. When God gave, God overdid it. God gave it all.

Thus, Jesus never talked about giving ten-percent. He talked about giving it all. The entire Bible says when we give, God expects us to overdo it.

We all know what it means to overdo it. And the sacrifice that overdoing it requires. We have all said it. “I better tighten the old purse strings, because I really overdid on vacation last week.” “We better not go on that ski trip in January, because we really overdid it this year on Christmas.”

We overdo it at the mall. We overdo it at the spa. We overdo it in restaurants. We overdo it on trips. We overdo it at the beach. But when have we ever overdone it at church?

“We better skip going out for lunch today and go home and eat some leftovers, because when that offering plate came my way today, I really overdid it.”

“I don’t think I am going to take that trip this year, because I am really going to overdo it with my pledge to the church.”

Giving ten percent for some may be overdoing it. For others, it might be a sacrifice to give 5%. However, for others, giving 10% may be simply reasonable and comfortable. For some, giving 25% is still reasonably comfortable.

And I believe we all know that God does not want us to be the reasonable, comfortable church on the corner of Church and Main. When it comes to giving to others, when it comes to love, when it comes to grace, when it comes to selfless ministry in our community and in our world, God wants us to be a church that overdoes it in just about everything we do.

One day as Jesus is setting out on a journey a man runs up to him, kneels down at his feet and asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this he was shocked and probably silently  responded: “Isn’t that overdoing it a bit?” And he went away grieving, for he had many possessions (Mark 10:17-31).

A very wealthy member of the church was asked by the minister to share a brief testimony during worship about why he believed in stewardship. He agreed. It was the Sunday before the pledge cards were due. He stood up in front of the congregation and said: “You all know me to be a man of great wealth. And it is true. I am a millionaire. But I want to say that I attribute it all to something I did in church as a young boy. I had just earned my first dollar for feeding my neighbors’ dog while they were on vacation. I went to church and there was a missionary speaking. He challenged us to give sacrificially to the work of missions, and since I only had one dollar, I knew that I either had to give all of it to God or none of it. So at that moment, I made a decision. I decided to give my whole dollar, the first money I’d ever earned, all that I had, to God. I believe God blessed that decision and that is why I’m a millionaire today.”

The gentleman made his way back to his seat and there was a sort of awed silence in the room at the power of his testimony. But just as he was sitting down, a little old lady sitting in the pew behind him, leaned over to the man, and in a loud whisper that could be heard throughout the entire sanctuary said, “I dare you to do it again!”

Sermon Excerpts about Church

As we renew our mission to be the church, here are some thoughts about the church from a year’s worth of sermons.

Be the church

Going solo with faith

I have a confession to make. During my break from pastoral ministry, I often felt the temptation to go solo with my faith. I would go for a Sunday morning run along the Tar River in Greenville. There, I would pray and enjoy being alive in God’s creation, and think to myself, “This is the way to do church! There is no one to disagree with me. There is no one sharing their problems with me, making me uncomfortable, and taking up my time. And I must confess, it was rather nice!

However, I must also confess it was very selfish. It was arrogant, and it was self-righteous. The truth is: it was the very antithesis of who Jesus calls us to be as his disciples.

From People Grumble But Angels Sing

The church is the light of the world

We are to shine our lights by lifting up, accepting and caring for all people, especially those the world leaves behind. We are to light it up by loving, accepting, and caring for the least among us: the poor, the weak, those who need mercy, the marginalized who hunger and thirst for justice, the obviously flawed but pure in heart, and the troubled who yearn for peace.

Will we look like fools? You bet. Will people say that the way we accept and love and affirm others is socially and even theologically unacceptable? It’s likely. Will we be demeaned and even persecuted by others in the community, even other churches? Perhaps.

From Light It Up

Got Jesus? Oh God, I hope not!

If Jesus is something or even someone that we get, then church becomes just another product whose members are mere consumers. Thus, like going to a store, the spa, or the local cineplex, church becomes some place we go to get something. Some go to get fed. Others go to get nurtured and pampered. Some go to get entertained.

However, if it is Jesus who gets us, if Jesus is about us giving ourselves to the God revealed in Christ, then church means a radical, self-denying, sacrificial way of living.

If Jesus is about giving one’s life away, then the church becomes something much more than a self-help center offering self-improvement workshops.

Wednesday night becomes less of a time to get fed, physically and spiritually, and more of a time to pray for others, celebrate the joys of life with others, and even suffer with others. It becomes a time to build a community of selfless love and forgiveness with others. Bible study becomes less of a time to acquire more biblical knowledge than others and more of a time to consider how the scriptures inform our service to others.

Sunday morning becomes less about what God has to offer us and more about what we have to offer God.  When we eat the bread, we do not consume it. When we drink from the cup, we do not merely swallow it. We allow it to consume and swallow us, every part of us. And we commit ourselves to presenting our own bodies as living sacrifices for others, pouring our very selves out for others in the name of the God who emptied God’s self out for us.

And every day of the week, we become more than Christians who possess exclusive tickets to heaven in hand. We become the Light of the World.

Got Jesus? O God, for the sake of this community and for sake of this world, I pray not. Amen.

From Got Jesus?

 It only takes a spark

The truth is, when our church becomes nothing but a safe, static sanctuary, a place of secure stability where nothing really ever changes, where we can cool off, cool down and just for sixty-minutes a week, chill out, we are not fulfilling our purpose as the children of a dynamic, dancing God.  We are not the incendiary force that Jesus ignites us to be.  And we are one boring sight—to God as well as to the world.

Yet, when we be become ignited, fired up, disrupted, when we allow ourselves to be engaged by the Christ, when we truly decide to follow him, each of us using the gifts we have been given by the fiery Holy Spirit to serve him, to truly love all people, to meet the needs of our community; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in God’s dance, discover God’s purpose, we become a purifying and warming blaze, and it is, I promise you, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.

When others see that that we look like the fiery Holy Spirit of Jesus—when they see us mowing a neighbor’s lawn, growing fresh vegetables for the needy, serving the soup kitchen, giving to help the poor in our community with rent and utilities, delivering meals on wheels to the elderly, adopting a nursing home resident, planning to help repair a stranger’s home in West Virginia, going back to Nicaragua, when they read on our sign, “All Are Welcomed to Worship and to Serve”, when they see that we are always willing to change and adapt, even reorganize—others will want to join us and serve alongside us.

From I Smell Smoke

The church is in the clothing business

I believe with all of my heart that this is one of our primary purposes as a community of faith. We are to always be a community of grace. If people cannot come through the doors of the church and take off their masks, stop the charade, and honestly lay bare all of their sin and all of their grief, knowing that they will never be judged, looked down upon or condemned, then I do not believe we are a church. I am not sure what type of business we’re running, but we are not a church, we are not a community of grace. As a church we are to always be in the business of yearning to meet people where they are, so we can be with them, so we can walk alongside of them, so we can listen to them, learn from them, forgive them and love them.

From Grace in Genesis: Adam and Eve

The first word people should hear from the church

The first word they hear from the church should never be judgment, condemnation or some loud, angry, hate-filled rant or protest. It should never be that God took her or snatched him, or is punishing them, or trying to get their attention because of some sin. No, the first word they need to hear from us is “peace.”  They need to hear God say, “Peace. My peace I give to you. You are my sons. You are my daughters, I have always loved you.  I still love you. I will love you forever. I am here with you and for you, always working all things together for the good.”

I believe people in our world who have locked their doors to the church are thirsting for this peace. They are thirsting for a group of people in our world that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial love and service to others. They are thirsting for a church that seeks to be, not an institution, but the living embodiment of Christ in this world, serving the poor, and those whom society has marginalized, offering grace, acceptance, love and peace.

From The First Easter Word

We learn from others

Dare to leave your comfort zone to minster to those who are struggling somewhere in a foreign state, but when you go, it is important to realize that you do not go as if you are one with all of the answers, possessing all of the faith, going out as if on a crusade to save all those with less faith. Because oftentimes, says Jesus, it is the one living on the edge, the foreigner, who can teach us a thing or two about faith in God and salvation.

From Welcome Home! Too Bad You Can’t Stay

Embracing Diversity

Therefore, if we ever act or speak in any manner that denigrates or dehumanizes another because of their race, language, nationality or ethnicity, we are actually disparaging the God who willed such diversity. According to Genesis, diversity is not to be feared, avoided, prevented or lynched. If we want to do the will of God our creator and redeemer, diversity is to be embraced. In other words, if we love God, we will also love our neighbor. And this is what God wants us to be united by. It is why Jesus called it the greatest commandment—love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Love is what should unite us; not racial pride or patriotism.

From Grace in Genesis: Tower of Babel

Allowing the words and works of Jesus to interpret the Bible for us

From Baptism Obstacles

The world would be a much better place today if more people understood that the Bible needs to be interpreted. I do not believe God ever intended for people, on his or her own, to pick up the Bible, and arbitrarily lift scripture passages out of their contexts, and try to understand it or follow it. I believe this is one of the reasons that baptism statistics are in such a decline today. Too many Christians are using the Bible out of context to support all kinds of hate and injustice. And because of that there are countless people in this world, countless people in this community, who are the victims of bad religion. They feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the church. They have been taught their entire lives that God despises them. They have no idea that God loves them and has a future for them— All because no one has interpreted the Bible pointing to the Jesus who came into the world, not to condemn the world by to save the world, to love the world.

Luke tells us that the Spirit had to urge Philip to get up and go to the chariot to see this Eunuch from Ethiopia. Go to the chariot and meet this strange foreigner; this victim of bad religion who had been ostracized from the community of faith; this one demeaned and exploited for his sexuality; this one who has been clobbered by the Bible by those who arbitrarily pick and choose scripture passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 that says they are forbidden to enter the temple; this one who has been taught his entire life that he is despised by God. Go, Philip, and meet him where he is. Do not stand above him or over him. Do not judge him or condemn him. Join him. Get into the chariot and sit beside him. Ride alongside him. Engage him. Listen to him. Learn from this other, this stranger, this foreigner.

From Baptism Obstacles

We are born holding hands

This past Mother’s Day, a rare set twins were born in Ohio. They were called mono, mono twins, meaning that they shared the same amniotic sac and thus were in constant contact with one another. However, it was not the mono, mono rarity that got them so much attention this week. Jillian and Jenna Thistlewaite were miraculously born holding hands.

One of the most popular songs when I was born back in 1966 was entitled, Born Free.  “Born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows, born free to follow your heart.”

It’s a nice song. However, when you take a good look at Jillian and Jenna Thistlewaite, we learn something completely different. We were not born to be independent and free, but we were born to be utterly dependent on one another. We were born to need one another. Jillian and Jenna remind us that Christ has commanded us to love one another, to link up with one another in mutual care and concern, and to feel responsibility for one another. We were born to live in community.

We were not born free, as the song goes. We were born holding hands.

From Born Holding Hands

We must be willing to share in the suffering of others

Another reason I believe people are leaving the church is that they see within the church a group of people who fail to see the importance of true fellowship, of suffering with others.

Today, this can most obviously be seen on social media, especially facebook. Someone will post a tragic circumstance: the loss of a job, the loss of their health, or even the loss of a child. Then come the God-awful comments: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” “God has a purpose.” “God has a plan.” “God knows best.” “God needed another angel.”

For some reason or another, some Christians think it is their mission to help others avoid suffering, as they think suffering somehow means their faith is weak. They believe they must say something to fix the problems of another, to say something theological to make everything better. However, their trite comments are seen as uncaring, unsympathetic, distant, and cold. And people everywhere read those callous comments and think, “If that is the church, then I want no part of it.”

Henri Nouwen has written: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those, who instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

From Renewing our Fellowship Mission

Ten Reasons Victoria Osteen Was Wrong

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God calls us to love all people. The reality is that if we love all people, and persuade others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious people, who will want to kill us.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God beckons us to act like fools. While the world continually beckons us to look up and get ahead, Christ beckons us to look down and get with those who have been left behind.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God drives us to bear the suffering of others. We are to offer others genuine care, not a simple cure; compassionate empathy, not a quick-fix; and an understanding presence, not some happy religious advice to make everything better.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God encourages us to help those who cannot help themselves. Furthermore, not only can they not help themselves, neither can they help us.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God challenges us to love unconditionally. We are to lift up, embrace, and accept those who in no way deserve our love and that seldom makes us happy.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God demands that we forgive those who have wronged us. We are to forgive those who do not deserve our love and have done things to earn our hate. Happiness is revenge. It is not forgiveness.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God leads us to places that we would rather not go to do things we would rather not do. It propels us to dark, dangerous and dreadful places to do unpleasant, uncomfortable and unsafe things.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God requires that we put the laws of God over human laws. There is a reason that much of the New Testament was written from a prison cell: God’s greatest commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is oftentimes illegal.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God costs us our lives. A god that wants us to live long, happy lives is attractive. However, the God of Christ continually urges us to give our lives away.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because the symbol of our faith in God is a cross. We tend to forget that the cross is not a pretty piece of jewelry or a cool tattoo. It is an emblem of suffering and shame. It is an instrument of death to one’s self.