The Rainbow Dereliction

I always thought of Noah as a ship builder. After all, his most famous act was thDSC_0664 copyat of building the ark. And it wasn’t just any, old ship (especially for those days). It was large enough to hold two of every living species of animal. Quite a feat!

But if we read along far enough in the story of Noah, we find out that he was a farmer. Not only that, he seemed to specialize in grapes. On top of it all, he was at least an amateur vintner and maybe a drunkard. I won’t bore you with the entirety of his story (you can read it for yourself in Genesis 6 through 9), but he appears to be somewhat less than a model of righteousness. This is the guy who “walked faithfully with God.” (I guess that should give us all some hope.)

This is also the guy who had seen the rainbow. If you will recall, the Lord made a covenant with the human race at that time saying He would not destroy the earth with water ever again (although He’s flooded my basement a few times). The rainbow is the sign or symbol of that covenant. When we see the rainbow, we should be reminded of God’s graciousness.

But we’re not. Not usually, anyway. And the great thing about this sign is that it’s public. There’s nothing secret about it. It’s up there in the sky for all to see. Yet we ignore why it’s there or simply explain it away as some scientific phenomenon (like that makes any difference). And did I mention it’s public?

I emphasize that because this particular covenant was, and is, for everyone. Yet sometimes we in the church think we’ve got the market cornered on the ark of safety. I’m sorry, but the secret is out. God’s grace can extend far beyond the church. It’s not our choice…it’s His. If I have received the grace of God, it’s because He was gracious to me. I didn’t do anything special to get it.

We sometimes imprison ourselves in the belief that we’ve got what everyone else wants and they should come and get it. Really. Really? We need to learn that we are not the gatekeepers. The Holy Spirit handles that job rather nicely already. We are more like Noah. We’re farmers spreading seed, growing fruit, and yes, sometimes getting a bit tipsy.



All We Need Is Love?

Pittsburgh_16482013 copySeveral years ago I read somewhere that the church spends 83% of her money on herself. My guess is that it hasn’t gotten much better in recent years. I have to say, that’s more than a bit embarrassing. Does that figure bother anyone besides me? All I can say to that is it’s a good thing we serve a God of mercy.

As people of faith, we live by covenant. That word is derived from a Latin one that means “to come together” or “to agree.” In our covenant history with God, we come together and agree to certain things that we have always promptly messed up.

Take the Adamic Covenant for example. God created this awesome place for the pinnacle of His creation to live. Whatever you think about the stories of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis, there is an underlying theme that stands out. Creation (Eden in particular) was an intentional, purposeful gift of love. It wasn’t an accident, nor was it necessary. God needed neither it nor us. He was sufficient within Himself.

He gave it all to Adam and Eve and told them to do two things—tend the garden, and don’t eat from that tree over there. They blow it, of course; and it was our first clue that a covenant of works wouldn’t fly for human beings (at least not without leading to our destruction).

So what does this God of creation do? Does He get mad and destroy everything? No. He performs the first blood sacrifice, covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness with animal skin, and fixes the broken covenant with love (and mercy). There was some cursing going on, to be sure, but love abounded more.

That’s why years later when Nehemiah heard about the deplorable conditions that existed back in the Promised Land, he prayed to the Lord and called Him “the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love…” It’s also one of the reasons why John in his gospel made the simple, three-word statement, “God is Love.” God’s love for us is always creative, selfless, and life giving.

If we’re made in the image of that same God, why isn’t our love more creative, selfless, and life giving to others? Why do we withhold so much? Are we just that selfish, or are we simply ignorant? The God who created us doesn’t seem to hold anything back. Do we trust God so little that we think we’ll lose all our blessings if we give some of them away?

Bo Knows Church

Smith_ChapelFrom my limited experience, it seems to me that everyone (at least everyone who calls themselves Christian) knows what the church is. Before you jump down my throat, please allow me to qualify that. Even in the most institutionalized of congregations, the little children are taught songs lyrics like,

“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all a round the world, yes we’re the church together.”

That same song says this:

“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”

We know it. At least we know it in our heads. My point is this: we have an understanding, if only a superficial one, that the building we inhabit for worship is not “the church.” Our everyday usage of the term belies that fact, but we know it.

We know it, but we don’t live it.

Scripturally, the Greek word translated “church” means “gathering” or “assembly.” It’s never a place, and certainly not a building. The ecclesia (that Greek word I was talking about) was used to describe a public gathering of people. Today, when we use the term correctly, we are generally talking about a gathering of God’s people (you know—where two or more are gathered). At least, I wish that’s what we talking about. As you are well aware, we now mean the building more often than not. People ask you where you go to church, not who is your church.

I’m sure it’s much too optimistic to hope for a change in terminology—to stop using “church” and start using “gathering.” If we could, it might be a giant step toward addressing our shallow understanding of the concept. The label is important because we have used it to institutionalize who we are. In so doing, we have put ourselves in a box. We make ourselves prisoners of our own definition of church.

Our box contains things like what we wear, what music we prefer, what time we meet (or on what day), who we invite (or refuse to invite), who we make welcome, and which Scripture selections we choose (as well as which ones we don’t take seriously). I’m afraid many of us have become prisoners and our box has become our cell.

We place “the church” before “the Christ.” It’s a short step from there to placing ourselves first and others last. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to figure out the problem with that.




The Wrong Question

LCPI remember my Dad telling me about a guy he knew that was always in jail. Apparently this guy would commit enough of a crime to land behind bars. After he had served his time, he would be out long enough to do something else wrong and go back to jail. He would get caught on purpose. Why? He felt safe there. There were no responsibilities. He was provided a roof over his head and three squares a day. He eschewed his freedom for the secure confines of the county jail.

I thought of him last September when I began the sermon series entitled Local Church Prisoners. Had we, as a church and as individual Christians, become like that guy? Were we content to stay where we felt it was safe and secure?

The first in that series was one of those sermons in search of a Scripture. I finally settled on Ephesians 4:1-6. I did that primarily because of the first verse where Paul calls himself a “prisoner for the Lord…” (Which, by the way, is a far cry from what we had become.) At that point I had continued to go back to the Facebook page, Local Church Escapees. I was haunted by their existence. They caused me to re-evaluate our goals as a local church.

I came to the conclusion that we were asking the wrong question. We were continually asking ourselves, “How can we get them in here?” Making us attractive to new people always seemed to be the main thrust. Even worse than asking the wrong question, we didn’t seem to be very good at answering that question (right or wrong).

The fact is, we’re never told (Biblically) to do that—to lure people to a building. We’re told to seek them out…be “fishers of men”…”go and make disciples of all nations.” We stayed where we felt safe. We did a lot of nice things…good things. But we seldom strayed beyond the confines of our little chapel. We weren’t prisoners for the Lord; we were becoming prisoners of another sort.

I wondered out loud if we had become caricatures of ourselves. We emphasized certain aspects of who we were as the church. However, we did so to the exclusion of many other important attributes. The result was a caricature. We were still recognizable, but not always functioning as we could.

In short, we had become local church prisoners. Like the guy my Dad told me about, we wanted to be safe and secure. We wanted to be protected from the responsibilities of our own freedom in Christ. We were eschewing that freedom in exchange for protection. And we began defending our own image to make ourselves feel better. We looked like the church, but we didn’t act like her.

So what is the church, really? What should we be? What should we look like? How should we act? I finally realized I might have imprisoned myself to avoid being the answer.