Cause for Sorrow

Yesterday I wrote that in this digital age we (especially in the Church) need to be intentional about mourning (update: it seems that Russel Moore agrees). Ever since I wrote that, I have been processing things that are worthy of being sorrowful over in the wake of the violence over the weekend. Here is my list. What would you add?

  1. That no less than 100 people made in the image of the Almighty God have been killed or injured by wicked men (both in Friday’s and Saturday’s attacks).
  2. That their friends and loved ones are suffering greatly in the confusion that has ensued.
  3. That the blame shifting has already begun, and it’s apparently everyone’s fault.
  4. That well-meaning Christians have once again been lumped in the homophobic camp with militant Muslims.
  5. That many people are going to be facing unfair stereotypes in the upcoming days/weeks (in the LGBTQ community, in the Christian Church, in the Muslim world).
  6. That evil people do evil things.
  7. That the politicians have already begun casting stones.
  8. That erroneous, false prophets (i.e. Westboro) are blaming the LGBTQ community for what occurred.
  9. That many people continue to die without Christ daily.
  10. That this will continue until Christ returns.

Hope in the Cross

In spite of the sorrow, there is hope at the foot of the cross. God looked down and saw the pain and suffering that his creation was enduring and followed through on His age old plan to sacrifice Himself so that we would not need to be separated from Him for eternity. His death and resurrection secure the our hope in a Kingdom that will come to earth. There is pain now, but for those who place their hope in Christ there will be lasting joy. I have sorrow for all of the above, but my God is alive and gives me hope to come through the sorrow.

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Mourn first

For two nights in a row the city of Orlando has been hit with sudden and immense gun violence. There are 51 people dead and many injured between the attacks. They have left behind friends, families, spouses, children…

CkvEXhtUoAAaAuVThe inevitable will soon follow: The president does it. Congress does it. Local authorities do it. You do it. I do it. Some time this week everybody will have a front seat to the politicalization of the issue of gun violence. As a friend of mine recently said, something has to be done to slow down these attacks. Likewise, Ecclesiastes 3.1 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” There will be time for public discourse on the place of weapons in our societies. These are conversations that need to happen.

But before we go there. Before we rush into debates and arguments, social media tirades and memes, and videos and articles showing the “good” gun guys over and against the “bad” gun guys (and vice versa). Before any of it: Mourn. 

A Lost Art

I don’t know if it has always been this way, but the advent of social media and world-wide connectedness has seemingly sped up our (over)reactions. The good: we get to find out what is happening half a world away the second it’s happening. The bad: we jump right into blame shifting and skip over mourning completely. Unless you are the one going through the pain, mourning has become a lost art form reserved for 45 minutes at a funeral. If it hasn’t been removed from the public, it has been overwhelmed by partisan bickering.

Mourn because God mourns

Ever since sin entered the world, God has had reason to mourn (see Genesis 6.6). His creation is corrupted by sin and He desires good and justice to come. When He came to earth, He instructed his followers to pray that His Kingdom would come and His Will would be done (Matthew 6.7-14)– death and violence have no ultimate place in God’s Kingdom.

But until His Kingdom finally ousts the kingdom of darkness, there will be misery, pain, death, murder, and injustice. Especially as believers in this God we must mourn because He mourns. As mentioned above, God mourned when sin was out of control. God mourns at the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18.32, 33.11)– even as His justice is coming to bear. God mourns when His friends are mourning the death of their loved ones (John 11.35)– in this, He is even better than those “professional mourners” whose job it is to mourn with the sorrowful. He mourns when people reject Him for their own way (Luke 19.41).

How great is our God that even though He has promised an end to this pain, He is present with people in their pain and suffering! He hears the cries of the weak and desires to be near them in their afflictions.

…(there is a) time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3.4)

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12.15)

Jesus wept. (John 11.35)

Choose whom you will serve

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
(Joshua 24.14-15)

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.
(St. Augustine)

Believe it or not there is a correlation here. For Israel, it was easy and comfortable to revert to the gods of Egypt or Canaan. For us, it is easy and comfortable to simply reject difficult truths about God’s Word in favor of being liked by others– even others who claim to be in Christ. If I believe in the “happy things” about Christ and His Word and disbelieve the uncomfortable things, then I am the god that I worship.

Is it possible to serve two gods?

No. It isn’t. And Jesus agrees: “Either you will hate the one and love the other or serve the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6.24, speaking of money, but the principal remains).
Just as Israel, who had been brought out of slavery in Egypt needed to choose to serve the God who saved them, so now those who claim to have been brought out of slavery to sin have that daily decision to make.

Who is our God?

The God of the Bible is the one who knows what is right and wrong; He knows His own Word; He knows His own people; His knows the way to salvation. If we claim the God of the Bible as our God we have to listen to His truth, not our own.

It has become so simple to say, “I know God says, but…”, or, “What God actually means is…”, or, “Did God actually say…?” Search yourself. If those phrases escape your lips, why? What truth about God are you trying to avoid? Is this out of fear of being rejected by others? Are you unwilling to say and believe in the tough things that God calls us to say and believe about Him? Are you using carefully crafted arguments supposedly based in scripture to avoid the truth that Scripture puts forward?

Tomorrow, if you are part of a Church, you will no doubt hear the Bible taught. If you are part of a good Church, you will hear it preached with the authority of the Holy Spirit with the aim of worshipful repentance to God. Ask yourself as you sit listening to the sermon– do I accept this as God’s truth? Would I rather make God who I want Him to be? Is this uncomfortable for me to believe?

Tomorrow, don’t believe in yourself. Believe in God. His Word is truth. Choose whom you will serve and if you have chosen Yahweh, the God of the Bible, let His interpretation reign in you.

My own Church

Ever since I graduated from New England Bible College, I have been asked a few variations of the question, “When are you going to get your own Church?” Even one non-believer echoed that saying, “If you ever get your own Church, that’s the one I’ll go to.”

I cannot help but be baffled at statements such as these. My own Church? What does that even mean?

Whose Church is it Anyway?

There are some inherent issues if the local Church “belongs” to anyone. And although no-one would outright say, “I own this place” many of us fall into the trap of believing that because we have vested interest in the property of the Church, it is in some sense ours. If I paid for half of the construction process, if I have been given an office space, if I’m allowed to store anything within the walls of the building, this place all of a sudden belongs to me. Likewise, the thought behind what people have been asking is, “When you are the pastor of the Church- you’re the boss, you’re in control, the buck stops with you.”

Now, the Pastor and Elders of any Church must have a degree of ownership: they are to shepherd the flock that is among them (1 Peter 5.1-2) and they will give an account for their faithfulness just like everyone else. However, everyone in the Church needs this mindset: “I have vested interest in this place because I have chosen to put energy and resources into it and the family that gathers here, but I am not the final authority of the Church–this Church is not mine.

But it is mine

As true as that is, we also need to come to terms with the idea that the Church we gather with is ours. I already have a Church of my own. It is a beautiful congregation (not merely a building we meet in) that I get to pour my life into (and that gets to pour into me!) and it, like every other congregation, is a work in progress.

This may seem to contradict what I said above, but if we understand our place in the body of Christ then we know that we do not own the people, building, resources, etc, but we (as a body) have stewardship over what we have been given and we are charged by Christ to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6.2). This means loving the people here and guarding them from the attacks of the evil one- regardless of whether I am the lead pastor, youth director, or fellow minister of the gospel (that is, member of the Church).

Ultimately, she’s is Christ’s

The key to more fully understanding my place in the Body of Christ is remembering that this Church is simply a small part of the Bride of Christ. So before this church is mine or anyone else’s, she is Christ’s. Christ laid down His life for her and will one day bring her home to be with Him.

This should motivate my belief, and thus action, in the areas mentioned above. If the Church–if my church– belongs to Jesus the Christ, then I must “have this mind… which is mine in Christ” (Phil. 2.5). This will motivate me to put my church before myself in all things and desire her holiness above all things.

Is this your attitude in regards to your church? Do you have a church that you can have this relationship with?

Where do you gather? (pt. 5)

So how bad is it really at the church down the road? Do they sing too much? Do they preach too much? Is there not enough community? Do they not have the right programs for your kids? Are they just plain mean? Consider what Tim Chester writes:

I wonder how many churches people pass as they drive half an hour to church each Sunday. Some will be dead and ready for burial. But many will be good churches. They may not be as good as the church people attend. But they may be faithful and engaged in their locality. Why do people do this?

It reflects a consumer mentality. We shop for churches like we shop for groceries. If we don’t like the product then we take our business elsewhere. We end up at the big convenience store with the large parking lot and the local shops in Main Street that the old and the poor have to use wither and decline.

A particular instance of the consumer mentality, but a very common one is this: If church doesn’t have a big children’s programme then we find another church. Who’s going to say we shouldn’t put our children’s spiritual needs first? Me! A lot of Christians have made an idol of their families. So it becomes an excuse not to do mission or community. Look at what Jesus has to say about biological families. It is all negative! Really, it is. ‘Anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37). That’s what Jesus said. Get over it. And think about what moving church for children teaches our children. That the world revolves around them. That church is there to entertain them. That relationships with peers matter more than relationships with  people who (are) unlike them. At best you will teach you children to be church-attenders. You will have missed a big opportunity to teach them to be radical disciples and missionaries.

So how far is too far?

This is the tricky part in discussing distances in the church. Is there limit as to how far I’m allowed to drive to church? Or better yet, should we limit it?

On a personal note, I have consistently told Emmalie that as we progress in life and ministry, I don’t want to live more than 15-20 minutes away from the church where we gather and serve (with right around 5-10 minutes being my preferred distance). This is mainly because I want to limit my excuses as to why I travel so far! So when I’m at work and people ask what church I am a part of, instead of saying, “Well, we attend a church about an hour from here,” I can say, “Yeah, we’re the Baptist Church right across town.” People know where I worship. They can connect with the location.

So maybe asking “how far is too far” is the wrong question. Maybe we should be examining our hearts daily as to why we do the things we do. Maybe as we strive to never forsake gathering together we should be more focused on what Christ is doing in our area than on what other churches are doing “right.”  Maybe we should remember that we are to serve the church as living sacrifices using every gift for building up of the church instead of passively consuming every resource that comes at us.

We are to always seek God’s glory and wisdom over our comfort and happiness.

So ends this five part series on how you choose your church. Click the links below if you missed the previous parts:

Where do you gather? (p. 1)

Where do you gather? (p. 2)

Where do you gather? (p. 3)

Where do you gather? (p. 4)

Where do you gather? (pt. 4)

This post is the most difficult of the four in this series thus far (see them here: #1, #2, #3) and is the reason I began writing on “where” we gather. A growing problem in the Western Church’s consumerism is the idea of commuting to one’s church (I know the church is more than just a building, but for the sake of this post I will use the term “church” to refer to that place where the family gathers–typically on Sunday mornings–and to the family that one wishes to be a part of).

What’s wrong with that church?

I haven’t forgotten that question asked by Rev. Blundell my Freshman year in college. We were sitting in Spiritual Life class discussing the idea of driving an hour or so to church on Sunday’s when he gave the following example:

Say you are in the process of leading a friend to Jesus (or he is a new believer and you are mentoring him). You have invited him to church and he agrees to come with you. You leave Sunday morning and as you make the hour long commute to your church, you begin to pass other churches preparing for their worship services. Your friend, becoming more confused as you keep driving, asks you, “What’s wrong with that church that we just passed? Why don’t you attend this church? Or that one? What about this one?”

What do you say to your friend who isn’t sure why you just drove an hour to Church, outside of the community in which you live, and passed by at least a couple dozen church buildings on the way? How do you answer his continual questions?

Yes, some churches have legitimate doctrinal errors that could potentially be dangerous to be a part of. Yes, other “church buildings” you may pass could actually be Unitarian Universalist or Kingdom Halls– neither of which being truly in the Church. But what about the other ones that you pass by?

I don’t like the [insert pet-peave here] at that church

Think back to the first post in this series. How did you answer the questions there? What is it about the church (family) that meets five, ten, or fifteen minutes down the road from you that disgusts you so much? Or have you even visited them? Is it their music? Do they only sing hymns? Have they completely switched to modern songs which are the bane of your existence? How about the sermon? What is it about the pastor’s message each week that drives you away? Or maybe think about the one you drive 45-60 minutes to get to. What’s so special about that community in that city? What is it that they are doing “right?”

One couple I knew got married and shortly after moving to another city, continued to commute an hour to their church each Sunday and throughout the week for any thing else they were involved in. They loved the people of that church (with good reason, as there is much to be loved there), but they lived an hour away and couldn’t  realistically build great community with people from so far away.

Begging the question

Here are the things that I tend to wonder about these situations:

  1. How big of a role did the church play in your decision to move to another city (or across town)?
  2. If the city you live in now (whether moved to, or lived in for a long time) is good enough to live, work, and rest in, then why is it not good enough to worship in?
  3. Are the differences and difficulties you face in your local church really big and important enough to make you want to drive longer to attend a different church?
I don’t intend these to be condemning, nor do I think there is a set distance which one is allowed to travel to church. But I do think we tend to offer very many excuses to “get out of a church” when we should be more focused on how to serve where we are. So instead of loving the community we live in, we flee to a farther community because they have the coolest toys.
To be concluded…

Where do you gather? (pt. 3)

In the previous post, I asked about our spiritual gifts and whether we know what they are or not. Today I’d like to revisit the questions from the first post regarding why we worship where we worship.

But first, a story

I don’t know when exactly they began to attend our church, but they’ve been a part of this fellowship for quite a while. Faced with a new state, town, and situation, meanwhile figuring life and ministry out, this family began to search the area for a church they could call home. After looking into two or three, they settled on our church, FBC of South Portland.

Having two young kids, one would think that the top priority for them would be to find a church family that had a thriving children’s ministry. I don’t know what the state of the children’s ministry was when they arrived (I think it was doing pretty well, though), but I do know that wasn’t the biggest driving force behind their decision. Yes, they wanted their children fed but, knowing the primary responsibility for leading their children fell on them, they chose this church based off of the gifts they had and the needs of the church.

Now you might think this arrogant: “Really? They wanted to attend a place where THEY could use THEIR gifts? What about being fed? What about letting the Church minister to you? Isn’t that a better and more humble way to choose a church family?”

The Sin of Consumerism

In a few short years the slogan, “Have it your way” has gone from describing personalized burgers to defining the life of the average American. If you don’t like the way something works, by all means complain about it and make sure it’s done differently. But this is hardly the proper attitude of Christians within the Church. It is easy to hop from church to church seeking to be fed and find the one ministry that has it “right;” but that is far from one’s purpose in the Church. We are not meant to be consumers.

Yes, we must be fed the Word of God. Yes, we must fellowship with other believers. Yes, our children need ministering to (even though that is primarily the job of their parents). But beyond all of that is our need to serve others within the Church. I cannot remember where I heard it said, but it’s true that “If Christian maturity were based off of the amount of resources consumed, the American Church would be the most mature in the world.” The sad fact is that our output (love, generosity, graciousness, servitude) is minuscule compared with the many sermons, books, devotionals, songs, etc., that we take in.

We exist not to sit here consuming resources but to share our gifts, be generous with God’s stuff, and to worship as a body.

You won’t get it your way

If we follow the example of the couple above and repent of our sin of consumerism, we will hardly get our way. Instead, we will be conformed to the way of the cross: the way that sacrifices our false desires while making way for true love and service for others. So we won’t (or shouldn’t) be so concerned about our church having the “right” music, “right” programs, “right” sermons, and “right” ministries. Instead, we’ll be concerned with following God where He’s going. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37.4) is a call to seeking the things above so that that the things above can influence our lives below, starting with our choice of church family.

For more on this, see James Emery White