Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Church Consumer

I like to sing.  My whole life, from the time I was about seven, I have performed vocal music selections for my church.  I just really love singing about how I see God, experiencing His presence through music, and sharing that experience with my fellow church members.  Many times I hear songs on the radio as I drive and fall in love with it instantly--I can't wait for the opportunity to share that music with my friends at church! 

Then comes the difficult part:  assessing whether the song I love is really something I can do at church.  I'm not talking about vocal range or available instruments.  I am talking about the suitability of the song for my church.  Now, don't get me wrong--the members of my church love good music.  But, they also have standards that are important to them. 

If only they had the same standards--then the choice wouldn't be so hard!

Some prefer a very traditional style of music.  Some like to tap their toe to a lively tune.  There are those who have concerns about contemporary music styles, i.e. the use of drums and guitars, and there are those who play those instruments themselves.  There is a wide age range to consider--from children and teens to adults in their 90s.  How do you pick something that speaks to everyone?

As I read Chapter Seven in Derwin Gray's book, "Limitless Life" this week, I was struck by a thought.  The reason for dilemmas like the one I just outlined is that our church, like most others, has a lot of consumers in it and not enough contributors.  There are many who think their church is there for them, when, in fact, they should be there for their church. 

Perhaps you've heard these complaints before:
That sermon didn't do anything for me.
The music today was horrible--so slow and plodding (or too fast and too much of a beat).
Can't they figure out how to work the air conditioning?
The greeter didn't stop talking to (fill in the blank) and say hello to me this morning.
Who picked out the flowers for the platform?  I hate seeing tropical flowers up there.
And the complaints go on.  Always with the subtle insinuation that things really need to change or the complaints will be taken to the next level.  Or they will stop attending.  Or--GASP--they will just stop giving their offerings.

These are the voices of consumers.  Members so absorbed with what they are, or are not, getting out of the church experience, that they give no thought to whether it is reaching someone else there.  They treat the church like it is a product to be purchased and consumed, rather than like a place to meet with other people to worship and learn about God.  If they aren't happy, everybody knows about it.  They make sure of that.

I have sat in the pew and endured something I didn't really enjoy.  I have wondered "Why?" when it comes to unusual music and strange anecdotes and rambling testimonies.  And, I have experienced the Spirit speaking to my selfish heart and reminding me that someone there IS being blessed.  I am told that not everything is for me; sometimes it is for someone with different needs than mine. 

I'm always a little embarrassed when I experience this reminder and realize the depth of my selfishness and my idolatry.

That's right--idolatry.  Because, when the various aspects of the church experience become more important than the God and Savior we are there to worship, we are worshipping at the Idol of Church.  This is such a dangerous form of idol worship, too, because it looks so right.  I mean, what could be wrong with being concerned about how things are done in the worship of God? 

A lot can be wrong with it and it can be very dangerous to let the form of worship become more important than the God we worship. 

So, the next time I am sitting in church wondering "Why?", I will look around and remember that someone there is being led a little closer to the God of Heaven.  And I will join them and worship Him, too.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Beautiful But No Fragrance

At the end of my driveway, where the fence posts stand at the entrance, is a beautiful vine growing next to the edge of the post.  It is woven through the wire fencing and spills out over the top of the fence.  Even when it's not blooming it is beautiful, as is arches gracefully over the fencetop, but in the Springtime it is filled with blooms.  The first time I noticed it blooming I was SO excited.  I love flowers and this one looked like a variety of honeysuckle--one of my favorites!  I remember getting out of the car to walk over to the fence and breathe in the sweet scent of honeysuckle.

But there was nothing.  No scent.  What a disappointment.

Since then I have watched it return, Spring after Spring, and admired its creamy pink and buttery yellow blooms.  And every time I look at it I experience the disappointment again.  How can something so beautiful be so blank--so absent of the full experience?

As I was pulling in to the driveway one day, the Spirit spoke to my heart about this vine.  He said, "You are like this vine sometimes.  What people see on the outside is beautiful, as you speak about your commitment to me and your love for me.  But, when they get closer to you they miss the sweet fragrance of My real love in you." 

That was quite a wake up call.  I had to ask myself if I was someone who had a religion, or someone who had Jesus in her heart.  And the answer wasn't good.  It seemed that I knew all about Jesus, but I wasn't sure I could say I really KNEW Him.

I can recite John 3:16. I know many hymns by heart. I can enter a small group discussion with vigor and clear presentation. I can name all of the books of the Bible in order. I can discuss the fundamental beliefs of my religion with clarity.

And all of this is meaningless if I don't really know Jesus; if I don't take the time to stop and really see the people around me and love them.  I had become so busy being a good Christian that I had neglected being a Christ follower.  And those things are VERY different. 

In the last year, the sweet Holy Spirit has been working on my heart, softening it to really see the needs of the people around me.  He has given me many opportunities to ask someone if I could pray with them.  He has spoken to me about learning to be honest in my way I live my life.  He has asked me to open up about my mistakes and my questions and my pain.

God has also put me right in the middle of a very painful experience within my own church and asked me to open my eyes and really see what happens when religion becomes more important that God.  Time and time again, I have asked God to "fix" this problem--to make it go away--so that I can have peace.  And He, in His wisdom, has told me "No".

Because I had to learn that you can look just fine on the outside, but if the fragrance of God is missing from your words and your actions, anyone who gets close enough will just be disappointed. 

I'm saying good-bye to that spiritual "bait-and-switch" and opening my heart up to following Christ.  Not only is that better on the outside--it's better on the inside, too!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

God Without Limits--Changing My Perspective

We've all heard the advice in so many different ways:
  • Walk a mile in her shoes
  • Look at the problem from a different point of view
  • Try to put yourself in their position
It's all about perspective. 

Each of us has a window through which we look at the world around us, and every person's window is distorted in some way.  Maybe the glass is "rosy-colored"; perhaps it is tinted grey by hurt and pain; and if we've shut ourselves off from the people around us, it may even be completely opaque.  Our window on the world is shaped by our experiences--both good and bad--and that window is how we see the people around us.  It affects our interactions with everyone, from our closest friend to the grocery clerk.  It even affects our view of God.

This is why Jesus admonishes us against judging one another in Luke 6:37-38:
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."  

Our judgements of one another can never be balanced and can never be fair.  Our condemnation of others will be based on our own hurts and grievances.   Eventually, that condemnation morphs into a hardened heart--a heart that cannot forgive.  Refusing to forgive someone changes our focus.  All of the hurt and the anger are held close to our heart, where it can do the most damage.  And the worst damage inflicted is that, in time, we will come to view God's ability to forgive just like ours, and we will believe that He cannot forgive us for what we have done to Him.  Paul understood this and counseled the Church at Ephesus to avoid this trap in his letter to them:
"Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you." (Eph 4:32 NLT)

That's the beautiful thing about forgiveness--it changes things--it changes us!  While it's true that our "window" can affect the way we see forgiveness, forgiveness can also change our "window".    

Forgiveness can give each of us a new perspective on our past, our present, and our future.  When I let go of the anger and pain I have carried,  I can look back and see that the people who hurt me unintentionally don't deserve to be punished forever, and the people who hurt me intentionally don't deserve to continue to have that kind of power over me!  As Ann Landers once wrote

“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”

That's what Satan is trying to do and we are foolish if we let him continue to whisper into our ears his lie that we "deserve" to be angry for the ways we have been hurt.  We deserve to move beyond anger and into healing.  And that healing will ONLY come through forgiveness. 

Yes, I know that some wrongs are so heinous that forgiveness is difficult.  And, yes, I know that some people are physically, emotionally, and spiritually dangerous for us to have contact with.  I'm not advocating letting someone dangerous back into our lives.  I'm advocating getting them out of our lives, once and for all, by forgiving the wrong and letting go of the anger.  Because, as long as the anger lives in your heart and mine--they are still in our lives, creating the window we see everything through.

These are the limits God is trying to set us free from; this is the perspective He wants so desperately to change for us.  He suffered and died for every person in this world.  For the people who have hurt you and the people who have hurt me.  He wants to save them and restore them to a full and loving relationship with Him.  God knows that when we grasp that fact, we will never again doubt His ability to love us and forgive us fully.  Our judgement, our anger, and our refusal to forgive aren't hurting the person we are focusing these emotions and choices on.  As long as we hold tight to that garbage pail of lies, we will never be able to reach up for what we need most of all--hope and forgiveness for OUR sins and the unfathomable love of God.