CHURCHES IN THE BARRENS Bowlers, Brunchers and Book Readers
C. 2012, Doug Blair
"I’d like to know where they drummed up this morning’s speaker." The two church elders were sharing a lunch after a most unusual morning service. Widowers both, and servants in various capacities in church life over the years. "Yeah, Harry I don’t know where this guy gets off discrediting about forty percent of our programs! Is it right that he should knock so much of our people’s earnest effort? Who does he think he is?" "Steve, it is possible this is a message Pastor has longed to deliver but could not because of the politics in the place. They are old friends. You know that we have had conversations in the past along the very same lines. As if activity in and of itself in a church building has some redeeming purpose. Not so.
I am going to give the message the very best possible reception; as if it were from the Spirit of God and not from man. I can think of two activities during the week that are mere wheel-spinning. I am going to stop them for the benefit of personal prayer and time in those scriptures that have been troubling me. Or get on the phone with a few words of encouragement. Perhaps that would bring me to service better prepared to invite the arrival and input of our Lord, or to lift up that brother or sister next to me. Surely that is what we desire, isn’t it? Isn’t it?" "So for you this is just another instance of the phrase love is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil?" "Yeah, I choose to see it that way. And as for all the hurt feelings, Steve, I am reminded of what Jesus said about the proper attitude of a servant in Luke 17: 7-10. We are still "unprofitable" servants and should be prepared for new marching orders at any moment. Not a lot of childish stroking and congratulation." "So that’s what we’re getting here…new marching orders? Like what?"
"Well, perhaps our group has headed too much in the direction of knowledge, ethics and entertainments. Has been too concerned about the numbers count. Has shelved corporate prayer and quiet waiting for the move of God. Has abandoned times of personal testimony and thanksgiving. Has become like a cinema. Has gone to Bible teachers rather than Bible. Let’s do a little re-evaluation here. No better place to look than the Book of Acts."
The Lord Waits
Looking again at Isaiah 30: 18
And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him. 19For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem: thou shalt weep no more: he will be very gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry; when he shall hear it, he will answer thee. The people of the Southern Kingdom were in a panic and considering going back to the old "bail-out" remedy of Egypt with its horses, chariots and military strength. God had other plans wherein He would show Himself strong on their behalf. The terrible judgment about to be reaped by the invading Assyria was going to bring much glory to His name and renewed holy fear in His people. But God was waiting. Yes God...until circumstances became so bleak that only He could bring about rescue. And God has often waited. For Adam and Eve to sense their shame. For the wickedness of Pharoah to reach full measure. For David to learn priceless lessons of covenant care from the flock on the move. For Manasseh to come to the point of mighty repentance in a foreign jail. For the scribes serving Josiah to discover the mislaid Holy Scrolls and to usher in one last interval of revival before exile of Judah. For the maturing and training of John "that 3
voice crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way." For the fulness of time to bring Messiah and Gethsemane, Calvary's Hill and an Empty Tomb. And yes, He has waited for you to realize your sin and need, and His availability, longsuffering and yearning to save, and to make single-minded and holy. Do you sense that it is almost time? Does the Church?
Community Not the First Priority
In much of the self-definition of the local churches (web-sites, newspaper, front lawn signs, visitor literature) I see reference to a purpose which should be secondary. It is community, a sense of belonging, an opportunity to engage with other people who have made Christian values something important to their lives. The suggestion is to "come grow with us, embrace a fuller life, enjoy the sense of belonging, join in with programs, provide for your children a safe zone for moral and social development, rise to leadership opportunities with identified aptitudes and help to keep the ball rolling." But then I go to the Gospels and see Jesus calling out disciples. Simon, Andrew, James and John from their arduous toil on the fishing boats. Matthew from his lucrative tax-gatherer's table. The invitation was simple: "Follow me." These men had heard the words of wisdom in the spontaneous addresses of "the rabbi", had perhaps observed or heard of the incredible miracles of healing; had sensed majesty in words of absolution pronounced to the penitent; had met full on the convicting yet hopeful gaze of the one who chose them. The challenge was not easy; the beatitudes unsettling to the status quo; the requirements of service and travel disturbing to family and business connections. Indeed, Matthew in the 10th chapter of his account paints a severe picture of the realities of discipleship. Uncertain dwelling places. Ostracism and rejection. Surprising strife with loved ones. Trusting the 4
Spirit rather than recognized, studied authorities for the right word of witness, guidance or correction. Difficulties with public authorities. Matthew is the Evangelist who most portrays Jesus as Messianic King (the lion figure) and His followers as ambassadors of an unstoppable Kingdom. He would have agreed whole-heartedly with Paul's words on the role of ambassador in 2 Corinthians 5. In an earlier life he had been the pragmatist who positioned himself with Rome to collect taxes from his fellow countrymen at an extorted premium. He thought he understood the clear line of division between lives secular and religious. He excused many actions with the claim "business is business". He rose in standing among the publicans and invited many of similar persuasion to his banqueting table. This even occurred on the day of his calling by Jesus, a seeming contradiction. But Jesus had other plans in accepting his invitation - redeeming ones. We must recognize that there is a dynamic power in the call of "follow me". A chance to listen and observe; to evaluate the manliness and forgiving tendency, the confidence and unequalled compassion of the carpenter from Nazareth. The traits of the Master, studied at length and in earnest prove to be infectious. The transformation in the disciple is not a matter of schooling or frequent assembly, but rather a love response and an assimilation of the nature of Jesus. Hence the Lord of Glory says unto us: "I have called you for my purposes. Come unto me. Follow me. You will bear fruit. Out there, in the community of the everyday. My blood has sealed the deal." We gather unto Him in a much more profound sense than our gathering with each other!
Wasnâ€™t That a Service
(Older Woman to an acquaintance after service:) Wasn’t that a service? Didn’t praises ring? Couldn’t miss the Spirit. How that choir can sing! Weren’t the children eager, Coming at their time? Marvel how that teacher Keeps those kids in line! Wasn’t that a challenge For the mission field? Have to raise the money For a heathen yield! Wasn’t that a sermon? Could have raised the dead! Have to get a copy. Must know all he said. Wasn’t that a prayer line? Elders all in white. When will Sister Sarah Ever get her sight? Wasn’t that a clear call At the closing hour? Preacher got three sinners ; Fell beneath the power. Really, dear, so quiet; All’s not well with you? Tell me, girl, your problem; Quickly now, we’re through.” (Younger Woman, thinking to herself:) (Oh that I had someone 6
With the heart to show How to keep my husband, When he wants to go. How my son is hurting, Failing at his school. Only needs some guidance. Really, he’s no fool. Landlord gave me notice. Have to leave my flat. Are the foreign missions Only where it’s at? Job is getting tricky. Boss is always right. Can’t betray my problems. Mustn’t seem uptight. Heart and soul are hurting. Is there no relief? But the truth, we’re skirting, As it’s time to leave. Preacher’s at the doorway, Shaking hands good-bye. Couldn’t interrupt him. Couldn’t bear to cry.) (And then speaking to the other:) “Really, there’s no problem. God’s still on His throne. How I praise and thank Him For this fine church home. Yes that was some service. Time just goes so fast . See you Tuesday evening At the ladies class…” 7
I am eager to see good preaching in church services take one step backward. Let me elaborate. That one step backward might allow space in the hurried order of service for testimonies and corporate prayer from the floor. We might hear how brothers and sisters around the room are dealing with challenges, burdens, encouragements and victories. From many hearts and voices we would hear the praises of Jesus. This would be novel, exciting and perhaps orchestrated by God. Are we humble and courageous enough to become this transparent? Might this bring some honesty to the phrases "Church home" and "family of God"? Not too long ago I had a peculiar experience in the produce section of a grocery store. I noticed a man staring at me while his wife picked over the peppers. It looked as if he thought he should recognize me. I felt some of the same. We made eye contact several times but there was no engagement. Later in the parking lot the lights came on. That couple had sat two pews ahead of us for the better part of a year at church. I had failed to recognize them. Out of context. I was convicted by my ignorance of this brother. We were both to blame. We remained of little use to each other. The impersonal, hurried pace of the church services had also contributed. Jesus said that the world would know that the Father had sent Him by the love which Christians showed one unto another. Let's get started...with transparency.
Tale of Three Monks
It was set at the top of a winding dirt road edged with orderly grapevines and mounded plots of vegetables. The province's monastery with over two hundred years of history, solid stone walls, simple design, adjacent pottery shop and hourly exhortation of the steeple bell. Candidates for this solitary life adjusted after much prayer to the industry, meditation and silence, broken thrice daily by the Morning Prayer, Mid-day Message and Evensong. Contact with the village was limited to market days, relief to the poor and sick and collections for the beautification of the village church. Only once in every ten-year interval did the monks get to crystallize and express independent thought to the Father Superior. This was on a rotating basis and occurred on the "Day for Speaking Out". Always the Monday following Easter. Two words only to be spoken per candidate, after much deliberation. The Father in private prayer had been told that the progress over the years of three particular individuals would pretty much reflect the progress in faith of the Brotherhood. The first monk in his "speaking out" asserted, "Lousy food." The Father nodded and rubbed his chin. Ten years later, from the same monk, "Lumpy bed." And in the thirtieth year, "I quit". The Father responded, "Well that figures. All you have ever done around here is complain!" (And so the old groaner joke goes.) But there is more to this story. A second Brother on the same days gave the following responses. Year ten..."Loathsome humanity." Year twenty..."Loathsome me." Year thirty..."Judgment kills." 9
And what of the third monk? Year ten..."Jesus wins." Year twenty..."My Jesus." Year thirty. "Enough said." These were the three men ear-marked in prayer for the Father's consideration. What did it all mean? The day following "speaking out" annually the Father would give his much anticipated "Reflection". (This time bearing a special significance for him.) The semi-lit lecture hall settled to a calm in the soothing low-angle shafts of novel spring light. "My dear brothers, again we have experienced the passage of Easter: the courage of Gethsemane, the anguish of Golgotha, the promise of the empty tomb. We have also attended to the "Speaking Out". I see evidence of three predominant attitudes in our community. One, of the appetites. A second of the abstract. A third of the abiding. Where do you find yourself? Where do you wish to be found? May God's grace establish you and keep you. Amen."
Just Jesus There
So take away The Christmas choir, The banquets and the books. The Holy Cup, The Holy Days, The cheerful hugs and looks. The mission trips, The Pastor's quips,
And all the other fare. I ask you, saint With Gospel quaint Would Jesus still be there? Would Jesus still Be there for you, Your portion and your power, Your daily friend Right to the end, Not just at worship hour? Your inner voice, In each tough choice; Your solace in the test. Unspoiled by sham, The wondrous Lamb, Your brightest and your best.