Showing Up

Was reminded this morning of the old saying that goes something like this: "Most of life is about showing up."

We frequently mean that in a mental or emotional sense, as in: "I was there but mentally checked out;" or "I was emotionally unavailable." I remember hearing this most recently in the case of voting - encouraging younger voters to 'show up' in the political process by voting

But there is the basic sense that we tend to pass over and that is physically being there. "Incarnationally present," to sound technical. You can't even get to "mentally in attendance" if you are not physically there! By the way, no points if you counter with: "But what if I am listening to a conference call or webinar or ..." That's not the point.

So where am I going with this? Next time you elect to not attend church, realize that you are choosing to not "show up." Then tell me, with a straight face, about how much you love your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Tell me about your commitment to the church as the family of God. Convince me of your engagement with the purposes of Jesus in the world. You have not shown up physically - it is Highly Improbable that you are showing up mentally, emotionally, or volitionally. Yep, most of your life as a Christian starts by showing up at your local church.

In the book of Hebrews we read "Let us not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Heb. 10:25). Sure, some Christians do treat the meeting-together pretty casually - but that is not the way it is supposed to be. It is an appropriate response to the gospel: now that God has drawn near, we should draw together. And if we don't; well, the next few verses say that will not be good.

Oh, and another ByTheWay, why would you think that "family/friends are in town" is a legitimate excuse to not come to church? If they are believers, they should come and worship with you. If they are not, then this is your opportunity to have an evangelistic impact. Either they come with you and see what Christians do, or they do not come and see that you are committed to the cause and work of Jesus in this world - both of those outcomes have evangelistic impact. Remember that most evangelism is not done by the professionals, it's done by the pew-sitters. But - of course - if you're not in the pew in the first place, well ...
So if you do not go to church, the message to your visitors is pretty clear: "I don't value being with the people of God."

Let's explore that notion of valuing visiting family more than God's people. Look again at the words of Jesus: Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Matt. 12:49-50) - so who is your true family? Or, He replied, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice" (Luke 8:21) - who are your true relatives? Or, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26) - even using hyperbole, Jesus is making it clear: if some other loyalty is competing with your loyalty to God, you are not being a good disciple. Is there any doubt that Jesus well and truly loved his mother and siblings? No - of course not!

There are certain cultures within the world or sub-cultures within America that embrace the idolization of family. Remember that an idol does not have to completely replace the true God. If you place the idol along side of God, that 'implied equality' is still idolatry.

Back to church attendance - really, if our commitment to God is so weak that we struggle to do this very basic thing of giving one percent of our week to meeting with the local church, then we need to have a serious self-conversation about our devotion to Jesus.

"One percent" - where did I get that? A week is seven 24-hour days: (7*24=)168 hours. I assume a two hour commitment to a weekly service. Two divided by 168 is (2/168=) .0119, or a bit over one percent (1.19%).


A Protestant 'Pope' Has Died

‎"If evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose." New York Times columnist David Brooks.
I learned that John Stott, leader of the modern evangelical Christian movement, passed away today. We - Evangelicals - grieve; but not as those who have no hope.
Many others have, and will have, much more enlightening and helpful things to say about John Stott, but my response is more personal. I can't say that I read everything that Stott wrote - far from it. But that which I did read from Stott was very, very good. I was impressed by the trajectory of his ministry. He, as an Evangelical, stayed within the existing Anglican communion and helped to fan a flame of revitalization and restoration within that movement.
I was able to meet him on one occasion while I was studying in England. While we lived there, we decided to make All Souls, Langham Place our 'home-away-from-home' church. Stott, former Rector at that church, came back to preach a brief two or three message series there during our own tenure. After one of the services, I was able to shake his hand and converse Very briefly. I'll be honest, my motivation to stand in line was mostly to get a chance to meet a Christian 'celebrity.' But while I was there, I watched him greet old friends from his days at All Souls as a local pastor. I realized that this great intellect, devoted follower of Christ, and influential leader seemed very comfortable as a parish pastor. I was impressed by him even more. It came time to shake his hand, he realized that I was American and asked what brought me to London. I explained briefly and after expressing interest, he went on greeting his former flock. Even that small interaction gave me a taste of his grace, wit, and 'pastoral touch.'
I got a taste of Stott's capacities by association - the people who were around him. During our few months attending All Souls, we became acquainted with a gentleman who served as Stott's Administrative-Aide-Compainion and I was struck by Stott's personality by extention: if this very clever guy was paid by Stott to just stick around and keep Stott company, Stott must be a pretty clever guy as well. The current President of John Stott Ministries is semi-roommate of mine from college days: Ben Homan (former President of Food For The Hungry) is a rather bright and accomplished fellow. If Ben is leading that ministry; it has Christ-centered depth, purpose, and integrity.
As I said, there will many comments far more insightful, informed, and intimate on Stott's life. But, as for me, I remember meeting a good pastor.
Here are some other comments:


Confident? Confident.

Here in the Detroit Metro area, over 500 like-minded churches as well as many para-church organizations are cooperating in the “EACH” campaign during the Spring of 2011. The EACH campaign will attempt, within the 40 days after Easter, to give Everyone A Chance to Hear the gospel in the Metro Detroit area. Now, there are going to be billboards, bus sides, advertisements, shirts, mugs, hats and all the accouterments of a Big Media campaign. There have been and will be more events, service to the community, compassion initiatives, and practical helps. But the reality of giving everyone a chance to hear is that it will most effectively be done as people have one-on-one conversations with others they already know. All the media stuff is merely a tool to facilitate those conversations.

As we chat with those we know about the Greatest Story Ever Told – the true story of Jesus Christ, we need to tell the Second greatest story: our own story. To help us do that, we have all been encouraged to thoughtfully consider our “two word story.” The idea is to use the same word with different punctuation. The first use of the word is with a question mark which will describe the uncertainty and need one had before coming to Jesus. The second use of the word uses a mere period to describe the certainty of that need being met in Christ.

My two-word-story is: "Confident? Confident." 
When I was growing up, I had a crises in confidence. Sure, we all did at that age, but I was particularly sensitive. As goofy as everyone else was around me, I was even goofier. I was clueless about life and how it worked – everyone else seemed to “get it” and was able to operate with much greater confidence. I was the poster-child for a “Loser.” But one evening I listened to a speaker at my church talk about confidence. Later I was able to chat with him and he asked me about my confidence in my relationship with God, the ultimate judge. I thought I might be “good enough,” but he pointed out from the Bible that really was not true. The only confidence I could have would be through Jesus. That made a great deal of sense to me. So I prayed to receive Jesus to overcome my sin and to guide me in my life.
From that time, my life – to be simple – just got better. My newly discovered confidence in Jesus allowed me to be confident in the other, less-important, areas of my life. I discovered not only a new hope based on the forgiveness of my sin; but also a new life of purpose, meaning, and guidance as I more closely followed Jesus; as well as a new community of care and friendship of other followers of Christ.

And that’s my two-word-story.


Platonic Realities

This is a different kind of post from my usual fare.
I have noticed something about coming to the midwest from west of the Rockies: I did not know what they were talking about.
Here’s what I mean. When I was in California, we enjoyed things like soft-serve ice cream, jelly-filled doughnuts, and when Christmas came around we would put tinsel on the trees – some people even “flocked” their trees, sprinkled them with glitter, and hung plastic icicles on them.
But now I am filled with a slight Platonic echo. Those things that I knew in California in my youth were but shadows of the real things.
Take soft-serve ice cream. What soft-serve is trying to replicate is the decadent dessert called ‘frozen custard.’ See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frozen_custard. Frozen custard is a rich, delightful, frozen cream-based batch of wonderfulness that Dairy Queen only wishes it could reproduce. Frozen custard is what soft-serve ice cream wants to be when it grows up.
The same for the jelly-filled doughnut. When I lived in California, we had Dunkin’Doughnuts and (more popularly in the west) “Winchells.” Winchells was where the cops hung out. The west coast was not a real doughnut culture – not nearly the same as New England. But in high school, after a night of “TP-ing” (ask your friends who grew up in the ‘70’s about that), we’d go over to Winchell’s, get some doughnuts, and chuckle under our breaths over our exploits – knowing full well that three squad cars were represented in the room. Anyway, if we were feeling flush with cash, we might splurge on a jelly-filled “doughnut.”
But now I live in Michigan, in the metro Detroit area, and we have a lot of Polish people living around here. Before Lent, the Poles create a wonderous pastry called a “paczki” (pronounced “paunch-kee”) to be eaten on Fat Tuesday (sometimes Fat Thursday). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C4%85czki and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_Thursday. It is, again, what a jelly-filled doughnut aspires to be.
Of course, living in a winter snow environment, I’ve now experienced the fun of seeing icicles form. I never thought about it until now but icicles don’t form in the cold of winter, they only form when it’s warmed up above freezing for a bit. Again, plastic icicles on the Christmas tree, or the icicle decorative lights during the Christmas season pale into silliness when you see the real thing: an ice beard bordering the eaves of a house, building, or church.
Finally, just this morning, Barb and I were out driving further north where a little snow had fallen the day before. As we drove past leafless trees, we noticed that they sparkled in the sunlight – they looked like they had pieces of tinsel or were sprinkled with glitter: very pretty.
So I suppose the point is, first, I never really knew what I was missing. I grew up unaware of the reality of frozen custard, paczkis, and snow effects. I only had the fake attempts. Sure, this would give people ammunition to claim that southern California is full of fake stuff. But I will tell you this for free, southern California does have real mountains, real ocean, real sand beaches, real deserts, real oranges, real palm trees, etc.
Second is this wonderful fact of life: Here I am in my mid-50’s and I’m still learning about stuff. That’s pretty cool.
I think I’ll celebrate by knocking off icicles from my eaves. 


Rob Bell Stuff ...

I've watched the Brashir interview (http://bit.ly/fGPBzm), the much longer interview in New York
(http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2011/03/rob_bell_on_uni.html); I've read critiques by people who have read the book
(http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/, http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/love-wins-a-review-of-rob-bells-new-book, http://www.dennyburk.com/revising-hell-into-the-heterodox-mainstream/ - they are all negative, seem fair, and are persuasive) and a few things occur to me:
1) Rob Bell just doesn't think like most of us
2) His presentation is very attractive to those not committed to Christ
3) He absolutely refuses to be fit in a box
4) He does a lot of "deconstruction" of Bible, words, and ideas
5) He seems to put up a lot of "straw man" characterizations of things like God, heaven, hell, etc.
6) I am personally concerned about several of his statements that seem vastly different from the plain meaning of the Biblical text
7) He has a propensity for not answering the questions that are asked. I'm very familiar with this in the political arena but am personally very uncomfortable with this in the arena of theology.
8) Finally, let's say - for the sake of argument - that Bell is wrong on his view of heaven and hell. Yet those who have been at his church (people I personally know and trust) say that he is very good on other doctrines. If he is wrong on one thing then, it seems to me, he ought to be confronted on that thing. There are critiques out there that are 'out of scope.'
However, do not misunderstand me: if he is wrong, it is completely appropriate to criticize what he is saying.


Criticizing Preachers

As we have finished our ReFocus process here, one of the initiatives we developed was a “Sunday Service Excellence Team” that reviews our services and evaluates everything from the PowerPoints to the sound quality to the sermon presentation. That last part, sermon evaluation - has been particularly key as we do team-preaching.
 One of the issues that we’ve had to struggle with is the very nature of evaluating a sermon and the effect that has on a preacher. One of the lessons I had to learn while at my former church was
1) Don’t criticize a preacher within two hours of the sermon’s end; and
2) Don’t get “in the head” with silly stuff before a preacher gets into the pulpit.
I’ve tried to help the team understand the nature of preaching: that preachers get up there, pours out their souls, “leaves it all on the field,” and always gives ‘A’ level effort. After giving a sermon, the preacher is raw, spent, and frequently still running on adrenaline. That is exactly the *wrong* time to offer critique or challenge. But it is exactly the time when people feel compelled to do so.
Right here - I have to again beg the pardon for violating these rules during my time at my previous church. My pastors there helped me to understand and gain sensitivity to this matter of how to better express love and respect for the preaching ministry in the moment. They helped to understand that in the abstract and now I understand it experientially. I appreciate their patience with me.
 So we are going through this issue. It is hard.  I remember being ticked off by critique I received days after the “preach.” BTW, this is the first place I’ve heard the word “preach” used as a noun (as in, “That was a mighty good preach you did there, pastor”). Criticism of a sermon is an intensely personal thing. Most people who haven’t done it regularly do not understand this dynamic. Attempting to separate the message from the messenger, it seems to me, is a fool’s errand in the realm of preaching. All that to say that there is a real tension in evaluating and bringing critique to a sermon in both encouraging excellence and encouraging loving relationships.
 Of course, one of the ways to deal with this (as I’ve come to realize) is to understand the danger and mentally steel myself against the nonsense comments that can come afterwards. I was briefly toying with the idea of just exiting the sanctuary through the door that happens to be near the pulpit and going to my office to de-compress after preaching. That is not a good idea. But …
That got me thinking. I remember hearing of a former pastor at a previous church that would preach his sermon and then disappear right after the service. At the time, I interpreted the story to say that this guy didn’t have enough of a pastoral heart to interact with his flock during after-service mingling time.
 But now I wonder. I wonder if the ethos of that church - back in that day - was less loving and more critical. I wonder if that guy was acting out of emotional self-protection by getting the heck out of Dodge before some “well meaning” person told him - again and for the umpteenth time - about how he was a failure as a preacher because of some little inconsequential fault or disappointment. A pastor can only take so much of that before they start to hate the sheep that keep biting at him. So maybe that guy - to keep whatever pastoral heart he still had - ran away from the dangerous “post-preaching molestation time" as a self-preservation strategy.
I don’t know if that was the case at all. But I do know that criticism of a sermon right after delivery takes on greater force than the criticizer probably intends. Call me immature or not tough enough or inexperienced or whatever. But as I’ve looked into this with other mature, tough, and experienced pastors – they all tell me the same thing: criticizing a preacher after the sermon is very hurtful. Of course, let’s not forget that there are people who do want to hurt.
Anyway, all of that to say that I have learned that to keep my energy (and, yes, even my defenses) up until I’m done greeting and mingling with folks after a sermon.