Friday, May 27, 2011

Counting the Cost: Life, Death, and the Cross to Bear

I’ll admit it. I still have a tendency, in my mind, not to truly count costs. My wife will sometimes point out that I’m a bit optimistic about how much we will have to pay for something (e.g. a trip, a new appliance, etc.). But I’m also working on my ability to count the cost of what my Christian (literally “little-Christ”) life entails, and what it will entail in the future.

I’ve been very sadly reminded of this thought because there are a lot of heavy hearts both in my church and my family right now, as (I’m sticking with the analogy) we’re looking at many very big bills. With teary eyes, we’re looking at a lot of loss in the near future. These circumstances have led my wayward self back to seeking God’s Truth for hope and comfort. Like an icy hot balm on a bad burn, my journey has been both assuring and challenging.

There’s two things I’m striving to remember.

1) Death is an enemy that God will, quite passionately, defeat (Ezekiel 18:32, 1 Corinthians 15:26).

John 11 tells us the story of Lazarus’s resurrection. It’s an interesting chapter as it contains, in most versions, the shortest verse in the Bible (v.35, “Jesus wept”). This has caused the occasional question as to why Jesus is weeping. Was it sad disappointment in a lack of faith by Lazarus’s family members? Was it mere shared grief, even though Jesus planned to soon raise Lazarus from the dead? Most versions don’t quite give justice to verses 33 and 38, which help us understand why Jesus was weeping.

Keep in mind that funerals of the Ancient Near East are far from the quieter and “professional” ceremonies we have here in the modern West, where you can barely hear more than a sniffle. If the immediate family makes it through a ceremony without crying, some may say that they are “taking it well.” It was quite the opposite for Lazarus’s burial. They don’t hold back. Loud mourning and wailing is accepted, even encouraged. Sometimes there are even hired mourners, I imagine, to lead people in mourning as would someone in a corporate worship experience.

According to the original Greek of verses 33 and 38, Jesus was not merely “deeply moved.” He was outraged. So, Jesus’s aura at the burial was a combination of rage and weeping. Why?

Because death is not what he wants for his children.

Death, as Jesus could painfully and angrily see, was reigning with explicit gloom and despair all around that burial site. And Jesus conquered it.

Death is one thing that only God can conquer, and he has more reasons and authority to do so than anyone. I sometimes forget this. I complain to God about a certain person’s passing or loss, feeling as if it was wrongful or ill-timed, appealing to God as if he doesn’t quite understand the significance of a certain factor or issue, or as if he doesn’t quite have the full perspective (or at least my perspective) as he lets tragic things happen in this world. What? Am I crazy? I can easily hear him say, “You think I don’t know?”

Another significant verse in John 11 is verse 25, where Jesus gently tells a grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” God is life, eternal, and that’s what he wants for all his children, and he has conquered death. As much as there’s been talk in recent theological and church circles about how the “full life” Jesus brought begins on earth, we need to remember that all the sufferings (and all the righteous pleasures) of this planet can’t compare to the eternal afterlife God wants to lovingly give his children, which brought me to the next point.

2) This world is not meant for us, so our lives will involve sacrifice and suffering (John 15:19, Romans 8:17).

I recently sat in on a conference where Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, made a point about the inherent suffering of the Christian life, exploring the true meaning of the cliche “taking up one’s cross,” a phrase found in three of the four Gospels.

“If you’re a 21st century Illinoisan, you respond, ‘Okay, I’ve got my cross. Where are we going?’ If you’re a 1st century Palestinian, you know exactly where you’re going. You’re going to die.”

The world hates Christians, and we’re also in the crosshairs of the demons who, as with Job, seek to sadistically disprove God in your mind and disprove you, by whatever means necessary. 

Our very Savior was a commoner who was framed and brutally executed. The founding fathers of our Church spread Truth and love like wildfire, in spite of the vicious Roman government, and many were painfully killed. During the Black Death, many Christians risked their own lives to treat or transport the sick. Many heroes of the Reformation lived  in hiding and in poverty and were burned at the stake, all the while fighting church corruption and standing for Truth. The number of converts to Christianity in China only grew faster than the number of executions Mao arranged. Today, as always, Christian missionaries, even their infant children, are killed on the mission field. Brave souls in the Middle East accept Christ into their hearts, knowing full well that, because of that exact decision, they will be disowned by their family, and then hunted and killed.

Needless to say, it’s not always “your best life now,” as Joel Osteen would say.

So, have I counted the cost?

Maybe I’m being naive in my optimism. Sure, I’d love it if all my remaining relatives lived what I would deem as long, full lives. I’d love it if I didn’t have to bury my wife or children, and if my daughters never broke my heart. That I’d die painlessly after a full-life of righteous blessing and productivity in God’s name.

But the Bible has never promised me any of that. How many people do I know that have had the life described above? When I wish and hope like that, I might be getting too attached, strangely, to the world.

Friends, for the sake of our own health, the work of the Church, and the glory of God, we need to surrender and trust to His will, wisdom, and love. He has overcome death, and he can help us to do the same. Death is menial compared to the life and glory God has prepared for his loved ones.

And I’ll be the first to tell you that I struggle to grapple with these truths.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Keeping in Touch, Keeping it Real

(Due to's having technical difficulties, the previous entry "Death of the Consumer Church, pt. 3: A Better Apparatus" was deleted, but it will be re-posted next week.)

Imagine you’re betrothed (or remember your betrothal). Unfortunately, you live a good day’s trip away, and you and your future spouse are both quite busy in your respect lives. Because of this, you have little time together, and the time you spend together is mostly, if not completely, spent on the overwhelming plethora of wedding plans: recruiting for the head table, choosing flowers, china sets, honeymoon fares, etc.

    After what seems like a very long engagement, it’s finally a week away from the big ceremony. Your spouse, however, seems to be getting cold feet. After all, it’s been months since you’ve had a conversation with him/her that didn’t mostly involve apartment-hunting, building your registry or updating the guest list. You haven’t been able to talk about what’s been happening elsewhere in your busy lives, much less go on a date. You now feel disconnected and distant, emotionally . . . and you’re about to spend the rest of your lives together.

    “But, I don’t understand,” you might protest. “I lovingly spent so much time, energy and money into preparing us the perfect ceremony.” Doesn’t seem to matter.

    Sadly, it’s sometimes the same way with one’s relationship with God. We, as the Church, are the bride, preparing fervently for the Marriage of the Lamb. Let’s not forget to keep in touch and keep close with the bridegroom Christ. We spend all our time studying God’s words, trying to keep all His commandments, and serving Him in all ways possible. These are all good things, but a relationship consists of more than these.

    Pastors and leaders also struggle with this, becoming like the Martha of the Bible, and I include myself in this struggle. My relationship with God, in my life, has dealt with temptations to be academic or work-related, sometimes to the point where I don’t talk to God while I’m on vacation. I, too, need to rest and pray more to keep in touch with God.

    It’s downright humiliating how simple prayer is, and how available God is. Whenever I’m feeling a bit disturbed or depressed, how long is it before I say, “You know, I haven’t talked to God about this”? How arrogant and foolish I am to only resort to prayer as a foxhole, when I finally think that my problems and obligations can‘t be handled alone by my capable and arrogant self.

    God has overcome. He’s stronger, and He cares. Talk to Him. He’d love to. 


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Death of the Consumer Church, pt. 3: A Better Apparatus

 It was a very exciting time for a Associate Pastor of Adult Ministries. He had been launching evangelistic programs and services for years, all of which failed to gain momentum, but this one seemed to have unprecedented potential. He had a good team of energetic seminary students that shared his vision, and everyone would work to produce a Saturday-night service geared toward young families. It quickly evolved into, in essence, a church plant that met within its own mother church’s facility.

Among the seminary students, the main teaching pastor was an eloquent speaker and aspiring shepherd. The worship pastor was experienced, passionate, and also a technological genius. I was their service producer.

It was my chance. Having just graduated from a Conservatory of Music, and enjoying how my seminary studies were informing my creativity, I brought a wagonload of ideas for what new and exciting elements could contribute to a truly worshipful and God-glorifying experience, and it was thrilling to see some of my visions come to fruition.

This young church plant, however, for lack of attendance, was put to rest after less than two years.

Why? The explanation is complex, but not unreasonable: miscommunication, leadership turnover, and the financial struggles of the mother church. It’s not as if my creative ideas were unappreciated . . . by the few people that attended the services. But I did learn an important lesson with the sinking of that ship:

“Attractive services” have their limits.

That is to say, that services that build themselves to attract “seekers” purely by gaudy production and sometimes theological and ecclesiological compromise are largely failing in their strive, as particularly evidenced by my experience. Originally, when I typed that last sentence, I really wanted to downright say that “attractive services” don’t work. But I can’t speak for everyone.

I don’t say this to be insensitive. It was a tough lesson for me, too, because this was pertaining to the very job description of my own seeming future. Our church, however, was ten minutes away from a famous venue that hosted people like Tony Bennett, Jennifer Hudson and Yo-yo Ma. A composer-in-residence that owned his own recording studio attended the mother church. What would I have to offer for programming in a church service that would “attract” someone in such a pre-dominantly secular and elitist community?

Let me say it again: “attractive services” have their limits.

What seemed the best apparatus for growing a healthy church (and what we largely didn’t have) was the excited congregation member. We needed people that saw our little runt of a church, despite its flaws, as a God-blessed family. We needed people that believed in our church family’s potential to touch our hurting towns and change lives so much that they invited all their friends to be a part of this church family. These “seekers” would be impressed, not so much by the attempted pizazz of the service production or the seeming relevance of the sermon, but more so by the loving and giving lifestyle and of the obviously-close community that is the church family, operating both in and out of the building where they meet once a week.

This is the mark of a disciple, and it’s what we can offer amid far more impressive concerts and productions. It’s, unfortunately, what the consumer church has lost. The stereotypical consumer church looks to attract into the doors with impersonal means, offering sometimes unreasonable amenities. Attendants of a consumer church can take a drive-thru and comment-card approach, having no independent desire to volunteer or serve. After all, that’s what the pastors are for, right?

When Simon Peter wrote to Christians, calling them a “holy priesthood,” he wasn’t just referring to the leaders.

This, to me, is the most burdensome effect of the consumer church: the pastors are left to do the work that should also be done by congregation members (e.g. evangelism, discipleship, hospitality, community-building and other forms of service and leadership).

The consumer church has made the church (and everything it stands for) into a product that we need to sell in order to raise our numbers. The New Testament has a much different vision of how the church family is to healthfully exist, grow and reach. It involves more sacrifice and grace, but its rewards far outweigh what . . . really shouldn’t be considered “costs” at all.