Whereas Real Love Happens in the Middle of the Storms

Last weekend, I had the privilege of a fun evening with a family in our church, where we took advantage of their new Karaoke Channel on Uverse. Unfortunately, my “privilege” was everyone else’s pain. I definitely have a chorus voice

My old friend and I turned back to a song from that oh-so-classic 80s group, New Edition (feel free to pause your reading for a laugh). Yes, we selected the timeless classic, “Can You Stand the Rain?” Please forgive the excessive 80s references here and take note of these lyrics:

Sunny days,

Everybody loves them,

But tell me baby,

Can you stand the rain?

Okay, so it’s a cheesy 80s pop/r&b song. And it’s a lot more Bobby Brown than U2 (if you don’t know who Bobby Brown is, then you may be too young to read blogs. And if you don’t know U2, get to Google ASAP). In spite of my inability to find a musical point of reference beyond 1989, those lyrics struck a strange theological chord in me.

Churches thrive on telling people what a loving group of people they are. Quite often, this might be true…IF things are going well. What happens when the storms come and it’s pouring down rain? How much do we love one another when the challenges of being a 21st Century church are pouring onto our hearts and minds?

Is our love strong enough to move us when we are called to love others as we love ourselves?

If you walk into most churches on a Sunday, you will encounter people who love one another. Oh, they may not love YOU right away (at least not until you fill out a visitor card), but they will exchange conversation and prayers and hugs and Christian concern. Our family attends a church where an outpouring of love is obvious.

But how much do we love others when we get down to the hard work of making decisions and discerning what the Lord wants us to do, and the very hard work of being Christian?

It’s very easy to talk the language of faith, love, unity and diversity. What happens when we are called to put those values into practice tells the truth about who we are and how real our love is, both for Christ and one another.

Faithfulness is simple when it only demands a couple of hours of our Sunday. As long as we don’t change the music too much and the preacher keeps us ahead of the Methodists at the buffet, we can keep that loving, caring atmosphere. We can love everybody, as long as most everybody looks like we do.

What happens when He says, “Pick up your cross and follow me?” Or give up our earthly wealth? Or wash the feet of others? And yes, Jesus commands all of that in the Bible, so take it up with him if it’s a problem.

FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE is a calling that pierces our heart. Can we–WILL we–continue to love even as we are called to be and do more in Christ?

Here’s the thing: Christians all over this country are facing crucial decisions about the future of the church. We are learning that Christianity is dirty and messy and difficult. The future of church demands the hard work of discipleship.

We are called to decide if we’re willing to put in the hard work of being disciples. And the only guaranteed “Return on Investment” is that things are going to look very different from the church we once knew.

We are now dealing with the fact that we cannot sustain our big, beautiful church buildings, much less utilize them to further the Kingdom of God. We can’t drive from our safe, suburban sanctuaries down to the inner city to get a dose of diversity, or wait until our summer mission trip to encounter people of color or the struggle of poverty.

Diversity is now sitting on our doorstep, and joining us in the pews. We are being called to engage with people who are not like us, and loving them just as we love one another in Christ.

We can choose to close our hearts and close our doors, protecting our particular brand of love just for those that we select. Or we can realize that Christianity was never supposed to be easy or white or managed or controlled. We can let Christ lead us to love even when the path He shows us is littered with challenges.

Please do not take this as some arrogant, self-righteous rant. There are days when I am chomping at the bit to race towards this new kind of Christianity. Then there are days when I encounter people and problems that make me say, “Really? This again?” I have plenty of times when I long to simply preach and teach and visit and love on people without the challenge of letting Christ radically change my heart.

 But those days are gone. The true test of our love for one another is our willingness to seek the way of the Lord and the leadership of the Spirit beyond ourselves. ANY church that will do this has a chance to continue a legacy of faithful ministry. If we close our doors and our hearts, the Holy Spirit will move past us.

There is one singular hope for the church in the midst of this identity crisis. You know what it is before I even say it, and it may even come across as a corny cliché. But the unity of spirit is only possible with a singular focus on the Living Christ.

We are being called to decide if we love the Lord enough to love one another as we are called to abandon our personal comfort zone of what church is supposed to be. And we must ask ourselves: If we can only love when there is no challenge, is it really Christ’s love that brought us together in the first place?

The true test of our faith is the ability to keep our heart focused and unified in Christ even when the waters are the roughest. Or, in the cheesy words of New Edition: Can we stand the rain?

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Whereas I Am a Pastor Who Is Not Concerned about Prayer in Schools

Nothing annoys me more in Christianity than our innate ability to waste time and energy. If we could redirect even half of the time and energy that we spend on things that we cannot change, and really do not need to change, it would not solve everything.

But I bet we could make a lot of difference in the world if Christians traded their righteous indignation and rage for a shovel, hammer, paint brush, or bag of groceries. Not to mention making us a lot more relaxed, more approachable, and generally more pleasant.

This waste floats to the top most clearly in the ongoing debate over prayer in schools. I’m pretty annoyed with the whole “Happy Holidays” issue and the Ten Commandments debate as well, but that’s probably another blog.

The title is a little bit misleading, because I actually DO care about prayer in schools. I just don’t care about it from the same angle that some of my friends think a pastor should.

In our little slice of paradise in Greenville County, we’ve recently had a brouhaha over this very subject. For the record, I personally think the lawsuit concerning Mountain View Elementary’s graduation was frivolous and unfounded, and I have my doubts that there are any legitimate “plaintiffs” in this case, although the actual law analysis is interesting.

The corresponding outrage and chest-beating on Facebook, Twitter, etc. caught my attention. Comments such as, “If you don’t like prayer, then get out!”, or “If you don’t love Jesus, move somewhere else!” These preceded my favorite:  “Let all the atheists go to their own schools because our schools belong to God!”

One of my former high school friends asked why anyone would not want to follow a loving, giving, humble, self-sacrificing person like Jesus (paraphrasing her full post). Considering that the above comments emanate from Jesus followers, perhaps THAT Jesus was never properly introduced to “anyone”.

It pains me and puzzles me to see that kind of vitriol spewed from the mouths of the same people who identify as Christian. Doesn’t seem to match the spirit of God’s commands on how we treat the foreigner or the outcast, does it?

But what truly drives me to shake my head at all this is the notion that denying a graduation prayer could actually “expel” God from schools, or from any other public location. Since when did that loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing Jesus become powerless in the face of a court ruling? Furthermore, when did it become the responsibility of teachers, principles, and school boards to provide for the spiritual development of our children?

I’m trying to figure out why we even bother to worship a God that is so weak as to be subject to a human court ruling.

I’m wondering why we forget that the Bible says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I’m wondering why we think it’s more powerful to make a huge production out of our prayers than it is to spend more time praying in the way that the loving, giving, self-sacrificing Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to pray.

I’m wondering why we think that the prayers of teachers and administrators are powerless because they’re not offered over the intercom. (Believe me, many teachers pray diligently and often. I should know since I live with one).

I’m wondering why Christians chose to spit venom at the “couple” that brought this lawsuit by essentially telling them to get the hell out rather than praying for that couple, and the organization that used them to bring the suit.

I’m wondering why we expend time and energy chest-bumping and high-fiving on Facebook over a courtroom decision when we could expend that time and energy praying for all students, parents, teachers and schools.

For that matter, I wonder how much might change if we got off the Facebook rant-and-rage circuit and directed our energy towards prayer? Or scripture? Or maybe even volunteering in one of our public schools?

No one will demand that our children stop and pray at the beginning of their workday when they grow up. No one will stop them to offer a devotional lesson on their lunch break. They will have to choose to pray, study the scriptures or follow their own spiritual practices in a society that may well be indifferent to them. In fact, Jesus promises us that government, society, culture and even religious institutions/elites will at some point oppose our faith.

And what does Christ command us to do in the light of such opposition? “Take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23)

In referencing this verse, I do not mean to suggest that the forbidding of prayer is a “persecution” in any way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most Christians in Egypt would trade for the American version of “Christian persecution” any day of the week. But Jesus tells us that there will be times when people–including religious people (John 7:45-52)–will not be sympathetic to His followers (Matthew 5:11-12), any more than it was sympathetic to Him (John 15:18).

The command to “take up (our) cross and follow” compels us to pray as Christ taught us to pray and follow His direction even when it’s not easy and convenient. Sure, I love a good graduation prayer as much as anyone; but I’m not going to fight for that because it’s a cultural battle, not a spiritual one. We want to keep these types of prayers because they are tradition, and they make it easy for us to say, “See, that’s proof that we have God in our schools!”

Jesus warned us about staying married to those kinds of traditions and making a show of our religious activity (Luke 18:9-14), because we often do this as a substitute for discipleship. It’s not about patting ourselves on the back because we salvaged some religious activity. It’s about doing what Jesus called us to do, without expecting someone else to make it easy, or do it for us.

If the courts designate certain prayers as unconstitutional, we should not just say, “Well, God lost! Guess we can’t pray anymore!” because this is not an either/or issue. If I am a disciple and Jesus says that the silent prayer is the most effective, then why not live that? If I believe that God is powerful, then why does God need the court’s permission to have an impact on people’s lives? Do we believe in a God that is so petty and childish that he would abandon millions of children because he didn’t like a judge’s decision?

If that’s the God we’re confessing to people, then we need to re-evaluate ourselves. Because that’s a long way from the loving, caring, giving, compassionate Jesus that my friend referenced. Maybe we can find a new way to pray, live and love that would show people that Jesus.

Imagine a school where the parents and students prayed diligently for EVERYONE in the building–not out loud, but in the way that Jesus commanded us to pray. Imagine a school where the Christian parents decided to be the presence of Christ by offering their time, talent, and treasure to help the students learn and the teachers teach, rather than fighting for the right of one or two students to pray once or twice a year. Imagine a school where the Christian students are taught at home and in their churches to treat all others with dignity and respect, even those who believe something different than they do.

Ask yourself what the better witness would be towards the “couple” that brought the lawsuit:  Scorching them on some internet post, or talking with them/praying for them as human beings…you know, maybe like Jesus would.

No, our schools don’t “belong to God” because some judge or appellate court says that they do or don’t. Our schools belong to God when we learn to act in a Godly way with our use of time/talent/treasure, both in prayer and in how we act or react to the people who go into that building each and every day.

I am not concerned about court rulings on prayer in schools. I am very concerned that we pray in, around, and for our schools as Christ-f0llowers and not in some effort to maintain culturally displayed Christianity. The latter may make us more comfortable, but the last thing Jesus came to do is make us comfortable. The former is the more challenging but more effective path.

If we can get past this, then maybe we can move on to stop depending on Best Buy to keep Christ in Christmas.