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 Christians Need to Stop Watching the Oscars

Yes, yes, we have just finished up a “wonderful” season as we begin the spring.

We call it Oscar Season.

People glued themselves to the television to fawn over a group of talented, yet completely self-absorbed, people during their night of self-congratulatory splendor. Then, more people spent the following week either loving or criticizing what these people (particularly the ladies) wore to this party.

Some people take it as a temporary distraction from reality—after all, isn’t that kind of what a movie is supposed to be? But it also points out the absurd obsession that we have with celebrity in this country.

We are enamored with fame and celebrity culture. For some reason, we’ve even decided that it’s a good idea to hear what these people have to say about political issues, environmental science, education or child vaccinations. Do you think it’s any accident that Clint Eastwood and Scarlett Johansson actual spoke at the political conventions in 2012? At least Eastwood has held a political office, albeit a small one.

For some reason, we think that being famous gives you more clout on topics about which a person may have zero wisdom, knowledge, training or experience. So we turn on our televisions to watch each of the 17 self-congratulatory events that these entertainers throw for themselves each calendar year. It wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that we actually listen and care way too much what these people have to say.

Especially if they have something to say about God. Enter Matthew McConaughey.

In his acceptance speech, he made a number of references, giving God credit for his success and showing appreciation for his personal relationship with the Almighty. Christians went nuts over his speech and then went on the offensive against Hollywood for not clapping loud enough about his comments.

Never mind that McConaughey earned this honor making a movie that was filled with sex, including homosexuality. Never mind that many viewed the film as a social commentary encouraging people to change their views regarding AIDS and homosexuality. Never mind that other criticize the film for its lack of morality regarding the lifestyles of the characters involved.

The minute the McConaughey mentioned God, all bets were off and all was forgiven, at least for him and the message of his film. Media outlets jumped to his defense at the perceived–or perhaps real–lukewarm reaction that his Oscar speech received.

And Twitter blew up with Christian outrage at this disrespect leveled towards faith in God. Apparently, mentioning God in your speech is more important than the actual content of the work, and all stars should have capitulated to that.

The point is not to bad-mouth McConaughey or his fans. It is simply to point out how we swoon the minute that God and/or Christian faith get a little star power. At that point, content and character take a back seat–as in, a third row back seat–to the potential to align one’s faith with a star.

As much as we criticize the cultural shifts towards secularization and an increasingly non-Christian culture, the hard truth that we do not want to face is that we’ve bought into it lock, stock and barrel. Star power is much more celebrated than substance. Rather than turning to the faith that we see every day, we have inebriated ourselves with the faith of people that we have not even met, much less know.

This may be why some pastors justify the use of tithes and offerings of people to get on the best-seller list. Fame and notoriety are apparently worth the cost to the church so that they can say their pastor is a best-selling author.

I’m sorry, but I assume that people give their tithes and offerings because they expect that gift to go towards missions and ministry. Unfortunately, in the Culture of Celebrity that we have created for Christianity, this has become THE way that we do missions and ministry.

So what is the real problem here?

Fact is, most of us didn’t come to faith because an Oscar winner talked about God, or a pastor got his name into the newspaper. (I’m guessing that more than one person left the faith because the pastor got their name in the paper). We came to faith in Jesus Christ because someone looked us in the eye and we saw the face of Christ in them.

Yes, celebrity ministers have accomplished some great things through the centuries. My aunt came to Christ through watching Jim Bakker on the PTL Club, and none of the scandals around him can change that. But that is the exception, not the rule. And it’s a pretty sure bet that the discipleship that hopefully follows salvation is a much more intimate, personal issue.

Most of us know Christ because Mrs. Sarah Ballard had perfect attendance in Sunday School for 20 years, and was there to teach the children every week (no matter how poorly we behaved). Mrs. Turner raised us up from the Cradle Roll. Mrs. Wilma taught us back in the 80s, and is now teaching our children, even at 87 years young.

Or beyond that, we developed a relationship with someone who demonstrates Christ in their daily actions or attitudes. Or someone invited us to a church where we felt welcomed and accepted. Or a friend just decided to share a personal testimony that resonated with us. Or perhaps someone was praying for us when we didn’t even realize.

Then again, some of us just did it the old-fashioned way:  Our mom and dad were great examples of what it means to follow Jesus, and we finally got it after a few years and some hard knocks.

These are the real Christian role models, those that we know and encounter face-to-face, rather than hearing snippets and sound bytes of their faith.

I really don’t have any issue with the Oscars, but I do have an issue with followers of Christ getting so enthralled with things that really do not add the greatest meaning to our lives. It’s fine to like an actor and even cheer his/her acceptance speech. But when our obsession with fame becomes more important than the people that really brought us to faith in Christ, and when it causes us to spend hard-earned gifts of God’s people to create that fame, then we have a problem.

If we can’t honestly keep ourselves from our celebrity obsession, then maybe we need to stop watching celebrities. Matthew McConaughey might be a fine person, a good actor, and a solid Christian. But I don’t know him, and I never will. And I don’t know any pastors who are “best-selling” authors either.

When it comes to faith in Jesus Christ, I will take Mrs. Sarah or Mrs. Turner or Mrs. Wilma or Mom & Dad or my Christian friends any day of the week.

And twice on Sundays.

Whereas Diversity Is Difficult

I have a confession to make, and it may shock some of you.

I am probably a liberal.

Oh, I know that this is shocking because I hide it so well, don’t I? I really hate being labeled, but it’s the world in which we live.

I say “probably” for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t necessarily call myself a liberal. It’s how others have described me, but I also try not to let that singular and very loaded term define me.

The other reason is that the definitions of these labels varies greatly from person to person, state to state, or region to region. In South Carolina, I am a liberal. In Pennsylvania, I might be a moderate. In New York, I might be a conservative. In the Pacific Northwest, I might be a right-wing radical. It’s all relative to the lenses people use to view you, isn’t it?

But I live in South Carolina. It is my home. It is the people and place that I love, and I am called to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a calling to do so, with all of the good and the bad and the baggage and stereotyping (which annoys me to no end) that comes with it. Yeah, I complain about my state; but I don’t want to hear it from those “carpetbaggers” on the outside (tongue partially implanted in cheek here). So, for now, “liberal” it is.

Here’s the thing:  I am called to pastor in a place that doesn’t have many pastors who are labeled as “liberals”. I pastor a wonderfully strange church where there is tremendous diversity in almost every aspect of life, including our views of Christianity.

We have black people and white people in our church. We have older and younger people. We have political liberals and social conservatives. We have people who are Southern Baptist, others who are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and still others who really don’t care much either way. Some people struggle financially, while others seem to be doing okay. We have people who battle poverty, mental health, and addiction.

The one thing we don’t seem to have–at least not that I can see–is anyone that is super-rich, at least not in a financial way. We pretty much work for a living, and don’t seem to have many people just waiting on the will to clear probate. However, if anyone who is in that category would like to add another layer to the church, we would be thrilled to have you.

And therein lies both the hope and the problem. Our church “pillars” are Faith, Love, Unity and Diversity. While those sound very good, they are four elements that sometimes struggle to live together. As long as we are willing to open our arms to welcome those who are different, we will have struggles.

Diversity is difficult. We all bring our own lenses, our own baggage, and our own vision for how to live with all of those perspectives. It’s much easier to live in similarity than to live with contrast.

Some say that opinions are like bellybuttons:  Everybody has one. Yes, I chose the clean version of that phrase. But for Baptists, opinions are more like the hairs on your head:  Everybody has a bunch of them. Make that a very diverse group of Baptists, and you can multiply that x2, at least.

At times, it is disheartening to live in the difficulty of diversity, not to mention trying to be a pastor through it. Some days, I wonder if it’s even possible to maintain the idea of unity AND diversity. There have been a few days when I’ve decided that it may not be worth it, even if it can be done.

Then, I remember that faith and love come before the unity and diversity. And I remember that the promise of Christ is not ease of life and convenience, but “Take up your cross and follow me”.

Disagreeing with one another? Differences in opinion and perspective?  That’s a pretty light Cross compared to a lot of people in the world. While people may get mad and frustrated and even discouraged, we are called to live in faith and love first and foremost, as a way to help us find unity in our diversity.

It would be easier if we all just agreed or found ways to avoid the uncomfortable subjects of faith and society. But that’s not Augusta Heights. We’re not big enough for each group to find its own little pocket of support and avoid everyone else. We look each other in the eye every Sunday, and we have to learn to live together.

It is also farcical to think that UNITY should mean UNIFORMITY. We don’t have that in scripture, in the early church, or in the modern church; and the notion that we do is a front at best. It’s not about creating sameness, but finding a way to keep Jesus above and over even our differences.

I am reminded that the disciples followed Jesus together. That group had a rich tax man and working-class fishermen. There was a murderer. There was one who was prejudice against Nazarenes. There was a big mouth, a couple of hotheads (named “Sons of Thunder”), a cynical skeptic and perhaps the world’s worst back-stabber. Yet Jesus spent most of his time with them, ate his last meal with them (INCLUDING the back-stabber).

He challenged them to find a mission and a hope that was bigger than their differences. How can we have a community in Christ that is not willing to do the same?

Sure, life would be a lot easier if everyone just agreed with my “liberalism” and we could all have the same point of view. But that wouldn’t be REAL life, that would be FantasyLand. And it would not be preparation to reach a world that is full of diversity.

I am called to pastor all of these people, even those who may get the label of “conservative”. That means that I have to think about how I express my beliefs and what forum I use to express them. It means that I have to think about not only what I say, but how I say it. And that’s not a bad thing at all! It holds me accountable and keeps me from thoughtlessly pressing Send. I am grateful that I live in community with those who disagree with me, because they give me additional lenses with which to view the world. Those are often very important, Christ-centered lenses.

If we dismiss those who disagree, then we are essentially refusing an opportunity to move towards spiritual maturity in our walk of discipleship. I have come to the conclusion that spiritual maturity is becoming a rarity to the point of crisis. Living with those who disagree with me–on politics, scripture, Christianity, or culture–pushes me to think and develop a maturity as both a disciple and a pastor.

So thank God for our diversity! The road of discipleship is supposed to be difficult, and diversity makes it that much more so. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s wrong. By attempting to follow the “road less traveled”, I am convinced that God is challenging us to be better disciples and a stronger community.

Thank you to my friends and community that differ from my views. You make me better, and challenge me to BE and DO better in all things.