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?

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.

Doing Right Is No Guarantee of ROI

It is an internet sensation gone horribly wrong. A seemingly kind police officer decides to help a homeless man who has no shoes. The officer proceeds to offer the man a $114 pair of boots that should keep his feet warm and dry.  http://lybio.net/larry-deprimo-nypd-officer-gives-boots-to-homeless-man/people/

Enter the media/internet frenzy.

The officer, Lawrence DePrimo, has landed on the Today Show for his efforts. The homeless man, Jeffrey Hillman, has suddenly become the subject of hard-target investigations by everyone from The New York Post to the NYC Commissioner on Homeless Services.

As it turns out, Hillman isn’t exactly “homeless” in the traditional sense: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/04/barefoot-homeless-nypd-boots/1745911/

In fact, he has organizations that are willing to offer help to him. He even has a family that seems willing to help him out. http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/12/family-of-homeless-boot-recipient-react.html

Let the games begin. We can hear from all of the various “conspiracy theorists” on this situation.

We can now hear from the ones who believe that the whole thing was a set-up by the NYPD to get some good press.

We can hear from the ones who believe that the NYPD and the media have exploited this man and taken advantage of him for their own purposes. This coincides with the ones who believe that the media set this up just to get a story or prove that the man wasn’t really homeless.

We can now hear from those who think giving to the poor or homeless is a wasted act. This just shows that they’re all a bunch of freeloaders and con artists, right?

We can hear from those who blame the liberal media for hyping up the story, and those who blame the conservative media for digging up dirt on Jeffrey Hillman.

All of this is just “white noise” to keep us from asking the first essential question:  Did Officer  DiPrimo do the right thing? In a simple word: Yes.

As he said in response to the media glut, DiPrimo took an oath to serve. What he did was clearly an act of service. I don’t know if the NYPD put him up to it for publicity, nor do I care. This officer saw a need and tried to respond to that need. What more could we ask of him?

During the month of December, our church did a little something different with the traditional Advent wreath. We lit a Candle of Obedience and celebrated the fact that we are called to obedience, and sometimes required to do what we’re supposed to do without asking for a Return on Investment.

Helping those in need often comes with a negative ROI. Rarely do we “cure” hunger or homelessness or illiteracy or poverty or unemployment, even for one person. Some people may be ungrateful or entitled. Some may remain ignorant or uninformed of how they might do better in life.

And some, perhaps like Jeffrey Hillman, have mental/emotional/social problems that are untreated or maybe even incurable.

What should we do when the situation seems to hold so little promise?

We help them anyway. Because that’s what Jesus told us to do.

Our acts of obedience should be just as effortless as that of Joseph. He’s a man who never spoke a word in the New Testament. He just did what he felt that God was leading him to do.

There is no question that scripture and the Holy Spirit command us to go out of our way to sacrifice on behalf of the poor, the sick, and those who are in need. It doesn’t say anything about considering the ROI for what we invest in others. This is why Officer DePrimo did right in trying to help Mr. Hillman. He was doing his duty, fulfilling his oath.

Sometimes, we just do because that’s what we’re supposed to do, because that’s what Jesus would do. If we can’t follow the commands that Christ gives, then we need to reconsider our commitment to Christ.

And if our biggest concern when helping the poor is ROI, then we might need to ask ourselves if we know Christ at all. For if Christ had asked for a specific ROI when going to the Cross for me, He might have had second thoughts.