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 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.

Transcendent Unity: Finding Hope in Our Common Confession

Two modern cultural creations illuminate strangely hidden secrets to the meaning of life. Those two creations are football and Seinfeld.

Before anyone blows a gasket because the pastor purports to worship at the House of Heinz or Monk’s Coffee Shop, please rest easy. I’m not giving up the Bible for Seinfeld on DVD (although season 4 is pretty amazing). However, we discover fascinating connections to scripture and life in some of our significant cultural phenomena.

We’ll tackle football another day (along with terrible puns). Today, we focus on the Theology of George Costanza.

In one Seinfeld episode, Jerry and Elaine connive to set up George with a date (no easy task for Costanza). In the conversation, George says, “Is she smarter than me? I don’t want anyone smarter than me!”

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HOW COULD SHE BE SMARTER THAN YOU???

I declare myself the anti-Costanza. I DO want someone smarter than me, and hopefully express gratitude daily that I found a wife who is smarter than me. Perhaps this explains my egalitarian views on marriage (and no, I do not feel that it is a “false gospel” to declare my wife =/>).

It only benefits me to gain wisdom from Tracy, and she shared a bit of wisdom with our church a few weeks ago that is worth sharing.

Perhaps I am compelled to post this due to the…um…”fellowship” of a church basketball game last night. A certain pastor (who could that be?) let his competitive nature get the best of him in a ball game with other Christians.

Names removed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Perhaps the organic formation of a community Thanksgiving service of churches on our street moves me to this. We will celebrate next Wednesday at 7pm at St. Michael Lutheran. This began with a couple of ministers having a conversation, and has now morphed into a service of sharing between the Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists.

Perhaps it is just that the Thanksgiving spirit–as in, the one that compels me not to shop or put up decorations or sing carols until after Thanksgiving Day–drives me to this post.

But I just have to share the excellent worship focus that Tracy offered in worship several weeks ago. It is rooted in the not-so-Baptist practice of reciting a creed, and one that focuses on what unites us. It stretches us to consider why we can gather with other Christians, no matter our denominational or theological differences, and worship in Spirit and in truth.

Whatever the reason, I am renewed by the need to find a spirit of worship and cooperation, and my wife expresses this in a much “smarter” way that is worth sharing:

A few months ago, the young adult group studied the book of 1 John, and we talked about the difference between doctrine and faith.  We got a little overwhelmed with the number of questions over which Christian denominations, churches, and individuals often fiercely disagree.

How should the church be governed?  What do our worship services look like?  How should people be baptized?  What instruments should we use in worship?  Can we clap?  What should our buildings look like?  What roles are appropriate for women in church?  How often should we serve communion?  Should we use real wine or grape juice?   Do we stand, kneel, or sit when we pray?  The list goes on and on.  There are so many doctrinal differences, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in how much we disagree.  We can forget that as Christians, the faith that we have in common is far more powerful and significant than any of our differences.

During Tom’s years in seminary, we attended a Presbyterian church.  As you may know, the Presbyterian denomination uses more corporate prayers, songs, and creeds than we normally use in the Baptist tradition.  Every week that we attended Sampson’s Mills Presbyterian, we recited the apostle’s creed, which is the oldest statement of faith in Christian tradition.  Its exact origin is not precisely known, but it was probably developed sometime between the second and fifth centuries.  For me back then, the apostle’s creed was often just a bunch of words, and I didn’t always think about its meaning or significance.

A few years after moving to North Carolina, we visited Pittsburgh and attended a service at Sampson’s Mills.  At the time, I happened to be feeling discouraged by some divisive issues in our home community, which had spilled over into our church.  I was growing weary of all the fussing and bickering between my friends, and for the moment, I was glad to have a break from it all.  

That morning, when everyone stood to recite the apostle’s creed, I was surprised to feel a sudden flood of emotion that almost brought me to tears.  I was struck by the power that I felt in hearing everyone say what they agreed upon about their faith.  I realized that THIS is what brings us together.  THIS is why we’re here.  Ephesians 2:8 tells us that it by grace that we are saved through FAITH.  The rest can be worked out.  We can agree to disagree on issues of doctrine, but issues of FAITH make us brothers and sisters in Christ. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “4 There is one body and one Spirit,just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

I don’t want to say it every Sunday, because I don’t want to strip it of its significance.  But at this time, I would like to invite you to join me in saying the apostle’s creed, to remind us of our unity in the grace that God has given us through faith.  The text will be on the screen.

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  

On the third day he rose again from the dead.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.  

From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.  

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of believers, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.  Amen.     

-Written by Tracy LeGrand

Today, we remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the sharp division that existed in this nation upon his death. We remember the loss of C.S. Lewis, the challenging and sometimes divisive Christian author/theologian that presses us to consider Christ from a variety of perspectives. We remember Aldous Huxley, an author that warned us of what might happen by allowing fear and paranoia over our differences to overcome us, rather than celebrating our common humanity.

Yes, today is a very good day to remember the Christ that unites, and the things that we hold most dearly in spite of our political, philosophical and theological differences. We celebrate that we can often live, work and worship together with those with whom we may never agree in every aspect of faith and practice. We give thanks for a Christ that redeems us from our hot-headed judgments and even our stupidity, to remind us that Jesus is Lord over and above all things.

How glad I am that I married someone smarter than I. And thank God that she pushes me and others to understanding that goes well beyond football and Seinfeld.

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