DSC_0034An obituary in the small, online newspaper of my little home town simply said that my old high school buddy had died “after a brief illness.” Around that same time, the twenty-year-old son of a friend died in his sleep. And as if to remind me of that old adage about troubles coming in threes, one of my parishioner’s grandsons was about to be stillborn after a full-term, seemingly normal pregnancy. Sometimes it’s simply hard to be alive and be alert to what’s going on around you.

One day as Jesus was leaving the temple in Jerusalem, one of his disciples commented to him about the magnificence of the structures around them. Instead of agreeing how marvelous it all was, Jesus went into a mild diatribe bout end times. “None of this will be left standing” were basically his words to that unsuspecting follower. Then he warns everyone to be on guard, to be wary, to be on the lookout. For what?! Nothing good, frankly…

Then he relates one of his famous stories—a parable. You’ll probably remember this one. The master of the house leaves and “puts his servants in charge.” Like Jesus, the master tells the servants to be on the lookout. “Watch!” They have no idea when he’s coming back.

There’s one phrase in that parable that really catches my eye. In Mark 13:34 he says that the servants who were left in charge each has “their assigned task.” While I realize it’s not particularly good Biblical interpretation to read too much into that, I can’t seem to get away from it. Only one of them is told to watch the door. The rest have their assigned tasks. They’re all supposed to be alert, but yet continue with their regular duties.

Okay, so what are these duties? He doesn’t tell us—at least not in this particular parable. But throughout the length of his teaching ministry, Jesus (at least in my understanding) outlines and highlights many things, which I would categorize as falling under the category of duties. These duties, if you will, are what we (the church) should be about while we’re waiting for his return.

Over the next few weeks, I want to explore what I think these assigned tasks might be. I’d like you to help me out here. I want this to be a discussion. I’m not the high and mighty guru who will lead the church to the Promised Land. I’m just one of the servants like you trying to do my bit.

Things like obituaries, vacations, and taking out the garbage easily distract me. I’d rather watch the skies than be about my Father’s business. I suspect much of the church is like me. Our distractions imprison us, and we’re no longer aware of why we’re here. Is it possible for us to get back on track?

When Is Trash Time?

I live in a place, as I suppose many of you do, that has a covenant. The HOA (Homtrashe Owners’ Association) makes the rules. You know—what’s the earliest time you can put out your trash, how many cars can you park in your driveway, what color can your front door NOT be—things like that. I kind of chuckle when we call it a covenant. Technically, I have a say. Frankly speaking however, I’ve never exercised my right to say anything. The reason I don’t is because the HOA has a better idea than any of my pet peeves.

It’s not unlike Biblical covenants. God lays out the covenant and I let Him do it (in a manner of speaking—plus, I realize I’m not going to stop Him even if I wanted to do so). In other words, He knows a whole lot more about what I really need (and frankly want) than I do. I believe that, so I trust that.

Going with my theme of Local Church Prisoners, it is apparent to me that we’ve become Biblically illiterate to a major degree. That illiteracy adds to the thickness of our prison walls. We don’t seem to understand (or care) about covenantal history, which is a major part of the Scripture.

Our covenantal history is the framework of the Bible. It’s deeply woven into the fabric of who we are. Unfortunately, if we consider it at all, it’s usually as a means to an end. But it’s not. The end game is to be in covenant with God Almighty. In fact, I’ve heard it pointed out (and I believe it to be true) that everyone on the face of the earth is in covenant with God.

How can that be? A lot of folks don’t even believe in God. It’s a little like my HOA covenant. I’m sure I have a lot of neighbors who are oblivious to our covenant. Yet they’re still in covenant relationship with me, like it or not. So all human beings are in some kind of covenant with God. It’s either a covenant of works or a covenant of grace.

We already know from Scripture that a covenant of works hasn’t got a chance of fulfillment. I don’t know anyone who can live up to it. Every one of us will break that covenant before the day is out. We can’t give enough, do enough, or obey enough to earn our keep before a perfect God. So the only way it can work is if He does it for us.

That’s where the covenant of grace comes in. A covenant of grace has a mediator—someone who can fix what we’ve broken. Only Jesus can do that. He’s our mediator sent by God. We know that and give it lip service. Yet the church so often ignores the covenant of grace and tries to live by works. Will we ever learn? No wonder we find ourselves behind spiritual bars.

A Great Land Deal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a pastor in Western Pennsylvania, a young family moved into the area I served and bought some cheap, worthless land. Though it had virtually no value, they were excited because it was theirs. I came across them through a series of circumstances and was asked to visit them at their new property. It was hard to find, but when I finally got there, I was greeted with a rather crude, homemade sign with these words painted on it: “The Promised Land.”

One of the reasons it was worthless was because it was landlocked. There was no right of way into the property. You had to drive through someone else’s property to get there. The only upside was it was far enough out in the boonies that no one really cared. I guess it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Human beings have been in search of good land deals from time in memoriam. The best one I can remember is the one God gave to Abram. It involved a Promised Land and a Savior. The land was difficult to get to, but it was free and clear (sort of). There were a few obstacles, but the deed was his.

The deed (as well as the Savior) has been passed down from generation to generation up to this very moment. The Savior has expanded the definition of the Promised Land for us, but it still belongs to the children of Abraham. We think of it as Heaven or Paradise now, but the deal is the same…no strings attached…free and clear…bought and paid for by the blood of the Lamb.

That’s what the church believes. At lease that’s what we say we believe. But when it comes to sharing the property, we become land grabbers. We begin protecting our turf like there’s no tomorrow. How many different sects, denominations, and other divisions in the church have taken place because we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Everyone else is a squatter. We own the territory, and no one else can traipse across our lawn.

I know I’ve had those kinds of moments, seasons, maybe years in my life. I’m more than a bit ashamed of that. The Promised Land comes with no strings attached. I’m not sure why we feel that not only can we attach strings, but we can fill out the price tag as well. The price has been paid, folks. As people used to like to say back in the 1960’s, “Share the land.”

The Rainbow Dereliction

I always thought of Noah as a ship builder. After all, his most famous act was thDSC_0664 copyat of building the ark. And it wasn’t just any, old ship (especially for those days). It was large enough to hold two of every living species of animal. Quite a feat!

But if we read along far enough in the story of Noah, we find out that he was a farmer. Not only that, he seemed to specialize in grapes. On top of it all, he was at least an amateur vintner and maybe a drunkard. I won’t bore you with the entirety of his story (you can read it for yourself in Genesis 6 through 9), but he appears to be somewhat less than a model of righteousness. This is the guy who “walked faithfully with God.” (I guess that should give us all some hope.)

This is also the guy who had seen the rainbow. If you will recall, the Lord made a covenant with the human race at that time saying He would not destroy the earth with water ever again (although He’s flooded my basement a few times). The rainbow is the sign or symbol of that covenant. When we see the rainbow, we should be reminded of God’s graciousness.

But we’re not. Not usually, anyway. And the great thing about this sign is that it’s public. There’s nothing secret about it. It’s up there in the sky for all to see. Yet we ignore why it’s there or simply explain it away as some scientific phenomenon (like that makes any difference). And did I mention it’s public?

I emphasize that because this particular covenant was, and is, for everyone. Yet sometimes we in the church think we’ve got the market cornered on the ark of safety. I’m sorry, but the secret is out. God’s grace can extend far beyond the church. It’s not our choice…it’s His. If I have received the grace of God, it’s because He was gracious to me. I didn’t do anything special to get it.

We sometimes imprison ourselves in the belief that we’ve got what everyone else wants and they should come and get it. Really. Really? We need to learn that we are not the gatekeepers. The Holy Spirit handles that job rather nicely already. We are more like Noah. We’re farmers spreading seed, growing fruit, and yes, sometimes getting a bit tipsy.



All We Need Is Love?

Pittsburgh_16482013 copySeveral years ago I read somewhere that the church spends 83% of her money on herself. My guess is that it hasn’t gotten much better in recent years. I have to say, that’s more than a bit embarrassing. Does that figure bother anyone besides me? All I can say to that is it’s a good thing we serve a God of mercy.

As people of faith, we live by covenant. That word is derived from a Latin one that means “to come together” or “to agree.” In our covenant history with God, we come together and agree to certain things that we have always promptly messed up.

Take the Adamic Covenant for example. God created this awesome place for the pinnacle of His creation to live. Whatever you think about the stories of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis, there is an underlying theme that stands out. Creation (Eden in particular) was an intentional, purposeful gift of love. It wasn’t an accident, nor was it necessary. God needed neither it nor us. He was sufficient within Himself.

He gave it all to Adam and Eve and told them to do two things—tend the garden, and don’t eat from that tree over there. They blow it, of course; and it was our first clue that a covenant of works wouldn’t fly for human beings (at least not without leading to our destruction).

So what does this God of creation do? Does He get mad and destroy everything? No. He performs the first blood sacrifice, covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness with animal skin, and fixes the broken covenant with love (and mercy). There was some cursing going on, to be sure, but love abounded more.

That’s why years later when Nehemiah heard about the deplorable conditions that existed back in the Promised Land, he prayed to the Lord and called Him “the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love…” It’s also one of the reasons why John in his gospel made the simple, three-word statement, “God is Love.” God’s love for us is always creative, selfless, and life giving.

If we’re made in the image of that same God, why isn’t our love more creative, selfless, and life giving to others? Why do we withhold so much? Are we just that selfish, or are we simply ignorant? The God who created us doesn’t seem to hold anything back. Do we trust God so little that we think we’ll lose all our blessings if we give some of them away?

Bo Knows Church

Smith_ChapelFrom my limited experience, it seems to me that everyone (at least everyone who calls themselves Christian) knows what the church is. Before you jump down my throat, please allow me to qualify that. Even in the most institutionalized of congregations, the little children are taught songs lyrics like,

“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all a round the world, yes we’re the church together.”

That same song says this:

“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”

We know it. At least we know it in our heads. My point is this: we have an understanding, if only a superficial one, that the building we inhabit for worship is not “the church.” Our everyday usage of the term belies that fact, but we know it.

We know it, but we don’t live it.

Scripturally, the Greek word translated “church” means “gathering” or “assembly.” It’s never a place, and certainly not a building. The ecclesia (that Greek word I was talking about) was used to describe a public gathering of people. Today, when we use the term correctly, we are generally talking about a gathering of God’s people (you know—where two or more are gathered). At least, I wish that’s what we talking about. As you are well aware, we now mean the building more often than not. People ask you where you go to church, not who is your church.

I’m sure it’s much too optimistic to hope for a change in terminology—to stop using “church” and start using “gathering.” If we could, it might be a giant step toward addressing our shallow understanding of the concept. The label is important because we have used it to institutionalize who we are. In so doing, we have put ourselves in a box. We make ourselves prisoners of our own definition of church.

Our box contains things like what we wear, what music we prefer, what time we meet (or on what day), who we invite (or refuse to invite), who we make welcome, and which Scripture selections we choose (as well as which ones we don’t take seriously). I’m afraid many of us have become prisoners and our box has become our cell.

We place “the church” before “the Christ.” It’s a short step from there to placing ourselves first and others last. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to figure out the problem with that.




The Wrong Question

LCPI remember my Dad telling me about a guy he knew that was always in jail. Apparently this guy would commit enough of a crime to land behind bars. After he had served his time, he would be out long enough to do something else wrong and go back to jail. He would get caught on purpose. Why? He felt safe there. There were no responsibilities. He was provided a roof over his head and three squares a day. He eschewed his freedom for the secure confines of the county jail.

I thought of him last September when I began the sermon series entitled Local Church Prisoners. Had we, as a church and as individual Christians, become like that guy? Were we content to stay where we felt it was safe and secure?

The first in that series was one of those sermons in search of a Scripture. I finally settled on Ephesians 4:1-6. I did that primarily because of the first verse where Paul calls himself a “prisoner for the Lord…” (Which, by the way, is a far cry from what we had become.) At that point I had continued to go back to the Facebook page, Local Church Escapees. I was haunted by their existence. They caused me to re-evaluate our goals as a local church.

I came to the conclusion that we were asking the wrong question. We were continually asking ourselves, “How can we get them in here?” Making us attractive to new people always seemed to be the main thrust. Even worse than asking the wrong question, we didn’t seem to be very good at answering that question (right or wrong).

The fact is, we’re never told (Biblically) to do that—to lure people to a building. We’re told to seek them out…be “fishers of men”…”go and make disciples of all nations.” We stayed where we felt safe. We did a lot of nice things…good things. But we seldom strayed beyond the confines of our little chapel. We weren’t prisoners for the Lord; we were becoming prisoners of another sort.

I wondered out loud if we had become caricatures of ourselves. We emphasized certain aspects of who we were as the church. However, we did so to the exclusion of many other important attributes. The result was a caricature. We were still recognizable, but not always functioning as we could.

In short, we had become local church prisoners. Like the guy my Dad told me about, we wanted to be safe and secure. We wanted to be protected from the responsibilities of our own freedom in Christ. We were eschewing that freedom in exchange for protection. And we began defending our own image to make ourselves feel better. We looked like the church, but we didn’t act like her.

So what is the church, really? What should we be? What should we look like? How should we act? I finally realized I might have imprisoned myself to avoid being the answer.

Local Church Escapees

IMG_0778Through an unlikely series of circumstances (which I find most series of circumstances in life to be), I ran across a Facebook page entitled “Local Church Escapees.” Having been a local church pastor for thirty-five years, I was fascinated by the title. While I had been aware that, for some at least, an escape is the only way out of various local churches, I had never given it that much thought (especially in those terms).

What ultimately drew me to the page was an article listing the reasons people leave churches. It was addressed to the church (of which I am obviously a part); so being the arduous pastor that I am, I dove right in. It was a well-written article with some points that were well taken. The point that grabbed me (and still haunts me), however, was the author’s statement that while we (the church) could argue with the individual reasons people leave, arguing is not the required response. The required response is to listen (and presumably learn). [By the way, if any of you knows the article and author of such an article, please let me know. I’ve totally lost that info and would like to attain it again.]

On that point (the one about listening), I wholeheartedly agreed with the author. We DO need to listen and hopefully learn. He was correct about us arguing and pointing out the flaws in the various reasons people leave the church. At the time, I found myself doing just that, and I had a pretty solid argument against each of his points. At the same time, however, I quickly realized the futility of the arguments. I just needed to listen (and learn).

I began to peruse the “Local Church Escapee” page and found myself in agreement with most (if not all) of the gripes these folks had against the church. Frankly, they echoed many of my own gripes and concerns. The big difference was, and is, they took some action. As some would say, they voted with their feet. They left (or as they put it, escaped). I was so moved by this discovery, I began a five or six month long series of sermons I entitled “Local Church Prisoners.”

It seemed to me that if people needed to escape, they must have been prisoners in the first place. I began to wonder about that. How many of us in the church are prisoners—prisoners of our own little rules, our own little traditions, and our own petty and personal beliefs. Do we erect bars that keep others out (and ourselves in)? I’m convinced we do.

And so, over the next few weeks, months, years, or however long it takes, I want to explore this topic with you. If we are indeed local church prisoners, how do we tear out the bars? Can we tear down the prison walls? Please help me in my quest to more consistently experience the church we should be and not the prison we may have become.