Friday, September 30, 2011

But You Are Rich

You can tell a lot about a church just by watching how people function during their Sunday routine. Being the church-geek that I am, I have the tendency, when visiting a church, to quietly sit back and watch people as they go about their church business. How do they interact with each other as they come and go? How do they engage in worship? What’s the emotional tone of their gathering? How do they respond when the pastor is teaching? How do they dress and what does this say about them?

This summer I visited a church where all I could do was watch people. I really couldn’t participate because nothing was in English. The church was called Bois Neuf and was located several miles outside of St. Marc, Haiti. Because they speak Creole, I had no idea what was being sung, prayed, or taught. So I just watched… and this is what I observed:

• I saw over 150 people gather in a room better suited for less than 100 for a two hour service –and, it was hot in there!

• I saw men wearing clean white shirts with ties and women in beautifully colored dresses—a sharp contrast to their dirty, unkempt surroundings.

• I saw people physically, emotionally, and spiritually engaging with the worship music.

• I heard people audibly respond to the words of their pastor as he taught from his Bible.

• I saw beautiful children being lovingly taught. It was much later in the day that I learned many of the kids were from a local orphanage.

• I saw people who, I suspected, had very little put money in the collection baskets.

• I witnessed genuine expressions of love as people lingered an hour or more after the service.

As I watched this beautiful community of Haitian believers engage in their weekly gathering, tears flowed from my eyes. This was my fifth day in Haiti and by this time, I had soaked in so many troubling sights and had heard enough uncomfortable and disturbing stories for one week. I had never seen such poverty nor have heard such heartbreak. Just take a minute to think about what this church has endured in the last eighteen months: Four hurricanes and many more tropical storms have hit their region since the devastating earthquake in January, 2010. Though St. Marc was north of the earthquake devastation, they’ve had to aid their friends and family who were impacted in Port-a-Prince. Refugees have migrated into their community, swelling their already overpopulated city. A cholera outbreak recently started in their city and swept north into neighboring communities. Additionally, there is the constant threat of civil unrest from the daily impact of having a corrupt government that’s treated its citizens poorly for 200 hundred years. Oh… and then there’s Voodoo, which is an overt expression of the worship of ancient spirits. Christians there believe this is outright Satan-worship. The contrast between Bois Neuf Church and their surroundings was stunning.

As we continue our journey through the Seven Churches of Revelation, we come to the church of Smyrna. This town was a hotbed for persecution of Christians, and Jesus commends them for their endurance. This is one of two churches that do not receive correction from Jesus. Instead, Jesus encourages them in their hardship. I would bet that the people of Bois Neuf experience something very profound and encouraging when they read Jesus’ letter to the church in Smyrna. With Bois Neuf in mind, reflect on the words to Smyrna:

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. Revelation 2.8-11

The American church today may not be facing the troubles of Smyrna or Bois Neuf, but churches all around the globe are facing enormous hardship because of their faith in Jesus. Spend some time today praying for these churches. They have a great task ahead of them and are called to accomplish the same mission we have, but in the midst of difficult circumstances. God cares deeply for them. And, so shall we!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lost Love

When I was in college, I picked up a part-time job at United Parcel Service to help pay my expenses. There was one period of time during my tenure at UPS where I found myself on the “sort aisle”—the place where packages are unloaded from semi-trucks and sent down a conveyor belt to be sorted to their next destination. Brett was a guy on the sort aisle that I remember very well. He and I spent a lot of time talking about God, religion, and life while we moved packages. Jesus, the Bible and church were fairly new concepts to him but he knew how to ask really good questions. We would talk about God as often as he wanted and as often as the sort aisle would allow. There were a couple other Christian guys on the sort aisle, so Brett would go back and forth and pick our brains about what we knew and believed. As time went by, his questions got more and more specific about Jesus, his sin, grace, forgiveness, and being right with God.

I’ll never forget the night when Brett came up to me on the aisle and said, “I gave my life to Jesus last night. I believe! It’s pretty cool to know that Jesus died for my sins and I’m forgiven. Phil, what’s next?” Brett’s new found faith became his greatest passion in life. He began to read his Bible, he found a church and he told anyone who would listen about his new relationship with Jesus. He was a passionate man with a passionate faith! Over time, our work at UPS caused us to part ways. I took a driving job and, though we tried to stay in contact, our drastically different schedules wouldn’t allow it.

A few years later, I found myself in a conversation with one of the Christian guys from the days on the sort aisle. I asked if he had stayed in contact with Brett and he said that ironically, they had just reconnected. But his face dropped as he said, “I’m not sure that Brett’s doing very well.” I wondered if Brett had stumbled into some bad habits or had walked away from his faith. But Joe assured me that Brett’s lifestyle was clean and his faith in Jesus was still intact. “It seems that Brett has become rigid with his beliefs and he sounds harsh and almost angry when he talks about people and the church. I think he’s isolating himself with other very rigid people. He still reads his Bible a lot, but it seems he’s lost his passion for Jesus and for sharing his relationship with others. His joy in serving God and people is gone.” A feeling of deep sadness came over me as I tried to imagine Brett’s faith lacking joy and passion.

Brett’s story is not uncommon to believers. Many start their walk with God excited and passionate about serving and reaching out to others. But, over time, their bright light grows dim. A quest for knowledge replaces love, and following rules replaces relationships. This not only happens to individuals, it happens to churches. Jesus saw this trend in a church that had an incredible reputation and track record for impacting their region for Christ. It was the church of Ephesus who had worked hard and had persevered through difficult times. They were diligent in identifying and stamping out false teaching that would corrupt the message of Jesus. Once a hub for the expansion of the Good News of Jesus, the church of Ephesus was on the edge of having their light snuffed out. What was the reason for their shift? It was love, or the lack of it. They had lost their ability to love God and to love people the way they did when they were young, fresh, and new.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. Revelation 2.4-5

Spiritual drift can occur when the things of this world pull us from what is good and right. But spiritual drift can also happen when good things replace the best thing. We become more focused on our family, our work, and our fun rather than on our relationship with God. We serve our church without a heart of service toward God. We do good things out of obligation or routine, but without love and passion for the people involved. We read books to know about God, but never truly fall in love with God.

Jesus’ call is for us to repent. To go back where we started as passion-filled followers of Jesus whose every thought and action stems from a love for God and people. In a selfish world this is a hard road to walk, but Jesus promises that this is where we’ll find the greatest impact as a church and as followers of Jesus.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Job Review

Over the past 10 years, I’ve become fairly acquainted with annual job reviews. For much of the last decade, I’ve been someone’s boss here at Ada Bible Church. No one looks forward to their review; I have yet to meet anyone excited about this process. Some are downright afraid. Others approach them with a touch of cynical humor. But, no one has ever expressed that they’ve looked forward to their annual review. Even the ones who know that they’ve been doing exceptional work, tend to want to avoid them. Job reviews come with fear and anxiety. People fear correction, evaluation, criticism, and even compliments. But, I think most people fear that they will be asked to change something after a job review.

I’m not a boss any more at ABC. I’ve left my management position and have taken more of a pastoral role. And, ironically, I just endured my first job review in almost four years. To add irony to irony, my new boss, Dan, is someone I hired a handful years ago and was my employee until just a few months ago. I did his last job review. Now he did mine. I think both of us carried some significant anxiety into our meeting. He had the terrible task of reviewing his old boss. I was walking through the anxious steps of transitioning into a new boss, a new role, and new responsibilities with new people at a new campus.

I won’t bore you with the details of our discussion, but you need to know that I left our meeting feeling very affirmed in my role and in my relationship with Dan; and I felt challenged to engage in my job in a passionate manner. Because Dan knew me, he was able to genuinely affirm my strengths and to bring out the areas in which he felt I had been successful. Because Dan cared about me, he was also able to draw out areas were we both knew I may struggle. It was an authentic and honest conversation that was based on relationship. I knew that Dan was for me, that he cared for me, that he appreciated my effort and that he wanted to help me work through the challenges I was going to face in my new role. If our relationship lacked respect and trust, my review would have been hollow, inauthentic, and kind of awkward.

Being reviewed is tough, but it can be necessary and helpful. Most of us are not able to accurately self-evaluate. We tend to wear selfish-tinted glasses that make us feel better than we are; or we wear blinders that prohibit us from seeing ourselves and our work completely. We need help to see ourselves for who we truly are—the good and the bad. But it’s hard to hear someone talk about us whether in an affirming tone or a corrective manner. We feel vulnerable because the person reviewing us has the authority to alter our work. What if they don’t see us accurately? What if they do, and I need to change?

Over the next eight weeks, we get to sit at the conference table as Jesus does a job review with seven ancient churches. These seven churches all had the same job: to carry out the mission and message of Jesus to the world. Though they all have the same task, they are all very different. They all had unique sets of circumstances, people, cultural contexts, and challenges that threatened their effectiveness. But, they all had a “boss” who cared enough for them to tell them the truth—the good and the bad.

Throughout this series, notice how Christ relates to his church. Look for how he affirms them. Listen for words of warning. Pay close attention to how he corrects them. Experience the love he has for his church. But, don’t forget, we are now his church. His words to the seven churches will apply to Ada Bible Church. And because churches are made up of people, they will apply to us. It’s time for a job review from a boss who loves you enough to tell you the truth about yourself.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 2.7