Monday, November 27, 2006

A day in our church...

I’m going to relate a phone call my wife received. But first I want to describe our time today from my perspective.

We started with prayer that God would bless our time together; that He would remind us to keep our conversations focused on Him and on loving each other; finally, that He would bless the food.

Then we ate and talked. Ten adults and five kids spread over two rooms. We chatted about the events in our weeks as we ate together. After about 15 minutes, I raised the question about our plans for next weekend. Every household in the church (except one) is traveling to a tourist area about 5 hours away. We will enjoy the mountains, a special dinner show, an amusement park, and extended fellowship. I'm still praying and plotting what we can do to "include" the one family that can't come.

After most were through eating and our travel plans were settled, I asked, "Who would like to share what God is showing you lately?" Four people shared. One of those seemed more "raw” so I asked a few more questions about it. It dealt with the perception that God wanted this person to grow in a specific way. Without giving details, the general theme was that the community affirmed for the person sharing that God was working to accomplish something painful, but very good in her. We commented on her courage for facing the issue and for being willing to share it. We took a quick side trip to note that her family members (that were present) would naturally feel some desire to reduce her discomfort. But that they should not yield to that. "Give God room and freedom to do His work in her life. That will sometimes feel to you and to her, like you are being mean, but you really are giving God the freedom to complete the work He has started."

We prayed and then shifted into our teaching time. I had felt impressed this week to give a very simple message about how God looks at people, and feels toward them, and how we do.

We discussed this together for a while and then dismissed. People lingered and talked for an hour or more.

Church happened.

Phone call: "Hey, I just wanted to tell you that I love my church. I was talking to my grandmother and telling her how much I loved going and meeting together. She asked me 'why?' I told her that while we were talking today, in the middle of our lesson, my 18-month old came rolling into the room on a little scooter. He just learned to do that this week, and the meeting stopped while everyone commented how wonderful it was that he could do that. You all praised him, recognized his accomplishment, and then went back to the conversation. He was not an interruption; he was a joy to be celebrated in the middle of our time."

I plan and pray for hours about what God would have me do on Sunday. What I believe He led me to, and what I therefore did, was good, but what was most powerful was our love for an 18-month old that was greater than our commitment to a planned agenda. It reinforces for me some of the things I believe God is teaching's not about propositional truth, it's about relational touch; it's not about teaching or leading a flock, it's about learning from and loving His loved ones.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Great Sermon

Just because I have two posts that criticize the traditional sermon format and the stereotypical church service, please don’t take that to be the sole theme of my very young blog. It just so happens that these things have come up in my experience recently.

I got an e-mail with a link to streaming video of “a great sermon.” So I watched it.

It started with a professional quality video of an IPod (registered trademark of somebody, I’m sure). The IPod was shuffling to a series of songs that deal with time.

Does anybody really know what time it is – Chicago
Working 9-5 – Dolly Parton
Take it Easy - Eagles
Tomorrow – Annie
Life is a Highway – Rascal Flatts
Groovin – The Young Rascals
I’m in a hurry and don’t know why – Alabama

The pastor then appeared and asked for a round of applause to welcome the internet and remote audience. His sermon was about time. We’re all too busy and we need to slow down and focus on the priorities.

Anybody that doesn’t think that American Culture props up the idol of activity is not being realistic. Every sound bite, every alarm clock, every speed trap, and every fast food place witness to our obsession with doing more all the time.

The pastor made some good points, fundamentally it was about how we need to slow down, take time for the priorities. Some of the priorities he listed were time with God, time with family, and “sharpening the saw.” Several things in this “great sermon” bothered me.

1) I like Stephen Covey. I like his book on the seven habits. I don’t see them as canonized.

2) Setting better priorities is good, but leaves the real problem unaddressed.

Nobody would argue that as a culture we are too busy. Nobody would argue that our busy-ness generates an imbalance in priorities and we dash to the next project rather than relish God and people in the moment.

Fundamentally, we are too busy because we haven’t learned contentment. We rush to do more, be more, have more, accomplish more, because we believe that we need more. The worst danger of capitalism is an addiction to more. So we simply feed our addiction by racing through every moment, so that we can have “more.” That is the problem that needs to be addressed.

But the sermon did not focus on our idolatrous desire for “more,” he focused on the “more important more” of time with family, etc. He took our utterly selfish drive and re-directed it to a different set of “more.” Now instead of pursuing the “more” of a better job evaluation, I pursue the “more” of time with family.

He didn’t address our sin of a selfish passion for more. He baptized it by encourage us to pursue better things. It’s like saying that beating you spouse is bad, so beat your dog instead. The behavior is better but the core problem is unaddressed.

He’s right that the priorities he suggests are better priorities. He ignores the more central issue that we are not content and believe the fantasy that “more” will make life better. “I’ll be more time conscious and not rush, so that I can have “more” with my kids.” It is a good step, but it only reinforces our foolish, idolatrous idea that if I do “more,” things will be better.

Here’s the message I wish the sermonizer had given.
“The reason we are so busy is that we are rushing to do more, be more, get more, enjoy more. We have bought the idolatry of “more.” It is rooted in a lack of contentment and trust in God. It assumes that I cannot trust Him to provide for all my needs. It is a slap in His face as the sustainer, provider, loving, and good God that He has proven Himself to be. We need to abandon the rush to do more, be more, get more, accomplish more. It is idolatry. We do not need to pursue better idols or pursue idols more effectively. Instead of rushing to obtain and have more, we need to strive to GIVE more. Give your time to God in prayer, worship, meditation. GIVE His love to family and others.”

I am so convinced that the real problem is not what we are pursuing in our rush, but the idolatry of the pursuit, that I need to add this. “Beware in giving your time to worship (and everything else I listed above) that you are not doing so for your own benefit. Our idolatrous hearts are capable of corrupting every good action. If you worship so that you can obtain God’s favor, you are stuck in the same idolatry of getting more for yourself. There’s a test of whether you are selfishly pursuing “more” for self, or humbly giving more of self. It is, what is your attitude, when you give, and “get” nothing in return. Do you keep worshipping when you don’t feel His presence? Do you keep giving His love to a teenager who seems to resent your every word?”

I challenge you to let go of the rush to get “more” but also to let go of the rush to get a better “more” by merely shifting to better priorities. I challenge you to realize that the calling of God on your life is to love your family and the best way to do that is to invest time into His purposes for them. Give Him your time in the form or praise, prayer, worship, meditation. Give others His love, His attention, His interest.

Without that shift in motivation, the shift in priorities stays self-centered. I can foresee people convicted by this sermon spending more time with their kids, but the basic idolatry that says “I need more” is left unaddressed. These folks are spending time with their kids but the focus is still on what I will get out of it. “My deathbed will be a happier place.” “My kids will love me in my old age.” “I feel important, loved and cared for.”

My final complaint with this sermon may be quite petty, but it’s very practical. How much time did it take for a really savvy computer guy to create this wonderfully professional video of music being selected on an IPOD? I can’t do it justice in describing it. Suffice it to say there’s not a television show in the nation that would be ashamed to play it, for its production values. What were his kids doing while he spent the time making it?