Friday, May 28, 2010
(The following is part of series of posts under the title, The God of the Mundane. You can access those easily through the following links: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.)
There is a scene in "It's A Wonderful Life" in which George Bailey is wanting to buy a suitcase. Excited, he tells the salesman, "I don't want something for one night, I want something for a thousand and one nights!" (Or something along those lines...I'm working from memory here.) The salesman shows him a second-hand piece of luggage and George remarks about how there is plenty of space for stickers from all the places he will go and see. He asks how much it is and he is told, "No charge." "What's that? That's my trick ear..." He is then told his old employer, "Old man Gower" bought it for him. I can see and hear George say, "He did?!" And then he heads over to the drugstore Old man Gower owns and where George used to work.
This is a powerful scene. I have watched this movie more than any other movie and in my opinion this is the most meaningful scene in the whole film. Here we have George bursting with excitement and on the edge of adventure. We are thrilled with him. But only the first time we watch the film.
For now we know.
We know the torment that is coming. We know he must shelve his trip because of his father's death. And then he will once again be disappointed, watching his dreams shatter on the craggy rocks of reality. His brother Harry will not be coming home to take the reins of the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan.
Another scene. He is standing outside of his home. Inside is a celebration of his brother's marriage. He has had to feign joy while harboring defeat. Before his mother comes out to push him in the direction of Mary Hatch's home, we watch him look with distress at the brochure's representing his dreams of leaving behind the mundane life he leads in Bedford Falls. And Jimmy Stewart, in a beautiful piece of acting, tosses those dreams of escape and adventure away and the brochures are thrown on the ground to be trod by those who could never know his disappointment.
And it's not over. He is now married to Mary Hatch. They have a triumphant handful of cash and are on their way out of town in Bert's Taxi. They are on the edge of a dream Honeymoon. Not only is George Bailey about to escape the mundanity of his hometown, the only environs he has known, but he is about to leave with his new wife. But again the dream is squelched and he, in a gorgeous moment, uses his own money meant for his honeymoon to save the business he runs and cares for. The life he pictured has once again been thrown to the threshing floor of things beyond his control.
Everyone focuses on the end of this movie. In the end the viewer sees his life was used to help people and change the lives of not only the people of his town but the effects of his everyday decisions starting in childhood reverberate with significance throughout the world. He realizes this because Heaven has entered into his life in the form of an angel named Clarence. Once he sees what he has accomplished in the midst of such a mundane existence, there is joy and a new lust for life that had left him - and left him to the point of contemplating suicide. Everyone loves this part of the movie, as do I.
The end of the picture is when we get God's perspective, of course. Heaven has burst in and George is now able to see clearly. We see clearly. Previously we all saw in a glass darkly. But now, clear. We like this. We want to be the George Bailey whose significance has been revealed. However, we do not want to be the George Bailey who leads a mundane life void of the excitement of the wider world which he longed for. We identify with his frustrations. We run away from the mundane. Or we tolerate it in expectation of something...other. No one really wants to be George Bailey. Wanting to have the same kind of impact on people's lives is not the same as wanting to be George Bailey.
The movie is profound on a level we rarely ever operate on. Let's look at another scene. George and Clarence (the angel) are sitting in a little building by the bridge George was about to jump off of. Of course, Clarence jumps in first because he knows the character and history of George and jumps in knowing he would be saved by him. George's clothes are now drying out. Our suicidal subject is lamenting his life and Clarence utters the very statement that sums up the message of the movie. He says, "you just don't know all that you've done."
All his dreams are crashing around him and George is staring in the face the horrific idea he has done nothing in his life. We get this, don't we? No one wants to grow up and be a nobody who lived a mundane life. We want to be rock stars. We want to be the kind of people books get written about. We want to leave our mark on the world. Obscurity is rarely the stuff of daydreams. Since the only people we celebrate are celebrities (singers, actors, writers, and in the church - celebrity pastors and biography-worthy missionaries) we of course want to be worthy of such talk ourselves. And this is what we want for our kids. No one wants to be George Bailey, really.
We don't want to be clerks toiling away in obscurity without notice of the wider world. And those who are fine with that, let's be honest, something is wrong with them. A quiet and peaceful life where nothing of significance can be seen with the naked eye stands in disdain inside and outside the church.
Christians could learn a lot here. We are guilty of not knowing what all we have done. Actually, that is not where the real guilt lies. It is where we feel it. But the actual guilt lies in our thinking because we do not know all that we have done, therefore we must have done nothing. We assume some kind of godlike posture as if we know the ends and implications of all our actions and then we make judgments based thereupon. Foolish, isn't it - this idea we have no significance because we have not seen it? We wallow in some kind of faux humility never realizing it is really ego which thinks, "If I cannot see it, it must not be there."
If there's no place in the halls of heroic Christian faith for unknown housewives and clerks, then we have not believed the gospel nor read the Word aright. Most people live mundane lives that will never be remembered beyond a couple generations and only then by their family members. This can be painful. Again, every Christian wants to do something wonderful in the name of Jesus. And to come to the end of your rope or life and not see you did anything at all worthy enough to be called significant can be devastating.
Of course, it's a lie. And it's a lie if only because the two greatest commands Jesus gave are more often than not going to look very mundane. Often our loving God will not be very noticeable and our loving our neighbor will not be memorable. Sometimes they may be, but more often than not, forgettable and forgotten. But it is also a lie simply because we do not know. Who could know the effects of daily living out of the depths of belief in the killed and risen God for those who rebelled against him?
Since we cannot see that in our day-in and day-out faithfulness to God, we are accomplishing something, we then begin to reevaluate our lives. "I cannot see that I have done anything at all with my life. Therefore I must do something significant." So we then go into the ministry or do something giving you the immediate satisfaction of seeing significance done. Finished. And done by us. This is not to say we should never take stock of what our lives are made up of. But we must face the fact there is a latent arrogance in this line of thinking. The arrogance of presumed omniscience. The arrogance of needing immediacy for validation. The problem and the difficulty is this just does not look anything like the conceit we are used to. This looks like ambition and single-mindedness. This is a cataclysmic forgetting of where our real significance is: Another, who rescued us from sin and death.
However, this is not all. There is a third stage. And it is the worst of all. The first is painful. The second is dangerous. But the last is repugnant. Stage one: I feel guilty about doing nothing. Stage 2: Therefore I must get on with something obviously significant. What comes next is absolutely natural but utterly reprehensible. Now we judge others by this standard. If they are not doing something obviously significant then we automatically say to ourself...or to them...and certainly to others, "They are not serious about their faith! If they were, they would do..." We can just finish the rest of the sentence with at the very least what we have done in the quest for making our mark on the world. And now as if there is not enough in the Scriptures given to us by God, we churn out new laws - in this case, the law of "do something big" - to prop up our own righteousness and judge another's by. And it gets worse, it now becomes the gospel. No longer are joy, assurance and hope lodged in the work of Christ on our behalf. All hope is now located in what we are doing that is so awesome for God.
And it all started with the very first lie, "You will be like God, knowing..."
A huge part of all this is the belief that nothing so mundane as "a peaceful and quiet life" can be significant. The idea that God can take the seemingly small, mundane tasks and responsibilities and turn them into something significant, while a strange way of thinking for us, is a common thread divinely woven throughout the gospel story. This is crucial. So not only have we forgotten the hope and assurance of the gospel of grace by trading it in for "significant" works but we have forgotten the very content of the story. The irony is how when Paul is counseling the churches he started in pagan lands he counsels them to lead quiet lives (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:12; 1 Tim. 2:2) and never does he say "do something big!"
We should be the people most willing to buy into the view of life that sees work and making babies and caring for them as significant. These after all are what we were originally called to be doing. When we watch the lives of George Baileys lived out in front us, frustrated and tempted to think they have done little, we ought to be the representatives of the Kingdom most anxious to comfort them with, "You just don't know all that you've done!"
Of course, we must be doing something. And as believers we do something because of the gospel of grace in Jesus. We must be loving others: spouses, children, friends, family, neighbors. We must be holy - set apart - living lives that communicate to the watching world we live in allegiance to a King who has rescued us from something greater than the terrors of this world and its systems has to offer. Everyone has lives of fairly mundane parts and most everyone lives a fairly mundane life. And here is the irony. Christians often, and sometimes with pure hearts, are moved to acts of world-staggering significance because of the significance of their salvation. But even here, the heart only remains pure if their significance is in what Christ has done for them. On the cross.
This is not a call to insignificance. Actually it is the opposite. This is a call to the belief the Sovereign God of the Universe makes every moment significant and this is more true for those who have placed all the hope of significance in the work of Someone Else.
Monday, May 24, 2010
There was not a lot of work involved in my initial thinking about the idea of a Mundane Church. The idea was already working on me. While not entirely sure where it came from, I am certain part of it had to do with my leaving a very traditional PCA church and then being part of a suburban baptist church in the midwest. The change was jolting. But it took awhile for me to see the effect it was having on me. The change from experiencing virtually the same thing week in and week out to having something new and different every week was difficult in ways I could never have imagined. It would be nice if I could tell you a better reason for thinking about these things, you know like...I have studied trends and history and this is what I came up with. But that is not the case. While the reality may be that I have formed the ideas of the Mundane Church around my own history, it does not feel that way. It feels as if I was being formed by the idea of the Mundane Church.
Last week I told a friend of mine I was working on this post but I needed to put more work into it because it sounded combative. Let me be the first to admit how I have failed at this miserably. Regardless of how much I edit, this post has a combative edge. But I also must admit a great deal of the battle is with myself. My own desire for a "worship experience" and to create one as a pastor for others to be wowed by is not foreign to me. There is a daily combat I am engaged in when I think about what believers need and what I want them to see me do.
I cannot be alone. Surely there are others feeling the pull of a culture that wants everything to be big and full of awesomeness. And yet at the same time wants a church that is not trying to be awesome, just faithful. Similarly, is there anyone else who wants to watch a movie full of explosions and mad-wicked effects and then half-way through the flick, you long for a film of substance - of the BBC Masterpiece Theater type, full of great dialogue and a script thick with reality? Maybe it's the tug of the world that was and the pull of the world that is. Have you ever looked forward to a worship experience only to find yourself in the midst of it yearning for something which in comparison could only be called "mundane?"
Who wants to go to a Mundane Church? The Mundane Church is not ever original. And never could be called cutting edge. You won't see it running after fads. Caring nothing for the entertainment zeitgeist, it is tragically low-key. It will not borrow from the business world. It places its hope in the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures, the administration of the sacraments and the relationships of those who are a part. It is not a slave to the calendar. The Mundane Church yawns in the face of programs and special events (which have ceased to be special because they are ever-present). It believes every gathering for the worship of God and his Son in the power of the Spirit is of immense importance. And yet the Mundane Church is not merely a gathering but a scattering of those who work and play and eat and drink and have sex and watch TV and give and buy and laugh and cry and serve and fail and triumph with the Spirit's help. The Mundane Church is anonymous and therefore thought of as failing. Week-in and week-out it does the same old thing it did last week. The Mundane Church will not attract the press or those who are looking for the next big thing. At the Mundane Church, there is God and Jesus and those who need them - empowered by the Holy Spirit.
There may be nothing more extreme than a mundane church. Radical because it stands athwart the tide of the day where celebrity is needed, encouraged and invested in. Crazy because it has said 'no' to the prevailing wisdom of the day which looks sideways upon those who are not 'with it.' Progressive because it serves in quiet confidence knowing there is no need to blow the social media shofar for every single. thing. it. does. Where does the quiet confidence come from? It comes from knowing it is doing what it has been called to do...testify to the glory of the gospel of King Jesus and his gracious reign.
I have a theory. What if our lack of desire for a Mundane Church is in proportion to our lack of desire to think about the mundane parts of our lives in light of the gospel. In other words, against the backdrop of concert-like worship experiences it is hard to see the spiritual significance of sweeping up the dried mac-cheese your 4 year old cast aside the night before and counting your drawer when the bank closes. Instead, the rock-hard mac and cheese gets in the way of doing really spiritual things like reading books by the latest and greatest...or even a blog post by a fairly obscure pastor in Alabama. And now that the bank drawer counting is out of the way the Christian life can be got on with. It is easy to think about Jesus and his grace and his love and care and our need for him when you are singing the newest and greatest worship song. But perhaps if our services were a little more mundane, the digging of the months-old french fries out of the seats of your mini van could stand tall in the pantheon of spiritual exercises. I wonder if our worship services have primed our spiritual pumps and we can now no longer look into the daily details of our lives and find anything but boredom.
We have it backwards. We think the concert-like worship services fit in well with our lives because we are used to that kind of music...the cds are sitting in our car right now. But the fact is our lives are so full of mundane moments, hours and days that are nothing like the euphoric time on Sunday morning, we cannot even imagine those mundane moments as significant. And I know, we cannot ever imagine those mundane churches as significant.
Even more, what if we stopped living as if worship was significant because of what we felt but instead because of Whom we worship. You see, we place the energy in the extremity of our emotions and call it "awesome." When all along there is God, awesome and holy and sovereign over every single thing. Which makes not only our worship services significant but everything else also. And the everything else is the reason for worship.
The argument for "relevance" makes sense to me. Mainly because I have wielded it like a weapon of violence on the innocent. But also because I think it is mostly right. I mean, we all want our worship services to be understandable to some degree. But see, again here is the thing, what if we have the relevance argument backwards? What if relevance was not under the tyranny of the moment? What if we took a long view of relevance assuming that some things (most things?) of significance have their significance hidden from us for a season. Or a generation.
We live in a world rife with the immediate. And the church has co-opted liberally. We cannot even imagine a philosophy of ministry where the preached word does not have to excite anyone as it is being preached. We should be glad if it does! But sometimes we are not moved for days, weeks, months and years. And usually this is the case when tragedy strikes or failure breaks in on us without warning. Then what we once heard or heard every week finally dawns on us breaking into the dark night of the soul.
But this kind of thinking is foreign to the church that is running from anything that reeks of the mundane at break-neck speed. Thus the blazing guitars, the lights, the branding, and the inevitable provocative sermon series on sex.
This is not to say you must expect music ripped out of the 17th century and a sermon full of the King's English. But you can expect those who are looking for a tremendous worship experience to possibly be bored to tears. The Mundane Church looks for the power to reside in the ordinary means of grace and not in explosive events, life-changing 6 week series and once in a lifetime experiences.
Eugene Peterson says, "The enemy of the church we want is the enemy of the church we have." I agree, though my agreement is like a freshly opened bottle of wine. Fragrant. pleasing to the eye. Eager. But not yet ready to pour.
Perhaps what would be helpful as we think about the Mundane Church is for us to see all the elements and thoughts above as possibly occurring anywhere. Some here and some there. Never all in one place. The challenge then is to look for them where you are and be comfortable with them. Be comfortable with the mundane in the midst of an ecclesiastical world yearning for another big bang. Be very comfortable with pastors who think locally and act locally and minister locally. And never speak at conferences. Look for the mundane and be thankful that right there, there are bits of your church which have not yet succumbed to what might be ridiculously called "exciting."
Friday, May 21, 2010
When Christianity is defined by actions and not belief, one of two things are more than likely to happen.
1) The gospel will be pushed out of the center and all but abandoned for the sake of the actions by which Christianity has now become defined by. The fact is that nearly all actions required of Christians are not distinctive to those who believe in the gospel. The one thing that separates Christians from everyone else is belief and trust in the gospel of grace in Jesus. There are countless people who are OK with "following Jesus" in his ethics while content to ignore his atonement.
2) The one thing that will define the Christian life will be the one thing that can separate us from others: evangelism. Witnessing/Personal Evangelism will and already has become the baseline for determining the status of whether a person is Christian in the current evangelical culture. This is the inevitable result of placing emphasis on works at the expense of belief.
In the first inevitability, the call to these deeds are biblical, explicit and agreed on by every believer, though there may be disagreement on how to do these actions in particulars. The difference is motivation. In the second inevitability, the call is not so explicit and certainly not the thrust of the NT since there is never one explicit call to personal evangelism. Of course this does not mean it cannot be effective or that we should not do it. But it does tell us that if it were the bottom line for defining Christian faithfulness, the Apostles would have been more explicit and well, there would have been more talk of it.
There may be other inevitabilities for defining the Christian life in terms of action over belief but these are certain - as they are being played out everywhere in the current evangelical climate.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
There are a lot of good blogs out there. But They are not always easy to find. And it seems that most Christians are blogging like me - for other believers. And doing so on only "spiritual themes."
I mean, this is fine, but I love The Beatles.
Enter The Beatles Songwriting Academy. Matt Blick is spending his Sabbatical year off from leading the bands at his church to blog through the music pf The Beatles. How epic tis that for a Beatles fan? And he writes not only as a fan of music but as a musician who understands all the details that go into songwriting.
Half the time I'm lost, as I am not a musician. Chord progressions? But I am still fascinated just the same.
This post may seem like a detour for me. But not only have I enjoyed getting to know Matt a little (through Twitter) but I appreciate what he is doing. And not only because I am a Beatles fan. Whether you are a Beatles fan or not, there is a reason they continue to be so popular. They were great songwriters. Created in the image of God, all four of them reflected that creativity by making extraordinary music listened to the world over.
I cannot remember the last time I recommended a blog to anyone on my blog, so that should tell you something.
Monday, May 17, 2010
"In terms of the cultural economy...Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production...the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don't believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the areas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest."
- from To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davidson Hunter, 89.
Thursday, May 06, 2010
The Mother's Day Sermon. Oh how I have hated thee!
Usually one of three types of sermons are preached on Mother's Day. The first is one in celebration of Mother's. You know, "Mothers are awesome! God loves Mothers! Look at Mary!" The second is one telling Mother's how to be better Mothers. "Be like Mary or Hannah or..." "Happy Mother's Day...now here is how to be awesome as a mother." The third sermon we sometimes hear on Mother's Day is one that has nothing to do with Mothers. To be honest this is the one I usually prefer. Honor the Mothers...wait...all the women in the congregation and then preach on whatever you would have preached on if it were not Mother's Day.
I have not had to preach on Mother's Day yet. But I thought I would be preaching on Mother's Day this year but turns out it is not on the Sunday I am preaching next. So I was worried. What would I preach? I did not want to preach either of the first two kinds of Mother's Day sermons above but I would want to try and preach one of encouragement to Mothers. And I love the challenge of preaching a sermon that would be relevant for all who are in the pews...errr chairs.
OK, so here is where I would go with the sermon if I had to preach one...
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Thesis: Mother's, if you are in Christ Jesus, you ought to have no fear of condemnation because of your standing of righteousness because of Christ's work on your behalf on the cross.
Mothers, even though you may feel you are...
You are not condemned by messy homes.
You are not condemned by your lack of desire to homeschool.
You are not condemned by your personal sins.
You are not condemned by the knowledge of how easy it is for you to love one child more than another.
You are not condemned by your miscarriages.
You are not condemned by your lack of desire to have more kids.
You are not condemned by your inability to cook.
You are not condemned by being divorced.
You are not condemned by your desire to be alone, away from the kids for a time every. single. day.
You are not condemned by your body, which may not be what it once was.
You are not condemned by your failures as a mother.
You are not condemned by your rebellious children.
You are not condemned by the frustration of having to scrape mac & cheese off the kitchen floor. Again.
You are not condemned by all the fears and tears which flirt with insanity and take you to the precipice of despair.
You are not condemned by not being able to throw the party of the century for your kids.
You are not condemned for not feeding your kids meals that could only be made after a trip to Whole Foods.
You are not condemned by your need for a vacation.
You are not condemned for not living up to the standards of your Mother or Mother-in-law.
You are not condemned by the stares of those who have no kids when your kids erupt into volcanic screams in public places.
Mother's, though you may feel condemned, if you are in Christ, you are not condemned. Fight with this knowledge of what is real reality.
You are not condemned, because if you are in Christ, your identity...your righteousness is Christ alone. Therefore, enjoy the love and affection and acceptance of being a daughter perfectly loved with an unwavering love that flows from your Father in Heaven.
All those who are without mothers...
Do nothing as Husbands, Sons, Daughters, Mothers, Fathers, Mother-in-Laws, Father-in-Laws, friends, acquaintances and advice givers to diminish this reality. Nothing.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
"We often let the big ideas, the majestic vistas of salvation, the grand visions of God's work in the world, and the great opportunities for making an impact in the name of Jesus distract us from taking with gospel seriousness the unglamorous ordinary. A person who is endowed with charisma, extraordinary motivational gifts. and organizational energy may tend to pull away from the tedium of the dailiness to the large, the visionary, the influential - the eternal verities - in a way that is magnetic and virtually irresistible.
But when the pull is indulged, the consequences are disastrous and virtually guarantee perpetual adolescence. And the people we spend most of our time with, our family members and fellow workers, bear the brunt of suffering our immaturity. Men and women who achieve public acclaim are especially vulnerable. Too many prominent leaders in church and government, in business and university, writers and entertainers, in infamously infantile and disappointing in intimate relationships." - Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection
HT: Glen Packiam
Our children have been sick a number of times lately. While they have a hard time sharing their toys with each other, they trip over themselves to share the latest stomach virus or cold. They also like to be liberal in their generosity towards us.
We have watched two children try to get well in the hospital. Knox, our middle child, spent his first week in a hospital being poked and prodded and tested. Why? He would stop breathing while he was asleep. Emma has been in the hospital numerous times with what has now been diagnosed as Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome. Here is what would happen; inevitably around the time of every exciting event in her life (birthday, Christmas, etc.) she would get worked up - anxious - and it would cause her to begin vomiting again and again and again. This would continue until she would have to be hospitalized for dehydration. More poking and prodding and testing. Imagine renting an inflatable for your daughter's birthday because other birthdays have gone badly because of her getting sick, only to send it back because she is in the emergency room. Again.
As a parent, it is painful to watch. Actually that last statement is an understatement. It is horrifying. You hate watching your children hurt. You would do anything to make it stop. You find yourself pouring out love on them and sparing no expense to see them smile. You will even weep tears of joy when you see them improve. You care nothing about getting sick yourself so you kiss their heads and hold them and find what used to turn your stomach is now something you find yourself glad to do. Why? Because you delight to pour out your affectionate love on them.
Yesterday, our son, Knox got sick. My wife and I sat and talked last night about how painful it is to watch him hurt and just not look well. I thought about it and I told her, "I suppose we are seeing a glimpse of a loving Heavenly Father." I mean, he certainly loves us more than I could ever hope to love my children. Even my hope for my children to be well has in it also the desire for me to be inconvenienced no longer. God's love when we are hurting is far more tender than my love for my children. But for some reason, this is hard to believe. Let's face it, for some reason or another, we find it hard to believe that God is always pouring out affection upon us who are his. Our first reaction when we get sick or hurt is that this must be judgment, is it not?
"What have I done to deserve this?!"
And so, we beat ourselves up and wonder what we have done to make God stand aloof. Oh, we are prone to look at our sickness and remind ourselves of how sinful we are. We want to remind ourselves we are worms. And so, we think it makes the most sense in the world that God would throw lightning bolts of fever and disease in our direction. This is foolish.
The week we moved to Wichita was insanely crazy as all moves are. Emma got sick just 2 days after we moved in. That night I was up with her. She had been asleep. She woke up. She got sick. And afterwards she sleepily - with concern on her face - asked me if I was upset with her. My face full of concern must have looked like the face of one who was mad. Aghast, "Of course not!" I told her. And I reassured her with loving kisses. She was then told how painful it is for her Daddy to watch her hurt and that is why it looked like I was frowning.
How deep the Father's love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That he would give his only Son
To make a wretch his treasure
Yes, we are shot through with a depth of rebellion and sin, we cannot even imagine. But the good news is when we hurt the most, those who are his can be certain of his never-ending love and affection for us. God is not standing aloof waiting for the pain to go away and for us to learn our lesson. He is, with wild abandon, running towards us with grace and mercy and love and tenderness. Sure, every sickness can be helpful reminder of our sinfulness. But do not leave off the sermon of God's gracious love for sinners who hurt under the weight of it all.