Church Pt III: Rules and U-5 soccer

I have played soccer for about twenty years now so the rules come fairly naturally to me, but when I started on the Purple People Eaters U-5 rec team it was a different story. Five year olds were running everywhere, no one knew how to play a position, and the referee was constantly blowing the whistle. It took a great deal of time to be able to play the game without having to think about the rules, but now, if I were to try to go play a game of soccer with that same group of five year olds, it would be miserable. The rules go from being binding to being the very thing that help maintain the freedom and fun of the game.

If there were overarching themes t the vast majority of the Sermons I preach to middle and high schoolers, one would certainly be that the Christian life is not about rules, it is about a way of life. I have long believed that, and yet recently I have come to question whether that is true. I want it to be true, because no one likes rules. They are un-attractive, especially to those who want nothing to do with following Jesus in the first place. We naturally crave freedom, not bondage.

I have come to this conclusion: Christianity is not about rules… but sometimes it is. Senseless rules only serve to confine, but I believe that the rules Jesus set forth actually serve to refine. There is a great void between the moment of Regeneration (a moment of rebirth or acceptance into a Christian way of life) and the completion of Sanctification (the process of being made holy). All too often we confuse a moment or commitment to follow Jesus with the refining of the rough parts about us. Likely, when Christians seem abrasive, its not for lack of genuine commitment to following Christ, it’s a lack of realization that they are in a continued process of being made a new. The process of being made holy requires both joining with a community that is in the same process and engaging with the practices that remind us how we are to live.

There has been a building downtown near where I live that has been half built for a few years now. It had a very promising start. Deals were made, plans were drawn and the construction got underway. There was do be luxury condominiums, possibly even a Starbucks on the ground level. Then the economy took a turn for the worst. The construction company apparently was hit by hard times and so they abandoned the project. At one of the busiet corners in the area stood a building half finished.

We could all see the potential; we knew what it was supposed to be. And yet, standing in its unfinished state, with no visible progress for year, I watched, as it appeared to rot. I heard that the insulation was poorly protected and would be no good. It actually came to be nicknamed the birdhouse, because it never had any windows put in. The feelings as I passed by turned form anticipation of its completion to the tiresome wait for its demolition. What began with a beautiful promise sat disappointingly unfinished.

Recently, another contractor has taken on the task of finishing the building. It was indeed not demolished however the current construction crew not only had to continue the work, they had to repair the damage that had taken place from the years of neglect.

Most everyone begins a journey of faith with a beautiful promise. We relish in the joy of something new and exciting. The momentum of a new task, a new pursuit, and a new challenge typically carried us for a while. But all to often, for whatever reason, perhaps an economic disaster, perhaps a relational failure, perhaps simply being tired of moving toward a finished project, circumstances lead us to sit disappointingly unfinished.

But we are promised more. We are promised that we will be mad into a new creation (Revelation 21:5). We are promised that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6).  The initial jolt is great but it will only take us so far. We are all sitting in an unfinished state, and there is work that needs to be done.

I think this is where the Church, rules, you, and I, intersect. All too often I have been overly apologetic about the notion of Christianity having rules. And yet, in any setting whether it is organizational, athletic, academic, or otherwise, the rules in place are meant for the benefit not the detriment of the participant.  This is where we get confused; we believe that our confession of Jesus must be in the form or the rebuke of the world when in actuality our confession of Jesus must be in the redemption of the world. The church is to be the restored and redeemed community that the world is to become. The Church is the embodiment of those who acknowledge that the parameters of life have gone haywire. It is a community that exists not to judge externally, but slowly be repaired internally so that we can be of use to the world.

A friend of mine recently told me about a difficult conversation she had with another person at her Church. A coworker stated to her that she never thought that she would encounter such broken people when she came to work at a church. My friend beautifully responded, “If we are doing our jobs right, this place should be filled with broken people.” It is so true, the Church is and should be be a made of filled with broken people. It stands as a guide; it upholds the parameters that keep us moving toward being made new.

As we join together and engage in practices that serve to remind us that the world is to be made holy, we also are reminded that we are to be made holy, with the implication that we are not there yet. We will one day be free to engage with creation and the parameters that we have been given for the best life possible will come naturally to us, having been built into and refined for us overtime, But for now we can only seek to continue to practice, to continue to follow the rules. They can initially seem confining, but we will never truly appreciate the game as it is meant to be played if we can’t first understand how to play.

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Church Pt. II: the Sacred vs. Secular Myth.

I remember sitting in a Historical Christianity class when I was working on my undergrad degree when my professor asked a question, “what is the difference between Christian and secular music?” Although it seemed an initially obvious answer, the more we thought about it as a class, the more we realized we weren’t to sure. Was it that a Christian song had to mention Jesus or God? There are son’s that in the past at least I would have considered Christian that don’t mention either (the book of Ruth would also have a bunch of problems if that were a prerequisite to being considered Christian). Perhaps it has to have an uplifting message. But aren’t there songs that have an uplifting message that the writer and band would not consider specifically Christian?

This is a dilemma that is not unique to the sphere of music. We live in a world where the divide between Secular and Sacred is constantly and adamantly being drawn by Christians and non-Christians alike. We are frequently labeling things “Christian” that I suppose we fear otherwise might be confused for something else. We have Christian schools, Christian groups, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian bands, etc.  If not for our creative labeling system, how else would the world discern that we have departed from secular culture? And yet, is it not a problem that what is Christian so often has to be labeled as such? If our music, our school, our group, our book, our actions do not point those around us to Jesus, and do not serve to redeem a broken world, then regardless of our crafty labeling scheme, are they not indeed unchristian? 

St. Francis of Assisi is quoted famously as saying, “Preach the Gospel always, when necessary, use words.” Perhaps he just wasn’t into labeling.

I look back to a question that I posed about a week ago, “Why does the church exist?” Arguably, most any reason we commonly give for the churches existence can be accomplished by other means. Is it for community? Can we not find that at the local bar with a group of our former high school friends? Is it for instruction? Why go all the way to church when you can read a book, take a class, or watch a sermon from the comfort of your bed instead of from a pew in your Sunday’s best. We have so separated the sacred from the secular and yet, just as in the case of Christian music, I am not sure any of the things I named above cannot be considered Church. We have such a strong divide but why? And what are we using to make that divide?

As I have found more and more people who find Church participation irrelevant, I find myself agreeing with them. Why do we bother?

Now hold on a second. I wouldn’t at all argue that the Church is a lost cause, but I do wonder if the cause for which we gather, as the Church, has been lost.

Stanley Hauerwas in an epic collection of Essay’s simply titled The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics sets forth a remarkable idea. What if everything we did as the church served to remind us of who we are to be in the world? The Church is the place where as we gather together with fellow believers remembering that we are not only united with our neighbor from across the street but our fellow believers from around the world. When we offer a passing of the peace or a simple handshake across the aisle we enact the reconciliation between ourselves and the broken world around us, the broken people around us, those we have fought for and fought against, those who we have sinned against and have sinned against us.

What if everything we did actually had significance? Novel idea right? But in all seriousness, so often we forget that Church isn’t a show, but we area actually called to participate. In every action we engage in, we both consciously and subconsciously acknowledge and live out various ways that we are called to follow Christ. This is why I question if the cause for which we meet as a church has been lost. When Church is a show, then we can leave in our car complain about the car that just cut us off in the parking lot. We can step over the homeless man who is sleeping one hundred feet from our church’s door. We can get home to gossip about the couple that used to be in our small group. Church as a show makes for an ugly Christianity.

Transformation, not only in the community, but in the world begins not with observation but participation. Those we consider Jesus’ disciples as we read through Scripture were not the ones who simply listened the went back home, but the disciple was someone who practiced in the teachings of Jesus. We participate in Church, the gathering and ritual of believers through history and around the world to remind us that there is no sacred/secular divide. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6, he didn’t say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, in heaven, so just leave earth the way it is.” But instead we are to participate in the process of God’s kingdom. That’s what happens when we gather together for Church, we are participating in that truth.

Why I earlier questioned if we have lost the cause to hold church is not to suggest that is or should be made irrelevant, but instead that we have began to perceive it at such. How many times have you encountered someone who only attended a Chruch on Christmas and Easter, or Stopped attending all together because they don’t see a point. And they are all too often right, often we don’t give them a point. We have lost our cause for church. We have made it entertainment, or another mode of consumption, or simply a box we check off our spiritual check list to ensure we remain “right with God.” And so we ask, “do we really need to participate? Is it necessary that we go? Its so nice out, can’t we just skip it this week?

I confess, I all too often forget that something actually happens when the Church meets. But it does. We create actual reconciliation, we call the world to actually remember that God is real and alive, we actually repair relationships, we actually proclaim truth, and we actually represent what it is and furthermore will be as the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer is enacted. We participate in those things.

Jesus spent the majority of his ministry blurring the lines between secular and sacred, embodying a statement that the division the ritualistic religion of the day had crested a false division. All things are God’s, all things are in fact sacred.  He was criticized for almost everything he did because he acted as if things such as the purity and impurity, pious and impious, Jew and Gentile, powerful and weak, rich and poor did not exist as the world saw them.  Paul preached this as he proclaimed in Romans there is no division, but “all are one in Christ Jesus.” But slowly but surely Christians has methodically served to re-define those lines. We have needed a way to classify who is in or out. We wanted to be able to sit at the table with drunkards and tax collectors and sinners, as long as we knew who was who.

The Church has all to often become a place that represents the authoritarian divide between those who are in and those who are out, between the sacred Church and the secular culture. I don’t think we have any actual need for a church such as that. But in fact when the Church is embodying the ministry of Christ, it calls its members to participate in the setting right of the world, it reminds us who we are to be in our daily lives. The church transitions from irrelevant to paramount when we cease to see it as a building or group or time that serves our consumption, or entertainment, or fills a quota of sorts, but when it becomes the catalyst that enables those who follow Jesus to in fact take up their own cross and follow him.

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