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October 27, 2011

church: a love story

Do you remember when you fell in love? You were so excited. It was all sunshine, rainbows and dreams (or so they tell me).

Have you ever considered the many parallels between long-term human relationships and your relationship with your local church? I remember when I first started attending my church—a warm place in a city where I knew nearly no one. They extended love and lunch invitations to me from day one. Soon they were my extended family. The Bible studies were insightful, the congregation caring. I was in love and our first months and years were so good—I knew this was God's chosen church for me.

I have been attending my local church for more than four years now. But one day some months ago, something unexpected happen. I found myself at my computer, googling other churches in my area. I noted the name of one that sounded like it might be good. I stopped. When did this happen? When did my love affair with my church cool off to the point that I was entertaining thoughts of leaving it? Where was the love I felt a few years ago?

My interest had jaded. At first that man's jokes were funny, but now they're just lame. I realized that one lady, well, she always does that annoying thing, and she doesn't stop. Sometimes they forget to thank me for something I've done! One unforgiven frustration compounds onto another and suddenly petty differences are a big deal.

(I should here insert that I'm not saying that there is never a time when you should leave your church. There are times when it is the right thing to move on. But as Joshua Harris says, too many of us have become church "daters" instead of having long-term relationships with our churches. We're selfish, independent and critical. The moment things don't go our way, we pout or hit the street.)

What keeps me in love with my specific, local church? It is the assurance that God has brought me to church. My church and I met over unique circumstances. I could not believe them to be coincidences. Until He gives me peace about doing otherwise, or moves me elsewhere, I continue to believe that He brought me to this community for His good reasons. Just like a marriage, I made sure the essentials were in place before I committed. My commitment is to the church "as is", not with designs on completely changing it.
It has become trendy to say that you "love Jesus, but don't like the church." So, what keeps me in love with the Church universal? It is the knowledge that Christ loved the Church, and that to love Christ is to love His Bride. Elizabeth Elliot says, "Love is not a sentiment. It is a fiery law: 'Thou shalt love.'" Not loving the true Church is not an option.

When I'm feeling discontent with my local body of believers, it often coincides with feeling disconnected from them, as well. I find that as I spend time with them, serve with them, grow with them, that the connection becomes stronger. When I am able to overlook my annoyances with others, and forgive, I watch our relationships put down deeper roots. Shoulder to shoulder, we build a history that we couldn't have if we switched churches every time the going got rough.

Serving your church can seem thankless. But I have been encouraged sometimes as I've looked at old photo albums of people from church. I see that twenty years ago, they were showing hospitality to the church, and they still are. The man I know to have grey hair appears with brown hair and a thick moustache, and he's serving in a different capacity, but serving heartily. I hear the stories of the man who sacrificed half of his holiday time every year to serve at camp. As I learn their history, I know that I can't be the only one who's sometimes felt overwhelmed or under-appreciated, but their stories shine as examples of faithfulness to me. Christ laid down His life for the church, so should I. They are my flesh and blood.

God hasn't brought me to my church simply to be served and happy. We all still carry sin natures, and that means that all of our interactions will not always be happy. It is through our interactions with Him and one another that He can mould each of us into His likeness. In his book Stop Dating the Church, Joshua Harris uses Spurgeon's analogy that a disconnected Christian is like a good-for-nothing brick. It can't do much alone, but as part of the building or temple that is the church, it contributes to a cause that can only be achieved through loving community.
"Going away is easy. Do you want to know what's harder? Do you want to know what takes more courage...? Join a local church and lay down your selfish desires by considering others more important than yourself. Humble yourself and acknowledge that you need other Christians. Invite them into your life. Stop complaining about what's wrong with the church, and become a part of a solution."
(Joshua Harris, Stop Dating the Church, pp. 60-61)

I can't say it any better.

October 15, 2011

on battling apathy

Crunchy leaves strewn on the sidewalk, frosty mornings, river-valley strolls and chai lattes. Autumn is here, in all its glory. As is my church's tradition, on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend we hosted a Bible conference. It is a busy weekend, full of sermons, turkey, sunshine and conversation. 

Our speaker's chosen topic was Titus and his sermons made me uncomfortable. Truths from the Word filled pages of my journal, but more than that, they cut into my heart. Two of the key themes in Titus are sober-mindedness and good works. Truly, the two go hand in hand. All believers are taught to be "live soberly" (2:12), which means "to reserve your mind for that which is important." Once the believer's mind is reserved, what should it apply itself to? Titus teaches that "those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works" (3:8) and "be ready for every good work" (3:1).

What does Titus' message of sober living and good works has to say to me, at age (almost) twenty-six. Twenty-six? Even as I type that, it looks old. When I realize that it will soon be ten years since I finished high school, or five years since I started my current job, I realize that I am no spring chicken.

When seasons change, it often causes me to think about the passage of time. There are beautiful things that come with growing up. But one of the worst things about getting older is how easy it is to become complacent in areas where you were once more "zealous for good works" (2:15). You've tried something a few times, and seen no noticeable results, so you quit trying. Relationships that once thrived and seemed so central to your life cool off and disappointment ensues. It is too easy to settle for 90%. To trade prayer and Bible reading for extra sleep. To become—let's admit it—bitter. To become jaded.

I easily become complacent in my personal life.Who would have thought that I'd be battling to find time in my day for Scripture reading? This is not because I have no time, but because I expend it in other ways. I don't reserve my mind for that which is important. While I say the Word should be my meat and my lifesource, too often I'm just grabbing the lite, to-go version, with no time for digging deeper. And my prayer life? Let's not even go there. Unimportant, temporal things easily take priority over Bible reading and prayer. Am I getting old and lazy?

Sometimes helping at church feels so yesterday. After teaching quite a few years of Sunday school or designing lots of flyers, I am tempted to want to kick back and relax. I want to sleep through the early service or slough off additional responsibilities. I've done my share, right? I meet young-ish people who "used to lead youth group" or "used to teach Sunday school" but now do nothing to serve their local church (whether public or behind-the-scenes). How close am I to that in my heart some days? While it is not wrong to cut back or asses how best to use my time, sometimes my attitude is so selfish and cold.

At work, I find that my attitudes are often less than Christlike. I "pilfer" my employer's time (Titus 2:10) and answer back (2:9) instead of "adorning the doctrine of God our Savior in all things." I hang my head at how many times words have come out of my mouth that were not edifying. After a good Scripture bath and conviction, I'm reminded of how I need to improve, but too quickly I go back to blasé. The words and attitudes I see in myself at work evidence a heart in much need of a Saviour.

Some days I've been discouraged. I've seen the grey, the clouds, the dreariness. I'm not content being so apathetic, but I'm not zealous, either, and it is not comfortable on the fence. But here is the wonder  of it all: amidst my struggles, I find a merciful, gracious God who runs to meet me when I come to Him in repentance. If anyone would be justifiably jaded, it is Him, with me. Yet whenever I finally come to Him, He fans the flames of this cold heart through the very things it struggles to reserve itself for: the Word, prayer, fellowship with other believers and good, old-fashioned, hard work.

How can I battle apathy in my personal life, in my work, in my church, and in every area? First of all, I need a change of mind about my apathy, and must confess my sin to my great God and Saviour (Titus 2:13). After that, for me, the answer lies in discipline. I know that if I don't make definite choices, and follow up on them, my life will default to the path of least resistance, instead of that to which God is calling me. (I know that my mind won't be "reserved for that which is important" without a battle of supernatural proportions - cf. Eph. 6). Lists are often helpful to me, whether they are lists of tasks (to keep myself focused) or lists of priorities, so that I don't get distracted by the urgent rather than the important. Which good works does God have for me? Will I structure my life so that I can be reserved for those good works? Will I be sober-minded enough to keep the standard high? Apathy must be battled intentionally, by the power of God.

Tonight I wandered outside in the blackness. Night comes earlier now, as winter approaches. The tree in front of my house has forgotten to drop its leaves, but many others have remembered. I listened to the renewing sounds of Daylight Worship and gloried in Christ. His mercy is still available to me. He's bought me back, so that I can live a life of purpose and fulfillment. I, for one, am thankful.