16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” -Daniel 3:16-18
While on the beach last week, dark ominous clouds began to roll in and we knew it was time to head inside for shelter. Sure enough, as soon as we got in the lobby of where we were staying it began to pour rain and the sky lit up with lighting. We were never in any danger, but in that time of storm we needed a safe place to go and stay.
In our lives we have storms. We cannot pay the bills. We aren't accepted socially. We run into trouble with the law. We are consumed with addiction. We are full of selfish pride. We have allowed anger to be our only emotion. Our marriage is in the ditch or our parenting has been shifted into survival mode. Life is tough and while there is plenty of sunshine and blue skies, there are also storms that roll in and sometimes stay too long.
Where should we go?
Where do you go to be safe and to stay while the storm is pounding away? Like an eager 3rd grade know-it-all I have my hand raised and moaning, "me, oooh, me!" I know the right answer. You know it too. As a disciple of Jesus and a pastor, I know the right answer is ultimately God, Jesus, Spirit and this should be beautifully exhibited in the church. So the person we turn to for safety is God and the place we run to should be the church. That is the answer you get in Sunday morning Bible class from the girl with perfect hair and an underlined Bible. And then there is that kid in the corner wearing all black, reading through a Hitchens book as you teach. They speak up and after your amazement, you are thrown by the question, "What if the church sucks and doesn't want to mess with your crap?"
What if the Church isn't the safest place?
In my experience the person or family that makes a comfortable respectable wage, has a storybook marriage with at least two kids and a dog, roots for the right college team, shows up to worship on time, and volunteers for different ministries in the church finds safety with welcome arms in the Church....as long as the storm isn't too scandalous.
The single mom of five who has exhausted others with requests for assistance. The divorced man who occasionally comes with a lady friend. The 20 year old convicted felon. The pastor whose voice is less because she is a woman. The tattooed, bearded drug addict. The college student who is disoriented by everything being new and different. The homeless woman whose smell clears an entire pew. The quiet woman dealing with same-sex attraction or the openly gay couple who sits close to the back door. The widow who silently grieves during even your celebratory service. The executive who calms his stress each night by being lured to sleep with Bourbon and beer. The special needs gentleman that is unable to appreciate simple social cues. The Senior Pastor who everyone wants to be flawless. This group needs the church more than anything else in their lives. And yet, my guess is that their storms keep on rolling and the church may not be on their list of shelters.
If Not Church then Who?
This question is really bugging me. It is interrupting my life. I have been doing church work my whole adult life and working career. It seems that we want that family with the golden marriage, two kids, and a dog...as long as they will root for the right college team. And as long as they won't bring their crises into the building on Sunday. They are the ones we put on our web banners and brochures. We don't necessarily neglect the other list. We love to roll them out when we need a testimony or illustration...as long as they aren't in the pit at the moment. We say, "No one wants to come to church and hear heartbreak without resolution." "If God hasn't solved their problem yet, it will be harder to sell Him as good." "If we can market joy, grace, love, light, and life through exciting worship, deep relationships, and helping out those pitiful folks who have less, then we will draw a crowd." "Church must be a place of celebration where there are no negatives and somewhere where perfection seems attainable."
I can argue that church should be a place that is real, genuine. When the first century Christians gathered, it wasn't for an amazing praise service, relevant and entertaining message, and a call to be awesome in the world! When first century Christians gathered it was usually in secret to see who was alive, were there any new persecutions or persecutors, encouragement that this Jesus is worth it, and to keep spreading his message even if it cost you your life. The church then was a place where all the oppressed, marginalized, disenfranchised, frustrated, imprisoned, persecuted, poor, hungry, surviving, questioning, and least of these gathered to ensure that their life was worth the cause. This was the same kind of crowd Jesus attracted in his public ministry.
The church contained the good, bad, and ugly. It still does. The main difference is what is celebrated in the two different contexts and cultures. What is celebrated is repeated. The people of the first century turned to church, because there was no other place to turn. Today it should be the same. Where can we turn if we don't have the church waiting with open doors, open hands, open hearts free of judgment and full of genuine love and help.
I understand that today's culture is different than the first century's. Today we aren't as oppressed for our Christianity...at least in America. It wasn't long that Christianity was given the green light from Constantine and ended their persecution. Christianity due to its acceptance has changed and how it is expressed has changed. Celebratory worship, ministry programs, bible teaching, mission work are all good things that churches are doing. I'm not saying that we change the complete make up of the American church. I just think the church is in need of an audit. We need to take a new look at who we are and what we should be. We need balance and speak to the whole, even if we don't like some of its parts. Otherwise we are pretending to be a place where all can belong and yet no one feels like they can be themselves. My call to us is to reclaim the church as a place where people turn when the Thunder rolls. Thunder is a loud, booming, warning that bad weather is on its way. Flood, hail, lightening, and wind could be on its way and you should take shelter. When the Thunder rolls in our lives, the church should be the first place for EVERYONE to turn. If not the church then who? I'm not sure I want to know that answer.
As the global church we really need a shift toward being a balanced, genuine place where ALL people can be welcomed, belong, and find shelter. The global shift begins with every local church. The local church shift begins with each of its leaders. Each leader shift begins with prayer. And prayer begins with God!
And God is ready for the prayers, the shift, and He is ready to run to those of us who want to come home as the storms begin to roll.
Yesterday I was honored to speak at a funeral, graveside service. I did not know the man who died. I did not know his family. I wasn't his minister. I didn't know the funeral directors and the service was actually 45 minutes from my church. I wasn't able to learn much about the man who died, except for what was in his obituary. All I learned was that he loved the outdoors and his family.
So why was I so honored?
I was honored because one of the most remarkable things we can do as Christians is celebrate the fact that life never ends. We won't always feel like celebrating. We will experience seasons of grief and mourning. We will slog through suffering. We will stay as others leave. In the end, though, there is hope!
There is hope!
I'm not promised the blessings that I currently receive. I'm not promised another day. I'm not promised an easy path. God never promises those things. In fact, the story of God's people typically shows difficult paths, shorter days, and earthly curses outweighing temporary blessings. And we should be thankful for this truth! Once we delight in ease, or longevity, or advantages we begin a careful tightrope walk between wishing on the world to remain as it is and expecting in God. Hope is expectation.
There is Expectation!
One of my favorite pieces to the funeral I spoke at yesterday was the basics of the message. People die, people grieve, people mourn, people are saved, and God delivers. God delivers hope. I didn't say it like that of course, but that is the truth that presented itself. God never promised that life would be free of pain. God does promise that we will be free. God promises hope! The expectation of His promise has been delivered, is being delivered, and will continue to be delivered.
Hope changes us!
So there beside the casket, surrounded by a crowd of whom I knew no one, there is hope!
Hope walks us through grief.
Hope allows honest mourning.
And not just in times of death, grief, and mourning, but all the time. Hope never takes a vacation. I'm reminded from a simple funeral, where I feel I received more than I gave, to look for God in every situation. I should expect God in ALL things. Why? Because...
THERE IS HOPE
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