Monday, December 27, 2010

Sad but true...

A missionary friend of mine in Guatemala recently posted the following blog, which I felt compelled to share.

Hope from ashes

"This morning a young man, 25 yrs. old, knocked on our door for about 30 minutes straight. When we finally answered, there stood Daniel Gonzalez. He nervously explained his situation.

He did not want to come to our house today, but some friends had convinced him that it was his best and last chance. He said he was not the type of person to ask for things, so he was sorry for coming. He explained that yesterday he had lost his home in a fire. A husband and father of 2 young kids, they had lost almost everything… house, bed, clothes, TV, food, and belongings - all ashes.

We were his last hope. I am thankful for that much – just being here, able to be that hope for somebody. That hope has a name – Jesus – and it is always amazing to me that we can “be” Jesus…

Now to the frustrating part. Why exactly were we his “last” hope?

Before showing up at our house, Daniel had exhausted his options. Most alarming was the response from his church, from whom he was misled regarding “God’s justice.”

Rewind just 2 months… to when Daniel and his wife Martha lost their 3rd child. Following childbirth, Florcita (little flower) spent 20 days on life support. Born two months premature, she hung on for 3 weeks before letting go. Daniel spent all 20 days & nights in the hospital at his wife’s side, praying for Florcita to pull through.

Following their daughter’s death, they returned to their church. Daniel, who was striving to become a deacon and took seriously his role collecting the weekly offering, was put on “probation” for missing 3 Sunday mornings and several other gatherings. He was told that missing church, for any reason, is a sin and requires discipline from the church authorities.

Now, after losing his house and all his belongings in the fire, the “church authority” explained to Daniel that God is righteous, punishing them for missing a few church services while clinging bedside to their dying daughter. The only effort to bring comfort was a simple reminder of the story of Job, and how God won’t give you more than you can handle.

After being denied by his church for help, they decided to try another church, this one well known for helping the people of his neighborhood. This specific church has been working in his neighborhood for years, even recently completing a new community center to better serve them.

Martha returned home with the news. The church said there is nothing they can do, because they only help families in the community who are members of their church.

Broken, denied, and ready to give up, he knocked on our door.

When we showed up at the site of their house this afternoon, Daniel made small talk for about 5-10 minutes. He was cheerful, seemed thrilled actually, to see us. When he introduced us to his kids, and showed us the extent of their remaining belongings, he got quieter, clearly trying to hide some emotion.

When he shared about the response from the churches, he broke. Confused and hurt, he began sobbing. It wasn’t the loss of his daughter, or his house, that brought on the sobbing. It was the pain inflicted from the “church” that ultimately crushed him.

The very thing that is supposed to bring life, support, love, help, and hope… was killing him.

I wondered to myself if Daniel’s pastor that avoided helping (but reminded Daniel about God’s justice and Job’s sufferings) had forgotten, or ever read, where Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. Paul’s teachings about carrying one another’s burdens also came to mind.

I also wondered how, as members of the same body of Jesus Christ, we could possibly deny help to those who aren’t “members” of our own little private congregations.

But as we prayed, grace and hope started replacing the anger that was raging inside me. As frustrating as the pious, prosperity-blessing, false religion that poisons this culture is, in this moment God was giving us another opportunity to demonstrate His grace.

We prayed that this time of suffering would somehow bring freedom and set them free from the bondage of legalism. I hope that as we love on them they will experience the real Jesus, his grace, and his church.

Praying for hope to rise from these ashes." - Brock Johnson

This is the kind of thing that can cause people to give up on church and even God for that matter. It is so sad and unfortunately it's not an isolated incident. It never ceases to amaze me how people can be so heartless and manipulative all in the name of God and religion.

Now for the encouraging part...

As sad as this story is, I am encouraged that there are people out there who represent God differently. Those who love Jesus and genuinely desire to follow and serve Him in such a way that they show His love to others unconditionally.

The morning after this message was initially posted, I received an email informing me that someone from our small fellowship took it upon themselves to commit to raise the money to build a new home for Daniel and his family. That money has already come in and it is my hope and prayer that this family feels the love of Christ through this tangible gift, given in His name with no strings attached.

This world can be an ugly place at times. But be encouraged, you and I can make a difference. We have the ability to bring beauty out of ashes and joy in the midst of pain and heartache.

Live like Jesus, love like Jesus - Change the world! (check it out)

Monday, December 13, 2010

I don't really like church

A phrase that I often hear these days is "I don't really like church". That may not be an exact quote but I hear that communicated in different ways quite a bit. In fact, rumor has it that a pastor even said that from the stage this past Sunday ;)

Church has fallen out of favor with many today. Right now I am sitting in Panera and there is a guy sitting next to me and I am going to turn to him right now and ask him what he thinks about church and then I will write his response. Seriously, I am going to do this. Hold on.

OK, I did it, really I did. I found out the guy's name was Ron and the conversation went something like this...

Me: "hey, I'm sorry to bother you but can I ask you a question?"

Ron: "sure"

Me: "what do you think about church?"

Ron: "In what context?"

Me: "I don't know, I was just wondering what you thought about church. Do you go to church? What's your opinion of church in general?"

Ron: "Well, I became a Christian in 1986. At first when it was just me, Jesus and my Bible everything was great. Then I started going to church and it was OK for a while, I guess. Then after a while I started to see a lot of stuff and, well... I don't know. I know it is bad to say this but it got political, or maybe it was just people's egos that got in the way. The church ended up going through a split and some other stuff. So eventually I just stopped going."

Me: "That's hard."

Ron: "Yeah, it seemed like people had more bad things to say than good. For instance in my denomination people would really slam Catholics and I pretty much just listened and went along with it. Not too long ago a friend of mine was in a situation where he was really in need. The Catholics were the ones who helped him out. No questions asked, they just helped him in his time of need. They helped him when people from my denomination wouldn't lift a finger. If I were to talk to someone from that group now, I would be cordial. But I can tell you if they ever said anything bad about the Catholics I would tell them to take a hike!"

"So when it comes to church, I guess I can take it or leave it to tell you the truth."

Me: "Man, I'm sorry it sounds like you have seen some ugly stuff along the way..."

There was more to our conversation but I think you get the gist. Ron didn't come out and specifically say "I don't like church" but he clearly isn't big fan.

Our conversation was a good one and as it continued he reminisced about his time leading a small group for singles in the church he attended. He told me a few stories. Like the time after one of their meetings they all decided on a whim to just go swimming with all their clothes on. Then there was the time that they ended up helping a homeless guy. He had a smile on his face and you could tell it really meant something to him. He said that he misses that at times.

This makes sense to me because those are the things I love about "church". Not necessarily swimming with my clothes on, but being with people, doing life together and serving God. And the reality is that the things that turned Ron off, turn me off as well. In fact when he was finished he asked me what I thought about church. So I told him that as far as I could tell from reading the Bible, church is all about people. It was never described as a place or something we do, it is the people who gather. I went on to say that there are a lot of things about church that I don't like and that I wondered if God liked them either.

Can you believe it? What are the odds that I would get that kind of response from the first guy I ask? Unfortunately pretty good these days. When the church becomes an institution or an organization rather than the life giving organism described in the Bible, I think we are in trouble. That is where we find ourselves today. Many people see "church" as somewhere they go or this entity that has a life of it's own. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are the church and the church has life because we have life. The church reaches out to those in need, when we reach out to them. The church also can be inward and self absorbed if we become inward focused, self absorbed people.

While the "church" may not be at the top of the opinion polls today, Jesus is still held in high regard. His love is still compelling and His Spirit is still at work in people's lives. Just during a short conversation with Ron today, I saw a part of him come alive as he recounted the times that he was "being the church" with others. So what is going to take for him and others like him to reengage or engage for the first time? As simple as it sounds, I think that they need to meet Jesus. They need to meet the Jesus that is alive and well, living in His people, and they need to see the beauty of the church lived out before them. There are too many cheap substitutes these days, people are looking for the real thing.

Sometimes I talk to people about this and they say "what can I do?" It's really not rocket science, just start by doing the things that Jesus did. Show compassion to the poor. Find a way to help someone less fortunate than you. Extend grace to people who have been marginalized or shunned by society in some way. Extend love and forgiveness to someone who has hurt you and take time to pray for them. Turn to a guy or girl sitting next to you in a public place and ask a simple question like I did. Find a group of people to share your life with on a deep level. Be vulnerable. Live for God and His purposes the best you know how and don't hesitate to share your story with others.

If you do this be prepared. Be prepared to tell God's story of love and redemption expressed to us through Jesus. Because if you live like Him, people will be drawn to you and they will ask...

"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..." 1 Peter 3:15