From a Distance (an Afterthought)

Bavarian Countryside

Bavarian Countryside

‘Not another church!’

You might expect these words from a teenager on holiday in Europe, but not from me. Not from the mom whose 9-to-5 (make that 24/7) revolves around the Church – the Body of Christ.

Nevertheless, after walking dutifully through gothic and ornate church building after church building, these words may have been muttered a time or two – by me – on my family’s recent European vacation.

Almost always grandiose, sometimes crossing the line into garish, the gold-gilded altars of centuries-old church buildings hit me – a follower of a Jewish carpenter – as something of an affront to the message of the Gospel…

Which is, as I understand it, Jesus Saves. Not the church building. Not tradition and ritual. Not the relics we bless and call holy.

Jesus. Saves. Period.     Right?

So as I found myself seated on a train for seven hours, diverted by rising flood waters on my last full day in Europe, it was no surprise to find myself watching churches go by. Village after village paraded past the train window. Each and every one – every single one – sported a church building of some era past. A spire or a cross that stood higher than every other structure in town. Never mind how small or large these communities were – they all had, at their center, a church.

After awhile, ‘not another church’ began to sound more like – ‘hmmm… another church.’

Whether 50 or 150 years ago, these communities were built around the church. Physically, but also experientially, with the heart of the town being the building where its people gathered – the place where they all belonged.

At the center of their life together was the church, and even from a distance they could find their way home because the spire of the village church marked the spot.

Last weekend, flying into the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I was overcome with a nostalgic wave as the plane broke through the clouds and the Minnesota terrain came into view. I remembered summer vacations and years of family road trips through this area, en route to our family homestead in the north.

As the plane descended, what looked like a steel mushroom caught my eye. And then another. Pretty soon I was able to read the words on each water tower – elevated high above the township whose name was boldly painted on the side. While not physically the center of town, these towers hold the resource that allows life to go on, day after day, for the families who do life in these communities.

Driving in to work today, my eyes scanned the landscape of my own home town…

Nope. No spires. No elevated crosses in the sky.

Not even a water tower (which actually makes me nervous and got me wondering… where does our water come from?).

This town that I live in is typical of today, and its center isn’t the church. Not even a towering water tank announces that you are here.

Feeling kind of sad as I walked out of Safeway with my morning java, I realized that the center of many an American town is its movie theater. The mall. Starbucks. Can it be that entertainment and retail are the heartbeat of America – the center of our communities? The gathering places in our towns?

Traffic was crazy this morning, with road closures that altered my route to the church. Sitting at a red light, I turned and caught a glimpse of a giant white rooftop – attached to a building that I have driven past nearly every single day that I have lived in this Arizona town. From a distance, this place looks something like an ark. It houses everything from hockey games to Christian concerts, cage fighting to high school graduations.

A building where, even as I write, thousands of people are gathered inside – and thousands more sit in the hot July sun on lawn chairs among a sea of fire and rescue vehicles – because there isn’t enough room for everyone within its walls.

Never mind that those assembled aren’t all from around here – they are a community nonetheless. A family gathering to lean on each other and to share in their losses and to take care of their own… who take care of us.

I have to ask myself – and yes, I’m asking you – whether we prefer museums disguised as churches or churches in camouflage and in the trenches of real life – taking real risks for real people in real time.

When community is built from the stuff of real life and from the depths of real love, you’ll find no bold print name on the tower overhead, but what is held inside is the sweetest, cleanest, most refreshing Water you can imagine. Perfect for quenching thirst and drowning fires in the deserts of our lives.

From a distance, those country churches and city cathedrals look really good, yet most sit half-empty on Sunday mornings.

From a distance it’s clear that those Minnesota water towers serve a purpose, but the words on the outside matter so much less than the Water to be found within.

When Sunday morning just isn’t enough and we tire of the labels on the towers we erect, what is a community to do when tragedy strikes? Can the vestiges of faith and the salt of the earth be combined to make a hockey rink holy?

You bet they can. You bet God can! But you’d better come in a little closer…

You’re never going to experience it from a distance.

Written with great respect for those who serve our communities and in honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
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Face to Face L4L.11

Girl With Striped Fingernails Covering Face

Image by Pink Sherbet Photography via FlickrThe WORD

The WORD

“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If that person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17 (NLT)

I don’t know about you, but I definitely need to hear this again.

“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him – work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” (The Message)

If I’m honest, this is not the way I usually handle conflict. A literal interpretation of these words from Jesus would mean doing an about-face from my current default mechanism for conflict resolution. It’s not that I disagree with Jesus or think that His way isn’t the best way; it’s just that I’m so stuck in mine.

What is Jesus’ way when it comes to responding to awkward and painful relationship issues? This text deals specifically with how a believer is to respond when offended, hurt or disrespected by a brother or sister in the faith. Can I just say, to get it off of my chest, that nothing makes my heart hurt more than the unchecked emotions and unbridled tongues of those whose rulebook includes basically two entries:

  1. LOVE the Lord your God with everything you’ve got.
  2. LOVE everyone around you as you love yourself.

How CAN we say we subscribe to the first if we don’t also practice the latter?

The APP

The only way to carry out these words of Jesus is to take ALL conflict face to face.

Our response to the pain inflicted by friends and family in the church must first be one-on-one. Face to face. This is Jesus’ way – the way He’s calling us to walk – and yet we often choose to do something like this instead:

Match their argumentative or hurtful posture with a like-minded response.

Talk with a different friend (or friends) about the situation first.

Send an email, make a phone call, write a memo, send a text.

Build a wall of silence and keep your distance.

Unless we seek out the one whose words or actions have hurt us and do the difficult and often painful work of sitting down and addressing what has happened, we fail to honor Jesus’ teaching. In addition, by adding our murmurs to the rumor mill, we end up contributing gossip rather than grace; tearing down the community rather than building it up.

I really believe that the majority of conflict could be resolved by simply adopting this face to face approach and choosing to take our feelings and concerns directly to the source. It’s counterintuitive, really, to respond in any other way, yet we do it all the time in both our personal lives and corporate settings.

The side-effects of taking Jesus’ advice and going to the source of relational conflict are absolutely worth paying attention to:

No one else gets dragged into a fixable situation, which goes a long way to preserve the peace in a community.

The name of the person you’re at odds with is less likely to be dragged through the mud, protecting their reputation among the people.

YOUR name and reputation are protected, too, because you chose to tackle the issue, not the person.

Most people will ultimately feel valued by your choice to approach them first, giving them and their behavior the benefit of the doubt.

Handling conflict in this way allows for the possibility of a friendship to grow. Any other method stifles future friendly contact.

If being Literal 4 Lent is appealing to you, then we’ve got our work cut out for us! There is more here, in Matthew 18:15-17, for us to learn – we will come back to this text again.

For now, make face to face your mantra and pay attention… to how it changes you.

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