the Main Thing (a PINK Tuesday post)

Some of you know that the closest thing I’ve had to a career was the seven years that I spent working for the YMCA in Wichita, Kansas. One of the things that the Y did very well was training, and I completed a battery of core classes that were taught nationwide to young Y professionals, beginning with a class called “Principles & Practices.” This class was more like a week-long retreat where we soaked up everything we could about the background and basics of the YMCA movement.

One thing stands out to me about that week. One of our leaders – a big, smiling, baritone, southern black man – taught us this saying as he stressed the importance of the YMCA mission statement. He said:

“The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!”

And the “Main Thing” for the YMCA is its mission, which (at the time) was to:

“Put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.”

This mission sets the Y apart from other health clubs and social agencies, serving as a means of focus for those who represent the Y in their communities.

OUR mission, as Christians, is supposed to do that, too.

Set us apart! Define us! Make us recognizable in our communities and to the world! But when it comes to deciding what our focused mission is, well – the jury’s still out in Christendom…

Because for some, the mission is to:

  • See to it that everyone lives in cookie-cutter likeness to an image of the “perfect Christian” (whatever THAT is)
  • Win souls for Jesus until the convert quota is reached and we can all get to heaven
  • Seek out and point (or wag) the finger at sin, because somehow by accusing others, they will want to JOIN USJOIN our CHURCHES?!

Jesus, however, has CLEARLY STATED the mission of His people. The MAIN THING for us, as followers of Jesus, is to LOVE!

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!

Don’t let its simplicity deceive you – because challenges ABOUND. The enemies of God appear most often as temptations, and on this PINK Tuesday we are going to shine some light into these dark places in order to keep our focus on the Main Thing!

Even though you know it in your head – and you may feel it in your heart – that the Main Thing is LOVE, you will be tempted to make it all about the RULES…

Religion, after all, is often all about the RULES. When you join a church, there’s probably at least some discussion about the rules that members should follow. Even the Bible itself is often interpreted as a book of rules (think: The 10 Commandments).

This focus on rules shouldn’t surprise us, though, because the more sidetracked God’s enemy can keep us in the “rule-keeping business” of church, the less likely it is that we are actually going to DO ANYTHING that matters to God or that might further His Kingdom in this world.

We will find ourselves asking, as one of Jesus’ listeners once did:

Which rule is the most important one?

And His answer, well, it should come as no surprise to us today (found in Matthew 22:36-40).

Jesus Himself says LOVE COMES FIRST.

And WE say:

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!

You will be tempted to think that life in Christ is a CHOICE that YOU make, and you might use this to “choose” to walk away from Him in the future. This is where our sinful nature becomes an enemy of God, by attributing authority to ourselves that rightfully belongs only to Him.

Jesus Himself says in John 15:16 that “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

And scripture reminds us that we are not our own, but were bought at a price.

The cross is a SIGN of the price God has paid for you. He didn’t have to do it, but He LOVED YOU TOO MUCH NOT TO.

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!

You will be tempted to assume that God’s presence is predictable and that the places and people you will find Him in will fit into some kind of churchy-Christian “mold”…

After all, Peter was! Peter was convinced that the ministry of Jesus was ONLY for the Jews, so when God called him to bring the Good News to a family of non-Jews, he was skeptical. But Peter did what God prompted him to do and told them about salvation through Jesus. The rest of the story is found in Acts chapter 10, where Peter and his companions were ASTOUNDED that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on these Gentiles! Peter didn’t let his prejudice and limited understanding keep God from doing His work in whomever He chose.

Because the Spirit of God, scripture tells us, goes wherever He wants to go. And I have come to believe that where you FIND LOVE, you FIND GOD.

After all,

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!

You will be tempted to believe the world when it tells you that your faith in God is trivial, unimportant, unnecessary, irrelevant… okay on Sunday mornings but not worth much when Monday rolls around…

The world is at odds with God’s purposes and plan. Scripture says that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. What the world would really like to see us do is compartmentalize our faith – chop it up into bite-sized chunks that are more palatable and easier to chew.

But we don’t have to bow down to this world! In fact, 1 John 5:4-5 says that: “whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

And what better way to demonstrate that we believe in Jesus, the Son of God, than to stand firm in our belief that:

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!

You will be tempted to see yourself as a worker in the vineyard – making it all about the work

This is where the enemy strikes many Christians – when our “Christian Duty” becomes the “Main Thing.” But Jesus Himself says: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” John 15:15

And you can’t be friends without LOVE.

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!

Finally, you will be tempted to buy the lie that no one loves you – you will go through times in life where you are lonely, unattached, even betrayed by those who are close to you… 

And in these times, may you look at the cross and remember these words of Jesus: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13

Jesus didn’t just say the words… He LIVED THEM.

FOR YOU.

And it was His great love for you that led Him to His death, so that in His resurrection we might love one another as Jesus Himself has loved us!

Because…

The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing!
And the Main Thing is LOVE!    

My beautiful sisters, don’t just say the words.

LIVE THEM.

Love conquers Darkness

Image by Lel4nd via Flickr

Advertisements

Life Together (a PINK Tuesday post)

Life is HARD (can I get an ‘amen’?).

Life TOGETHER can be harder.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but today’s topic is DISCIPLINE.
I know – we’re as crazy about discipline as a biting toddler or a teenager whose driver’s permit is burning a hole in the wallet.

Spiritual discipline, as with parental discipline, well – it’s part of being in the FAMILY!
Those of you with children know that kids NEED their LIMITS! Children need to know where they stand and what they can and cannot do, for their safety and for their well-being. Isn’t that what the child development specialists teach – the need for ‘healthy boundaries’?

It’s as if King David had just walked out of a seminar on discipline when he wrote the words of Psalm 119, saying things to God like:
‘Teach me your commands; help me understand your rules; lead me on YOUR path because it makes ME HAPPY! I WANT to follow YOU!’

We, like David, are children in God’s family. And we come together as a family of faith looking a lot like a collection of pottery, formed by the Master’s hands.
Only, some of us are cracked.
Others, chipped.
Broken.
Maybe just a chard or a piece of something that used to hold water; that used to be whole.

We come together AS A FAMILY and we know that LIFE IS HARD.
But LIFE TOGETHER, well, sometimes that’s even HARDER.

I imagine that this is what prompted Jesus to give His followers a ‘prescription’ for how to handle conflict in the church (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus KNEW what all of us KNOW – that LIFE TOGETHER is HARD.

Any group of people can be a community. Jesus teaches us that the distinguishing factor – the MARK of togetherness in the Body of Christ – is that when we come together IN JESUS’ NAME, HE HIMSELF is here, with us! The idea here is not unlike what happened in the books of Exodus and 2 Chronicles, when the presence of God Himself came to dwell in the midst of His people. The Hebrew word for it is Shechinah, which means ‘the special presence of God’. When God Himself came down to the people, His presence (like a cloud) filled the worship space! His glory was so powerfully present that in these two stories, Moses & the priests couldn’t even enter the sanctuary because God had filled it UP with HIMSELF!

When we gather in His Name, Jesus’ own presence is like that! His glory is so complete that what we thought we were there to do is often consumed by HIS agenda, HIS direction, HIS energy, HIS PRESENCE! When Jesus comes to church, or to Bible study, or to a meeting where the common denominator in those attending IS HIS NAME, He makes our time together something OTHER THAN what we would have made it on our own.

And this is why Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 work – because when 2 or 3 believers get together in His Name, Jesus Himself is there. He fills us with His presence and we become part of what He is doing in the room. Two people who disagree CAN work things out when they both have Jesus’ Name on their lips and His Spirit in their hearts!

But this is not always the case, because sometimes we meet and we have some other name on our lips, some other presence in our hearts, like –
Jealousy. Anger. Fear. A problem or relationship or issue that we’ve allowed to take precedence over Jesus’ Name.

That’s why Jesus gives a Step 2 and a Step 3 – and even a Step 4 in our Matthew text; because even in the church, we sometimes forget why we’re here in the first place. We forget that this isn’t about me, or you, or even US. It’s about HIM.

When we make our gatherings about Jesus, His presence not only changes how we talk and what we find important enough to talk about, but His presence changes US. We’re somehow BETTER when He is here!

But Jesus’ presence goes beyond affecting our behavior toward one another. What Jesus DIDN’T DO is lay out a bunch of rules and regulations and then say, “See ya! Good luck with that!” and walk away. When the Spirit of God comes to live inside of us, He doesn’t coexist with our selfish needs and desires… HE FILLS THE TENT! And in filling us up, we’re left with the PROOF of His PRESENCE – the evidence that He is here and we belong to Him… and that evidence is: LOVE!

We might even go so far as to say:
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: and the MAIN THING IS: LOVE!

According to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, LOVE fulfills the law. LOVE is the only debt we owe to one another. When we LOVE another person as we love ourselves, we can do them no wrong. When we wring out the details and get down to the nitty gritty, ALL of the commandments can be summed up in this word: LOVE.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: and the MAIN THING IS: LOVE!
Right?

But I think that sometimes we use our incomplete understanding of LOVE as an excuse to avoid the commands of the Lord…

After all, Paul says all we have to do is love each other & it will be impossible to sin! Sounds great! Simple!

Tempting, though, to throw up the love ‘blinders’ and ignore, well, EVERYTHING ELSE.
And yet LOVE is nothing if not the manifestation of God’s real presence:
Where GOD is, LOVE is.
And where LOVE is, LIGHT SHINES.

Love’s light shining on God’s Word illuminates His teachings, His commands and His ways SO THAT we see the path clearly before us, like David prayed in Psalm 119.

God’s WAY is exposed by the light of love, and by the way – so are the obstacles and the temptations that threaten to trip us up and stop traffic on the road.

Love’s light shining in community makes us BETTER than we ARE!

And it’s BECAUSE of love that we don’t ignore the struggles we have with people. Otherwise, why would Jesus have given us tools to work through these problems with others?

As parents of earthly kids and as brothers & sisters in faith, we WANT each other to be well prepared for life, and we KNOW this means we will all make mistakes. If we’re to learn from our mistakes, well, we have to take responsibility for our part in those mistakes. In this family that is the church, when we excuse one another’s bad behavior and take on the burden of someone else’s poor decisions, we aren’t doing anyone any favors! Instead, we are called through voices like Paul’s to ‘lock in our empathy, love and understanding’ (Love & Logic) from the word ‘go’, BEFORE the consequences of our actions roll out. That way, when all is said and done, we KNOW that we are LOVED. No matter how clumsy we are. No matter how far we’ve strayed. No matter what harm may have been done.

We know – ALL of us know – that LIFE is HARD.
And let’s face it – there are times when LIFE TOGETHER IS HARDER.

But when two or three or more of us gather in Jesus’ Name, His presence can change all of that. And when we’re marked by the proof of His presence – when we are marked by LOVE – the light that shines from the Word into our lives has the power to clear up our confusion, to heal our relationships and to make us BETTER than we ARE on our own.

Now, that’s a message I don’t want to hear again.

I want to LIVE IT.

Listen to this message as recorded on Sunday, September 4, 2011: Life Together.

It Gets Better… REALLY?

i choose love

Image by libby lynn via Flickr

My husband and I had just finished loading up my little Nissan Cube with groceries the other day when a man passing by commented to his friend as my husband got into the driver’s seat, not so much under his breath, “he’s gay.”

(Not the word he used.)

A friend told me about a church staff member who, in casual conversation, told her (a new church member) that their congregation was great, but she’d better watch out because “if they have their way, this church will be full of gays.”

(Not the word he used.)

 

Random strangers.

Specific church leaders.

Teenage bullies.

It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.

 

The recent “It Gets Better” campaign on YouTube features celebrities and leaders, like President Obama and ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson, encouraging bullied teens with the sentiment that life for those who are different somehow “gets better” with age.

 REALLY?

As much as I want to believe the inspirational video clips, and as much as I would love to see teenagers turn the other cheek in hopes that one day the bullies will grow up and repent, I don’t have to look very far from my front doorstep to see that adults are setting the bar pretty low when it comes to respect for the dignity and humanity of others.

Sometimes teenage bullies just get taller, drive more expensive cars and buy houses in the suburbs.

What’s a follower of Jesus to do?

Some of us choose silence.

That’s what the “goats” in Jesus’ sorting sermon did. It’s not that they were the bullies, but that they did nothing (Matthew 25:41-46):

“Then he will turn to the “goats,” the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because – I was hungry and you gave me no meal. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was homeless and you gave me no bed. I was shivering and you gave me no clothes. Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

Then these goats are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

He will answer them. ‘I’m telling the solemn truth. Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me – you failed to do it to me.’”

Some of us choose a side.

That’s what the apostles in the early church did when Peter extended the grace of God to the unclean outsiders, sharing the Gospel with them and watching as the Holy Spirit showed up (Acts 11:1-3):

“The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it – heard that the non-Jewish “outsiders” were now “in.” When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?”

Some of us have no choice.

That’s what happens when a believer sells out to the indwelling Spirit of God. The way that seems right to me only leads to death (Proverbs 16:25 and 14:12), but Jesus has made it abundantly clear which way IS RIGHT for me:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

When it comes right down to it, there’s no denying that for Jesus, it’s all about LOVE. When I follow Jesus, it follows that the defining characteristic of my every word and action will be…

Love for my God.

Love for my family.

Love for my friends.

Love for the rude and insulting.

Love for the cruel and the angry.

Love for the overlooked and ignored.

Love for the outsider.

Maybe it doesn’t really get better for those of us who are different, who don’t fit in. But maybe it can seem better over time, because the more we’re exposed to the fiery darts of the haters, the thicker our skin becomes. The lower our expectations are. The less surprised we allow ourselves to be by the looks and the whispers and the fingers that point.

Maybe it’s time we stop blaming teenagers for the failure of our families, our churches, our communities and our world to set the standard of care for others at least as high as the standard of care we expect for ourselves.

The words of Isaiah chapter 61 scream to be heard by Christians whose fingers have been stuck in their ears far too long:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…”

As  followers of the One who was bullied to death, may we also rise again, pick up our crosses and shoulder the burden of our loving God:

“… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

Church! We can do better than “It Gets Better.” We can be more than just a talking head.

Bullies may wield a big stick and words intended to wound, but isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from this world? I’m tired of cowering in the shadows, afraid of catching the bully’s eye!

You may choose silence.

You may choose to pick a side.

But from this day forward, I MUST CHOOSE LOVE.