The Best Reason You’ve Never Heard for Going to Church

Do you have to go to church to be a Christian? That question is repeatedly debated, it seems. When confronted with “the question,” many of us in the regular-attending camp whip out Hebrews 10:25, which tells us not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves.” That is our go-to response. Now for those in the “you should go to church” camp who are especially crafty (and some of us are pretty crafty), we will begin to list all the reasons that going to church will help you.We might talk about what you’ll learn (or to be spiritual-sounding: “how you’ll be fed”) or we might talk about how you’ll be comforted in times of need. We might even go for our big guns and mention how you will experience the presence of God. Those are all legitimate reasons; however, none of them have anything to do with this verse. In reality, Hebrews 10:25 gives us an altogether different reason for attending church. Sadly, it is one that is rarely used in this discussion.

Now, for a quick refresher on elementary school grammar (which Ms. Costello, Erwin, et al will be glad that I actually remember): sentences begin with a capital letter, and do not end with a comma. Armed with that powerful bit of knowledge, let’s look at the verse in question: not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,” (Heb. 10:25a – NIV). Since it is neither begins with a capital letter nor ends with a period, it is only part of a sentence. Why don’t we look at the entire sentence? It begins in the preceding verse: 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24,25 – emphasis mine) Did you catch the difference? While many of us use this verse to espouse the personal benefits of coming together for worship, this is entirely out of context with what the writer of Hebrews is endorsing. While we talk about the benefits to you, this sentence tells us that the reason we should not neglect meeting together is for the benefits our presence there provides to others. Our presence “spurs one another toward love and good deeds,” and “encourages one another.” In addition, while the invention of TV, internet, etc… has made the gospel more accessible (thereby, seeming to strengthen the argument against church attendance), this passage tells us to be even more committed as time goes on. Committed to what? To having our name on the roll? To hearing a challenging message? Committed to reaping all the benefits we can receive from a good church service? No… committed to one another: to motivating one another to love and do good things, and to encouraging one another. In other words, the one who suffers when you “forsake assembling together” isn’t you; it is me… and every other “one another” that sure could have used some encouragement and motivation. So, next Sunday, when you are debating on whether or not to attend church, remember: we sure could use you!

What’s Blocking Your View?

Debbie and I recently returned from vacation in New England. This was the third time in the last four years that we have chosen to go there. There isn’t any one particular place we go; in fact, we have gone to different parts each year. There is just a quaint, small, isolated feeling about the whole area. As we were driving through Maine along Interstate 95, I was remarking about how much it felt like you were part of your surroundings… even on the interstate. It seemed like everywhere I looked there was scenery and wildlife. There were rocky coastlines, sprawling farms, and grand mountain vistas.

All of these things exist in the south, where I live. I live just a stone’s throw from the Great Smoky Mountains. I pass farms on a daily basis; and I am barely a half-day’s drive from the ocean. Yet, it doesn’t feel the same… I don’t notice these things, or appreciate them in the same way. As I struggled to put my finger on the difference, it hit me: there were no billboards along the road! Billboards have been banned in Maine for 30 years, now. The last ones were knocked down in 1984. On the other hand, on my daily commute I am inundated with opportunities to sue people who make bad medicine, go get some fast food (because my “fry gauge is almost empty”), choose the Chattanooga Airport for all my transportation needs, sleep at Hampton (or La Quinta or Holiday Inn Express), and to “eat mor chikin;”just to name a few.

The best I can determine, billboards serve two major purposes: they block our views of the natural beauty around us, and they distract us from the main purpose of our trip by inviting us to stop and do something entirely unrelated (i.e. grab a Frosty).

I have realized I have billboards in my personal life. They are distractions that produce the same undesired results in my own life: First, they block my view of the good things around me. Some of the billboards in my life scream out the things I don’t have: a new house or car, a better job, more money, the right mate (just an example… right honey?). The problem is, these perceived needs block out the view of all the things I do have – the natural beauty all around that God has placed in my life: the ocean of love, forgiveness, and grace He has given me; the sprawling farms of family and friends with which I am blessed; and the mountain peaks of joy and success that He has provided for me. I find myself unable to look past the billboards of what I don’t have to enjoy the scenery of what I do have.

The second thing these billboards do is they knock me off course. They lead me on rabbit trails that divert me from my main purpose. These are the billboards of the urgent… the things we think have to be handled right away. Some of these are good things (like a Dairy Queen Blizzard), but they rob us of the best. The urgent is often the enemy of the truly meaningful. True happiness in life is not plucked from the tree of instant gratification; it is grown in the soil of a life of purposeful living. We are most fulfilled when we invest ourselves in a truly significant cause. Billboards of urgent phone calls and demanding text messages scream out their message of “it must be done now” or, “your fry gauge is almost empty.” However, the things that truly matter whisper the words: “this is why you left home in the first place.” I think it is time to knock down some billboards… care to join me?

 

To Quote Todd Rundgren: “Hello, It’s Me”

Hello Lord,

It’s me, again. I talked to you earlier today. You may remember… I said some pretty profound sounding stuff, if I do say so, myself. Well see, the thing is: I just had a shouting match with a steak knife. Well, to be fair, I was the only one shouting, the knife never raised its voice. Sad to say, but it behaved more like an adult than I did. What started it was that I cut my finger. Now, to be honest, it wasn’t a very big cut; it just set me off. The cut wasn’t really the thing, at all; it simply threw gasoline on the coals that were smoldering just below the surface – the coals of frustration. Frustration with where I am in life; with the feeling that I should be doing more… that there must be more to life. This innate sense that there is something within me that wants to get out – that NEEDS to be realized.

I have this vague notion of what could be… of what should be! Yet, it simmers, just out of reach. Sometimes, my frustration boils over onto those around me, causing me to direct my feelings toward them. That happened yesterday, actually.

I am not the only one who feels this. Right now, it is 4:44 AM and pitch dark outside; and the lady next door just came out on her porch to smoke a cigarette. She feels it, too, I think. I don’t know her well enough to say that, I just know the signs – and she is exhibiting them.

So, I wonder… did You ever have days like this while You were on earth? Days where something just set You off? I wonder if the day You grabbed a whip and ran everyone out of the temple was one of those days. Maybe not. I tend to think that all of Your actions were well thought out, not reactionary or arbitrary. But You had to feel it sometimes, right? Like the time You healed the man with the withered hand, and all that the religious people could talk about was how You shouldn’t have done it on the Sabbath; or the time You raised up the crippled guy who was lowered down through the roof; and instead of celebrating, the Pharisees criticized You for the way You did it. Or… how about the time that bunch of hypocrites dragged that immoral woman out to You and wanted You to condemn her to death and to congratulate them for their great piety. Your words fairly dripped with disdain when You called them hypocrites and a brood of vipers. Wow! You even called them sons of hell and white-washed tombs!

The religious leaders must not have been the only ones who drove You nuts. How about the time that You were in the upper room about to share the last supper with Your disciples, and You had to break up an argument among them about which one of them was the greatest… woah! And then, there was the time that they had already seen You feed thousands of people from one little boy’s lunch, but they were worried that they might starve to death before they could cross the lake on a boat. I have to be honest; I’m glad You didn’t leave those days out of the Bible. I am really glad to know that, at the very least, You understand this feeling; because at times, I wonder how in the world You could think it was a good idea to ask me to become a pastor.  I’m also glad You gave us a good picture of the people that were around You (warts and all). Even though there are moments that I wonder why the people I try to lead don’t “get it;” when I look at the folks You dealt with, I have to say that, on balance, my partners on this journey are pretty great!

So, where does that leave us? What did You do in those times? It looks like You phoned home. You got away from everyone else and got centered on Your mission, and Your Father, again. Maybe that is good advice for me. You promised that You wouldn’t break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. I appreciate those promises, right now, because that is kind of how I feel… bruised and smoldering. From those words, I also gather that I am not the first (or last) person that deals with the smoldering wick of frustration. In fact, it seems like You may have designed us this way. Ecclesiastes 3 says that You have placed eternity in the human heart. So, there it lives, this brilliant bird struggling to be set free. Restrained by time, restrained by human limitations, restrained by fear; yet, while its presence in our hearts leads to frustration at what should be; its brightness lights the way to what could be. Otherwise, we would be satisfied with what is, and never reach what can be… what must be.  In my message yesterday (or was it the day before), I asked our church if they were satisfied, and if not, were they dissatisfied enough to do something about it. Maybe now I am.

It’s dark again, next door. My neighbor’s cigarette is finished; and so is this rant… for now. Stay close, though. I may need to talk again, soon.

Love,

Danny

You Can’t Spell Message Without a Mess

“Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you…”

You can almost hear the pride and defiance in Peter’s voice. In Matthew 26, Jesus had said that all of the disciples would bail out on him, but Peter knew he would never do that. So, how was it that just a few hours later, he found himself in this mess? Three times… three times he had just denied ever knowing Jesus. Peter seemed to have a thing about three times – so do I. When we are kids, we all become masters at the art of knowing how many times our parents tell us something before words change to action on their part. For my mom, it was three times. The first time, she would affectionately call me Dan; the second time, my name was changed to Danny; by the third time, the tone was menacing and the name was Daniel! I never found out what the fourth time would have been like, but I grew up under the impression that (much like the Hydrogen bomb) it might have knocked the earth off of its axis and sent us spinning wildly into space.

Up until this failure, Peter was cocky, so sure of himself – so full of himself. He made bold statements and grand predictions. Some were on the money (“you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God) and met with Jesus’ approval, others were out of line and followed by Jesus calling him Satan. However, the cockiness kept coming. Wow, he must have been annoying to be around! Wow, I must have been (still can be), too… However, Jesus needed someone to which to entrust His newborn church once He left the earth. He didn’t need a perfect leader, who wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection from those around him. Jesus needed a broken leader; one who would accept the shortcomings of others, one who would welcome and promote a major screw-up named Paul (all he had done was try to get as many Christians as he could arrested or killed), a leader who had experienced failure in such a profound way that it crushed the arrogance out of him the way an olive is crushed to produce its oil. This was the kind of leader God would trust to deliver the powerful message on Pentecost Sunday, in which 3000 people would accept Christ. This was the guy who would again deliver a message just a few days later that would see 5000 men, plus women and children come to a saving faith. So, just a few days after Peter’s epic failure, and in Peter’s native language of three, Jesus restores Peter three times, and commissions him to “feed my sheep,” three times on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21).

Just a few months later, Peter is on a housetop in Joppa and receives a vision from the Lord (Acts 10). In the vision, God shows Peter all kinds of different animals and tells Peter to “get up, kill and eat.” The old Peter rears his head at this point and begins to tell God that he has never eaten anything unclean (translation: I am perfect, you must be thinking of someone else). God says, “oh yeah, you’re the guy I have to tell everything three times;” so three times God shows Peter this vision and answers his objections by saying, “what God has made clean, you must not call unclean (translation: “shut up and go tell the gentiles about My love”). So, take heart if you’ve made a mess of things in your life, you are over halfway to spelling the message God has given you. Your failures – your struggles will form the platform on which to build your ministry. Remember the saying kids like to throw around, “it takes one to know one?” Well, it’s true. You can’t spell message without a mess… even if you have to be told three times.

This World Needs a Few More Birdbrains

A mother bird has built a nest in the flower box on our back deck… right in the middle of the new flowers my wife, Debbie recently planted – making it impossible to water said plants. I would find this wildly funny were it not for one ominous fact: these flowers will die from the hot and dry weather we are currently having (still funny to me at this point), the eggs will hatch, the mother bird will move on – abandoning the nest (chuckle, chuckle); and Debbie will BUY MORE! (gulp)

This morning I was getting ready to mow my back yard when I heard quite a lot of squawking and chirping. I looked at the back patio and saw two or three mockingbirds positioned on the guttering above and branches around, making all of the ruckus. The mystery was solved when I cranked the mower up and startled an unseen black cat which had been crouching behind the grill, dreaming of a bird-egg omelet. Just yesterday we had noticed a broken egg on the ground beneath the nest and I assume this might have been the cat burglar that was responsible.

After I finished mowing, I sat down on the patio to enjoy a little reading in the sun. The noise assault soon began on me. You see, mother bird (not to be confused with a mother board) and I have an uneasy truce worked out: as long as I don’t make eye contact or move very fast, she tolerates me. However, the mockingbird hitmen did not get the email and were quite threatening in their tone toward me.

I was sitting there reading from the book of Acts, thinking about the early church’s practice of breaking bread from house to house, taking care of widows, selling their goods to meet the needs of others, and “having all things in common.” As I pondered what this might look like in the twenty-first century, I realized that these birds were doing what we should do as church members. The mother had suffered a loss yesterday and her friends were there with her. Not only were they trying to protect her and her remaining egg, I also noticed that each of these noisy birds had a dead bug in its beak to bring to mom so she didn’t have to leave her nest to eat. I’m not suggesting that we bring dead bugs to all of our pals at church (might be cool, though), but what if we were there to support those who had suffered loss, protected those who were vulnerable, and provided for those who couldn’t provide for themselves? Just food for thought (oh, yes I did)… Think I’ll go tweet about it.