The church of my childhood met in this space back in the 70's. It's where all my friends were and I loved it.
“When I was a kid,” my octogenarian friend told me, “I went to church every time the doors were open. But I didn’t necessarily go to learn about Jesus; I went because that’s where my friends were.”
I could relate; truly, the church was the hub of my social life until I went to college. Vacation Bible School, church camp and ice cream socials were highlights of my summer. All year long, I attended Sunday school, Training Union and any special event scheduled at the church. That’s where all my friends were. Why wouldn’t I want to go?
Of course, to be fair, in those days, there wasn’t much else to do on Sunday.
I grew up in the 1970s and back then, blue laws kept most stores in my part of the country closed on Sunday. Movie theaters didn’t open either, except for a few drive-ins which opened for the late movie (which was at 8, not 10). No way could you find a bowling alley open on Sundays, though, if memory serves, I did play a game or two of mini-golf after Sunday night church on occasion. The skating rink might open for a church party on Sunday if you prearranged it, and most public swimming pools opened on Sundays (but only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. so as not to conflict with services). Thus, when I was a kid, and certainly in the 1940s and ’50s when my senior friend grew up, church was just about the most fun you could have on Sundays without breaking a law.
The same applied to Wednesday nights when most Protestant churches (which back then were the only ones that counted anyway) had Bible study and family activities. I am certain I never had homework on a Wednesday night until late into high school — and that was likely because I had procrastinated and was playing catch-up. My brother’s little league sports never scheduled events — games or practices — on Wednesdays. The same was true for any civic or community activity. Whether it was Boy Scouts or dance lessons, Wednesday scheduling was out of the question. You might as well go to church. You didn’t have any valid excuse for missing.
Not true today.
In 2017, we can visit any number of fine restaurants and enjoy a leisurely Sunday brunch before catching a matinee at a nearby cinema. We can then follow that up with any activity we like: craft brewery anyone? Exception: if our kids play travel ball of any sort, they probably have games on Sundays, games that are out of town and require us to go on Saturday and spend the night.
On Wednesdays, kids have just as much homework as they do any other day (which is way too much, in my opinion, but that’s another column). Performances, practices and lessons happen just as frequently on Wednesdays as they do on other days. Wednesdays, once protected by societal norms from conflicting activities, are now fair game.
I hear lots of complaints about this perceived disregard for church culture. “Back in my day,” I’ve heard, “no business would dare open on Sunday. Little League ball games on Sunday? Not a chance.”
The thing is, though, businesses don’t open if they don’t make money. And they can only profit if they have customers. Same goes for kids’ ball games. You know why games are held on Sundays? Because children and their fee-paying parents participate on Sundays, that’s why. Plain and simple.
Parents tell me, “You would not believe how much homework little Johnny has on Wednesday nights. He couldn’t come to church tonight because he had too much work for school.” That sounds exactly like parents have no choice, doesn’t it? I mean, the kid has to do their homework, right? OK, but just to be clear, when we had essentially no other choice, we went to church; now, when we have a conflict, church is absentmindedly kicked to the curb.
Me, I think it is good that now we have to make a choice. It is harder, yes, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, usually the more difficult a task or decision, the more valuable it is or will become. Gone are the days when we can just follow the masses to church without ever actually following God’s Son, Jesus Christ. But isn’t that good? Isn’t it better that we must choose how to spend our time and energy now? Isn’t it better that we make conscious choices to turn towards Jesus and away from other distractions?
So how about this: how about we stop wringing our hands about the things of the past that we can’t bring forward to our present day? Why don’t we step up to the challenge and choose church, choose Christ? If we do, I’m pretty sure that’s one choice we’ll never regret.
Our 30 year old retaining wall had come tumbling down, and the stone masons were tasked with rebuilding it. They would reuse the rocks, but they’d have to shape them to fit the new design. The old wall had looked a lot like a pile of rocks stuck together with some mortar. The new wall would be superior to the old one and not just because of its advanced construction technique either. It would be a real work of art: aesthetically appealing as well as structurally sound.
The work was tedious. Each mason chose a stone and with chisel and mallet, began sculpting it to fit the wall. Gloved hands turned the rock this way then that. Decades-old dirt clods fell away easily; old mortar took a bit more work. Eventually though, the mason would have to knock off parts of the stone itself. He would pound away, turning round rocks into square ones. Once he had placed a reformed stone in place, he’d choose another one and start again. The wall began to take shape. And it is beautiful.
Kind of like a church.
Think about it: we come together to build something beautiful and strong. Like the masons working on the wall, God shapes us into living stones. God holds us tenderly in gentle but firm hands, knowing we have everything we need to be the building block needed in this place at this time. Yet we’ve covered ourselves with the concealing mud of shame or conceit, vanity or self-loathing. As we are placed together to form church, God carefully, slowly, and with great love, removes as much of our muck as we will allow.
Sure enough, it takes no time for our ugly parts, the ones we wouldn’t release, to scratch against the residue of The Others. It’s uncomfortable, even painful, to have to make space for them. It would be such a beautiful church, if The Others weren’t so muddy and jagged.
“They should have let God shape that mess off of them before they came here. They just aren’t going to fit in here like that.” We wince and grumble, making a show of accommodating their faults. Meanwhile, we have forgotten our own smudges and imperfections, concentrating as we are on the defects of The Others. Too often, we leave or The Others leave, seeking a place in a different church, a different community.
And the story repeats itself: because no matter where we go, the living stones are imperfect, dirty, and broken. At least that’s what it looks like to human eyes.
But what does God see? To divine eyes, do we look like rare gems, uniquely shaped to form this particular church? Do our imperfections look like godly opportunities to grow into who we were created to be?
God calls to us saying, “Come to Jesus, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-6)
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.
Psalm 63:1-8 (NRSV)
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
In my family, we call it cocoa butter advice. It’s the advice that no one needs, but everyone offers. You know what I mean, right? It’s like when my sister suffered from a rare disorder called obstetric cholestasis which caused severe itching from the inside out. Some dear soul would hear she was pregnant and itching and would suggest, enlightened and eager, “Have you tried cocoa butter? That really soothed my itchy skin when I was pregnant.” My sister’s liver was malfunctioning and her obstetricians were consulting with specialists across the globe. It wasn’t cocoa butter that she needed.
Most of us have offered our share of this kind of not-so-helpful advice. We hear someone has a fever and we can hardly keep ourselves from reminding them to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration. Someone mentions computer problems and we ask way too quickly if they’ve tried restarting it. We mean well, bless our hearts, but this kind of advice is anything but helpful.
As the Body of Christ, we can easily become too generous with cocoa butter advice. It comes from a good place; we don’t want someone to suffer when we might suggest something that could alleviate their pain. So we jump in with solutions even before we have any idea what is truly needed.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my mother. You see, after years of unrelenting pain, Mother decided last fall to undergo a knee replacement. The risk of infection was minimal and extremely rare, but my mother fell into that dreaded one percent. The infection in her knee required a second surgery a year after the first. This surgery meant removing the first knee replacement and inserting an antibiotic prosthetic. After three or four months of immobility and daily IV antibiotics, she’ll have yet another knee replacement and hope to be in the 99% this time.
People, myself included, have had lots of suggestions for Mother. The thing is, she has done way more research on her particular situation than any of the rest of us. Plus, she is perfectly willing and capable of asking for information when she needs it. Unrequested advice is just not helpful right now. But those of us who love her want a quick fix. We want to offer some words of wisdom that will help her feel better faster.
As the Body of Christ, I think we are often guilty of over-advising. We love each other. We want to help. We want the pain to go away. But we don’t know how to do that, so we fill the gap with words of dubious relevance. One problem with this tendency is that too often we pronounce our advice and promptly absolve ourselves of responsibility. But instead of spewing out cocoa butter advice, what if we offered some real comfort?
Here are a few things we could try.
“I’m sorry.” Whether the person is contending with physical, mental, or emotional pain, a simple, “I’m sorry,” offered with authentic concern, without judgmental overtones, can be the perfect thing to say. Then listen. They might just need to share their story. You don’t need to add your own personal anecdote or suggest solutions. Just listen and end the conversation as you began with a simple, “I’m sorry.” It may be the most comforting thing they’ve heard all day.
“How can I help?” True, the person may not know what they need yet; so remember to check on them again. Oh and don’t bother saying, “Call me if you need me.” A person in need rarely calls. Think about it: if you were struggling, how likely would you be to reach out and ask for help? So check back.
“What time can I bring dinner?” (Note: this is not the same as “Would you like for me to bring you dinner?”) You might also add, “Do you have any food allergies or particular preferences?” You don’t have to be a cook. Pick up something at your local deli or take-out restaurant. If you are handy in the kitchen, you might plan ahead and make two of everything you prepare for your own family. That way you can keep a meal on hand, ready to share.
Let’s commit to being more intentional in ministering to each other. Let’s listen with open hearts to each other’s stories. And let’s keep the cocoa butter advice to ourselves.
*This piece was first published on November 16, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
“For this assignment,” Dr. Danny West said, “I want you to watch a movie and then write a reflection on what that movie says theologically.”
It was one of my first assignments for my Introduction to Preaching class at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School. Ever since then, I’ve been watching movies with that idea in mind. I’m amazed by how often I see theological themes in theater. You should try it! In fact, to get you started, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite examples.
So get some popcorn, sit back, and listen to the testimony of these six films. (Spoiler Alert: if you haven’t watched these awesome movies, first slap yourself, then get to it. You can finish this after you’ve caught up. If you choose to read on anyway, be forewarned: spoilers abound.)
God Restores. Places in the Heart (1984). This classic starring Sally Field tells the story of a young widow trying to make a way for herself and her children in 1930’s America. Field’s character and her community experience all kinds of loss and disconnection, but the movie ends with everyone together in church, celebrating The Lord’s Supper. The choir is singing “This is my story, this is my song; Praising my Savior, all the day long . . .” as the communion elements are passed from person to person and pew to pew. In this scene, we at first see the main characters interacting with each other, but as the Eucharist moves through the congregation, we notice unexpected participants. There’s the boy who died, and the man who killed him; there’s the widow’s husband (supernaturally alive and well), and her farm hand who has recently and permanently left the area. For a moment it’s confusing. But then you realize: it’s a glimpse of the Kingdom. As the congregation comes together at the Lord ’s Table, sinners join with saints, humanity joins with divine, and restoration—if only for a moment—is complete.
God Redeems. Steel Magnolias (1989). Aside from being chocked full of timely and hilarious one-liners, this movie delivers a message of redemption that brings to mind the Gospel promise of salvation. The story takes place mainly in a southern beauty shop. There, good friends face life’s travails—from graying hair to infidelity. In the midst of the mundane, we find Shelby (Julia Roberts), a diabetic whose life is endangered when she becomes pregnant. Her mother M’Lynn (Sally Field), is all but paralyzed by fear and dread. Shelby’s slow decline is heartbreaking and painful. We all hurt with M’Lynn; no parent should have to bury a child. But in the midst of the unimaginable, there is joy in the form of a little boy: Jack, Shelby’s son, M’Lynn’s grandson. When hope seems lost, mercy toddles in with fresh giggles and new life. (Can I get an “Amen?”)
God’s Family Crosses Boundaries. Remember the Titans (2000). Based on a true story, this film set in Northern Virginia in 1971, recalls racial tension in a newly integrated high school football team. Central to the story is the relationship between black defensive end Julius Campbell and white linebacker Gerry Bertier. The film portrays the early days of their relationship as cautious and hostile. As the story unfolds though, they become so close that when Gerry is in a near fatal car crash, he only wants to see one person: Julius. When Julius steps into Gerry’s hospital room, the nurse says to him, “Sorry, only kin’s allowed in here.” Gerry responds, “Are you blind? Don’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.” That’s family; that’s Love—the agapé kind.
God Transforms.Gran Torino (2008). If ever a character has been set in his ways, it is Walt Kowalski. A retired auto worker and decorated Korean War vet who recently has been widowed, Walt has his way of doing things. Routines—orderly routines—keep Walt focused and in control. He takes care of himself. He takes care of his dog. And he doesn’t bother people. He has a few friends; he doesn’t need any new ones. Walt is concretely set in his ways and has no intention of changing. Love has another plan; it sneaks into his life by way of a most unexpected source, and persists, unyielding and determined. That love—it’s like the Hound of Heaven—pursues Walt Kowalski past prejudice and obstinacy, beyond rejection and denial. And Love—as Love always does—wins.
God Calls Imperfect People. How to Train Your Dragon (2010). The movie opens with “This is Berk. It's twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It's located solidly on the Meridian of Misery.” In addition to its unfortunate location, the island of Berk is plagued by a terrible nuisance: Dragons! The dragons steal food from Berk and terrorize the villagers. Here in Berk, we meet a young Viking boy named, of all things, “Hiccup.” Hiccup comes from a long line of great and fierce Viking leaders, but he is still just a boy and not at all ready to be a full-fledged dragon-killing Viking. Nevertheless, Hiccup finds himself in charge of an effort to save his village. He’s the most unlikely candidate for the task, but he’s the one chosen. Because he’s willing to answer the call despite his own insecurities, Hiccup does the impossible. Like Moses did. And David. And Paul.
Godly Community Makes Life Easier. Toy Story 3 (2010). This third installment of the Toy Story Trilogy completes the story of Andy and his toys. Andy is now all grown up and headed to college with no need for childhood playthings. Facing uncertainty, the toys fight to stay together and to find a sense of purpose. Despite their efforts, friends Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and the rest wind up on a conveyer belt headed towards an incinerator. There’s no way out, no hope. As they move slowly and unavoidably towards the fiery furnace and certain death, they reach out to each other. One by one, they clasp hands. The fire rages on. But once they are all connected, something miraculous happens. In their connection, they find peace despite their circumstances. That’s church, my friends; that’s church as Christ intended.
Before that divinity school assignment, I’d never given any thought to God speaking to me through movies. Now that I’m listening, I hear God’s voice nearly every time I watch Netflix™ or go to the cinema. How about you? What movies have you watched lately that delivered not just entertainment, but the abiding truths of God?
*This piece was first published on February 9, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing on the second Monday of each month at baptistnews.com.
“First Baptist of Weaverville,” I said, answering the wife’s question.
We’d just been at the same meeting when we saw each other at the bank. I’ve always had a soft spot for octogenarians; so naturally, I stopped for a quick chat with them.
“St. John’s Episcopal,” the woman responded, gesturing to herself and her husband.
“Episcopal? My daughter attends an Episcopal church,” I told them. I explained that she’s in college in D.C. and, not finding a good fit among the churches of Baptist heritage, she chose a small Episcopal congregation within walking distance of her school.
The couple shared briefly about their life in ministry, alluding to the joys and frustrations common to all denominations. We exchanged other niceties and said our goodbyes.
“Oh one more thing,” she said, calling me back. “Tell your daughter, that we have found that Baptists make the very best Episcopalians!” She pointed out that in general, Baptists have a great grasp of scripture; once they learn the liturgical traditions of the Episcopalians they have it all. “Really,” she repeated, “They have it all!”
I chuckled as they walked away. And that, I thought, is why we think Episcopalians make such great Baptists!
"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism . . . " Ephesians 4:4-5 (NRSV)
In response to a poem* that's been flying around the internet on youtube wings, I've been thinking about what I like about religion. My post got a little long, so I'm splitting it. Here are the first five.
1. Saying Grace. I love pausing in the midst of the rush of life and holding hands around the dinner table to say a blessing over our meal. I did this with my parents and siblings and they did it with theirs. We stop. We reach out. We look up. I love that.
2. Covered-Dish Dinners. True, I’ve had covered-dish meals outside of religious settings, but really, they just aren’t as good. Think about it. Office pot-lucks consist mostly of to-go foods or quick fixes. Rarely will you find a deviled egg at such an event and if you do it’s made with light mayonnaise which defeats the whole purpose anyway. At a church covered-dish meal, you get Miss Mary’s 12 layer chocolate cake, and Mr. Jack’s homemade barbeque. You’ll find Mrs. Smith’s homemade biscuits right next to Mrs. Jones’ and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take one of each. There are 12 kinds of macaroni and cheese, all homemade, and that yummy salad that Mr. Johnson always brings. You can’t find this kind of food at the office picnic. Maybe at a family reunion. But that’s cause they all learned what a pot-luck is supposed to look like from going to church suppers.
3. Meetings. I don’t love--or even like--going to these. Not even a little bit. But what I do love is that we have them. We do try to make decisions as a unit. We disagree, sometimes loudly. We compromise, usually not nearly enough. But we work at it. Okay, not everyone works at it; but the intent is that we try to get along. We don’t always get our way. We often don’t get as much accomplished as we had hoped we would. But when it’s over, we hold hands, say Grace, and head out to the covered-dish supper. That’s church. Gotta love it.
4. Weddings. When I was little, I often went with my daddy, a Baptist preacher, to the weddings he officiated. I loved everything about weddings then and now—the signature attire, the music, the sweet (or not so sweet) kiss at the end. But the parts of the wedding I have always loved the most include scripture: the miracle at the wedding in Canaan, First Corinthians 13, and “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” These texts are read religiously at Christian weddings. And I just love that.
5. Sunday Morning Bible Study (AKA Sunday School). Okay so I didn’t love Sunday School when I was a teenager. My parents raised us as thinking Baptists and so we believed questions were a part of the journey of faith. Most of our Sunday School teachers disagreed. Either for the teachers’ sakes or ours (or perhaps for the sake of her husband’s career), our mother took over teaching our class. Since then, I’ve loved Sunday Morning Bible Study. I’ve taught most of my adult years (see above) and am so grateful that my class members allow me to continue doing so. I absolutely love it.
* I tend to annoy both sides of issues like this. So, prepare yourself. The poem itself, I think, is well presented. I don't agree with everything he says; I like some of it a lot. I think the poem is the product of a zealous guy who loves Jesus and refuses to get caught up in unnecessary restrictions organized religions often put on people who don't fit under their steeples nicely. So, it's fine. Still, I like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John better, and I actually do like a lot about religion. But not everything. So there you go.