Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pass the word...

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The Religion Club and the Public School

The average local religion club operates much like a public school. Like the public school, it approaches life from two specific aspects: academic and social.

The major gatherings of most clubs revolve around teaching. We devise various natural schemes to make our academic offerings more effective. First, we hire the best scholar/presenter we can get to handle our public lectures. These lectures are oriented around instructing adults. Because this is of limited effectiveness with younger people, we then move to demographically segregate them into age-specific subgroups, much as a school is divided into grades. Infants and toddlers are warehoused and entertained by paid baby-sitters to free their families from the burden of their care during classes. All the eight-year-olds are lumped together and presented with age-appropriate instructional material. In teaching adolescents, the main theme is to keep them liking the religion club and liking God, so we present them with as adolescent an atmosphere as possible. The post-high-school single people are grouped together – and kept separate from the married people, if the numbers allow. This is primarily for social and mate-hunting purposes.

But while this method does provide the most efficient, rational means of effectively getting academic information into the heads of people, those who grow up in the club spend their formative years with others just like themselves. Everyone in little Johnny’s class is just like Johnny: same age, same experiences, same coursework, same teacher. Everyone in teenager Susan’s group is just like her: same interests, same questions, same adolescent pride and self-doubt. This system works all the way up to the Senior Saints Class, where everyone shares similar historical points of reference, similar age-related issues, similar interests, prejudices, and fears.

Like the public school, the local religion club also works hard to provide social connections for its members. But since membership and attendance are voluntary, far more effort is made to “give the people what they want” in terms of social activities, in order to attract and retain members. Activities are generally selected on the basis of, “If we do this, more people will want to come.”
Our social activities also revolve around demographic divisions. We have youth activities, men’s meetings, women’s retreats, and children’s camps. Club activities that involve the entire family are seldom a priority.

But the body of Christ is really not built like this at all. It is like a family. God does not bring people into the kingdom in chronological order. He brings in young and old and puts them in the same extended family. We liberally use the term “family” when we describe our local churches, but what would we look like if we really operated as a family?

More to come...

You Might Be A Prophet

You might be a prophet…

If someone asks you what part of the body of Christ you are and you say “the teeth”…

If you have ever spoken to a person and had them spontaneously catch fire…

If your idea of gentleness is picking someone up after you knocked him down…

If you push the button at Sonic and say, “I see a great cheeseburger descending upon the clouds of onion rings, no pickle, easy on the mayo…”

If you have a “Son of Thunder” tattoo…

If you think people who need their grasshoppers cooked first are sissies…

If you like to stand by the door when you speak, since you’ll be the first one leaving anyway…

If you’ve ever wished there were still a couple of prophets of Baal around so you could take out your frustrations on them…

If you’ve ever gotten a sermon from looking into the Jello salad at Furr’s Cafeteria…

If lots of churches invite you to speak —once.

If your vacation postcards say, “Thus saith the Lord: Having a great time, wish you were here…”

If you say, “We are in the last days” and people think you mean your sermon is about over…

If you know the date of the Second Coming, but can’t remember your wedding anniversary…

If you find yourself looking through the Yellow Pages for someone who can do alterations on a hair shirt…

If more than forty percent of your sermons begin with the phrase, “You’re not going to like this, but…”

If you’d like to call fire down from heaven, just once…

If you have ever asked the Lord, “You’re not going to make me SAY that, are You?”…

If you’ve ever used the term “you brood of vipers” in a teaching and wondered why the offering was so small…

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Under My Grapevine

Read John 15:1-11, “The Vine and the Branches”

Jesus’ analogy speaks to me as I sit here under the grapevine that grows behind my house. It is a large specimen, covering about 200 square feet of arbor. We don’t really do much with this grapevine, and left to itself, it grows bigger and denser every year. When we do water it, it sends out more and more shoots, with more and more big leaves. As a shade, it’s a marvelous thing. Want to come over and hang around the back yard on a mild summer’s evening? You’ll not find a more pleasant place. A couple dozen people can find comfortable seating in the shade of my grapevine. I could seat more if I just wanted to spend the money to expand the arbor.

My grapevine is a relatively neat and orderly plant. Oh, a couple of branches hang too low occasionally, making it inconvenient to walk under, but stripping off just a few leaves puts it to rights. And it doesn’t inconvenience us with a mess of grapes. You know what a pain those grapes can be. The birds would flock around nibbling at them, leaving you-know-what all over my clean patio. Grapes would be ripening and falling off all the time, getting squashed by every kid that runs through the back yard. But not with my grapevine. Sure, my grapevine puts on several bunches of grapes every spring, but they’re hard little green things about the size of pencil erasers. You could never eat them… I mean, even the birds don’t bother them much. There aren’t very many grapes even at that, and they dry up by the fall and are no trouble to anybody.

We thought about trying to grow some grapes. The previous homeowner told us that this grapevine would make lovely grapes with some care and serious pruning. But that would really cut back on the shade we like so well, and would put kind of a dent in our outdoor entertaining. And with all the mess and bother… well, we don’t really like grapes all that well, anyway.

I hear that folks who grow grapes for a living cut back their vines every year. Saw it on the Discovery Channel once. Those pruned-back vines sure looked naked on their trellises. Kind of ugly, if you ask me. (I mean, compared to the big beautiful specimen in my back yard.) Not a bit of shade anywhere in their whole vineyard. Even at harvest time, nothing but a mass of stubby vines with big bunches of grapes hanging on them. Then, the growers fill that vineyard with a bunch of unsavory-looking migrants picking grapes for somebody else to use. I guess if that’s your idea of a good time, more power to you. But I think I could show those Napa Valley boys a thing or two about growing grapevines, if they could just get their mind off those silly grapes for a few minutes…

(Let me get my tongue out of my cheek for a minute, now.)

The church of Jesus Christ has borne much fruit over the centuries. But the grapevine that is today’s American church has become more a shade for the saints than an actual project to grow grapes. Sure, we talk grapes. But most of the enormous, greatly admired churches and ministries we know are renowned for their leaves, for their mighty arbors, and for the thousands who find rest in their shade. If you doubt this for an instant, ask one of those institutions for a ten-year financial statement. If they’ll reveal it, you’ll find far more money spent on arbor building and maintenance than in grape-growing.

This has gone on for so long that, like the grapevine in my back yard, our entire understanding of the vine has become distorted. We want the shade, and gladly sacrifice the fruit. No grapevine will provide both. An unpruned vine produces more and more leaves. That mass of leaves consumes all the resources, causing the grapes to starve. But the Vinedresser is coming, his pruning hook in hand. And He will have His harvest.

My advice is to volunteer for the pruning, and know that it will likely be severe. Let the Father cut loose that which has become shade, so that what remains will bear fruit. Be prepared to lay down what is popular and admired by men, so that the only success that remains is the fruit the Vinedresser seeks. Know full well that before harvest time comes, every unfruitful branch will find its way into the fire by the Father’s hand. Entire collections of beautiful leafy limbs will be cut off, with no further life flowing from the Vine.

Are you ready to be an ugly, stubby, sawed-off branch? A few bare canes on the true Vine? If you are, then know that the only identity you have left will be in that Vine, and in His ability to bear fruit in your life. There may well be nothing left of you to admire… except those gorgeous grapes the Father so desires.

Jesus said he told us these things that His joy might remain in us and that our joy may be full. There must be something to this grape business after all…

A few more notes about grapevines and the kingdom of God:

Vinedressers cut back a producing grapevine to only four branches or “canes” every year. The reason is simple: grapes only bear on new growth. The branches that are pruned off this year are the ones that produced fruit last year. If the pruning is not done thoroughly, then the vine must share its support between new, fruit-bearing branches and last year’s branches, which are only producing leaves. This is the reason that when the vinedresser is finished, all that is left is the vine and the bare branches.

This is analogous to our experience in the church. We do things that bear fruit in their season, so we cannot imagine that God would prune back what we have built. After all, it has been successful! But just like the branch of the grapevine, after that bearing season, what we produce is mainly window-dressing. We recount the glory days of our fruit-bearing, and we use that recounting to justify our unwillingness to change. But just as with the grapevine, there is a season for that branch to bear, and a season for that branch to be pruned back. Left on our own, unpruned, we will inevitably descend from fruitfulness to leafy natural size and beauty. We will become more attractive and less fruitful.

Leaves help the fruit grow, and then they kill it. In the bearing season, the vine puts on leaves that help produce the nutrients needed to grow grapes. They actually support the production of grapes. But left on the vine after the season passes, they begin to compete with the fledgling grape clusters for water and nutrients. Soon, each successive new crop of grapes struggles to get started against the large, established leafy structure. But the crop stands very little chance of maturing.

Once again, the parallel is easily seen. We build Christian organizations and structures that initially do help in bearing the fruit of the kingdom. But when we let them grow unchallenged, these organizations quickly cease to support that fruit-bearing and begin to develop a life of their own. They then begin to compete for the believers’ time and money to build buildings and pay operational expenses. Soon, the believers are being asked straight-faced from the pulpits to “support the church”, when that structure should be supporting them.

The fruit that does manage to appear in these situations has a hard time maturing. We make new converts into good “church members”, but not into strong believers. We take them straight from the baptistery into “church work”, fitting them into roles that have them supporting the organization. Instead of being the reason the organization exists, the believer becomes just another resource to keep the organization alive.

What does it mean to be “cut off and thrown into the fire”? If we continue to resist the pruning hook of the Father, the day comes when we are no longer “abiding in the Vine”. We become self-sufficient, a vine unto ourselves, with our own network of lovely branches that are off limits to the Vinedresser. In that day, we cease to have our life in the vine. The lordship of Christ no longer exists in what we have built. The Father cuts off such things. They may continue to exist in the natural, but the Father no longer supplies them, nor will He reward what they produce. As with all man’s works, such things will burn in the end.

Supermarket Relationships

For those of you who are part of the migration of believers out of the institutional church, you are likely seeing a tremendous shift in the operation of your personal relationships. Friends who were at your side every Sunday drop off your scope. What you thought were strong long-term relationships seem to evaporate. The Spirit gave me a picture recently of what is happening to us.

I was reminded of shopping for vegetables in the supermarket. There, I simply rolled my cart down the aisle and selected whatever cans suited my taste. They were all labeled and displayed for my convenience. I did not concern myself with where the food came from, who grew it, who picked it, or what chemicals and processes were involved. It was easy for me to get food in this way, as I did not have to do much except bring my checkbook. Others in the background assembled the cans on the shelves, kept the lights on, and kept store hours that fit my schedule.

The only problem was the quality of the food in the cans. The nutritional value was almost nil. I sometimes found a can which declared that it had been “fortified” with vitamins, but that only underscored the reality of the empty calories to which I had grown accustomed. I could not judge this by the cans, however. I could only look at the labels and make my selections based on the external appearance.

When asked where I got my groceries, I would say things like, “I go to Albertson’s”, or “ I normally go to Kroger, but I go to Safeway when they have specials.” Nobody asked me what I bought, because the products are essentially similar no matter where you go. I just used the store I liked best, or the most convenient place to pick up what I needed.

Thus it has been with our church relationships. We regularly go to a building built for our shopping pleasure. Organizations build and remodel and design their operations to get me to shop with them. Everyone in the neighborhood tries out the new outfit with the fancy brickwork and the espresso bar and the attractive circular in the newspaper. These organizations pique our interest with massive advertising, and spend much of their effort trying to woo customers who normally frequent other establishments. The goal is simple: to bring in as many consumers and as much revenue as possible.

It is so convenient for us. We drop off our children at their managed department, getting a receipt so we can pick them up later. We cruise that building, picking out people we want to connect with, generally based on our personal preferences and outward appearances. We get with the “youth group” or the “ladies group” or the “people-too-old-to-be-in-college-but-not-yet-married-with-children group”. We sign up to rub elbows with folks who have things in common with us: the “Single Again” folks, or the weekly “Lose Weight for Jesus” support group.

We have become a nation of religious consumers. And as such, we are prey to every marketing ploy, every free offer, and every bait-and-switch tactic known to those who are selling what we buy. But it is only the darkness of our own hearts that makes such schemes effective. After all, we have proven that we are eager for the convenience of one-stop God-shopping, easily conditioned to the weekly shopping trip, satisfied with the quality of what we are sold. To criticize those who give us what we want is to ignore the beam in our own eye.

But what of those who have become disenchanted and have abandoned the spiritual supermarket? While I applaud their action, my experience tells me that they often begin to get hungry. And the reasons are not hard to see.

First, one cannot eat the fact that he no longer has religious canned goods in his pantry. Even if those canned goods had limited nutrition, simple abstention does not replace those nutrients. We must cultivate our own garden. We must find those individuals with whom God would joint us, and we must nurture and develop those relationships ourselves, without the artificial stimulus of required group meetings. We cannot leave the supermarket and expect to find canned goods along the side of the road to sustain us.

The first hard reality of this new, organic Christian lifestyle is that it requires work. Instead of dropping the can in the cart, we find ourselves on the end of a hoe in the summer sun, weeding and cultivating our relationships. This does not fit into our “busy schedules”, and it cannot be left to others when the weather gets too hot. In point of fact, any gardener can tell you that before the harvest, comes the hard work. Many believers simply do not want to do this. It is a discipline they have not yet learned. The time and effort required is so much more than the hour-and-a-half-every-Sunday to which they are accustomed. As they look over their patch of struggling green beans, the enemy whispers, “Those are three cans for a dollar at the supermarket. What are you doing?” There is a powerful temptation to trade in the hoe for that familiar shopping cart.

Unfortunately, some believers who refuse to go back to the supermarket will also not accept the responsibility to cultivate their personal gardens. These become worse off than they were before, returning to consumerism (this time through books, tapes, and television) but getting even less nutrition than before. They become emaciated, having a few scattered conferences and seminars to talk about, but lacking that strong net of local personal joints through which the life of the Spirit primarily flows.

Sometimes, we trade the religious supermarket for the corner store. That is, we move from the religious institution into homes or offices, but never relinquish our consumerism. We are still consumers, but we now get our sermons delivered from a living room sofa. We still operate scheduled store hours, only they are on a weeknight instead of Sunday. We still want our “cell pastor” or “home group leader” to fill our shopping cart, generally at a discount in required time and money. We replace the ordinances of the supermarket with our own localized practices. We become “bigger fish in a smaller pond”, gaining more control over what goods the store offers us. This is “getting out of the box”, only to climb into a smaller box.

We are called to the backyard garden of personal relationships in Christ. God gives the grace to build these relationships, and provides the people for that purpose. As we learn to do this, we will focus more on meeting than meetings. More on service than services. Less on scheduled events and more on Christ-life itself. If you are standing in the hot sun in your garden, do not be weary in well-doing. You will have a harvest if you don’t get tired and quit. Keep watering and weeding.

There is a world of difference between corn-on-the-cob fresh from the garden and those aluminum cans with the green giant on the label. Anyone who has tasted the difference can tell you it is well worth the trouble to grow your own. Happy gardening!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Selfish Gratitude

We have all taken the "We should be more grateful" guilt trip. Unfortunately, too many of my well-intentioned brothers make this a sermon staple. I think it started when we wouldn't eat the beets Mom cooked when we were six years old. Remember when she reminded us about the starving children in (insert deprived nation/continent here) who went to bed hungry? It didn't make us grateful for beets-- just made us wonder why we couldn't ship them to the hungry kids Mom knew and make a win/win out of the deal.

So we grew up having our blessings pointed out to us as an illustration of our own malformed character. Didn't help much. For the record, I have yet to meet the person who developed a lifestyle of thankfulness because he felt so badly about his previous ingratitude.

What if we came to realize that thankfulness is actually good for us? (Like most things God wants us to have.) Not good for us in the "You better eat your asparagus" sense, but in the "Now, that's what I'm talkin' about!" sense. Consider, if you will, that thankfulness is like a developed sense, like smell, for example. If you are insensitive to aromas, nothing stinks. But nothing smells good, either. You never get to know the difference between sweaty socks and homemade sugar cookies. Ingratitude is like that. Gratitude, on the other hand, is like the capacity to wake up in the morning and smell rain, or brewing coffee, or the pine tree outside the window. It is to experience with greater depth and clarity what is good around us.

And gratitude can be cultivated.

It's simple, really. We are often prompted by the Holy Spirit to be thankful. Take each opportunity to say, "Thanks!" Even if you forgot to do so when it happened. Don't feel guilty about the timing, just express your gratitude when you remember. The more this happens, well, the more it happens. The more you sniff, the more you smell. The more you offer your thanks-- to God or to anyone else-- the more aware you are of the gifts given to you. The more aware you are of your blessings, the more you enjoy them. The more you enjoy them, the better your overall appraisal of life in your world.

You know those people who seem to always be able to see the good in the world around them? Those pollyannish, unrealistic people whose apparent happiness is so annoying? The ones you secretly envy? They are most often those favored few who have learned to express their thanksgiving as part of their living and breathing, and in so doing touch the beauty of life with great depth and vitality.

Gratitude. Do it for you.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

All In The Family, Kinda Sorta...

I have eleven children. Yes, eleven. Get the gasp out of your system; while I am bragging just a little, I'm really trying to set up an illustration, an analogy, yea, a parable...

I have two sons and nine daughters. The boys have some things in common that they don't have in common with my girls. Guy stuff, you know. So, they have recently decided that they are "a family". If you ask Son #1 who's in his family, he points out Son #2. And vice versa. Now, if pressed by a teacher at school, they would readily admit that indeed, they do indeed have nine sisters, but that the "Sons of McLean" are the group they really identify with.

I have two daughters at Enormous State University. They have decided to form a family, the "McLean Fellowship at ESU", based on their commonalities. Same deal as the boys, they mostly associate with each other except at Christmas, and otherwise only identify only with one another.

The five children who are in public school have taken the hint and just formed their own "Youth of McLean" group, which they now identify as their "family". They don't hang with their older siblings much anymore. All the neat activities going on with their new group just don't leave them with time...

How do you think the formation of these three "families" makes Dad feel? And how many families does Dad think he has?