October 2011


What does church look like?

It’s a fair question. It’s also loaded with dynamite. If you ask the question of any group or in any setting, you will find a different answer when you move into another setting or group where you intend to pose the question.

For instance, if you pose the question to a Baptist, he’ll reply . . .  No, wait. . . I have to be more specific because there are so many different kinds of Baptists just in the United States alone that we’d have to seek out dozens of them just to get a consensus of what church is. So perhaps we should narrow our search down just to Southern Baptists (that’s much easier, because that’s my background). Now, let’s ask a Southern Baptist our question—her answer will be . . .  no, we still can’t get a handle, because our “Southern” Baptist may be from Georgia or New Jersey; from a rural setting or a sprawling urban area. Suffice it to say, there are innumerable definitions as to what church is.

One person may suggest that church centers around spires and cathedrals with magnificent stained-glass windows. The one sitting right next to them insists that church is the way worshipers sing and pray. Across the room another will jump up to dispute this and say that church is filled with exclusivist people. And even another will insist that the church is the people and not the place.

The problem with most definitions of church is that we tend to look at church from the outside and examine what church is by what it looks like, what it does, or what it seems to be. What we need is new eyes with which to see the church. We should look at church through the lenses of the Maker—the One who created church and built church on the faith of the believers.

What church is not: church is not a social club—like Kiwanis, Rotary or Lions. While these organizations are often good and provide valid service to the community, they are simply a means for businessmen to gather for the purpose of advancing the community (with the main point of building contacts for one’s own business in the process). Nor is church a country club into which we buy admission, after having been screened by the membership committee.

It is important not to treat church as we would a cafeteria—choosing which parts we like and leaving alone those that we don’t. Many people shop around for church in just this manner. They don’t return to a church where their own personal needs are not met or where they don’t like the selection of songs in worship or where the wrong kind of people go.

Church does not exist so that we can be satisfied or have our needs met. Neither does she exist to cater to the needs of her community. It is not a place for me to go for my weekly spiritual fuel. And it is not a place for me to bully my opinion into being felt, heard, and heeded.

When we look at church through our new eyes, we see that the church is the Bride of Christ—His love, His desire. And what does a Bride do as she encounters her bridegroom? She loves him, adores him—lavishes her love upon him. As the Bride of Christ that is the church’s responsibility whenever she encounters Him—to love Him, honor Him, lavish Him with worship.

The church is the Body of Christ—following Him wherever He leads, bowing to His every request, obeying His least command—just as my fingers type the words I desire, my feet take me the places I desire. The local expression of the church in this way is no different from the church at large. When we gather we love Christ, we obey Him, we glorify Him. Yes, we find spiritual nourishment at church; yes, we have needs met at church; yes, we address the needs of our local community from the church. But when we see church with new eyes, all of these things are a result of us doing what it is a church does—call attention to God, worship Him, glorify Him, and follow Him in obedient abandon.

Are you not finding God at church? Seek Him with new eyes. Are you more concerned about how your needs are (or are not) being met in worship? Remember that worship is not about you, but about Him. Reject the old-line thinking about church. Repent of the sin of selfishness that pervades your impression of church. And refocus your attention on Christ in church—become His Bride—His Body—again, and see church with new eyes.

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It’s the best line in the movie The Sixth Sense, and kind of creepy, too: “I see dead people.” It’s the kind of thing that makes people want to go and see the next M. Night Shyamalan movie. It’s also the kind of thing that makes me think. What is it that I see when I look around me at the world? Who is it that I see when I look into the eyes of the masses? When I read Ronnie Floyd’s new book a couple of weeks ago, he reminded me of this clip from the movie and the implication for Christians rather jumped out at me—we must see the world as they are: Dead Men Walking.

This should not bring us in line with the earthly fascination with zombies—you know, the dead people walking around trying to nourish themselves on live people’s brains. No, we are not looking for a wonderment in the face of the “undead.” Not even at Hallowe’en. Instead we want to open our new—our spiritual—eyes and see what God sees when He casts his eye over the vast sea of humanity and sees the Fallen, sin-drenched people in need of salvation that can only be provided by Jesus Christ: dead people. And just like in Shyamalan’s movie, they don’t even know that they are dead.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve addressed this subject. Years ago I delivered a sermon called “Walking Dead Men” based on Galatians 2:19-21. I asserted that there are several ways that we need to see dead men walking—those who are not part of the Kingdom, who have not received the gift of salvation, are dead. Dead in their trespasses and sin (if I could borrow a phrase from King James). Not only that but those of us who have received the Life through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior are dead to our sin.

For today’s post, we are more concerned that those of us who are dead to our sin become increasingly aware of those who are dead in their sin. Why is this so important? Because God has no desire for them to die in their dead state. He wants them to find Life in Christ. He wants us to bring the message of Life to them.

Open your eyes. Do you see dead people? Bring them life.

 

College students are nothing if not idealistic. I recall sitting around a table once with other members of my Greek class. For the uninitiated, Greek is a foreign language. And the form of it that ministerial types study in college and seminary is considered a “dead language” meaning it isn’t spoken/used any more. It’s kind of like studying Old or Middle English—nobody uses those words or those forms of those words anymore. We were all fascinated by the nuances that began to open themselves up to us as we studied the New Testament in the language that the writers of the books wrote in. We learned the different degrees to which someone could do or say something and it excited us. A couple of us determined that as we learned more about the language we would do our own translation of the New Testament—better than anything already available.

I’m not sure where the other men went with the idea, but I the best I’ve been able to accomplish is a couple of extended passages, and that for later classes in the study of Koine (or biblical) Greek. The older I get the more I realize that I am still (and more so) dependent on deeper scholars than myself for the learning and reading of the written Word of God. That’s okay though, because I’m required to do more and more study as the days go by. And this brings us to today’s advice—get yourself (if you haven’t already) a good study Bible.

Personally, I haven’t found and bought the study Bible that’s just right for me yet, but I’m still looking. Perhaps you can make a comment and recommend the best SB for my Bible buying dollar. If you are wondering (and don’t feel qualified to make a suggestion because you’re wondering), a study Bible is a wonderful tool that includes (often among other things) a copy of the Scriptures (hence, it is a study Bible), reference materials such as concordance and Bible dictionary, often some charts or maps in the back, but most of all—and what makes it specifically a study Bible—notes on the Scriptures that make each passage clearer for the reader.

Depending on which SB you choose, these notes will be based on the notes of a well-known and sometimes respected theologian or take advantage of a team of experts who will shed light on the passages as you read them. Some popular study Bibles which have been circulating for a number of years are the Scofield and Ryrie Study Bibles. In recent years we have seen other, newer options arise—MacArthur Study Bible, the Life Application Bible, and the ESV and HCSB Study Bibles to name a few.

One thing to remember when reading your study Bible—the scripture is inspired by God. This refers to the text of books like Lamentations, Haggai, and Philemon. The translation itself is not necessarily going to be exact, it will be the result of hours upon hours spent by experts, theologians and other eggheads to find the best or most precise rendering from the earliest possible manuscripts into modern language so that it is readable, understandable, and accurate. On the other hand, the commentary, historical remarks, and other study helps are indeed NOT the inspired work of the Holy Spirit—no matter how matter-of-factly or expertly they are asserted. So, when you read your SB, make good use of the study tools included, but remember it is the words of the apostle Paul, or the prophet Jeremiah that are to be taken as set in stone.

Indeed, get you a study Bible to use as you prepare your Sunday school lesson, your devotional thought, or your blog entry. Use it to help you study the Scriptures (just as  you would a good, reliable commentary), but stake your life on the Word of God, not Schofield or Ryrie’s commentary. And while your at it don’t forget to recommend (or better yet send me) a nice reliable study Bible for my growing library.

How does God’s Word find us? We find God’s word first of all in the Living Word – Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of all that God wants to communicate to His creation in general and to His chosen people in particular. This is the most important expression of the Word of God because Jesus is living and in the business of changing lives forever.

We also hear God’s word through the Spoken Word. This could be the preached word or in conversations with other Christians. We often ignore this word from God because (1) we stopped really listening to the preacher years ago—he’s just creating feel-good treatises loosely based on an ancient text anyway, right? (2) We don’t expect God to speak to us through the mouths of the theologically ignorant—people like us who don’t really understand the Bible. Besides, if I wanted to listen to a sermon I go and hear what the preacher has to say (let me direct you to #1 above).

And finally, God reveals His Word to us is through the Bible, God’s Holy Word (Go ahead say the VBS pledge with me, if you remember it, “I pledge allegiance to the Bible . . .”). Our problem with this hinges on my already stated point—it’s an ancient text. Is it really relevant today? After all, it was written nearly 2000 years ago, in the Middle East and Mediterranean area, by Jews who didn’t know me or even suspect me, in languages that are dead or dying. What could it possibly say to me? Well, that’s what today’s post is all about: seeing the Scripture through our new, spiritual eyes.

Of course every religion, or faith, or tradition has its own version of what they call scripture. Our focus for the next few moments will be on the Scripture canonized by the early Christian Church that has been handed down through a variety of means from generation to generation and we in the Christian Faith revere as the Holy Bible. Why do we need to see the scripture through new eyes? I would argue that we have a whole host of misconceptions and preferences that cloud our view of the Bible. When I was a kid we sang “The Bible is a Treasure Book . . .” and that’s a nice thought, but it brings to mind something that is hidden away—and sometimes we don’t want the message of the Bible to be hidden, but broadcast.

Most American children—or at least the ones who grew up in my part of the culture—are familiar with some sort of Bible Storybook that took some of the favorite stories from the Scripture and endeared them to children by retelling them with pictures that they children can relate to. Specific stories that often caught the attention of little boys like me included “Daniel in the Lions Den” which told of the destruction of the ones who had conspired to have Daniel thrown into the pit for praying but didn’t include that gory picture. Likewise, there was the tale of David and Goliath—that ends with David cutting off his enemy’s head with Goliath’s own sword (but the illustration had the shepherd boy standing near the stream with his slingshot in hand, not the triumphant warrior lopping off the fallen foe’s head).

My point: we like to dress up the scripture, make it more palatable. We want our children to learn it, but we don’t want them (or ourselves) exposed to the sometimes gruesome truths held there. For instance, we love to concentrate on the Love of God (it’s in there, take a look), but we’d just as soon skip over the His Wrath (don’t miss out on what happens when we don’t respond to His love His way). So why don’t we go back to Vacation Bible School and take a longer look at the third pledge—the one that everybody has to read from the screen (no problem with the pledge to the American flag, it’s part of morning routines at school if sometimes controversial; and we can remember most of the words to the pledge to the Christian flag even if they did change them about twenty or thirty years ago, but by the time we get to the Bible we’re all tired, and again—it’s just an ancient text, right?).

I pledge allegiance to the Bible (I will make the Bible an important part of my life, why? Because it’s. . .)

God’s Holy Word (that means it comes to us from the Maker, and it’s important to Him)

And will make it a lamp unto my feet (this word illuminates where I am)

A light unto my path (It also lights up where I want to go)

And will hide its words in my heart (this is the good kind of hiding—making the Bible an intricate part of my total being)

That I may not sin against God(God’s Word—the Bible—keeps us in tune with Him).

So what this means is that we need to approach the Bible with a different viewpoint. It’s good to read it. It’s even better to study it. It’s best, though, to make it the “go to” place for advice on how to live, what to do, and where to be. The difficulty for most of us is that reading, studying and applying the Bible to our lives requires work. Work that involves sacrifice, adjustment, and relinquishing our own personal preferences to the one who wrote the book. We read all kinds of books that tell us how to make life better, but I think that if we’d take a new look into God’s word—see it with new eyes—we might find we don’t need so many self-help best-sellers. Here’s a thought from an old children’s song:

Get the new look from the old Book

Get the new look from the Bible

Get the new look from the old Book

Get the new look from God’s Word.

The inward look, the outward look,

The upward look from the old, old Book.

Get the new look from the old Book

Get the new look from God’s Word.

Pie. I like pie. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? I can’t always agree with my father who’s been known to say, “I only like two kinds of pie . . . hot and cold.” I mean, I don’t have much of a taste for pumpkin pie (please don’t throw stones, I just don’t care for it). I do however, like cream pie, fried pie, pie with meringue, fruit pie, cobbler (it’s a kind of pie). I even like pizza pie. But I can’t live on pie.

 

I don’t like vegetables, but I eat them. I don’t care a great deal for oatmeal, but I know that it’s good for me, so I eat it sometimes. Food. It’s our sustenance. We’d like for it to be what we like, but consider this: what if you were forced to nourish yourself on just a morsel or two—and that of something that you found distasteful, like the children here:

Why bring in Oliver? Because I think that too many times we (Americans in general, and American church people in particular) take for granted the food we eat. So little do we think about our food that we don’t understand those who are really in need of it. We intone (like my 5-year-old), “I’m starving,” when it’s only been a few minutes (maybe a couple of hours) since our last meal or snack. Then when we do eat, we pick and prowl through the groceries on our plate, taking only the bits we find tasty and pushing the rest around and we wind up at this fair:

So the question is, how wasteful are we when there are children down the street, around the corner, or across the world who (along with their parents) really are starving—at times even to death? It gives us something to think about the next time we leave half a  plateful claiming that we are saving a spot just on the side of our tummies for that yummy piece of pie.

 

What do you think?

I’ll chime in just for the sake of discussion. It seems that Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has convened an elite study group to consider the need or possibility of changing the name of our convention. I will start the discussion with a couple of disclaimer-type statements:

  • I’ve been Southern Baptist since riding in the womb. My father has been an SBC pastor for his entire adult life. I’ve served in a variety of ministry capacities in Southern Baptist Churches or ministries for the last 30 years. I was educated at several different Southern Baptist institutions of higher learning. In short, if you cut me I would bleed blue (or whatever color it is that Southern Baptists bleed).
  • With this in mind, you should know that I really couldn’t care less one way or the other what the convention decides to call itself–as long as it has something to do with the building up of the Kingdom of God.

I have heard some (if not all) the reasons for changing/not changing the name of the old behemoth we know as SBC and have found sound reasoning behind arguments on both sides of the issue. As a matter of fact, this isn’t the first time such a suggestion has been made, and so far those who desire the tradition behind the old moniker have prevailed in keeping the name the same.

My reason for jumping in is not to tell anyone what he or she should think on the matter (as I’ve said, I don’t really have a strong opinion one way or the other), but just to drop a couple of cents into the bucket as they were voiced to me by a couple of the members of my church. Understand that these men are not ministers (as I understand most – or all – of the study group to be) and that their reactions would be considered knee-jerk reactions–saying what they thought in immediate response to hearing that someone is even suggesting that our convention change its name.

First reaction of one man: “Why?”

First reaction of another in the room: “It seems to me they’d find better things to talk about.”

I don’t know if these statements will have any bearing on the committee’s study, but I think it would be good to note that these men are members of a Southern Baptist Church that is over 100 years old and has always been a Southern Baptist Church. The church is located outside of the region designated in the name of the convention to which we belong, and is in fact located in a part of the nation where to identify your church as Baptist garners an assumption that you are to be identified as American (not Southern) Baptist.

God is God. I’m not, and neither are you. Isn’t it comforting to know? However, sometimes we don’t really understand what that means. Before rebirth, before our new eyes begin to focus, we have a distorted view of God. It isn’t always the same for everyone, but it is always ill-conceived.

Kurt Kaiser tried to capture the misconceptions about God in his early youth musical Tell It Like It Is. Listen to the words of an early rap (chant) on the subject of God:

When I saw God he had a long white beard,

And he brings me gifts at the end of the year;

But the big one comes in the by and by

From the Santa Claus up in the sky.

From the Santa Claus up in the sky.

When I saw God he was a vending machine,

I drop in a coin and he makes the scene.

You push the right button what have you got?

Instant first aid right on the spot,

Instant first aid right on the spot.

I think of God as the great computer;

Feed him the facts, he’s the instant tutor;

he’s gotta be right, Sure it’s easy to see

Since the stars haven’t fallen into the sea.

The stars haven’t fallen into the sea.

I think of God like in a museum

Kept under glass, Where I can go see him,

It’s such a comfort to see him there

He’s near to me, and not off somewhere.

He’s near to me, and not off somewhere.

When I’m in trouble he’s like a silver lining,

Although that does seem quite confining;

For the one who cars for people like me,

Is not at all like we’ve described him to be.

He’s not at all like we’ve described him to be.

(from “What’s God Like” in Tell It Like It Is, 1969)

Some people view God as Creator, and that’s good because He is. The problem arises when we stop at His creative activity. This viewpoint sees the Maker as making and then letting go. He set the world spinning in space and then sat back to watch and see what would happen. If this were an accurate view of God, then we remove from Him His interest in creation. He really is concerned what happens to us—that’s why He sent Jesus to provide salvation for all of mankind.

Others are satisfied to treat God as if He is their personal valet or servant. We bring to Him our wants, wishes and desires, and expect Him to hop to—doing what it I tell Him to do. Choose your concept of God from Kaiser’s list—all are inadequate, and all are pre-new Creation status for the spiritually alive.

Once we have spiritual eyes, we can see God as he really is and we are forced into the stance of Isaiah:

1In the year thatKing Uzziah died Isaw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the trainof his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each hadsix wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

4Andthe foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, andthe house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen theKing, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5, ESV)

Why respond in such self-abasement? Because we realize that God is whole and we are broken; that God is immense and we are finite; that God is all and we are nothing. And the awesome thought that comes to mind is that He loves me anyway. All at one time, He is righteousness and justice, mercy and grace, without any contradiction in Him.

It is time for those who have new eyes to stop looking at God through the filter that the world has imposed on us, and view God for who He really is. When we do this we will respond in the only way we can: in utter worship and praise. That’s who He is and why we were created. Don’t you think?

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