An Oasis in a Spiritual Desert
- Monday, June 29, 2009
A young man wrote me the following note several weeks ago:
I wondered your theological opinion of Christian fellowship. It is a term that's been thrown around a lot in my circles lately but to be honest, what I see in churches is not much different from a TV show like Cheers or even less than that.
I mean Christian fellowship is considered to be shaking hands and asking about your church friends' week and then sitting down and singing and listening to preaching and then going home. How is that any different than going to the bar and seeing familiar faces over a couple of beers?
Interesting that he should mention the TV show Cheers. Although it first aired over 20 years ago, it remains popular in reruns. Set in a bar in Boston, the show featured a cast of offbeat characters who gathered at the bar every day after work to kibbutz, to trade war stories, to tell a few jokes, to blow off steam, and to commiserate with one another. Each week millions of people tuned in watch Sam and Diane and Rebecca and Carla and Norm and Sam and Cliff and Dr. Frasier Crane and Woody sit around and talk about their joys and sorrows, their victories and defeats, their good times and their bad times, their problems at home, and their dreams for the future. That was the whole show. It doesn't sound very profound, yet Cheerstouched something deep within the American public. Each week, in their own quirky way, the characters talked about life and we tuned in to listen.
Do you remember the theme song?
"You wanna be where you can see that troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where everyone knows your name."
I was reminded of Cheers when I read a story in one of Chuck Swindoll's books. He tells about an old Marine Corps buddy of his who became a Christian after he left the Corps. Swindoll said he was surprised when he heard of his friend's conversion:
He was one of those guys you'd never picture as being interested in spiritual things. He cursed loudly, drank heavily, fought hard, chased women, loved weapons, and hated chapel service. He was a great Marine.
When Swindoll finally met him, his friend told him how he had come to Christ. Then with a look of sadness, he put his hand on Swindoll's shoulder and bared his soul:
Chuck, the only thing I miss is that old fellowship all the guys in our outfit used to have down at the Slop Shoot (Greek for tavern on base). Man, we'd sit around, laugh, tell stories, drink a few beers, and really let our hair down. It was great. I just haven't found anything to take the place of that great time we use to enjoy. I ain't got nobody to admit my faults to. . . to have ‘em put their arm around me me and tell me I'm still okay.
The words hurt because they are so true. Swindoll goes on to quote from Bruce Larson and Keith Miller (The Edge of Adventure, p. 156). Ever wonder why so many people are pulled to the neighborhood bar? Here is their answer:
The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is for the fellowship Christ wants to give His church. It's an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don't tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.
With all my heart I believe that Christ wants His church to be . . . a fellowship where people can come in and say, "I'm sunk!" "I'm beat!" "I've had it!" (All quotations from Chuck Swindoll,Encourage Me, pp. 17-18)
Where do you go in a time of crisis? The answer for nearly all of us is that we go to our close friends, to the people who know us best and love us the most. So many people today hunger for close relationships and for friendships that last longer than one-night stands.
"You wanna be where you can see that troubles all are the same.
You wanna be where everyone knows your name."
So people turn to bars, clubs, to parties and neighborhood groups, softball teams, bowling leagues, gyms, spas, restaurants, and nowadays they spend hours on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, hoping to make a connection with someone they will probably never meet in person.
Maybe, just maybe, they turn to the church. And what do they find?Welcome to the Real Philadelphia
The New Testament contains a phrase that catches the essential quality of a caring church. That phrase is "brotherly love." It comes from the Greek word philadelphia, which itself comes from two other Greek words:
Philos has the idea of tender affection.
Adelphos literally means "one born of the same womb," thus translated "brother."
Put those two thoughts together and you have philadelphia-tender affection owed to those born of the same womb. I have three brothers - Andy, Alan and Ron. I owe them tender affection because we all come from the same womb. And even if I haven't seen them in a while, when we talk it's like we just saw each other last week.
Now apply that to the spiritual realm. In God's family, we are all born of the same spiritual womb. This relationship transcends status, achievement, race, ethnic background, money, education, talent, language, culture, age, sex, or any of the many other barriers that divide the human race into different groups.
Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me. And I owe all of them tender affection-brotherly love. God has put into the heart of every Christian a desire to love all of God's children everywhere. It's part of the DNA of being a follower of Jesus. If you are a Christian, that love is already in your heart. You just have to let it loose.
What does brotherly love look like in the nitty-gritty? Here are four answers to that question from Romans 12:13.1. Generous Giving.
When Paul mentions "contributing to the needs of the saints" (v. 13a), he doesn't necessarily have in mind the Sunday morning offering. This NLT offers us this contemporary rendering: "When God's people are in need, be ready to help them" (NLT).
The word translated "contributing" doesn't usually refer to money in the New Testament. It's a broader word that means "to share in something as a partner." God wants his children to identify with the needs of others and make them their own. Today we live so far apart that we hardly ever see each other. Someone will suffer and we won't even know it. We have to get close enough to see the needs and make them our own.
He explains what he means in second half of verse 13...2. Genuine Hospitality
Paul says that we are to "pursue hospitality" (v. 13b). The word "pursue" means exactly what it sounds like-to run after something, to chase it down. Hospitality comes from a Greek word meaning "kindness to strangers." This was a sacred duty in the early church and a requirement for church leadership (1 Timothy 3:2). The Message translates this as "be inventive in hospitality."
In thinking about this we need to make two distinctions. First, hospitality is not the same thing as entertaining. We entertain when we invite our friends over for a party. That's a good thing to do but having your buddies over for a Super Bowl party is not exactly what Paul has in mind. Hospitality involves reaching out to new people who are "strangers" to you. And that leads to the second distinction. The word "stranger" conjures up images of odd people who seem a little weird to us. Now there are people like that in the world, and they need our love to, but that's not the focus. God wants us to think about those we don't know and find ways to reach out to them.
It's really as simple (and as difficult) as that.
Does it still work today? Or has hospitality gone out of style? In 1986 I traveled to Haiti for the first time. I spent a week in Pignon, a small town tucked away in the north central region of the country. It's about as far away from modern America as you can get and still be on the same planet. I went there at the invitation of my friend Caleb Lucien. On that first trip I met Caleb's father, Sidoine Lucien, the founding pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church. The poverty in Haiti is overwhelming. Most Americans are rich compared to the richest person in the church in Pignon. What's more, Pastor Sidoine and his wife have personally taken in over 50 orphans over the years and raised them to become productive and godly men and women. Many of the leaders started out as Pastor Lucien's orphans.
On my first visit I saw Pastor Sidoine take food off his table to feed hungry children. A man and a boy who suddenly showed up were given a place to stay. For years his wife cooked meals for 50 people. One day I asked Pastor Lucien how they could do so much with so little. He smiled for a moment and then in halting English he said, "When I help others, God helps me." I've never heard a better statement of the Christian ethic of giving. Hospitality is not just a theory with the Christians of Pignon; it's a way of life.
We go even deeper with the next answer. True Christian love always involves...3. Gracious Forgiveness
"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse" (v. 14). This is easier said than done. After all, when someone curses us, the last thing we want to do is bless them in return. I find this to be especially true when I feel that someone I love has been mistreated. I'm more willing to forgive a personal offense and less willing to forgive those who hurt someone I love. I suppose most of us feel the same way. Nevertheless, the Word of the Lord remains. We are to bless those who curse us even when we would rather "give them a piece of our mind." In short, we are being asked to do the opposite of our natural inclinations. It requires a supernatural virtue to respond with grace when we (or our loved ones) have been trashed.
It's not enough to simply "grin and bear it" (though that is noble in itself) nor are we simply to bite our tongue to keep from cursing ourselves. I remember hearing one man talk about "sub-vocal cursing," the idea being that many of us curse at our enemies, only we do it where no one can hear us. I'll grant you that it's better not to curse people to their face, but cursing under the covers is hardly any better. And Paul is not saying, "Curse them for a while, and then you feel better start blessing them." He's saying, "Bless them all the time, all the way, every day."
How exactly are we to do to this? Certainly it must start in the heart. F. B. Meyer, British Bible teacher of the early 1900s, used to pray this way. When he felt himself getting angry or irritable, he asked the Lord for the quality he most needed at that moment:
Your patience, Lord Jesus.
Your kindness, Lord Jesus.
Your love, Lord Jesus.
Your courage, Lord Jesus.
Your wisdom, Lord Jesus.
Your longsuffering, Lord Jesus.
Your compassion, Lord Jesus.
These "arrow prayers" go straight from our heart to the heart of God. And we may believe that when we pray like this, God will hear us and he will answer and give to us what we need in the moment of great temptation.
If we return anger for anger,
Hatred for hatred,
Bitterness for bitterness,
Slander for slander,
If all we do is return the evil done to us, how are we any different from those who attack us? If we raise our voices to answer theirs, how will that help the situation? Harsh words are no recommendation for our faith. A cursing Christian is a walking, talking contradiction. How will they ever believe us if our message is, "God loves you, but we hate your guts"?
Paul is not asking us to be stoic, to simply shake off the evil done to us as if it doesn't matter. Hatred cuts deep, and the wounds can linger for years. But if we are going to follow Jesus, we have no choice. We will either curse or bless when we are mistreated. Our only hope of not cursing is to bless instead. We must bless others in order to keep from cursing them. As long as we curse our enemies, we are trying to do God's work for him. God can take care of his own work without any help from us.
Here is the fourth and final principle. True love leads to...4. Gut-Level Friendship.
The New King James says that we are to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (v. 15). Eugene Peterson offers this version: "Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down" (MSG). Here we have the extremes of life.
Sometimes we are on top of the world.
Sometimes we are in the pit.
When your friends are happy, rejoice with them. If your friend gets a good score on his SAT, if she celebrates a birthday, if he gets a promotion, if they have a baby, if their daughter graduates from high school, if their grandson scores two touchdowns, laugh with them, cheer with them, smile with them. Share their joy. Don't be a party pooper or a Negative Nelly or a Sulking Sam. Life is hard enough for all of us. When those moments of victory come, share their joy. And don't mutter under your breath, "They don't deserve it." Of course they don't. None of deserve any of the blessings we receive from the Lord. It's all of grace. But oh, how sad to go through life as a crotchety, mean-spirited grump who douses water on the happiness of others. Rejoice with those who rejoice.
When our friends weep, take time to weep with them. I remember reading an interview Frank Sinatra gave shortly before he died. "What do you do when the woman you love is crying?" "I cry with her," Sinatra replied. That's certainly a wise answer. Often the tears of others frighten us. Real emotion, raw emotion, scares us so we tend to run away from it. Or we offer empty platitudes ("Things will get better." "God will take care of you." "Everything is going to work out.") It's certainly true that God will take care of those who suffer, but even a verse like Romans 8:28 can seem like cold comfort when the doctor says, "I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do." Sometimes the best we can do is simply to weep with our friends in the hour of great sadness.
To do this rightly-to both rejoice and to weep-requires that we not keep the world at arm's length. As long as we don't let anyone get too close to us, this verse won't apply to us. By definition you have to walk close enough with people so that we know when they are rejoicing or weeping. If we keep them on the other side of the street, we can wave in the distance, and keep on driving while listening to our favorite music on our iPod. We can't obey this verse long-distance. And we can't do if we stay super busy.
We all need someone to laugh and to cry with us. So greatly do we need this that we will do almost anything to get it. If we can't find this sort of friendship in the church, we'll go somewhere else. That's the point Chuck Swindoll's friend was making about going to the bar. We will go anywhere and pay almost any price to find someone who will care about what we are doing through.
That's what brotherly love is all about... being there! Just being there."Ahh, I've Made It."
When I pastored in California, I became friends with a man who had been a policeman for seven or eight years. Pretty tough cop. Got himself into and out of a number of jams. Ended up retiring from the force because of physical injuries suffered on the job. He told me stories that back then I found hard to believe. Now I have come to understand that he wasn't exaggerating at all. When he came to Christ, his life was transformed.
One day he came to see me at the church and said, "Ray, do you know what the word hell-hole means? That's what the world is like out there beyond these four walls. You wouldn't believe the stuff that goes on-the lying, the violence, the dishonesty, the misrepresentation, the abuse of power, the profanity, stuff you can't even imagine."
And then he said, "I live six days a week so I can come to church on Sunday. When I cross the street, I say to myself, ‘Ahh, I've made it.'"
To do this rightly - to both rejoice and to weep - requires that we not keep the world at arm's length.
That's what the world desperately needs and can't seem to find . . . an oasis in a spiritual desert . . . a place where they can find relief . . . a group of people who truly love each other . . . a place where they can connect with God and with people who will help them on their journey . . . a place of healing and hope and real change.
Here is God's dream for every church. That through preaching the gospel men and women everywhere can experience the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And to be the kind of place where, no matter what kind of week you've had, you can come in and say, "Ahh, I've made it."
Where should we begin? Since we are the church, the answer always starts with us. I remind you of the prayer of a Chinese Christian, "Oh Lord, change the world. Begin, I pray, with me."
Our Father, thank you for calling us out of the world and into your family.
Teach us what it means to truly love each other. We pray that your love might unite us and that your Spirit might break down the barriers that separate us.
May we be a people with a loving purpose-
-Quick to give to those in need,
-Eager to reach out to strangers,
-Ready to bless our enemies,
-Rejoicing with those who rejoice,
-Weeping with those who weep.
Fill us to overflowing with your love so that the world may see Jesus in us.
We pray this in his name, Amen.
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