Investing in a Sure Thing

17 04 2014

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. Jeremiah 32:15

“I’m not religious…but I’m spiritual.” It is the mantra of an entire young adult generation who has left the church. They would say they have not given up on God, but they have had quite enough of God’s people. To them, the church is seen as a failing institution, no longer worthy of our investment. There’s a story about that in the Bible.

Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, was either such an amazing salesman he could have sold snow cones to Eskimoes, or he was literally filled with the Spirit of God so as to make his sales offer to Jeremiah miraculously irresistible. At a time when Jerusalem was about to finally fall to a Chaldean occupation and life as Israel knew it was about to end, Hanamel says to Jeremiah, “Hey, you wanna buy my field?” If it were not God’s doing, it would have been a laughable moment. Jeremiah made the investment.

old churchWhy in the world would anyone want to invest in Jerusalem at that point? It was ending…going down the toilet. Generations of wrong decisions had finally caught up to it and it was literally crumbling from the inside out. It had ample reason and opportunity to change in order to better fit God’s design, but it would not. The consequences of all those wrong choices were here…it was over. There was, quite literally, nothing left in which to invest.

In all these ways, it sounds remarkably like the church, doesn’t it? At least the church as it is perceived by an awful lot of people. They think of it as an irrelevant, rickety, out of date, embarrassingly stuffy institution whose time has come and gone. Invest in that? I don’t think so. The idea is almost laughable.

But Jeremiah has an important word about that investment, a bit of a game-changer. You see, Jeremiah would say this is not an investment in Jerusalem at all…and ours is not an investment in God’s people either. In both cases, it is an investment in God Himself. It is an investment in the very same God who, time and time again throughout His story, says He is going to do something and then does it. His Word is truth because His Word makes things happen. He literally spoke this world into existence. So, when God says He is going to do something, you can take that Word to the bank. In short, it’s as sure and as safe as an investment gets.

And here are some things God’s Word says about His church:

“I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Matt. 16:18

“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:19-20

So, if you are wondering about investing in the church, the news is good. You don’t have to be comfortable investing in people…you need only decide whether or not you believe God’s Word. Wanna know what I think? Write the check.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Terrorists, Christians and the Walls that Divide Us

15 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
    may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, Lord;
    come quickly, Lord, to help me.  Psalm 40:11-13

It was one year ago today that the Boston Marathon reached a horrifying and premature conclusion. When the bombs went off, I was right there with you in my response: “Who would do such a thing?”  “How could anyone just kill and maim innocent people like that?”  With those questions and so many others like them, we begin trying to re-order our world by categorizing the good people and the bad people.  It brings us some comfort.  It is how we deal with otherwise “inexplicable evil”.  We find some solace in drawing those distinctions and in placing ourselves on one side and “those kinds of people” on the other side.  Honestly, it helps us sleep at night, doesn’t it?  We feel better about ourselves and about our world when we can identify evil, point it out as clearly “other” than us, and come to terms with the comforting reality that we are, in fact, better than those kinds of people.

brick wallBut scripture does not help us with that worldview.

Scripture does not paint a picture of a world divided.  If we go to our Bibles and read the stories of our heroes and heroines and hope to be able to place David and Joseph and Moses and Peter and Paul and you and me all on the side of “good”, and then place the murderers and adulterers and rapists and terrorists all on the side of “evil”, we are hugely and humbly disappointed.  Scripture does not divide the world between the good people and the bad people.  It divides the universe between the holy and everything else…and this world ALL falls into the “everything else” category.  You and I are part of that.

I heard an interview with Rudy Giuliani just after the bombing.  The interviewer asked him, “Is this just the world we live in now?”  His response was that this is the world we live in ever since September 11.  But that’s not really accurate, is it?  Scripture says otherwise.  It says this is the world we live in ever since the fall of man.  And, by the way, you and I don’t just live in this world, as if we are innocent bystanders…we are participants in it.  We have contributed to the brokenness.

This is why one of our heroes of God’s story, David (the “man after God’s own heart”) could say, “May all who want to take my life be put to shame and confusion” and also, in the very same psalm, “my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see..They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.”  Scripture does not teach us this tendency to “otherize” people, even bombers and terrorists.  Scripture does not comfort us with categories and levels of unholiness, so that we can distance ourselves from those who seem “more evil” than us and thereby find rest.  Rather, God’s Word throws us all into the same unholy, murky mire together, and then says to us all, “you need a savior”.

That is the truth, is it not?  We may engage in the hair-splitting of comparing our own sins with the sins of “those evil people” and tell ourselves that we come out on top.  But do we?  When we are compared to the holiness to which we are called, do we come out anywhere near the top?

As I reflected on the horror of last year’s bombing in Boston and its devastation in the hearts and minds of so many fellow humans, and as I then looked to scripture for some perspective on it all, I was left with two realities: (1) this world is horribly broken and in need of a savior, and (2) so am I.

Come quickly, Lord.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Your Church’s Response to Same-Sex Marriage

10 04 2014

Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” Jeremiah 38:4

 All Jeremiah was doing was speaking the truth about the inevitable. He wasn’t arguing, he wasn’t happy about that truth, and he certainly wasn’t causing that truth to be any worse. He was just recognizing the choices his nation had made and the inevitable, irreparable consequences that were now set in motion. He was saying, “this is happening and you cannot change it…you can either choose to die right here on this hill or you can embrace reality and choose to live.” Jeremiah suffered a harsh retaliation for daring to speak that truth…for daring to recognize the inevitable and for daring to suggest that we should embrace it and figure out how to live with it.

same-sex marriageDoes any of this story feel to you like the same-sex marriage issue the American church is now facing?

As of the publishing of this post, there are 17 states in the U.S. who recognize same-sex marriages. The other 33 states have bans (either Constitutional or legislative) to same-sex marriages, and all but 5 of those bans are currently under judicial scrutiny for being overturned. There is a rapidly growing pressure in all 33 of these states to at least create some kind of “civil union” whereby the state’s interest in “licensing” and the church’s interest in the sacrament of marriage can be separated…a compromise whereby the state and the church can each maintain the control they need. Every national opinion poll I have seen shows the majority of Americans now favoring same-sex unions, and that number seems to be growing daily. In short, the pendulum is swinging pretty certainly toward same-sex unions.

I am no Jeremiah. In some sense, I truly wish I were. But in a lot of ways, I am happy I am not. But I am going to suggest something here to the church in America and it is not going to like it. I suspect I will be accused of “weakening the army” and of “destroying the morale of God’s people”. Who knows? There may be a cistern waiting for me very soon. But I am just going to say it…

Same-sex marriage is here. It is the consequences of our own choices. It is happening. Our government is doing this, one way or another. You do not have to agree with it. You probably can argue eloquently about how wrong it is. As was true with Jeremiah, that argument seems to be less and less helpful as time goes on. Same-sex marriages are happening already, if not in your state, certainly in 17 other states (so far), and those couples are then moving back to your state.

The question is, will they be in church or not? Hopefully, they will be. Hopefully, within the next few years, same-sex couples will be sitting in our pews along with you and with me and with all the gossips and the liars and the gluttons and the adulterers, and we will all be worshiping and studying scripture together and praying together. As a church, then, we have an important decision to make about how we will relate to them. We should be thinking now about what love will look like in that case. We should be figuring out now how to minister with and to each other and, yes, how to have the conversation about all the implications of this relationship.

We should be asking what this will mean for the registrations at our next marriage retreat, or what this will mean for the family photos in the next church directory. We should be thinking about what love looks like when a same-sex couple walks into a couples Bible study or Sunday School class, and we should be having that conversation with all our leaders. We should be preparing our childcare workers for the child with two daddies or with two mommies and how that may affect our conversations.  Hopefully, we will figure all of this out a little more quickly than we figured out all these same issues with divorced people!

The scriptural debate will rage on. The discussions about God’s perspective on the issue will not end anytime soon. But, in the meantime, it has become an inevitability and we need to move toward figuring that out. I guess I just felt compelled to say that.

And now I will go and take my place in the cistern.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Pursuing Peace

8 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Turn from evil and do good;
    seek peace and pursue it.  Psalm 34:14

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Romans 12:18

dove

I am still thinking here about the very difficult debates raging through the church today over the same-sex issues and what scripture says (or what it does not say) about the issue. It occurs to me that seeking peace with each other around this issue has less to do with WHAT we have to say and much more to do with our HEARTS as we engage each other in this conversation.

Peace can be a tricky thing.  As high a value as scripture makes it, as many times as we are instructed to pursue it among God’s people, the way toward peace and the way toward conflict often move in the same direction.  That makes it tricky.

Peace, you see, is NOT necessarily just the absence of conflict.  As long as people are involved, there will be conflict…there will be disagreement…and there will be hurt feelings.  In the midst of those things, peace does NOT require moving away from each other.  Rather, peace requires moving toward each other.  It requires having difficult conversations…even painful conversations.  Avoiding those conversations may bring a temporary peace, at least it may feel more peaceful for a short season, but the long term result is just the opposite of peace…it is chaos and frustration and complication.

So, the first point here is that “pursuing peace” often requires moving toward the conflict rather than away from it…moving toward the difficult conversation rather than waiting in the wings and allowing the pain to fester over time.  The problem, then, is how to tell the difference between “pursuing peace” and fueling a fight.  Both are moving toward the conflict, both involve a confrontation.  How do we distinguish between them?  How do I make sure I am on the right track and not a harmful track?  That brings us to our second point.

It is a question of the heart.  The Arbinger Institute, in The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict describes the distinction between a “heart at peace” and a “heart at war”.  The former is relating to the other person as a human being with needs and with fears and with pains.  The latter has “otherized” the other person and treats them as an object rather than a human being…an object to be pushed away, to be disregarded, even hated.

Jesus describes the distinction in terms of our ability to see clearly.  He says,

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  Matt. 7:3-5

Seeing clearly, as it turns out, is the difference between a heart at peace and a heart at war.  Having that difficult conversation with the person who has hurt you requires that you have prayerfully sought the Lord’s perspective on that person, so that you can see him/her as God sees him/her…you can see him/her as a child of God, with fears and insecurities and needs.  Your desire is not to push him/her away, as some undesirable object; rather, it is to pull them forward with you toward peace.  It is to pursue peace together.

If you are thinking, “Well, that seems awfully difficult,” then congratulations…now you are seeing the truth.  Genuine Christian community, our life together as the body of Christ, was never intended to be easy.  It was intended to be peaceful.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Future of the Church…It’s Complicated

3 04 2014

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon,I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:10-11

Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.When it comes to understanding the God of the Bible, context is everything…and perspective counts for something as well.  Numbers 14:20-23

My brothers and sisters who preach a prosperity gospel (i.e., that God intends for you to have material wealth and to have it right now) claim Jeremiah 29:11 separate and apart from Jeremiah 29:10. complicated journeyIn other words, they catch the good news of the promise of hope and a future but they gloss over the bad news that it would come only after a  lifetime of exile and hardship (and for many who would die in exile, it would not come in this life at all).

By the same token, my brothers and sisters who favor a dark, judgmental, angry gospel point to Numbers 14 and God’s judgment on the people of Israel who rebelled against Him, but they tend to miss the unbelievable mercy He showed in allowing them all to continue living in the first place (thanks to Moses’ pleading).  Consequences? Yes, but with a heavy dose of mercy mixed in.

Context matters. And so does perspective.

The “hope” and “good news” Jeremiah preaches in Jeremiah 29 includes a timeline of hardship almost twice as long as the 40 years of exile in the wilderness for the Hebrew people in Numbers. Hope and welfare? Absolutely. But with a heavy dose (70 years) of consequences mixed in.

So what do we take away from these realities in scripture? For me, it is that God is…complicated.

And so are our lives and the life of the church corporately.

We should probably stop measuring God’s “favor” on us or on His church by whether or not we made budget this year or by our percentage of growth in numbers attending worship.  Rather, we should stay focused simply on whether we are being obedient to the things we know God has required us to do and say, and leave the results up to Him. We should probably stop stressing over the fact that there is disagreement within the church. Rather, we should stay focused on how we love each other even in light of that disagreement.  We should probably quit agonizing over why God would permit all the pain raining down on us and on our church today and start remembering that, as Christ followers, the world WILL hate us and life will be difficult, even unbearable at times, and that our treasure is in Heaven…along with our real home.

We have all peeked ahead and have seen the ultimate outcome…good news, God wins in the end! We’re on the winning team!  Bad news: we still have to fight the fight and play the game, and there will be set backs and injuries along the way. Embrace it. And rejoice!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




It’s a Relationship, Yes…but Different

1 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

 Psalm 32:3-5

Theology is difficult for me. Understanding God is difficult for me as well. I do so much better with stories and metaphors to try to get my mind wrapped around Biblical truth.  Maybe you’re that way too…in fact, maybe we are all that way.  Maybe that is why God gave us His Word in the form of Jesus and in the stories of the Bible rather than in formulas and spreadsheets.  Surely that is why Jesus used stories, similes, and metaphors so much in his own communication.

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The metaphor most of us use to describe our Spiritual pilgrimage, our faith walk, is relationship.  We talk about our relationship with Christ, or with God.  We use little sayings like, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.”  We use that term (that metaphor, if you will), because it best captures what it means to follow Christ.  It is NOT a metaphor Jesus used for ancient times, because it would not have had meaning then.  It is NOT a vocabulary we find anywhere in God’s Word.  But, like the term “mission”, it still has profound meaning to our culture today, and it is a useful way of describing our part in this amazing revolution that is Christianity.

The call to follow Christ is a call to relationship. Yes.  So, why doesn’t that answer all our questions?  Why does that metaphor fall short for us?  Specifically, what does it NOT teach us about grace and forgiveness?  Because, even though it is indeed a relationship…it is different from any other relationship we have ever known or ever will know.

David wisely points out in Psalm 32 that, just like in any other relationship, the only way forward in our faith journey is through open, honest communication.  Every relationship depends on honesty.  We understand that.  The metaphor works well in that respect.  Honesty with God, what I like to call “eye contact” with God about sin in our lives, is a critical first step toward spiritual growth and transformation.  The relationship is simple in that regard…honesty means growth, and secrecy means no growth.  There is not a healthy relationship in your life which operates any differently than that.

But here is where the metaphor leaves us short in fully embracing God’s grace.  There is no other relationship in your life experiences, nor even in your dreams, which comes with a completely limitless supply of forgiveness and grace.  None, but this one.  When scripture says God “…is faithful and just to forgive”…when Jeremiah says God will “…remember your sins no more…” and when David says “…you forgave the guilt of my sin…”, we have a picture of a relationship which is unlike any relationship we can ever experience otherwise.  It does not compute.  It does not make sense.  It does not match up with any of our life experience.  It is as impossible for us to grasp as infinity itself.

And THAT, I believe, is why we often have trouble confessing and being open and honest with God.  It is why we hide.  It is why Adam and Eve hid.  It is why David hid.  We just have a hard time believing any relationship can be utterly bottomless in terms of grace and mercy and forgiveness.  Oh, how we want the love relationship!  We genuinely desire it!  But we don’t completely trust it…not completely.  Because, as relationships go, it is different from anything else we have ever known.

Unfortunately, all our human examples fail us on this point.  Our metaphors for God fail us as well.  When all the words are done and all the illustrations have fallen short, we are then left with a rather large gap to fill in order to truly believe in and embrace God’s forgiveness.  We are left with…[gulp!]…a step of faith.  Faith that God is who he says he is and that he will do what his word says he will do.

I’m OK with that.  How about you?  Do you have the faith to be open and honest with God about that sin in your life?  It is the only way forward.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




We Should Have Credentials to Talk About Love

31 03 2014

Monday Morning Quarterback - Encouraging God’s people to be responsible, encouraging and uplifting in their use of social media.

One of the negative impacts of social media on our society is that anyone who knows how to communicate well is automatically accepted as an expert, or at least as someone to be followed and quoted.  In truth, maybe all they really need is an opinion that happens to fit well with other people’s in order to get followed. There are no credentials necessary. There is no life experience necessary. Credibility is “earned” merely by being a particularly gifted or innovative communicator. That notion is both refreshing and scary at the same time. And nowhere is it becoming more of a nuisance than in the church.

love credentialsLast week’s Christian social media posts were filled with comments about World Vision’s President, Richard Stearns’ comment to Christianity Today that his organization would now be willing to hire legally married gay couples to work there, and then the organization’s subsequent quick reversal of that decision.  As you might imagine, Facebook posts and blog posts (and Christ-followers’ comments on both) lit up the internet.  No surprise…it was just the next in what has become a long series of school-yard brawls around LGBT issues within the church. They always draw a crowd. And, of course, the damage to the church is immeasurable. You can hear the chorus of those outside the church: “And THAT is why I will never go to church again.” 

Terrific.

There are a lot of reasons why Christ-followers are going to be on opposite sides of the LGBT issues for some time to come…too many reasons to get into here.  Maybe we will explore all those reasons in other posts.  In the meantime, it is this Christian mediator’s professional opinion that agreement on all the issues is not going to happen within the church in my lifetime, and perhaps not in my children’s lifetime either.  There are just too many forces both within the church and especially from outside the church to allow for agreement.  Political and social agendas have hijacked these issues, making genuine agreement impossible.

The question, then, which we must answer (and quickly) is how we can live together within the church while disagreeing so strongly on these issues.  How do we even converse? How do we minister side by side? How do we worship together? How do we learn at least some modicum of mutual respect for each other’s positions in order to be able to co-exist?  Maybe in the final analysis, all of these questions can be summed up in one poignant question which begs our full focus and attention: In our conversations around these issues, what does love look like?

We know that is the right question. I know that we know it, because we all keep assuring each other that we are speaking the truth in love.  We all talk about how much we love the people on the other side of these issues from us, though we strongly disagree with them.  But based on so many of the comments I saw last week from folks whom I know to be Christ-followers, I’m just not convinced that all of us are the “lovers” we profess to be.  If love has something to do with meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our brother, I am just not convinced that we are all truly spending much time really loving those on the other side of these issues from us.

And so it is from this place of frustration and fear for the church’s testimony that I propose a simple fix: the church needs “love credentials”.  These are not credentials you can get from a seminary or from a Bible college…all the studying and reading in the world will not earn these credentials.  And they are not credentials even a local church can offer…sad but true.  The credentials I propose are only available and can only be earned from one source: people on the other side of the argument from me.  I propose that, before I publish a comment or a tweet or a blog post talking about how much I really do love “those people” even though I disagree strongly with them, I should be able to point to two or three or four of them who will attest to that fact…just a handful of people on the other side of the argument who will all testify that, yes, I really have loved them well.  These credentials are earned by sitting face to face with people whom I love on the other side of these issues and actually listening to them and understanding their concerns, their feelings…because that’s what love looks like.

That will be my credentials test from now on. Have we had this conversation face to face with people on the other side of these issues who will vouch for our “love” for them? I am just not going to waste any more of my time reading posts from people on either side of this issue for whom I cannot find those credentials. But much more importantly, I won’t be posting my own positions or opinions on these issues either, until I have first had the conversation with friends whom I know disagree with me and have assured myself they will vouch for me.  It seems to me I have some credentials to earn.

How about you? Ready to earn yours? BEFORE you publish that post?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com







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