Monday, March 14, 2011

On Sin And The Elderly

The longer you live, the more it becomes evident in your life that we are all heading in either one direction or the other. Either we're becoming more like Christ, or we become more like our sin. If we are not regenerate and being sanctified, our sin and its conditions slowly take over until we become nothing but a caricature, a perverse exaggeration of the evil that was in our hearts.

When you get old, whatever it was that you hung your hat on, you become that thing.

As your higher intellectual functions shut down, you lose more and more of your common decency. And that's when your sin emerges. Whatever greed, pride, lust, malice, envy, hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, or bitterness you had before, you become consumed by it until it becomes all that you are. All that's left of you is that condition.
My landlady told me of an old woman that her daughter (who works in a nursing home) knew. She was so frail that she could not feed herself, yet she was so proud that she wouldn't let others assist her in eating either. It was a pathetic sight, watching her try to spoon food into her mouth and spilling it halfway, all the while angrily refusing to let anyone help. She was so consumed by her pride and independence that in her old age it manifested itself into a grotesque and tragic self-annihilation.
The unsettling part of this is, the spirit that made her seem so pathetic is the same one that we would see in a young person and call noble. Fifty years ago, her pride in herself and independence would have been praised as virtues, but in old age it looks so stupid. It's not that she was stupid to hang onto who she was; it was that time revealed how stupid that attitude was to begin with.

If you're not being sanctified by Jesus, you're not being saved by him either. And whatever emotional or mental damage sin has wrought on you will remain until you become controlled and defined by it.
I knew an old woman once. Month by month, parts of her body and mind would break down and what emerged intact in all of that mess is her jealousy of another old woman. She was so paranoid, so consumed with the completely unreasonable suspicion that people liked the other woman more than her. She thought people stole from her. She thought her son was conspiring to steal the affection of her grandchildren away from her. She thought that she was being neglected when in fact she was being perfectly taken care of.
What I realize is that the hate and insecurity was always there. The only difference between that old woman now and ten years ago was that a decade ago she had the mental faculty to hide it and keep it under control. We humans are so clever with our sin and deceit. Perhaps because of the nature of the fall, sin is always elementally something done in secret. But it comes out when you're tired, when you're deeply provoked, and when you're old.

What consumes your life? What sins or effects of sins aren't you allowing Christ to deal with? At the end of your life, what will you look like? Will you look like someone whose body is outwardly wasting away, but whose soul is deeply satisfied in Christ? Or will you look like someone who's perpetually miserable, an ugly, deplorable version of yourself, everything about you crumbling away but your rotten core?
What little sins live in your heart now that you refuse to deal with? What little things do you think are acceptable or inconsequential? What do you think that will look like when you're finally too old to pretend that it wasn't defining your entire existence?
What kind of things do you hang your hat on? That you went to a prestigious college? That you went to Stuyvesant? Do you know how awful of a feeling it is to try to tell people about something you think is a feat, but have them not care? Do you think your grandchildren are going to care all that much about what you did or who you were back in the day? Do you know how painful and miserable it is to be nothing left but a bunch of bygone achievements?
What kind of things do you hang your hat on? That you're a good speller and have impeccable grammar? Do you know how big of a jackass you're going to sound like when that's all you brag about and all that comes out of your mouth are corrections? Actually, some people, in their youth, already seem like this.
What kind of things do you hang your hat on? That you're really good at Starcraft 2? That you're a geek or a nerd? That you love Glee? That you appreciate classical music? That you can recite every line from Star Wars? That you succeeded despite the odds? That you're a triathlete? That you know your cars? That you've got an iron will and determination? That you make playing the flute look cool? That you're you? That you're a sarcastic, but funny person? That you love beer? That you love coffee? That you're a Steelers fan? That you're from New York? That you can turn a phrase? Are you prepared for that to be all that you are?

What's going to be the last thing you're conscious of before you draw your last breath? When everything else fades away, your liver function, your kidney function, your lungs and heart, your memories, your logic, your coherence, what will be the last thought to go? It is said that on his dying bed John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, said:

My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great savior.

I earnestly pray to God that my identity will be so bound up in Christ that in my heart will be nothing but joy and anticipation in meeting my Lord. I pray that, starting today, God will reveal to me those sins that, if I don't fight now, will blossom into something so overwhelmingly ugly that I become nothing but that sin. I pray that each day I will more and more reflect the Lord's glory, being transformed into his likeness in holiness and beauty. I pray that even as my mind goes, to my dying breath I will remember that I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Church For All People – The Argument For Diversity

A little over two months ago, I started a Word Document that I titled, "On Church Planting". In it I've been recording little nuggets of insights as they come to me related to church planting. As GracePoint starts a church service in a new suburb, there have been myriad little things that I've been thinking about that I want to remember if I ever get a chance to plant a church. Here is one that I wrote recently that I would like to subject to the review of others for sound doctrine and faithfulness.

In my church, I will not have FCG or Extreme*. I do not want to create a specific, targeted ministry. I believe that the gospel is relevant to all people and for all people. Moreover, it unites all people, no matter the diversity. “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”.
I am convinced that God meant for his churches to demonstrate unity in the gospel by having all manners of diverse people worshiping him together. I want my church congregation to cut across every demographic, whether age or race or social class or upbringing or education or personality.

The key passage for me is Ephesians 2.11-22: Paul's great treatise on unity in the gospel (the theme of being one in Christ extends all the way to 4.16). In this section, Paul addresses Gentiles and Jews together and tells them how they should relate to each other. “He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility... For through him we both have access to the Father by one spirit.” In the first-century church, the major obstacle for church unity was how to incorporate the Gentiles into the body of believers. But Paul makes it clear here that through Jesus the church was a new creation; one in which all people, both Gentiles and Jews, have access to God through Christ. He then goes on and says, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (3.21). Sharing in Christ means to be part of a building that is a holy temple to God. Furthermore, in 3.10, we are told that God's intent for this beautiful mystery (now revealed) is to make known his manifold wisdom to the heavenly realms!

God is glorified and his wisdom is made known in the gathering of all people, Jew or Gentile, into his family. What this translates to in terms of church-planting is that God is most glorified when people of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities gather to worship him. To the degree that we unite around another common interest that is not Jesus, we are robbing God of his glory! But how does God get his glory when people of all kinds come to worship him? His greatness is made known when the elderly worship with the young, when the rich worship with the poor, when former enemies lay down their arms before Christ, when people of different factions and families fellowship with each other. When people who normally don't get along embrace each other and worship together, it is a testament to the power of the gospel and the greatness of Christ. Before him, we break down all dividing walls and find supreme shared joy in considering him supremely great.

(On a side note, this also points to why it is such an affront to Christ when we wantonly call any hanging out time “fellowship”. When we flippantly use the term koinonia, we are in danger of mistaking “fellowship around another common interest”, with "fellowship around Jesus". Are we really expressing unity in Jesus when all the guys come over to play video games, or are we expressing unity in Marvel vs. Capcom 3? Are we really expressing unity in Jesus EVERY time we eat together, or are we expressing unity in our common physiological need for physical sustenance?)

More and more I see churches that target specific kinds of people as going against the unity of the gospel. According to Acts, the only demographic targets for missionaries were by geography. When Paul planted churches, he chose a city, preached at the synagogues there, preached at the city centers, the agoras, the downtowns and the CBDs, established a regularly-meeting assembly of believers, and moved on. He didn't say, “Alright, in Corinth we're going to need a church for the temple prostitutes, a church for the elite noble class, and a church for the peasant class, who are the patrons of the temple prostitutes.” He just preached the good news about Jesus to all who will listen, established leaders of that church, and left.
So why is it then, that when I think of New York City, I can't help but think, “Alright, we're going to need churches for the Latinos living from Corona to Woodside, a few more Chinese churches in Flushing, a few more Korean churches in Bayside, and a few more churches for people who wear skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses and wool caps in the summer, believe it's okay to smoke cloves and drink bad beer, and commute to worship service on fixed-gear bikes in Williamsburg”?

Why are there so many ethnic churches? Sometimes it's good. Sometimes, it's a matter of mission. Just as you need to learn the Japanese language to be a missionary in Japan, you need to have Spanish-speaking church services for the Hispanics who no hablan ingles in Queens. But I can't help but feel like there is also a great danger that our churches fall victim to, which is uniting around the language and the ethnicity and the culture and tradition. When we unite around being Chinese, we make a kingdom out of being Chinese. No thank you. My citizenship is in heaven.

The principle sin in my meditation is the sin of uniting around anything or anyone but Christ. The above is its application in ethnic churches. But this sin can creep up in any church in any number of sinister ways and I am only beginning to scratch the surface in trying to understand it. For one thing, I wonder if many otherwise perfectly healthy churches might have this problem; that its people are too homogenous and comfortable, that the way its people welcome newcomers is artificial and ineffective, that people who think differently or have different interests find it very difficult to worship God or be accepted there.

If I am so convinced of this, then it must follow that to not do so (build and plant diverse churches) is not only disobedient to God, but also to our own detriment. I believe that it is helpful to form ministries that target specific kinds of people, but detrimental to form churches that unite around that specific kind of people.
But why do our churches do this? Because it is easier. It's the homogenous unit principle. The like likes like principle. It is easier for us to unite around race or common interest rather than Christ. As individuals, it feeds our idolatry and as a people it feeds our primal “Babel” urges.
But when we plant a church for a specific demographic, we are disobeying God and we are sowing the seeds for numerous problems in the future. I wonder if the issues plaguing our Chinese-American churches is an apt example. So much time and energy and resources is spent on the generational, cultural gap; on the perpetual war between first and second generation, on the power struggle between the Chinese-speaking immigrants and their children that the gospel suffers. How can the gospel go our if a church is so mired in bureaucracy and worldly politics, each faction trying to get its own way and build its own little kingdom inside God's kingdom? What an affront to the great King!

In conclusion, I want to plant a church that is diverse in every way. It will be harder and it will require maturity and that each individual is truly in Christ, but it will be immensely rewarding. I will not build any ministries that seek to divide my people so that they don't have to go outside their own comfort zones and fellowship with believers who are different from them. I don't mind having specific ministries addressing specific needs of specific kinds of people, but I will not have them at the cost of unity. I believe that in God's infinite wisdom, he has ordained it so that people expressing fellowship across different life-stages is good and beneficial. This means encouraging the workers in my church to disciple and pray for the students. This means the families and couples in my church inviting the single people over to their homes. This means children sitting in the pews with their mom and dad to hear the Word of God together.

I want to plant a church united in Christ, for his glory alone.

*I don't mind having a Uni-targeting ministry as long as it does not supplant community groups. I want all my uni students and workers to be mixed together. Likewise, I don't mind having a high-school Bible study as long as it doesn't obstruct their presence in the worship service. The principle is that the church is unified. As long as targeted ministries do not impede corporate worship (Sunday service, community groups), I am alright with it and will even encourage my people's desires to meet the specific needs of different kinds of people.

Please feel free to correct and admonish or leave queries or comments, as long as they are edifying.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Teasing: A Meditation For Christian Leadership

It occurred me last night that teasing discourages godly relationships. At times. Not all the time. But quite often. Especially with those who already have trust issues and difficulty opening up and seeking godly counsel, whether from a peer or from a mentor. This is tricky because, under certain other conditions, teasing also strengthens and affirms friendships. There is a delicate balance between the benevolent belittling you find between good friends and the hurtful harassment of a one-sided relationship.

Teasing And Godly Counsel
Why is it so hard for some people to open up? Because as sinners, we all have things to hide; sinful things, shameful acts of evil, things we do that we're afraid to admit to others. For us, the command to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph 5.11) terrifies us!
But some people do take that step. At some point in every young Christian's life, there is a realization that for growth and maturity to happen, they MUST confess their sins to other people and seek accountability. At that point in their spiritual walk, the road forks. One is the narrow, precarious path towards holiness and the other is the enticingly safe and firm highway towards a Pharisaical, outward, performance-based religion. Do you realize that sometimes Christians choose to take the narrow path and we punish them by teasing them?
When you are talking to a young Christian who is learning to open up to you and allow you to speak the truth in love into their lives, the absolute WORST thing you can do is abuse the authority you've just been granted. How does that happen? It happens when they're talking to you about a girl or guy they like and you tease them. It happens when you make light of their struggles and imply that it's not a big deal. It happens when you betray their trust and gossip their secrets away.
We are doing our people the greatest disservice when they take a big step to expose their life to the light (in the form of accountability) and instead of shining the light of the Word on them, we make light of their pursuit of holiness by making fun of them. Our job at that moment is to be Christ to them and to speak his Word into their life. HOW DARE WE, at that moment, choose humor and self-indulgence instead of choosing to love and encourage and soberly instruct?

One of the issues that I'm seeing at GracePoint, especially among the young men and women that I spend most of my time with, is a lack of accountability and godly, fruitful relationships. Most of us are content to hang out with one another in the name of Christian fellowship, but we shy away from rebuking and challenging each other to live the Christian life. I think there are a number of factors that contribute to this, but I'm realizing that teasing is a big one. If, on the rare occasion a young Christian makes the difficult decision to open up to an older brother, and we PUNISH him for that by making it really embarrassing, by badgering him needlessly for more information, by devilish banter, how can we expect accountability and trust to be a part of our community life? Take heed, leaders. Each individual is judged for his or her own sin, but teachers are judged more strictly in accordance with the extra responsibility they have (Jas 3.1).

How do I know when it is appropriate?
As I mentioned above, teasing in and of itself is not wrong. It depends on the motive. It can be for the purpose of advancing oneself by putting down others, or it can be for the purpose of affirming and strengthening a friendship. The first question you have to ask is, “what is going on in my heart?” Do you genuinely want to hurt that person? Even if you don't, are you at risk of being too careless with your tongue (your words and language), which James says can be used to corrupt the whole body (Jas 3.6)?
After you thoroughly examine and test your motives, you still need to consider whether your friend understands and appreciates your motives. If your language causes other people to stumble, then it is better for you to give it up for the good of others. Here are some practical questions you can ask to determine if teasing is appropriate:
Does my friend trust me? To what degree does he understand and believe that you love him and want to build him up? Have you adequately demonstrated to him in the past that you care for him? Have you demonstrated that you are trustworthy? Perhaps the biggest factor here is trust. When you make fun of someone, you are, in a sense, exposing a vulnerable part of their life and using it for humor purposes. Before you do that, consider whether you have permission to access your friend's vulnerabilities and exploit it for the funnies.
How sensitive is my friend? What is his disposition towards embracing playful ribbing? We must acknowledge that, due to different culture, upbringing, and personality, different people have differing sensitivity towards teasing. This diversity is a beauty of God's kingdom, where all different kinds of people are brought into unity under Christ. But it's also why you need to consider that some people are more sensitive than you are and you need to respect that and honor them. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4.3)
How far am I going into indulging my appetite for putting down others? This goes back to the original heart motives question. We are all sinners. Sinners elevate themselves over others. To do a good job at that, we also need to put down others. Therefore, even as saved Christians, we all from time to time still need to wrestle with and kill that desire to hurt others. I know that I often don't notice myself crossing that line; I think I'm just taking advantage of an opportunity to make a joke and then later I realize what I said was really hurtful and definitely not worth the laughs.
Ultimately, teasing is not always unwholesome talk, but it can become so if you do it the wrong way or if you're not careful with your thoughts and attitudes. If in our language, there might even be a hint of impurity, we are clearly told to skip it (Eph 5.3)!

On Gay Jokes
We need to stop making gay jokes. We SERIOUSLY need to stop.

In Closing
There is a pastoral move that we leaders love to pull off; one that most people don't even realize they do, but sounds so familiar because we all do it. It is the, “lead off with playful teasing and then transition into the 'in all seriousness, this is what the Bible says mode...” move. It's a predictable trope, but it works well. The idea is that when you begin with teasing, you are building rapport. “Friends tease” you say, “That's what they do, so in order to get in good with this guy, I must tease. Plus, it'll also be fun.”
I'm becoming more and more convinced that this doesn't work. In fact, it can be harmful in a number of ways:
It makes accountability more of an ordeal than it needs to be. Some people just love putting others in the hotspot. A group of girls turn into a group of flesh-eating predators when the conversation turns towards the topic of romance, and often one girl gets devoured. But girls are not exclusive offenders. When we do this, especially leaders to the people they lead, we're putting a shame tax on godly counsel. We're saying, if you want my biblical wisdom, you first need to pay with your humiliation. Ultimately we're discouraging others to share their lives and seek the help of others. Whether they're confessing their sins, disclosing a portion of their personal life, or asking an embarrassing question, treat them with the utmost dignity and honor, and don't do anything that will make it harder for them.
Some teachers can't back up their jokes and teasing with actual godly advice. If your motive isn't edification, or if you lack the biblical knowledge to give godly wisdom, then kindly keep your (often) damning words to yourself. Also keep your jokes to yourself, because without counsel, they become little more than senseless aggravation.
It runs the risk of making light of something we want to take very seriously. We want to take holiness very seriously. We want to take sanctification very seriously. We want to take accountability, rebuke, correction, and edifying love very seriously. If we want these things to be a part of our community life, then maybe regarding these things with sobriety and solemness might be a good idea. Don't get me wrong; there is a place for light conversation and (as I've said many times already), teasing can be a very joyful thing at the right times, but maybe the right time isn't an occasion where you are hoping to give godly counsel. Maybe, for the sake of your people's spiritual health, you can skip the jokes during those occasions and make up for it during the times when you're just hanging out.

I should also mention that the above is a result of deep and sincere introspection into the way I lead and pastor my people. In everything I've said, I am the worst offender. I've hurt people, made too many inappropriate jokes, and discouraged people from trusting me. I am sincerely sorry for it and I resolve to be a better leader and model by being more wise with my words and my banter. Know that every grave command I issued to my peers at church is first and foremost one that I issue myself for the sake of my own godliness.

Oh God of all people, you created every living thing to give you glory. For man's sinful condition, you've given your Son Jesus as the ultimate, final, all-sufficient cure. For holiness, you've given us your Spirit, who moves us to hate our sin and to love and pursue Christ. And you've given us each other, to mutually encourage, strengthen, correct, and exhort. In our residual sin we exploit our relationships for self-advancement and empty, hollow, unproductive, cheap humor. For that we ask for forgiveness. Give us your grace to work with one another for your glory instead of against one another for our own. In Christ's name, amen.