Saturday, October 15, 2011

Church Defined

For more than 40 years, I have been serving as a pastor of Baptist churches, 32 of those years at Eminence Baptist.  On more than one occasion, I've sought to define church.  There are lots of good definitions out there, and most of them give some understanding of what a church is. Yet. . . .

When I'm asked about my church, I often respond, I pastor one of the most mixed-up congregations I know.  We have people who are theologically ultraconservative and others who ultraliberal and a bunch more in between.  We have some folks with money (though no super rich) and folks with almost no money and the some in between.  We have educated folks and uneducated, homeowners and renters and people who live in public housing.  We have folks who are morally squeaky clean and others who are trying to find their way out of the wilderness.  We have teetotalers and social drinkers and not a few recovering alcoholics and some whom we hope will recover.  We really do have all this.  Yet, we are church.  We gather for worship; we work to provide coats for children in our local school; we pray together; we minister together; and, on occasion, we argue--sometimes over something important.

Most of all, we're just church.  We are present to each other and we try to be present to and obedient of our Lord's teachings--as best we understand them.

So, what is church?  I like the definition given by Bill Leonard, the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University, in a recent article published by Associated Baptist Press.

. . . church is not a place you go depending on the personality of the preacher (or lack thereof). It is a community of faith composed of a strange assortment of sinners held together, not by common creeds -- they have believed many or none at all -- not by common doctrines -- they have believed contradictory ones with a passion -- but by faith in Christ grounded in Scripture and the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.
Churches that fit Bill's definition can be messy places, but they are places alive with love for our Lord and for each other.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Watching Our Words

I confess to being Facebook fan.  While I don’t spend a lot time on Facebook, I do find it an interesting place to visit.  Recently, a friend posted the following: “If you didn’t hear it with your own ears or see it with your own eyes, don’t invent it with your small mind and share it with your big mouth.”

It’s good advice . . . but it doesn’t go far enough.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians about the importance of getting along and being of the same mind.  In the fourth chapter he addressed two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who were obviously not getting along with each other.

He wanted them “to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  Why would Paul be so frank as to cause their names to be called out loud in public?  The relationship of any two people in the church affects the whole.  This was not a private matter between Euodia and Syntyche, whatever they may have thought.  This was a church, dare I say, a Christ, matter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Euodia and Syntche.  One of the things I’ve thought is that the names called out in public could just as easily have been Edgar and Sam.  Being at odds and saying things to and/or about another is not limited to women.  Being at odds with a fellow believer and saying things to each other we ought not to say and saying things about each other and repeating half-truths or even truths that need not be repeated is common to both genders.

Words are powerful.  I would like to believe that we sometimes forget this, thinking that otherwise we would not say some of the hurtful things we say to each other and we would not spread gossip.  Of course, it may be that we know the power of our words, and we use them hurtfully on purpose.

We can’t always control what we hear.  Words accidentally overheard can hurt us.  When such words are spoken, we need to practice patience: count to ten . . . take a breather . . . put ourselves in “time-out” until we can respond calmly and rationally.  Often what we hear another say is not what the other meant.  Taking time to hear the concerns, needs, and emotions behind the words is necessary for good communication. 

We can’t always control what we hear, but we can control what we do with what we hear.  Things we hear that are untruths, particularly about others, should be gently, but strongly countered.  When someone begins their conversation with us by saying, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but . . . ,” we should stop them before they finish.  If stop them we can’t, we need to lock their message away and never, never repeat it. 

When others speak to us or we overhear them speaking out their anger and hurt, we should treat that as confidential information—information that is never ours to repeat to anyone.  Chances are people who speak such words will soon regret it.  While they can’t take the words back from those who heard them, how much better their lives and the lives of others would be if we who heard them never repeated them.  There is only one proper response to people who speak out of their hurt and anger, and that response should always be one of reaching out to comfort them and to walk alongside them.

We can’t always control what we hear, but we can control what we do with what we hear.  For each other’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, we must take control of our words.

When Paul urged the women to be of the same mind, he was saying more than get along.  When he wrote be of the same mind in the Lord, he was reminding them and the church that they were to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Being of the same mind as Christ means doing more than suggested by the message I found on Facebook.  Even when we hear it with our own ears and see it with our own eyes, there are some things that should not be repeated! While we should practice truth-telling, even more we should practice charity. There are things we hear and see that are true that if shared with others only serves to make things worse for those about whom they are true.

How much hurt and pain would be avoided were we to follow Paul’s admonition?