Serving others

Pardon my cynicism, but can we please stop talking and do something?

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“Love God, love people”.

Seems to be the catchphrase of churches today.  Looks great on a billboard or t-shirt.  Sounds like a great mantra.  Excellent quote for a bumper sticker.  Blogs and books are written about it quite a lot these days.  I see/hear/read that phrase everywhere of late.  It’s an inspiring, healthy, scripture-based phrase.  Can’t argue with that. Right?

Oh, but I can.

Last week, my daughter and I were out in our community and we pulled up to a red light.  In front of us was a church with a large yard banner that read… you guessed it… “Loving God. Loving People.” I sighed and said “It’d be nice if churches did more than just post that quote everywhere”, which prompted a conversation with my daughter about the importance of doing versus simply saying something so powerful.

Church-folk, we need to have the same conversation.  Can we talk?

Can we!  Churches, and church-folk, can talk a good talk.  We can talk for hours on end…all about church.

We talk about inviting people to church.  What the church is doing this week. What the church has challenged us to do.  How much we give to the church. How the church is doing this or that this week and you must come.  How well the church is doing because we had this many or that many on any given day.  We church-folk can talk about “our” church.

And we can talk about our church leaders.

How much we don’t agree with this leader.  Or how that leader is “not in their place of giftedness” (which, in non-church vernacular means that they should quit – or be removed from their position – and do something else because we think that they suck at what they’re doing).  We talk about this one that’s controlling.  This one’s “falling away”, or “in sin”, “not hooked up anymore”, or “struggling with something”, because they’re not doing as many things inside the four walls of the church (building) as they used to.  OR we talk about our poor, pitiful, pastor and his wife.  They’re so misunderstood and unsupported.  Life is so difficult for them.  They don’t have good “armor-bearers” and there is too much demand placed on them.  They’ve got such a hard calling to minister/serve the people in the church, it’s a wonder that they stay. (Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve served in church leadership for over 20-some years and it’s no ball of fun at times, can be very difficult, and is – most definitely – not for the faint of heart. However, the pity parties don’t accomplish anything except division.)

We can also talk about each other.  Like. Dogs.

She doesn’t live up to our standards for her life.  He isn’t doing what we think he should be doing (because, you know we know better than he/she does regarding what God has spoken to them or intended for them). How dare they leave our church?  “They’re not following God they’re following a man.”  “They left us abandoned”.  “Their heart isn’t right” because they left, so let’s talk about them to everyone we know that they know and see if we can’t damage their heart even more by our gossip and hurtful words.

We can talk.

We can also talk about those who don’t attend any church. Those who believe differently from us.  Those who don’t WANT anything to do with church – or Christ – for whatever reason.  “Those people”… “Them”… “Non-believers”… “Seekers”… “Sinners” (which, last time I checked defined every single one of us who breathes.  But I digress.)… “Un-churched”.  We talk about how they need to come to our church.  How they need to “get connected” with our groups.  How “they” are going to hell.  How God hates “them” and what they do.  How “they” are wrong and we’re right.  How “they” don’t act/speak/live in a way that meets our approval because we “talk the talk and walk the walk”, meanwhile “they” do not even know what the heck we are talking about.

We talk and we talk and we talk.  All while our little church logos, bumper stickers, and banners wave in the wind crying “We love God and we love people!”

It looks real nice on that church sign.  And we wear it proudly on our pre-washed bright colored t-shirt.  But here’s a “solid” for you: Words. Mean. Nothing. Without. Actions.

Scripture says: “You shall love the Lord, Your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no greater commandment than these.” – Mark 12:30-31

And in James 2:14-26 we’re admonished not to just wish a “God bless you” on people in faith, but to do something to meet their practical needs.

And there’s the ever popular 1 Corinthians 13.  “The love chapter”.  Part of which – verses 4-8 – people quote in marriage ceremonies, public speeches, and more.  However, the first 3 verses aren’t very well known.  They’re a little more challenging.  A little more of a “truth slap” to those of us who claim to follow Christ.  Here’s a paraphrase from a recent sermon I heard about these 3 verses:

It doesn’t matter how “in tune with the Spirit” I believe that I am, if I do not love others – graciously and without expecting something in return – then I am nothing but a lot of loud noise, according to God. (- 1 Cor 13:1 para) Spiritual gifts, “experiences”, knowledge is not ultimately the point. Without love it means nothing. (- 1 Cor 13:2 para) Even if I do the most extravagant thing that I can, to show how spiritual I am, but do it for any other reason but love, it doesn’t matter. (- 1 Cor 13:3 para)

So, churches and church-folk, how about we stop talking and do something about loving God and loving people?

How about instead of expecting people to come to our fabulous, exciting, well-done, sometimes spirit-filled, church service (all of which I, personally, love attending myself, btw), we GO into all the world and share the gospel by loving others practically and meeting their needs?

How about instead of using the money that people have given – because pastors have taught them “do not mock God, but bring 10% of everything you make to church first” (another post, another day) – to pad a “rainy day” bank account like a hoarder who doesn’t want to let the smallest thing go… how about we use some of that money to do things for the community that we are planted in and the people – both in our church and without – who have real needs?  Wouldn’t that demonstrate Christ a little better than money in the bank?

Or what if, instead of starting our own “helping” organizations – that compete with the ones already proven and serving in the community – so that we can proudly boast about how we have a “Christian” soup kitchen, food pantry, clothing bank, homeless shelter, serving organization to exalt our name… what if we pooled our resources, time, and energy to come alongside those already established places and “make a name for ourselves” as the church that truly gets involved by working with our community organizations by providing love, support, and volunteer hours?

What if, instead of having to advertise that we “love God and love people” with printed chotchkes, stickers, and signs, it was simply known that that group of people who attend that church really love God and care about people, all because it was demonstrated instead of talked about?

The bottom line… Christ didn’t just talk about serving others, loving others, dying for others.  He DID SOMETHING.  His hands and feet were always extended to give, serve, love, help, touch, do, and provide the ultimate sacrifice for each and every one of us.

Talk is cheap. Doing something that demonstrates Christ to others is what matters.  Otherwise, we’re just making noise… unpleasant, undesirable, unheeded noise with our ever-moving lips.

Again, pardon my cynicism, but can we please stop talking and actually DO something?

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Drop the Emotions and Step Off!

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We all do it now and then.

We all get frustrated with the dishonesty from those who believe they are of good character, yet they twist and turn scripture, words, and situations, to cover their behinds or advance their own selves.  They do this all while standing proudly beating their chest and giving credit for their character, or lack thereof, to God. The reason?  Raw, unchecked, furious emotion.

Jumping into a venture with both feet due to heightened emotions is unwise. It causes mistakes to be made, impulsive decisions to go bad, and dishonest excuses to be given in order to hide the fact that feelings were the source of these things instead of the Spirit of God.

Whether building a business, a ministry, or a relationship – if the foundation consists of a mix of emotion, dishonesty, and pride – it will, at some point, crumble and leave others damaged beneath the rubble.  This doesn’t change simply because we are children of God.  Actually, the cost – and repercussions – become greater when we bring Christ and His body into things.

The issue isn’t having emotions, God created us as emotional beings.  The issue is when we look at a person or situation and our heart strings are pulled, so we take action – giving no consideration to how this action may affect others not directly related to the immediate face/circumstance before us. We move swiftly as if our intervention is the only thing that can possibly change things (which makes us greater than God in our self-serving eyes).  Or we assume that, because our emotions are so heightened, there’s no way our decisions could be wrong – and those who don’t agree, or don’t follow our examples in word and deed – they are the ones that are wrong… they’re VERY wrong.

We step from the emotional ambulance or fire vehicle, onto a platform of ego and arrogance.  And as we pile excuses, dishonesty, and pompous “words of wisdom and spirit” one upon the other, our prideful pedestal grows higher and higher.

Tall, self-glorifying props are difficult to step off.  It requires the humility to admit that we’ve allowed things to become unstable due to our own emotional recklessness.  It demands the willingness to admit wrong and stop using God as an excuse for why things aren’t as we said they would be.  Stepping off needs help.  Unemotional. Practical. Wise. Spirit-led. Help.

God the Father is ready to lead and teach us how to follow Him and not be dragged along by the leash of emotions. His Spirit waits for us to allow Him to take HIS place as The Rescuer, the “Need-Meeter”, the Wise Guide in our lives so that we can be effective servants and representatives of Him – in every area of our lives – instead of self-aggrandizing emotional callouses on the Body of Christ.

Step off the Emotions and Ego. Step into His Spirit and Leading. The greater glory comes from Him.

Silver and Gold Have I None

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I am, quite often, asked what the Christ-like response should be when approached by someone asking for money.  I’m asked because my profession by day involves working with homeless and/or financially unstable individuals.  My response to these things tends to often disagree with the typical “social worker” view, settled into the heart by book knowledge and sometimes hardened by years of experience.

Let’s take the scenario where we encounter men/women standing at the busy intersections, with signs asking for money, waiting for vehicles to be forced to stop at the light or sign. There are typically 2 diametrically opposed responses for the driver seeing someone “begging for alms”. The first: <rolling up the window and looking straight ahead as if they won’t see> “Don’t give them any money. They’ll spend it on alcohol or drugs.” or “I don’t have any money. This feels awkward.” The second: <rolling down the window. clink. clink.> “Have a nice day.” <driving on, feeling accomplished/rewarded>.

Neither is a wrong… or right… response. Neither can be fairly judged by someone else as proper or improper. The reason for this is that one cannot judge the motive of the heart except the driver themselves.

However, let’s look at how the apostles responded in a parallel situation.

Acts 3:1-10 Now Peter and John were going up into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour. 2 And a certain man that was lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the door of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; 3 who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked to receive an alms. 4 And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him, with John, said, Look on us. 5 And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but what I have, that give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. 7 And he took him by the right hand, and raised him up: and immediately his feet and his ankle-bones received strength. 8 And leaping up, he stood, and began to walk; and he entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. 9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God: 10 and they took knowledge of him, that it was he that sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him.

When the apostles were going into the temple they were confronted by a man who, daily, sat outside the gates and begged for money. Peter looked at the man and John told the man to look up – to look at them… to make eye contact with them. Requiring eye contact, or making eye contact with someone in this type of situation, is to show them respect.  To give them dignity. So the apostles’ first response was to treat the man with respect and dignify his worth as one created by God, their Father.

Scripture says that the man looked back at them expecting for them to give him money.  But Peter said “I don’t have any silver or gold.  However, what I do have I will give you. In the name of Jesus Christ, walk”. And the man’s legs were healed and he ran, jumping and leaping, with the disciples into the temple – all while thanking and praising God.

When Peter looked at the man scripture says that he “fastened his eyes upon the man”.  Peter looked intently at the man and his eyes gripped the man.  Peter didn’t see a man who needed money although that was what the man had spent most of his life begging for.  For years the man had begged for something that he could see, touch, feel.  Something that he could believe in…alms.  Something that he could use, temporarily, to meet an immediate need.  This is what had assisted the man with his survival for years.  Begging for and receiving money from people who felt sorry for him and took pity on him.

But Peter was looking beyond the beggar.  He looked beyond the request for money.  He saw past the band-aid that would temporarily cover a gaping wound in the man’s life.  Peter saw the true wound.  The true need.  The root cause of the man’s true poverty. Peter saw a disabled man with a wounded soul.  And THIS is what Peter responded to. Out of felt compassion for the man, Peter and John looked deeply at the man and recognized that giving him money would not, ultimately, help the man.  He’d been receiving money for years – yet was still crippled, was still begging, was still broken.  And so Peter offered him, instead, hope and healing.

Back to our response.  I can’t tell anyone how to respond to someone who they see asking for money.  One’s response to these situations is, entirely, between them and their God.  However, based on the apostles’ response, I can offer these words…

Outside of all else our heart should be moved with compassion for the one who is beaten down and broken in such a way that they must rely on others, or “the system”, to meet their temporal needs.  The Spirit of God on the inside of us should be pained when one of God’s masterpieces finds themselves in a situation where “begging for alms” is how they have come to survive. Our first response should be compassion. Our motivation, whatever our response, MUST be compassion when we see one who is broken and “poor” in spirit. (Luke 10:29-37)

Then, our response must be coupled with wisdom and discernment from the Father.  Like the man at the Gate Beautiful, quite often the true need has nothing to do with giving alms or money.  We may be approached by one who may, indeed, have an immediate need for sustenance of some kind.  If we have the ability to meet this need – whether we offer alms or not – that is between ourselves and God alone. However, the question begs to be asked. Will giving money satisfy our own immediate need for justification and self-satisfaction? Will giving money ultimately help?  Or will it add to the band-aids that have been applied by so many before us, to poorly cover a much deeper wound?

If we, as Christ-followers, simply apply band-aids by giving money to everyone who appears to need it, are we following the example of Christ and His apostles? Jesus, Himself, encountered people with immediate, “felt” needs constantly.  He met their needs, however then He shared hope with them… and CHALLENGED them to live life, to do life, differently. (Note: there are no accounts of Jesus giving money to meet an immediate need, but instead healing of all disease, delivering from oppression, etc.) Even when Christ fed the 3,000 and the 5,000 it was to provide sustenance in order that they could continue to receive His teachings after a long day.

In the story of Peter and John, they reached beyond money and alms into the real, soul and spirit needs of the man. They offered more than a gift of money, but a gift of healing, restoration, and hope. Not only could the man walk after receiving the true gift that Peter and John offered, but he ran, danced, rejoiced, and celebrated.  From a beaten and broken man with wounded pride, unable to lift his eyes to a smiling, leaping, whooping and hollering individual who infected other people with his joy.  All because Peter and John saw beyond the immediate, temporal, perceived need and responded with respect and dignity, true compassion, and wisdom.

For the person who has adjusted to living life relying on the generous – or guilt-ridden – gifts of others, money may seem to be what will solve their problems.  Money, or alms, may seem to be what they need most.  It may seem to be what will satisfy their “felt need”.  However, if we fasten our eyes upon them, and our heart is moved with compassion and wisdom from our Father, then we will recognize that this is a superficial fix to a deeper need.  Our giving will not just be about handing out a few dollars.  We will go beyond money and we will remove the band-aids to address the oozing, gaping wound that is the root cause of their poverty.  We will offer them dignity.  We will restore their pride. We will offer the hope that is in us, addressing the deeper need, and a extend a hand with a challenge to do differently and “rise up and walk”… willing to walk beside them when the challenge is accepted.