God of the ages, you are the beginning of our journey and our strength as we pause along the way. Hold us by the hand as we grow, show us where to seek you, and guide our steps that we may find you. Give us devoted hearts that we may love you, and your peace when we reach our journey’s end.
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.
This was probably an arrangement set up to keep the peace.
The release of a prisoner whom the people thought was unjustly incarcerated.
16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.
Perhaps Barabbas was a Charles Manson type of character. A person that everyone hates and would never want to see released.
17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”
Pilate thinks he ha found a way out of this dilemma.
So perhaps he has them stand together – the killer Barabbas and Jesus, the one everyone knows as the guy who wandered the countryside healing others.
18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.
A little editorial side note by Matthew.
‘Delivered him up’ = handed over in Jesus’ words
19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”
Pilate’s wife calls him righteous – she tells the truth. It’s a small sermon, but it is a true sermon – “that righteous man”.
What was Peter’s sermon short time earlier? “I don’t know him.”
20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.
The chief priest and elders are working the crowd to get their plan carried out. They are pulling the strings to get an anonymous crown to do their dirty work.
21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”
Note that the Roman governor and the Jewish crowd – not just the chief priest and the elders, are all working together – no one is innocent.
22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”
Supposedly crucifixion was disgusting to the Jews … except in this case.
23 And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
The account in Luke states that Pilate asked the crowd 3 times – Luke 23:22 = “22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.”
Time for the gospel lesson. Why did Jesus have to die?
We see that it is obvious that Barabbas should die for his sin – we just don’t think we should die for ours.
In the end, this is THE PLAN of God playing out here.
We are Barabbas – guilty, condemned to death and Jesus is chosen to die in our place.
Jesus dies for sinners. Jesus died for Barabbas, Judas, Peter and us.
Pilate Delivers Jesus to Be Crucified –
24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.”
Pilate is a practical political figure – what is going to work best … for me.
This is what self centered sinners do – what’ in it for me.
Can’t we just wash our hands of Jesus and declare ourselves innocent? You know, I just didn’t have enough information about Jesus to make up my mind about Jesus.
Many evangelical churches work on this premise. If we just provide enough information, people will come to believe – so they lecture instead of preach.
“see to it yourselves” – so much like Judas was told earlier (Matt 27:4)
25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
There really are no truer words – this is a good example of “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
As I said earlier most don’t read this passage with this emphasis – that right here the gospel message is presented.
Directly put, the innocent one is ‘handed over’ for death so that the guilty may go free.
This is what Luther called the Great Exchange – all our sins Jesus bares – and the righteous man dies.
So here is the big question. If you were in the crowd, how would you vote? Jesus or Barabbas.
Jesus Is Mocked
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him.
The mockery begins. This humiliation is to show that Jesus is nothing special and that his claims we wild fantasies.
Where did the soldiers take Jesus – look at the many descriptions in the various translations.
What was the size of the group and what were they called.
28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him,
We see the total mockery of the ‘kingly’ charge – the scarlet (purple) robe of royal color – the thorny crown, a droopy reed for a scepter in his hand.
29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
Somewhere (Philippians 2:10-11) it says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Even in jest, they don’t realize that they are the fulfillment of this prophecy – later it will either be in terror or shame.
30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.
A repeat of the mocking back in 25:66-67 – “66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him,”
31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.
Their savagery has been satisfied – now back to business.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21 ESV)
“And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:6–11 ESV)
Whatever doubts I have about the “literal” application of Scripture don’t apply to these verses.
These are quite “literally” true.
All of us walk around with wounds inflicted by the words of others that are barely covered by the thinnest of scabs.
It takes little…even one careless word from someone else… to rip open a 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, year old cut.
At that moment we become the age we were wounded once again.
We relive the pain and trauma anew as if it were delivered for the first time.
The fact that the knife was wielded from behind a keyboard does not dull the impact.
The world of social media has opened up new opportunities to inflict pain on many more people…we have become biblical serial killers.
We never have have to see the blood or tears in the aftermath of our actions, we simply close the browser and carve another notch on the handles of our cyber pistols.
Those we murder only die inside and present themselves as targets again the next day.
I bear some of those word wounds from days when they were no computers and social media involved simply being part of a family or another group.
Some of those wounds are fifty years old and have never fully healed.
They never will.
I’ve also wounded others and they bear scars from my words.
This led me to wonder how many words it takes to heal these hurts.
It only takes a few to do the damage…it may take millions to make it (kind of) well.
“One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” (Luke 14:1)
On this occasion, Jesus was invited to the house of a ruler (or leader) of the Pharisees for a meal. The purpose of the invitation apparently was to collect evidence against Jesus, because Luke writes: “they were watching him carefully.”
“And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.” (Luke 14:2)
“And behold”? How does a man with dropsy (i.e., Edema) all of a sudden appear before Jesus at this particular banquet, on the Sabbath, when Jesus is being carefully watched? The details suggest the man was not there by coincidence, but may have been planted there by the lawyers and Pharisees. In either case, however, what men may purpose for evil, God may re-purpose for good, as we learn from Joseph whose brothers sold him into slavery (Gen 50:20).
And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’ ” (Luke 14:3)
Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees a rhetorical question, because He already knew what He was going to do. Moreover, no one knew what was “lawful” better than Jesus, who as the Son of God came not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law for us. (Matt 5:17)
However, Jesus’ question raises another related question: Can these two things – love of God on the one hand, and love of neighbor on the other – be set in opposition to each other? Writing to the Galatians, Paul said: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Gal 5:14) Therefore, God’s law should be interpreted, not in opposition to, but in harmony with, the command to love our neighbors.
“But they remained silent.” (Luke 14:4a)
Silence, at times, speaks volumes. By remaining silent, the lawyers and Pharisees demonstrated a tremendous lack of compassion for the man with dropsy. Here, in their presence, was Jesus, whom they knew (or had heard reports) could heal the man, if they would only yield their pride. But as far as the lawyers and Pharisees were concerned, they would rather see the man continue to suffer than yield to Jesus their honor and reputations as exemplars of piety and experts in the law.
When we are silent to the suffering of our neighbors, we demonstrate that we are no better than the lawyers and the Pharisees. Some of us keep busy observing our own Sabbaths in Bible Studies, Small Group meetings and other “spiritual” programs, thinking we honor God by them, while dishonoring Him by neglecting the suffering of the neighbors in our midst. Some of us think by paying taxes or employing people at a business we are per se fulfilling the command to love our neighbors. Some of us think we can define the term “neighbor” so narrowly that it includes only blood relatives. Some of us simply do not care at all about our neighbors in need.
In his commentary on Galatians 5:14, Martin Luther cautioned:
“Let nobody think that he knows all about this commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ It sounds short and easy, but show me the man who can teach, learn, and do this commandment perfectly. None of us heed, or urge, or practice this commandment properly. Though the conscience hurts when we fail to fulfill this commandment in every respect we are not overwhelmed by our failure to bear our neighbor sincere and brotherly love.”
“Then he took him and healed him and sent him away.” (Luke 14:4b-6)
Jesus does not remain silent like other men. His Word is never silent and it cannot be silenced. Without any hesitation or concern over what the lawyers and Pharisees may think of Him, Jesus healed this man of his disease and sent him away. Then Jesus spoke His Gospel:
“And he said to them, ‘Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?’ And they could not reply to these things.” (Luke 14:5-6)
Jesus said: “Which of you, having a son.” Jesus did not see the man with dropsy as an anonymous stranger, but as a son who had fallen into a well. And like any father with the means to do so (and Jesus has the means), Jesus delivered the man from the well of his disease.
What unbelief prevented the lawyers, Pharisees, and all mankind from seeing is the well that entraps all of us. It is the well that our sin casts us into. This well entraps us and leads to death and eternal separation from God. We are helpless and unable to pull ourselves out of this well. We are not even aware that we are cast into this well until God’s Word of law reveals our sin and the wrath of God on account of sin.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
However, it is precisely for all people who feel their sin, wish to be free of it, and know they cannot free themselves from it, that Jesus came into the world. Jesus must pull us out of the well by the healing power of His Gospel, freeing us from sin, death and the wrath of God on account of sin. And He does not wish to leave us there; for He sees us as a father would see a son who has fallen into a well.
The Gospel that frees us from sin is God’s Word of forgiveness. Our sins are forgiven! Jesus won forgiveness for us by bearing our sins: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:24) Therefore, since we cannot pull ourselves out of the well, and no one else can pull us out, Jesus alone will pull us out of the well by granting us the forgiveness of sins, if only we believe in Him.
We cannot very well love God, much less our neighbor, if we are trapped at the bottom of a well, dead in sin. But freed from the well of sin and brought to new life by the grace of God through faith in Jesus, we will begin to love God and from His love to love our neighbors. In this way our Father’s name is hallowed on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
“Whoever believes in [Jesus], as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” (John 7:38) Amen.
Last Spring Michael allowed me to post a link here to a survey. The survey was a series of questions about how people do devotions or quiet times in addition to time and task management. I wanted to say “thank you” to those who helped me out. That survey helped me set the direction for a project I started over a year ago and is going to become a reality this month. I’ve been posting about it on social media and Michael invited me to share more about it here. Let me introduce you to; The Rhythm Journal; a guided journal to help you walk with God at His PACE. It is going to launch on Kickstarter sometime this month.
It’s not for everyone, but it might be for you
Last year I was going through a period where I was looking for ways to help people connect God’s word into their lives. I realized that I wasn’t doing a very good job of doing that for myself. So I took a beat and examined what methods helped me the most, as well as some key scriptures about how we are all called and commanded to become more like Jesus. What I came up with helps me. It might help you too.
Being guided helps me
I like being walked through a process. Not forced in an isolated direction like cattle through a series of gates. More like there is a beginning, an end, and a series of steps along the way, but I have some freedom in those steps to wander a bit if I want.
Writing helps me
As digital as I am, most everything I do for work or otherwise begins with paper and pen. There is a significant amount of research pointing to this process as being better for learning and creativity. But I don’t enjoy writing for very long, just writing short summaries is best for me. Like a Tweet but with a pen.
Seeing progress helps me
I need to see where I’ve been, where I am, and where I want to go. Some people are wired and content to live life on a hamster wheel. That’s fine. That might sound harsh or critical, it isn’t intended to be. Many fine people function that way. I am just not one of them. I need to see progress.
What, Why, and How
No, this isn’t the law firm of The Three Stooges. But it is descriptive of three key scriptures behind The Rhythm Journal.
What – Romans 12:1-2
To me, there is no better summary instruction of what it looks like to live out the Gospel. The phrase “present yourselves as a living sacrifice” is the root of the verse. It means to present and keep on presenting continually. All of the other instruction that follows in these two verses describes what this looks like. Do not be conformed, instead be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you might demonstrate what the good and complete will of God looks like. What does it look like to do this? How often do we wake up and think, “How can I present myself as a living sacrifice today?”
Why – Ephesians 5:15
Have you ever heard of a “theology of productivity?” It could be a whole other blog post, but it’s the idea that being a productive person is a teaching one can find in the Bible. It might not be a spelled-out doctrine, but it is an exemplified one. If there is an instruction for it, it could be found in these verses. “Walk circumspectly.” In other words, walk intentionally. Walk with a plan. Walk paying attention. Don’t walk accidentally. Don’t walk with your head in the clouds or in the sand. Be present. “Redeeming the time.” Buy back the time that sin steels from you. I love that idea.
How – Luke 9:23
Deny yourself, die to self, and follow Jesus. It’s simple. It’s straightforward. But rarely do I ever hear specific examples or directions on what it looks like. Why not? Because there isn’t a single set of them to pass down. It’s mostly in the moment. It’s about watching Jesus intentionally. It’s about playing “following the leader” with Jesus. Sadly, this isn’t taught as much as it should be. Yet Jesus said to do it “daily.” How do we do this?
The “Rhythms” of The Rhythm Journal
After some trial and refinement, after the help and feedback of some beta testers, The Rhythm Journal came to be. One journal has enough pages to last 13 weeks, which is basically three months.
The Rhythm Journal is an attempt to reorient our lives around some specific rhythms, patterns, and instructions in the Bible so that our lives can be in step with God’s life.
The Bible is full of rhythms. Evening and morning. Weeks. Seasons. Cycles. Lifespans. We go through changes while God and His word never change. However, our understanding of God and His word changes. How we experience God and live out His word changes. One day God is gracious and loving. The next He seems harsh and judgmental. Did He change? No, something about us or our world did. The trick is adapting and learning through these changes and rhythms. God doesn’t adapt to me, I adapt to him.
The Bible describes people who live with God as having a “walk” with Him. As I chewed on this I realized that God has a pace. Being a teacher, I had to turn PACE into an acronym.
P – Purpose. Everything God does is purposeful. Learning to see God’s purposes helps us to keep in step with Him; not getting ahead nor falling behind.
A – Action. God takes action through His people. Learning what God’s actions look like and what His voice sounds like helps us to know when to step and when to stop.
C – Choice. Following Jesus means making choices daily. Learning the ways of Jesus helps us to know what our choices are, what to choose, and how the Spirit leads us.
E – Evolve. Evolve means “change over time.” Learning to walk and work with Jesus, watching how He does it, and learning His rhythms, will grow, mature, and change us into someone who looks more and more like Jesus over time.
The over-arching purpose of The Rhythm Journal is to help us walk with God at His PACE. Over the course of one’s life, if we are being transformed into His image, by definition there should be a gradual change more and more into a person that looks like Him. In The Rhythm Journal this is measured with two sections called The Beginning and The End located at, you guessed it, the beginning and end of each journal. The user is guided through a set of questions to help them take stock of their progress and set or readjust goals.
Every Sunday there is a page with a process called RENEW that is built around Romans 12:1-2. RENEW stands for Release, Examine, Notice, Exchange, and Walk. There are prompting questions for each that have you examine the previous week.
Along with RENEW there is a section to Review last week, and Preview this week. The purpose of these is to help map out Daily Rhythms that God wants to develop in you or demonstrate through you. A Daily Rhythm is a Godly characteristic that you can partner with the Holy Spirit to cultivate in your life. These may be patience, brotherly love, compassion, creativity, leadership, or servanthood. These, in turn, are practiced in the week to come.
RISE and REST
Monday through Saturday in The Rhythm Journal consist of a page to be done in the morning called RISE and a page to be done in the evening called REST. Some of you may be thinking, “This sounds like a lot of work!” Like I said, it isn’t for everyone. And it is really about 15-30 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. However, the benefit is that you are being intentional; you are doing something on purpose with purpose. I need that mindset when it comes to living out the key verses above.
Reading, Inspiration, Supplication, and Expression make up the morning routine. They aren’t a checklist, they are a kind of flow. At the end of the time you take all that you have done, turn it into a prayer for your day, and hopefully have made some additions to whatever you use to plan out your day. When you go into the day with your “Holy Spirit Radar” on, looking for opportunities to build God’s Kingdom in your day, it radically alters things.
Review, Engage, Surrender, and Thanksgiving make up the evening flow. Most of the days of my life have ended with a sense of, “Is it over yet? Can I go to bed now?” As I have engaged in REST I find that I catch things I need to deal with in my own heart, things I need to give over to The Lord, and things I forgot to thank Him for. Just like you have a conversation with your spouse or kids to hear about each other’s day, you get to do the same thing with Jesus. Maybe He wants to give you an “atta-boy/girl” or maybe there is something He wants to correct. Or both. REST is the opportunity to have that conversation.
The real product is relationship with God
I never want to pitch a product. I’m not selling “Sham-wows.” What I most want to see happen in people’s lives, what I think God has called and equipped me to do, is to help equip others with ways to connect God’s word into their daily lives. When I read the Bible I see people living out their relationship with Him. God is always available and ready. We are the ones who have to make the choice to follow Him daily. I need help doing that. I suspect others do too. If that’s you then this might be for you.
To help with that I want to do two things right now.
Here is a link to a ZIP file that contains a PDF of all of the “front matter” of The Rhythm Journal. All the instructions and sample pages with stuff filled in so you have some idea of what it looks like. The ZIP also contains a couple of images of the journal.
I am running a giveaway contest to give away one journal, one free access to an online workshop on how to use the journal, and four books that have been foundational to my own understanding of discipleship as an individual and as a pastor. It’s the “Follow After Jesus” bundle. I need help spreading the word about the Kickstarter. If you join my email list you get 10 entries. If you share the link to the contest you get 10 more. You can earn all kinds of other points by Liking the Facebook page, visiting the website, Following and retweeting on Twitter, following and posting tagged pics on Instagram. Click as many of the entry options as relates to you and you can increase your chances of winning the giveaway.
The NBA season starts in just one week and for the first time in several years there is hope for my Philadelphia 76ers to make the playoffs. Beyond that, there is a hope for the first time in many more years than that, that the Sixers could be building a championship caliber team. While there is just as much chance that everything could blow up in their face, this is the first time in a long time where the light at the end of the tunnel is clearly visible.
I have written a couple times before about “The Process” the Sixers have undertaken over the past few years. The linchpin of this process is Joel Embiid, all 7’2″, 260 lbs. of him. Embiid, who has taken on the name of The Process as his own, has the potential of being an all-time great. He also has played only 31 out of a possible 246 games over his first 3 years in the NBA due to various significant injuries. But in those 31 games he played just this past season, he flashed some serious skill and ability. If only he can stay healthy, cries the entirety of Sixers fandom!
Just a couple days ago, the Sixers committed a contract to Embiid in the maximum amount they are allowed under the rules of the NBA. That means Embiid will be receiving $148 million over 5 years from the Sixers after this year. Silly and unfathomable money to the rest of us, but this is the reality of professional sports. For purposes of this writing, rather then dwell on just how much money these professional athletes make, I want to focus on the Sixers’ actions in offering this contract. Because along with a maximum amount teams are allowed to pay individual players, there is also a salary cap in the NBA which limits how much each team can pay collectively for all their players each season. So teams must decide how much they are willing to spend on each player they want to try to get or maintain on their team, because no team is allowed the money to just sign whoever they want for whatever amount they want. Once a couple big contracts are given out, there are (relatively) limited funds to fill out the rest of the team. So when teams commit a max contract to an individual player, they better be quite sure about that player or else they can hamstring the rest of the franchise if the player turns out not to be worth it.
And so despite Joel Embiid’s substantial injury history, the Sixers are saying they believe he is worth it and they are committing a significant amount of the team’s future to him. If Embiid plays only 31 games over the next 3 years, the Sixers will be in a world of hurt. They may not be as bad as they have been over the past several years due to some of the other good young players they have acquired during that time period, but they likely will fall well short of any championship aspirations. And they will be limited as to what other players they can pursue due to the big contract doled out to Embiid. Still, the Sixers are saying he is worth it. And despite some salary cap protections that are reportedly included in the contract to hedge against injury, the team is still taking a big risk. Team ownership, management, and all their fans fervently pray that Joel Embiid can stay healthy!
As Christians, when we say we trust God, it sometimes sure does feel like we’re taking some risks. We take things that we have come to realize that we can’t command control over and place our trust in God to see them through. And yet, it sometimes feels like God is only showing up 31 out of the 246 times we need Him. Sometimes the percentages seem even worse. When we see all these terrible things happening in the world or to our loved ones or when we are struggling with our own personal troubles and dilemmas, it can feel way too often as if God is just sitting on the sidelines, unable or unwilling to act.
And it sure feels like a risk to continue to trust Him. At times we’d rather just do our best at handling things on our own without being left to dangle in the wind on any improbable hope that God is going to show up this time. We’ve got plenty of stories we can tell where this would appear to be the case. It frequently would seem much better not to commit to some max contract of faith in God and just work through things the best we can on our own or with the help of others, rather than getting our hopes up that God is going to do something.
Now, part of us knows that this isn’t true. We are reminded and comforted with many words in Scripture that God will never leave or forsake us. There is an innate part of our faith where we know these things to be true. We know that God is not just sitting on the sidelines with a broken foot, but is sovereignly in control over all, even if we often can’t figure out the how, when, where, or why. But there are other parts of us who want those protections built into the contract for when things do not play out the way we think they should and when it appears as if God hasn’t shown up. Sometimes we may feel like we don’t want the contract at all.
The bottom line is that God is the one has committed a max contract to us despite all of our injuries and sins and other shortcomings. We are the ones who really only come through 31 out of 246 times, if that, and yet God is not deterred. He signed His contract……. in blood……. on the Cross. God was the one willing to take the risk and say we are worth it. That we are worth every last dollar of excruciating pain and anguish built into this max contract with no salary cap in sight.
As we labor through the struggles of life, may we remember the Sacrifice that was made to bestow a contract upon us for which we are woefully unworthy, and yet is given in glorious and astounding love. Even when and most especially when we feel abandoned and can’t make sense of things happening around us. The contract has been signed in His blood……. it cannot fail.
1. I saw a bunch of websites yesterday all purporting to tell us “the truth about Columbus”. All of then were partial “truths” based on particular perspectives. Such is the truth about any of us apart from what God says about us…
2.Finding someone to blame for a problem doesn’t solve the problem. Some of you need to put that on your refrigerators…
3.I think the current society would look considerably different if we hated our real enemy as much as we hate people from the opposing political position…
4. Our thinking has become so secularized that we perceive one who offers spiritual solutions to practical problems a fool…
5.The only positive about being poor is that you learn the joy of even the smallest provision. It might be worth it…
6.I am convinced that one of the marks of a true minister of God is a continually broken heart…indeed, I suspect it is a qualification…
7.I wish I had known thirty years ago that being well versed with one sect of Christianity didn’t mean you were well versed in Christianity…
8.If you teach the Flood narrative without an emphasis on lots of floating bodies you’re teaching it wrong…they never showed those on the felt board…
9.It is only when you understand the doctrine of sin and depravity that you will set reasonable expectations for yourself and others…the first expectation being that the other expectations will fail. Love anyway…
10.Be praying for those affected by the fires in California as well as the other disasters we’ve experienced recently. These are times of loss for many…
In the next week, somewhere between 150 and 220 churches will close their doors for good. During that same week, about 20 new churches will open their doors with about an 80% success rate in remaining open for the first five years. Now, math has never been my strong point, but I think I can figure this one out and the result is not comforting. Our 16 surviving new church plants will not make up what has been lost. The new churches will, of course, mitigate the loss, but only by about 10%.
For many reading this post, the figures above will not matter. Some have already abandoned the idea of ever finding a place within a local community of faith. Others have a community of faith with which they are satisfied. Still others simply have no interest in what is taking place in the larger context of church life in America as, for whatever reason, it does not affect them directly.
For myself, I find the numbers to be wholly expected having watched the downward trend over the last few decades. I also, however, find the numbers deeply disturbing.
Now it’s time for a confession. Although I often write about the importance of the local church and its attendant ministries, I generally have to force myself to go to church. Much of the time I really don’t like it. (It’s one of the reasons that I will occasionally visit other other churches.) I don’t like it to the extent that sometimes I wonder why I am there. I try to filter out the “professional” side of things. Having taught liturgy and participated in churches with a high standard in the area of worship, I find the local expression of liturgical life less than satisfying. Having spent the majority of my adult life being concerned about history, doctrine and their cogent presentation in well chosen words, either in lectures or in books, I find most preaching less than inspiring. Yet, there I am in my pew… and I’m wondering, “Why am I here?”.
At this point, I could try to reclaim my piety and simply say that I am there to take part in the Eucharist, but even that’s not wholly true. After all, I could don a alb and stole, invite my wife and a couple of friends and celebrate the Eucharist in my home. My wife could read the first lesson, my friend, Michael, the second and I could proclaim the Gospel, give an abbreviated homily and move straight to the Lord’s Supper. It would be a valid celebration. It would certainly be acceptable to me and my preferences, but would it be “church”?
Perhaps if we were living in a time of persecution and having to live out our faith in secret, I could call it “church”. Regardless, however, of what you read on the internet, we are not undergoing a persecution of the Church here in the United States. If anything, we have been given so many perquisites and privileges in this country that we no longer understand what real persecution is all about. The last time I read one of Michael Newnham’s columns, he might have had some comments in a thread that took issue with one or more statements he made, but I’ve yet to see his column written to us as a letter telling us that he is on his way to Rome to be fed to wild beasts in the arena!
So, why is church so difficult and, again, why should we be concerned with the numbers that are being reported?
Here I can speak only for myself. Church is not about us as individuals. It is not about our preferences. It is not about our likes and dislikes. It is not about our contemporary consumer culture, but that culture, in my opinion, has influenced our expectations.
Allow me to illustrate…
Once upon a time in the dark and distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the planet, I used to buy albums – LPs – by artists that I liked. I might have only heard one song, but I bought the whole album. I would read the liner notes. Sometimes the album only had that one great song, but most of the time I discovered new songs that I had not heard before. Often, I fell in love with music that, apart from buying that album, I would never have discovered. In that same distant past, I went to bookstores. (For the uninformed among you, these were large buildings with thousands of books for sale, that you could look at first, then buy and take home with you. Most cities in the distant past had many such emporiums.) Often, I would go to buy one book and emerge with several others that I had chanced upon and perked my interest.
Then along came iTunes and I could purchase just the one song that I liked, without bothering with the others. Still later came streaming services that would create playlists based upon what I had listened to earlier. If I wanted a book, I could order it in one click and not be distracted by other titles on the shelf. Now my purchases, my listening, my reading, could be all about me… my preferences, my likes and dislikes. Moreover, we’ve grown to expect it in almost every area of our lives, from the movies we can view on demand, to cable news that espouses or echoes our point of view, to the cars that we can order to our specifications.
I also think that many of us have come to expect this of church. As a fast food chain would say, “Have It Your Way”… and it is killing us.
Like it or not, church is a corporate experience of give and take, not in terms of doctrine or creedal affirmations, but in terms of personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes. It is a place of discovery where we hear songs that we did not know in the lives of others; where we read books of which we have been unaware in the experiences of others. It is ultimately a family and, as in any family, there will be arguments and disagreements but, (and this is in the best of families) there will be a bond of love that rises above all of the rest.
So, once again, why is church so difficult and, again, why should we be concerned with the numbers that are being reported?
I would like to suggest that the difficulty is not primarily that of the church, it is us. Our expectations have become shaped by a contemporary culture that tells us at every turn that we should have what we want when we want it. It is a culture that is built around immediate gratification in which patience is not a virtue, but rather, it is a vexation. It is a culture that says your choice is paramount and that commercial enterprises and institutions (including the church) should cater to that choice because, after all, if they don’t, someone else will.
The closing of churches should concern us, because it tells us much about ourselves. Yes, it tells us about aging congregations, shifting demographics and changing rural and urban population patterns. It also tells us that many of us, including myself, have imported many of the expectations of contemporary consumer culture and, if and when our expectations fail to be met, we are perhaps too willing to depart. Certainly, many have… and churches continue to close their doors.