O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
A friend of mine sent me a post this week in which a pastor in Oregon put together a list of ten reasons to join a church – It is concise, full of salty language, and really gets to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today. I haven’t been able to get his list out of my head precisely because so much of what we do as a church is done simply because it’s what we do. That is, we do the work of church without often thinking about why we do that work.
Which is all just another way of saying: “Why would we ever bother to invite someone to church if we, ourselves, don’t really know why we go in the first place?”
So, while caught up in this theological and ecclesiological framework, I decided to put together my own list of ten reasons to consider joining a church. (Feel free to use the list as you see fit)
The church is a place of profound vulnerability in which rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep isn’t a slogan – it is a practice.
The church is the proclamation that the powers and principalities of this world do not have the final word about who we are and whose we are.
The church is a new time through which our lives are structured around the movements of the Spirit rather than the exhausting rat race of life.
The church is an opportunity to have our finances and our gifts shifted to support people whom we might otherwise ignore even though they are our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
The church is gathering in which all of our unique identities/gifts/graces can be used for the betterment of creation rather than its destruction.
The church is the last vestige of a place where we willfully gather together with people who don’t think like us, look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc. and is therefore a remarkable opportunity for real community.
The church is a gift of a new past in which our mistakes are healed through what we call forgiveness.
The church is a gift of a new future in which the fear of death is destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The church is a gift of a new present, a way of life, made possible by Easter in which our practices/habits/liturgies shape us into an alternative society.
The church is a never-ending source of Good News for a world that is drowning in bad news.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation.
We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).
Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.
But he wants more.
What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.
Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:
“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).
The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.
Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.
And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”
But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.
And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.
In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves.
But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
It was a few Christmases ago when a daughter asked her father what the holiday really meant. He explained that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and the more they talked the more she wanted to know so the father purchased a children’s Bible and began reading it to her every night.
She loved it.
They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of Jesus’ sayings like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And the father said, “Jesus teaches that we are supposed to treat people the way we want to be treated. And with each passing story, the daughter became more and more enamored with Jesus.
They were driving around town a few weeks later when they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix on the front lawn. The giant cross and it’s dying figure were impossible to miss and the daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
The father realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how the person on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, so they did.
The daughter was silent for the rest of the drive.
A few weeks went by and when his daughter had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr the father decided to take the day off as well and treat his girl to lunch. And while they were sitting at a table waiting for their food, his daughter reached for the local newspaper, pointed at the figure on the front-page and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
It was Dr. King.
“Well,” the father began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher”
And she said, “For Jesus?!”
“Yes,” he said, “But there was another thing that he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat one another the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a minute and said, “Well Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The father said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it is just like what Jesus said.”
The daughter was silent for a moment or two, and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and she said, “Did they kill him too?”
There’s a reason Jesus said that unless we receive the kingdom like a child we will never enter it. Kids get it. If only the same could be said about us adults.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
“A Different Kind Of Church.”
Or: “Not Your Typical Church.”
I see these slogans online, on tee-shirts, on billboards.
And, truth be told, they drive me crazy. They drive me crazy because they all present a version of church that is false advertising.
It’s the same when churches boldly proclaim their commitment to inclusiveness. It’s one thing to say it, and another thing entirely to live it.
More often than not, the call to inclusiveness in the church is all about getting people in the door. Some pastor says, “God loves you just the way you are,” but then, rather quickly, the church becomes a program of moral observance and we no longer want people to be the way they are – we want them to be like us.
There’s no such thing as a different kind of church. Sure, churches might vary in expressions of worship, or missional engagement, or even multicultural representation. But, at the end of the day, churches are all the same because they are filled with the same kinds of people: sinners.
The most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that all of us are the sinners for whom Christ died.
Put that up on a billboard and see what happens!
Karl Barth puts it this way: “It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong… We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is therefore a liberation that… [in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.”
We live in a time in which church and individuals alike excel in the practice of marginalization. That is: we delight in demonstrating all of our rightness against all the wrongness we see around us. It’s why we put certain names on our bumper stickers and attack people on social media and whisper when particular people dare to sit near us in church.
Despite what we might feel, or even believe, there are no innocents in human history. Most of our programs to make the world a better place accomplish little more than making the people who created the programs feel better about themselves (read: ourselves).
We don’t need programs. We don’t need “different kinds of churches.”
The only thing we need is the One who comes to deliver us from ourselves. That deliverer’s name is Jesus Christ – the judged Judge who comes to be judged in our place – the great rectifier of our wrongs.
Or, to put it another way, our help isn’t in us. Our help is in God. Could there be any better news than that?
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
When I was serving my first church I would gather in the sanctuary with the church’s preschool students every Wednesday morning for Chapel Time. Each week I endeavored to bring them on a journey into the strange new world of the Bible so that they could learn more about God and more about themselves.
I used the lights in the sanctuary and little hand held candles to talk with them about the gift of light that God gives to us (Genesis). We played hide and seek among the pews in order to remember the story of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the bushes of Eden (also Genesis). I even had them line up in the center aisle to play “Red Light/Green Light” and drew a somewhat loose connection to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (also also Genesis).
And then one particular Wednesday, I sat down in the sanctuary with the kids to teach them one of my all time favorite stories – Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. A brief refresher: Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to re-encounter his brother for the first time in a long time. But before Jacob can meet his fate in Esau, a strange figure appears late in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lessons. And it’s during this ordeal that Jacob receives a new name: Israel (which means: you have struggled against God and prevailed).
In order to really bring the story to life I had the kids line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wrestling match. Each of them came forward and gave it their best shot and I would pick each of them up and spin them in circles above my head. But when our final two-year-old came forward I let him knock me to the ground.
But, strangely enough, while all the other kids were cheering for my defeat, the two-year-old in question wrapped his little arms around my neck and whispered, “I’m sorry Pastor Taylor.”
And so it was that, without planning for it to happen, I was able to take him up in my arms and say to all of the kids, “God loves us so much that even when we wrestle with God, God never lets us go.”
To be a Christian today carries a degree of wrestling and struggling. It is challenging to take up the words of the strange new world of the Bible and compare them to this world; there is a friction between the Good News of scripture and the bad news that bombards us every day.
We want to know why bad things happen to good people, and why good things happen to bad people. We want to know that better days are ahead because we’ve certainly had our fair share of challenges. We want to know that children won’t fall asleep hungry at night, and that systems of oppression will be destroyed, and that justice will rain down like mighty rushing waters.
Jesus never promised that any of this would be easy – but he did promise to be with us, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus motions for the crowds to come closer and he announces, “Listen, this is important: If you want to be part of this whole turn-the-world-upside-down endeavor, then your world needs to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, then you’re on the road to salvation. Because, in the end, you can try all you want to perfect yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”
Jesus drops this on the disciples and the crowds shortly after Peter rebukes the Lord for suggesting that the Son of Man would be betrayed and ultimately killed. What good is a Messiah that dies? But then Jesus mic drops the “take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s somewhat comforting to know we’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world-turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inauguration through Jesus because he was so wedded to the way things were. Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five-step program of spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best version of themselves by abstaining from everything wrong with the world.
Instead he says, “Follow me.”
The world is forever telling us to do more, to be better, to earn, produce, and reform but things largely stay the same. Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing is already finished – all we have to do is trust him.
Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own destiny, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly Kingdoms.
But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same – He came to raise the dead.
And the dead can’t raise themselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether or not we stop sinning, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in the Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what the Lord wants because God is in the business of raising the dead.
We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives with a word of profound transformation. We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to make all things new. Even us.
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver and gold.
Names are important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost everything else.
There is a huge difference between, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you!” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.
Our names are so integral to who we are that they shape us and shift us around in ways that we don’t even realize. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major storm are far more likely to donate money than people with other names. Therefore, Kims and Karls donated more money after hurricane Katrina than did Marys and Matthews.
The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the Cocktail Party Effect. The idea is that, when you’re at a party even with hundreds of people in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room you’ll hear it. Somehow your name will rise above the decibels of the room and it will float along until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else can.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “REVEREND!”
I almost fell out of my chair.
“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he gave me a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “Well I saw your Bible sitting there and I figured you had to be Reverend and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your for attention for a minute or so and you never responded. Are you sure you’re a Reverend?”
He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, and I didn’t hear him at all.
I can blame it on being distracted by my work, or even the relative noise of the coffee shop, but the truth is I understand myself as a Taylor far more than I do as a Reverend.
Our parents give us our names – the ones that usually draw our attention. But God has also given each of us new names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all or we’ve forgotten who we actually are: children of God.
But when we remember who we are in Christ, it actually changes the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. We are given a new identity and a new community in which we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone – Instead we are defined only by what God in Christ has done for us.
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
The praise service had been hitting all the marks – the band was in sync, people had their hands up in the air thanking the Lord, and a few were even dancing in front of their folding chairs. The gymnasium truly transformed into a place of worship and the people couldn’t get enough of it.
The sermon was delivered with a beaming smile, encouraging people to look on the sunny side, celebrate successes, and to praise God in all times and in all places. Coffee was passed around to all the worshippers, and whether or not it was the caffeine, people were jazzed for Jesus.
Following the service, as was customary, the preacher stood by the door and shook hands with the people of God. His smile remained bright and shiny as each family, couple, and individual walked by.
Until one woman stormed past him and everyone else while muttering words under her breath.
The preacher apologized to the couple in front of him for the woman’s behavior and shouted at her as she sped across the parking lot: “Don’t forget to praise God!”
She stopped dead in her tracks, made a quick 180, walked right up to the preacher, and put her index finger into his nose. “I’ve had it up to here with you and all your silly happiness and praise. I can’t stand coming to a church that won’t let me feel what I’m feeling, and I’m never coming back.”
And she never did.
Happiness is such a fickle thing. Happiness comes and goes like the wind and we rarely hold onto it as long as we’d like to. The demands of life always catch up with us and for as much as might want to “keep on the sunny side,” the night will come.
The psalmist writes, “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.” And the word “happy” is notable because in other translations it is rendered as “blessed.”
And there’s a big difference between happiness and blessedness.
The differing translations come from the Greek word MAKARIOS which, at times, can mean happy, blessed, contented, and a slew of other things.
And yet, the words we use carry great meaning. For instance, happiness is often seen as a feeling that can change depending on one’s internal or external circumstances. Such happiness ebbs and flows depending on a variety of factors. Happiness, then, is somewhat under our control. That is: we can make ourselves feel happy by engaging in certain activities.
But being blessed has little, if anything to do with our control and agency. We are blessed by others and not by ourselves. In other words, our blessedness is not within our own control but only something offered to us like a gift.
In the church we call it grace.
We are blessed not because of our own machinations or because we have earned it or deserved it. We are blessed because we are swept up in God’s goodness. The acts of God in Christ make us blessed.
Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century, translates being blessed like this: “You lucky bum!” To be blessed by God is nothing more than receiving something that we never should have received in the first place except for the fact that God delights in doing so.
Jesus doesn’t wait on the arms of the cross until we are happy enough or good enough or repentant enough before he declares forgiveness upon us and all of creation.
Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we get our lives sorted out, or right all of the wrongs, or exhibit perfect mortality before he returns to us resurrected.
Our happiness, whatever it might be, is fleeting and fragile. But our blessedness is sure and forever because it comes to us from the only One who can offer it in the first place.
Ours is the kingdom! What a bunch of lucky bums we are!
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
There was a man who liked to mow his lawn early in the morning. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garden when, out of nowhere, he was tackled off the mower and onto the ground.
The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway exchanging blows until concerned neighbors rushed forward to stop the scuffle.
Hours later, the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs.
The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the attack took place. In our heightened and frenetic political atmosphere, tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Paul’s political proclivities and that he felt the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.
It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if the same thing could happen to them.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. And it sure is a strange new world. Jesus (and Paul the apostle) is forever going on about loving our neighbors as ourselves and about speaking the truth in love.
Which are decisively difficult when we don’t even know our neighbors, let alone what the truth might be that we can express toward them.
So, instead, we practice silence and we call it love.
Sometimes that silence turns into bitterness, and then the bitterness turns into anger, and then before we know it we’re tackling our neighbor for not taking better care of his lawn.
And yet, in the church, we are called to speak the truth in love and we know what real love looks like – it looks like the cross.
The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God and neighbor is demanding and risky. Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on down the drain.
And that kind of love got Jesus killed.
We, of course, are not the Lord (thanks be to God). In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.
We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.
Contrary to all of its complications, neighborly love is at the heart of the life of the church and every single person who claims to follow Jesus. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.
Or, to put it another way, when we begin to see how much God loves us in spite of all the reasons why God shouldn’t, it actually starts to change the way we interact with others, even our neighbors.
Love, the kind that God has for us and the kind we are called to have for God and neighbor, is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost.
And, because I believe music often does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us wrestle with what it means to speak the truth:
Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling” from 1992 is deceptively simple with the singer-songwriter and his acoustic guitar. And yet, the lyrics invite the listener into a wave of nostalgia that should come with a warning – the refrain is all about being haunted by a feeling, of being caught up in things we can’t quite explain. To me, it rings true of the ways we can be haunted by previous interactions.
Molly Tuttle is an award-winning guitarist with a penchant for insightful songwriting. And yet, it’s her cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” that really lets her shine. With the backing help of Old Crow Medicine Show she brings a welcome nuance to the well known song while making it sound hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
Madeline Kenney’s new EP Summer Quarter recently compelled me to return to her 2018 single “Cut Me Off.” She sings with such raw honesty, an honesty all but absent in the world today, that I find myself getting lost in her lyrical sonic wonder. The song’s disjointed melody, ripe with surfer guitar strumming and syncopated drumming, really conveys a sense of what it means to be cut off literally and figuratively.
They said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
I know of a Bishop (thankfully from another denomination) who used to be in charge of recruiting candidates for a local seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to ministry and he would end each and every single interview the same way: with a role play.
He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now… tell me why I should go to church…”
Throughout the years every candidate would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.”
Then the candidates would bring up something about reaching out to those in need. But the Bishop would say, “I’m an active member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”
Finally the candidates would make a comment about the power and priority of music in the church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
He recruited for a long time and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.
Contrary to how we might imagine it, the church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the community’s musical prodigies. We may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Which is just another way of saying: the only thing we have to do is trust (believe) Jesus.
If the church is a business, then it is in the Jesus business. That is: we exist to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all we have wronged, that we are loved in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be, and that, in the end, we know how the story ends.
And that last claim is important. For, if we already know how the story ends, then we are freed from whatever fears and faults that terrify us.
We are not the main thing in the church. The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified, God in the flesh born to live, die, and live again. And Jesus comes to do for us what we can’t, and won’t, do on our own.
It’s why we can call the Good News good. Thanks be to God.