Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 6

A young serviceman from our area was taken captive by an insurgent group in Iraq. Video footage of him was released shortly after his kidnapping. Later, a group claiming to be his captors released yet another video, allegedly showing his execution. The Defense Department has been unable to authenticate the latter video. That was months ago. Obviously, the anguish and uncertainty has been immense for the young man's family.

Fortunately, they have the support of many friends and a congregational family. The community has also surrounded them with care. One church after another has been praying for them and the family has been deeply appreciative.

In my former congregation, a man died under tragic circumstances. I went to visit his widow and family. While I was there, the doorbell rang probably three or four times. Each visit was from a neighbor, all committed Christians, dropping off food. The widow looked at me, and smiling beneath a mist of tears, told me, "There's a lot of love in our refrigerator."

In my previous post, I talked about the ultimate source of encouragement: The encouragement that is ours when we know we live with the approval of the God made known in Jesus Christ.

But of course, there's a problem. We Christians believe that Jesus has risen from the dead and is in heaven now. While there are times when we can sense His presence, the fact is that most of the time we must accept that reality as a matter of faith.

That can be hard. There's a story about a little boy who found it hard to fall asleep at night. (I first read a telling of it by Gerald Mann years ago and I've been re-telling it ever since.) The boy called for his father, who came to the little guy's room. "Couldn't you stay here?" he asked his dad. His father explained that he and the boy's mom were just down the hallway. "And besides," he said. "God is here." The boy told his dad, "I know. It's just that I want someone here with skin on him."

The New Testament calls the Church, "the Body of Christ." It's an imperfect body, for sure. The people who make up the Church are just like the rest of the human race. We're sinners. But we're forgiven sinners called to live so thankfully for God's gifts, granted through Christ, that we encourage one another and those outside our congregations, too, with the Good News that God loves and reaches out to sinners. The Church puts skin on God.

No doubt we fail at it. Earlier this week, I read a set of posts by one of the country's well-known political bloggers. She was railing against a prominent evangelical preacher who, from her perspective, seems to have made a career out of villainizing homosexuals. I wanted this bright and influential person to know that the position of most Christians on homosexuality is far more nuanced than this one preacher made it appear. Most Christians believe that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God's will--a sin--but they are welcoming to all people. The Church, in the language of Twelve Steps programs, is a place for recovering sinners to lay their sins before God, receive forgiveness, and tap into the power Christ offers to help us move our lives in God-ward directions. Most Christians are open to welcoming practicing homosexuals who are willing to struggle with the elimination of the sin of homosexuality from their lives, right alongside all the other recovering sinners who make up the Church.

Mark Allan Powell, a Lutheran Biblical scholar, has pointed out that the number one response Jesus was looking for when He spread His love, His message, and performed miracles was repentance. It is the main response Jesus is looking for from us today. He's looking for that response not because God is an ogre opposed to our enjoying ourselves or so that we can wallow in some religious guilt.

Jesus wants us to repent for the same reason that you and I might want a friend addicted to drugs or alcohol to turn their lives around. Sin is destructive of our souls, of our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. It corrodes our integrity and prevents us from realizing our full potential as human beings. It distorts our personalities. Repentance is the only sensible response to God's love, given in Christ. When we repent, we clear the space in our lives to let Christ in.

But what exactly is repentance? The Hebrew language of the Old Testament is picturesque and vivid, a counterpoint to the New Testament's more cerebral Greek. Yet each Testament's language teaches a lot about what is really the main business that happens in the fellowship of the Church. The Hebrew word for repent pictures a person who has been walking in one direction and then turns completely around, ending up walking in a different direction. Repentance happens when we stop walking away from God and turn toward Him again. (Like the prodigal son Jesus talks about in Luke 15:11-32.)

In Greek, the word for repentance is metanoo. It literally means "I change my mind." Christ calls us to be flip-floppers. We're to turn from selfish, self-willed ways of thinking and undergo what I often call a holy lobotomy. Through this change of mind, the Bible says, we become new people:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. (Second Corinthians 5:17)
Christ effects this lobotomy in our lives as a free gift, taking us as we are and helping us to become all that God made us to be.

But, Christians know, that just as Christ died before His resurrection could happen, unless Jesus returns while we live, we must die before we experience a resurrection. Then, we'll be fully free of our own sin and limits as earthbound human beings. Until then, we will struggle with our sins and strive to be our better selves. We do that with God's help and the encouragement of Christ's Body, God with skin on Him, the local church.

Don't think I'm being naive or idealistic. I freely acknowledge that there isn't a Christian in the world who hasn't been disappointed by the Church at one time or another. (Including me.) Sometimes, the Church's forgiven sinners aren't particularly repentant. Sometimes, church members can be as crass or hypocritical or prejudiced or nasty as the rest of the world. Sometimes more so. We bring our sins, faults, and bad habits through the church's front door. And often, we keep bringing them back for years and years.

But as C. S. Lewis once wrote, just think how much worse these faulty folks would be were it not for the presence of Christ and the fellowship of the Church in their lives. ( I cringe when I think about this relative to myself. I wouldn't like me much at all!)

Ultimately though, the imperfection of the church is provides some comfort to me. It reminds me that a perfect God loves and wants to be with people who are as imperfect as me. It makes His "grace," His charity, more accessible. It makes God more accessible.

I believe that it's Christ's plan for His Church not to send Jesus-Followers into the world to put people on guilt trips or to impose their morality on everyone else, although Christians should never flinch from saying what they believe to be right and wrong.

In his great book, How to Be a Transformed Person, the late missionary, author, and close friend of Gandhi, E. Stanley Jones writes:
In 1840 Bishop George Selwyn, missionary among the cannibal Maoris of New Zeland, wrote: "I am in the midst of a sinful people, who have been accustomed to sin uncontrolled from youth. If I speak to a native on murder, infanticide, cannibalism, or adultery, he laughs in my face and tells me I may think these acts are bad, but they are very good for a native, and they cannot conceive any harm in them. But on the contrary, I tell them that these and other sins brought the Son of God, the great Creator of the Universe from His eternal glory to this world, to be incarnate and to be made a curse and to die---then they open their eyes and ears and mouths and wish to hear more and presently they acknowledge themselves sinners and say they will leave off their sins."

This is illuminating---preach morality, and the moral life is largely unchanged; preach the atoning love of God in Christ, and conversion, a total conversion of the total life results, especially a moral renovation. [italics mine]
In Romans 2:4, Paul says that God's kindness--His patient, forgiving love--is what leads to repentance. The Church is meant to be part of what my friend Steve Sjogren calls God's conspiracy of kindness.

How does Christ use the Church encourage people?

(1) By empowering Christians to be servants to others. One of the coolest things that the congregation I serve as pastor does during this time of year is participate in Operation Christmas Child. Throughout much of the year, our people collect toys, personal care items, pens and pencils, booklets, mittens, hats, and other things. They place them in shoe boxes. Then in November, we have a Christmas Wrapping Party after worship, prepping the gifts to be sent to children in Third World or war-ravaged countries. We've been participating in this effort of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian organization, for about five years.

Of course, the children we never meet benefit. For many of them, our gift-laden shoeboxes and the millions of others that Christians from throughout North America and western Europe share each year may be the only gifts of kindness they receive. That has to be an encouragement to them and their families.

But an unexpected benefit from our service is that we feel better for it. Our faith is encouraged as we realize that God can use even our simple gifts in shoeboxes to spread His love. We learn that the globe is a neighborhood that all of God's children share. God doesn't call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves because it's nice, but because in ways none of us fully understands, we truly need one another.

A few weeks ago, I shared a short letter that had been dictated for us by the mother of a seven year old Zimbabwean girl our congregation has been sponsoring through World Vision for more than four years. The mother spoke of the seasons in her country and talked about making fire. She asked how we made fire. When I read those simple words, tears came to my eyes. I wondered how I could explain the lifestyle of ease that I and so many people enjoy in this country. It made me want to do what I can to encourage and create a better life for all my neighbors. (That's also one reason I write this blog.)

The New Testament book of Acts tells the story of the early Church, from the time of the resurrected Jesus' ascension into heaven in c. 30 A.D. until about 60 A.D. At one point, it recounts one of the adventures of Paul. He had been imprisoned for his faith in Christ and was being transported by ship. While at sea, a storm came on and the others on the ship were frightened. One surmises that Paul felt some fear too. But, no doubt owing to his faith, he militated against his fear and cared for and fed others on the ship. "Then all of them were encouraged..." we're told (Acts 27:36). Christians who serve bring encouragement to others. The Church empowers Christians to do that!

(2) By empowering Christians to be followers of Jesus on Mondays as well as Sundays. A few weeks ago, five different members of our congregation spoke on What Friendship Church Means to Me. Each of the presentations, three minutes apiece, were moving and varied. One fellow---Mike---said something that really caught my attention. He said that the impact of our congregation on his life was the same that Jack Nicholson's character attributed to that played by Helen Hunt in the movie, As Good As It Gets. Mike told us, "You make me want to be a better man."

I've always thought of Sunday worship and Bible studies as Christian pep rallies, times when we get energized and prepped for the sometimes demanding, but always gratifying, work of being God's new creation people in the everyday world.

This is nothing new. Back in the first century, when Paul was preparing to come to visit Jesus-Followers in Rome, he said that one of the main reasons was that they could be "mutually encouraged by each other's faith..." (Romans 1:12)

(3) By letting all the world experience Christ's love through us. One of the things that visitors to our congregation almost always say is, "These people amaze me. They're ordinary people. But they're so friendly and loving and good-natured. I can see God is here." That's what happens when people, in the words of the old U2/B.B. King song, let "love come to town."

Of course, the Church encourages and fosters encouragement in countless other ways. But I've gotten a little windy.

In closing, let me encourage you to be an encourager. Doing so will be a wonderfully subversive act, empowering people to do good and positive things with their lives. And if you need encouragement to take on the important role of encourager, I suggest that you take two steps:
  • Ask Jesus Christ to come into your life and call the shots
  • Get involved in an encouraging, loving congregation

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