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Entries in The Church (4)


The beauty of repetition

Around this time every year, the light coming from the east and into my back yard changes. Every September, the light peeking through the maple tree and through boards of the fence, is lower. There is an ivy winding itself around the trunk of the maple tree, and as I look out while making my breakfast I can see the leaves being lit up by the dawn of the new day. I look forward to that light every year.

It's Labour Day. Here in Canada, university campuses are filling up. The streets of those university towns will be full and young people will be carrying their boxes, bins, and suitcases into their new residences. In the town where two of my kids went to university, there will be furniture on the boulevards in front of houses; furniture free for the taking. It's a great way to get rid of unwanted stuff. My son and his roommates one year banked on getting a couch for free; and they did.

Tomorrow, all over Canada, like every year, the streets will be filled with busses and students making their way to school. Just like they did when I was in school. And just like it will be years from now. It's part of what happens here in early September. It's part of the pattern.

There are four distinct seasons where I live. Patterns emerge everywhere. Whether it is the beginning of leaves turning or the annual Spring competition between Crows and Blue Jays for supremacy of the neighbourhood, things repeat. I like that. I thought about that yesterday when my church observed The Lord's Supper.

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (I Cor. 11:23-26).

Every month when we observe communion, this passage is read. I like that. It's part of the whole process of remembering. Remembering is built into our lives as Christians as we worship weekly.

Early in my Christian life, I was discouraged from praying the Lord's Prayer regularly. It was rote; I needed to avoid vain repetition. Desiring to be a good Christian, I avoided that and used the Lord's Prayer only as a model for "real" prayer.

At a prayer meeting many years later, a man in the congregation stood up and prayed the Lord's Prayer. There was nothing rote about the way he prayed it. He meant every word. Sure, he could have found his own words to pray the principles found in that prayer, but it was clear to me that he was simply praying Scripture. And there is nothing wrong with that.

I've noticed in my church recently that there are songs we sing in worship which, in a few months, disappear. I guess something better comes along to usurp those songs. For some of them, I'm really glad they disappear, but the idea that we are being repetitive or out of date when we sing good songs year after year bothers me. Tradition and faith are not the same thing, but faith is transmitted through traditions whether we like to admit it or not. What is Sunday school except a well-established tradition? What is Vacation Bible School except another tradition? Even the fact that one church has its offering plate passed around and another has a box at the back of the church are rooted in tradition. We live out our faith in various ways, and they become tradition. We repeat those things year after year.

I find that beautiful. God created time. He made the seasons. He created human beings to go through various stages which are universal to every race and ethnicity. Instilled in his creation is repetition. I think it's something we should appreciate. It's comforting. It reminds me of the immutability of God. Sure, there is room for change and for varying things. But repetition can be a very good thing.


The fear of being known

I have often wondered why professed Christians who are not physically inhibted and have means of transportation regularly skip out on church. I am not talking about the occasional missed Sunday. I'm talking about a regular habit of life.

I know that there are a lot of reasons people stop attending. They are jaded, cynical, angry. They have been hurt. They have seen the sinful side of Christians, and they don't like it. They decide they can do it on their own. They can listen to sermons online, participate in Christian social media circles, and ask for prayer on Facebook when they need it. Who needs a local church? And yet, I think there is something so much better than virtual fellowship.

A friend and I were talking recently about the difficulty of nurturing communities. It's easier to start a group than it is to maintain it. I get that. Honestly, there are times when it's so much easier to extend kindness to strangers than maintain relationships with people in my local church. Being part of a church means that people get to know us, and we get to know them. Expectations grow. Accountability exists. Conflict ensues. Pride interferes. All of a sudden, it's work.

Have you ever made a friend only to find out after getting to know her that you really don't like her? I have, and I'm sure people have begun to dislike me after getting to know me. Regular contact with a group people, serving together, having fellowship together, rejoicing, and praying together means that inevitably, people will find out who we are. If we choose to avoid church altogether, we can keep ourselves to ourselves, and maybe even pretend to be someone we are not. To really open up and share with someone means exposing ourselves, and some people don't want that vulnerability.

Most of my life, I have tended to be too open with people too soon, without knowing them well enough. That has resulted in hurt. There have been times when I have let my hurt feelings cause me put up walls to protect myself. However, being behind walls can be lonely. We were created to have relationships with other people. Yes, at times, we may have to keep up boundaries, but we can't stop being part of the Body of Christ because it's hard.

The local church is more than a group of likeminded people who like to drink coffee and have potluck dinners. We are one in Christ. If we belong to Christ, we are part of the Body of Christ. If we opt out, that doesn't mean we aren't part of it, but it does mean we are interfering with the unity of the Body. Perhaps we struggle to overcome fear in becoming known by others. One thing I have learned is at times my concern with how people will react when they get to really know me is more about my pride than anything else. Keeping myself carefully to myself can actually reflect a desire to control.

God knows us intimately. He knew us before we were born. He knows our thoughts, our hearts, and every single weakness. And yet, through Christ, he has opened up a way for sinners to be reconciled, and invited us to become part of the Body of Christ. If God will do that, we should not fear what others may discover. There will always be uncharitable Christians in and among the people of God. We are all sinners, and we all make mistakes. But there are always people who know how to extend love and grace. Sometimes, instead of focusing on how others will respond to me, I need to ask how I can encourage others in my local church. It can be hard, but inevitably, it is worth it. Ultimately, a member isolated from a body will suffer and stagnate. We may think that we can do it on our own, but we were saved to be part of a something: the Body of Christ.


Background noise

One of the things that I struggle with, and which simply reveals that I am a cranky person, is the noise in the church sanctuary before the service on Sunday mornings. Now, I understand that people are just having fellowship, and that it is good. I further realize that the sanctuary (or auditorium if that's what your church calls it) is just a room like any other, and it isn't any more holy than any other room where we meet with God.

It's what we're about to do inside that room that makes it important. Every Sunday morning, we are gathering as a people to worship the God of the universe. We are approaching the throne of grace. Hebrews 4:16 tells us we can come before it with boldness because of what Christ has done. Maybe I'm just old fashioned or even grumpier than I realized, but I want to prepare myself to do that. I'm not asking for complete silence, but honestly, can't the noise be contained in the foyer outside? These days, church foyers are made big for the purpose of fellowship. Our church was built in 1989, and it has an ample foyer in comparison to other churches. On Sunday morning, I like it when there is a bit of quiet before the service begins.

We went to a church years ago where there was quiet in the auditorium before the service. I think it was more customary back then. The sign that the service was going to start soon was the pianist sitting there, playing. People waited expectantly, quietly. These days, there is usually music overhead, coming from the sound system, and the sign that the service is about to start is when the worship team goes on the platform. It is this background noise that I think encourages a little noisier atmosphere.

Everywhere we go, there is noise. The grocery store; the waiting room at the doctor's office; an elevator; the workplace. All of those locales usually have music playing. Some places have televisions. When I broke my wrist a couple of years ago, as I sat in the waiting room for an hour, I was treated to an entire episode of "General Hospital." Fortunately, in the 30 years since I'd last watched it, I had not missed a thing.

Noise, noise, noise. It's everywhere, so we're used to having to speak over noise. And that goes for the pre-service time at church. When there is someone at the front, we know to be a little quieter. When there is music overhead, it's like we're at the grocery store or the place where we go for pancakes after church. 

I don't think we need to turn a room in a church into some sort of shrine where we have to be careful what we do inside. But what we are doing there on Sunday morning is not what we do every day of the week. It isn't just a bunch of people in a room. It's the Body of Christ, coming together to worship. And I would like a few quiet moments beforehand to prepare my heart for that. I don't expect complete silence, but sometimes, it's like a cocktail party and no one has brought his inside voice. I would be happy with a few minutes before the worship team gets up there. And surely, after the service is just as good a time for fellowship and all its joyful noise.


They're for the church

A number of years ago, I attended a day long seminar which examined what the bible said about spiritual gifts. Most of the content focused on identifying the gifts, especially our own gifts. Before we start to evaluate what our spiritual gifts, though, we need remember exactly whom the gifts are for. They're for the church. We have those gifts and abilities, but the ultimate purpose of them is for the church. 

The apostle Paul talks about this in Ephesians 4:1-16. He opens the chapter with an exhortation to walk worthy of their calling. In the previous three chapters, he has outlined the riches they have in Christ and the reality that Christ's death has brought together Jew and Gentile. In light of that he calls on them to walk with humility, gentleness, patience; to bear with one another in love. This is the standard for our conduct with one another. He goes on to remind them that there is unity in the faith:

There is one body and one Spirit -- just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:4-6)

But in unity, there is diversity, as he reminds them of the grace given to them as individuals (4:7). He goes on in v. 11 to talk about some the gifts Christ gave: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers. Other passages in the New Testament mention other gifts, and those are worth studying, but what I find just as significant as the kinds of gifts is the reason for them, which Paul states in v. 12-14:

to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

The purpose is, ultimately, to equip the saints so that the church will mature and grow. This is not just individual growth. This is corporate growth. As Paul details more fully in I Corinthians 12, each individual member is important, but the body is still one. We don't use our gifts for selfish purposes, but rather to build the body of Christ. 

And of course, there are other abilities that people have that aren't "official" spritual gifts. There are any number of abilities people have that aren't among the ones talked about in Scripture. But the use of them is the same: for the purpose of the church. They are things we have stewardship of, for the glory of God, not our own.

A number of years ago, my husband and I had a pastor who was a wonderful preacher and teacher. He was gentle, kind, and humble. He confided to my husband that he found it tempting to feel pride when everyone was saying, "Oh, great sermon, Pastor," or "Wow, that was great, Pastor." He wanted to be a good steward of the gifts he had been given, to use them to build up the church, but sometimes, it was tempting. I wonder how much of a temptation that is for other men and women.

When we're particularly good at something, it can be a subtle thing to slowly feel pride creep in. When everyone is lavishing praise on our abilities, it is only part of our human nature to start to feel a little puffed up. I've seen a few instances where a little attention has changed someone. Sometimes, when all eyes are on us, it gets tempting to feel like we have to "perform" in some way. But that doesn't seem to me to be what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 4, or in other passages where he mentions spiritual gifts. His attitude is most clearly presented in Romans 12:3, just prior to discussing spiritual gifts:

For by grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Paul echoes similar thoughts I Corinthians 13, when he explains that gifts are nothing apart from love (I Cor. 13:1-3)

Whatever it is we do in our local church, from being the one who serves as a custodian to the one who stands up on Sunday morning to bring forward the Word, let us use our gifts for the building up of the church, not the building up of ourselves. Let us use our abilities with humility. Let us not exalt the one using the gifts, but rather point to the grace of Christ, who gave those gifts.