This month: 186 - God is Love
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I drove my seventeen year old to school the other morning. I haven’t been able to do that since she got her driver’s license so it was a nice reminder of how life used to be. About a mile from the school we saw the banners reminding us that going to school is not a casual event for us anymore. It’s a blessing we will no longer take for granted.

Dozens of signs on long stretches of highway lined the road reminding us we are strong. Marshall Strong. We need to see and hear that because there have been many times over the past several weeks when we certainly haven’t felt it. I pulled in and slowed down, not at the usual spot I had for her freshman and sophomore years, but at the place where all students will now be entering for bag searches and metal detections. As I drove away, I prayed for her and every person whose life has been terribly changed just by going to school.

A few miles later, I parked at another school. This time for work. I turned the music down and thought back over the last couple of weeks. The frantic phone call from my oldest child, trying to process the words “active shooter”, the call to my youngest child and the terror at the realization that it could make her phone ring and let a gunman know where she was hiding, the flood of tears at that moment (and this moment as I type that and remember the feeling), the sleepless nights that came later, the traumatized faces both young and old as we tried to make sense of something impossible to comprehend, the questions, the guilt, the grief over losing friends, and the fear. Not your average, run of the mill fear, but a fear I had never come face to face with before. A fear that, if given too much space and power, could ruin my life. I thought of the school administrators, teachers, and staff who, out of concern for the children they worked with, ran toward the gunfire not stopping to consider that they could be running to their own death. I thought about the great love they had for these children. For my child. I thought about the things they saw and heard and how they entered a chaos so dark and unknown to help, console, and save and then I realized this is how every Christian is to live. We are called to run into darkness and terror and help even when we’re terrified. And then I cried. Just sobbed tears of grief, exhaustion, and the reality that this is our life now and this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

I dried my tears, grabbed my things, and jumped out of the car. And then as I made my way across the parking lot I heard the church bells ringing throughout the city. I hear them every time they are played but today was different. This morning they sounded clearer. More intentional than ever and I was reminded of something better. Something eternal. Something strong enough to get us through the nightmare in which we were living. A call to worship in the very face of fear and grief.

I wish there was an easy explanation for why our society seems to be crumbling and a quick fix for it, as well. I don’t have a perfect answer but maybe it has to do with the fact that we glamorize violence and drama. Our nation, including our children (even our young children) are drug addicted and dependent. Mental illness is rampant. Family values are on the extinction list. We say we’re a Christian Nation, but we don’t take care of our poor or oppressed. We aren’t a champion for the least of these, either. We put more faith in Washington, DC than we do Jesus Christ. Our church pews aren’t filled and even if they are on Sunday mornings, our neighbors aren’t being served or loved the rest of the week. Just ask the local waiter or waitress on Sunday afternoon if we’re really the people we claim to be on the pew. We’re mean to each other on social media. Read the comments on news stories and bullies are the ones speaking the loudest. Comments on religious articles show another group of bullies. Church bullies. They’re the worst and they’re raising children to treat others just the same. We have problems. We have a society problem, a mental illness problem, a heart problem, a gun problem, a discipline problem, a government problem, a drug problem, and a respect problem. Our culture is diluted with problems. But God has not left us. If we would turn down the noise of our hectic lives we might hear the faint call to worship playing as a soundtrack to our lives.

Church, it’s time to step up. I know you’re struggling with life. I agree that it is ridiculously hard and at times, terrifying. I know some of you are stressed over your finances or with your marriages. Maybe you’re struggling as a single parent with the ex, with visitation, with child support, or the lack thereof. Maybe you’re totally completely on your own and feel so alone.

I know we all want to be loved and accepted. I know we are broken and hurt and sometimes don’t even feel like we are worthy to call on the name of Jesus let alone understand and believe it when we’re told we are the temple of God. I know we’re wrestling with the sins we’ve committed in the past and the sins we’re in the middle of right now. I know there are days we don’t even want to get out of our own beds. I know we’re busier than we’ve ever been and feel like we get nothing accomplished. I know we struggle with feelings of worthlessness, with insecurity, and with doubts. I know our children, parents, jobs, and churches can be exhausting. I know we wrestle with pride, selfishness, and gossip. I know there are times when we just want Jesus to come back so all this hurt will be over. But I know and believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that we love the children deeply and will do anything for them. So I challenge us all today to be the spiritual leaders they need. To encourage them to love God and love their neighbors. To rise above the drama and darkness that plagues us on social media platforms and in our communities. To turn off the news and open our Bibles. To return to God and commit our children to him. To encourage them to join youth groups and to get back into a church group ourselves.

Please quit believing that the government can fix all of our problems. And please quit arguing about it on Facebook. Refuse to listen to a world that tells you you’re not worthy to follow the Christ. Believe the God of Heaven and Earth when he calls you holy, chosen, and dearly loved. Shock people with your compassion and grace. Realize your neighbors need you. Your church needs you. Your children need you. They need you to speak words of light and love. They need you to model forgiveness. They need your peace and joy.

We need our people on the pews of our churches and we need our people on the curbs of our communities. We are missionaries. We are ambassadors. We are servants of the Christ. Our children need to see men and women of honesty and integrity who are preaching the name of Jesus. They need you. Yes, you! Stressed out, run down, overwhelmed, fed up, messy, broken you. Be the spiritual leaders that the children deserve. Show them that even when we’re tired and afraid, we can still be active in the work of the Lord. Rise up, bow down, and worship.

The next time someone tells you God isn’t allowed in schools, remind them of the men and women who ran towards the gunfire.

The next time someone says love can’t fix this world, remind them it already did. Now, it’s our move.

The next time someone wants to argue on Facebook, pray for them, and move on. You have better things to do with your life.

The next time someone grieves over this world, grieve with them but tell them about hope.

The next time life terrifies you, remember that it’s normal to be afraid but fear doesn’t get the final word. It doesn’t get to direct our path.

Regardless of this life and it’s trials we will refuse to let fear have the upper hand. In faith, we will radically love our families, our communities, our churches, and our enemies. We will rise above the terror. We will speak love and grace into the fire. We will refuse to stir the flames of drama and discord. We will humbly accept the mission to proclaim the name of the one who has called us out of darkness even when darkness arrives on our doorstep.

Evil may have its moments but its days are numbered. It may consume our nights but it will not win our hearts. Our God is faithful. Our God is redeemer. He is our strength, our King, and our comforter. We will endure. We will believe. We will worship.  

 

ChurchDividedCan’t wait until my “loving Christian brothers and sisters” weigh in on this issue and trash our president. They’ll no doubt refer to those pardoned as “scum of the earth who deserve to rot in jail.”

This zinger caught my worship minister’s eye in a recent Facebook conversation. She was initially shocked by the words. Her shock turned to sorrow, however, when she realized they came from one of our church’s precious college students.

It came in response to a potentially controversial post. Any post can seem controversial, given current polarization over politics, gay rights, Caitlyn Jenner, Supreme Court rulings, and so forth. This particular Facebook post had to do with President Obama’s clemency of 46 non-violent drug offenders. The young adult who posted it was already anticipating a backwash of angry comments. He said, “Please keep comments civil. I will moderate if need be.”

Fortunately for him, remarks were civil. Until, that is, our college student unleashed his stinging comment. Why his cynical oracle of impending conflict? Why did our college student expect the worst from his fellow Christians?

I believe it’s because too many church members in recent years have fostered a ministry of division. I’m going to briefly explain why this has happened. But before you conclude that this is just another hopeless commentary on the polarization in our society and in our church, I want to quickly qualify that I am offering this article as a message of hope. I believe young people—like the one above who expressed cynicism—can teach us to live out the ministry of reconciliation.

Churches of Christ are not unique in the story of American Protestantism. We don’t get a big mention in most books. We sometimes think of our story as an extraordinarily impressive one, but most outside observers don’t agree. Almost every Christian sect or denomination has a similar period in its history.

Our movement flourished through a potent form of sectarian group-think. We were the only ones going to heaven. If you cared about people’s souls, then you did something to get outsiders into our churches. Didn’t matter if people already had a faith or were active in a different church. If you didn’t do things our way, you were lost.

Surprisingly, this worked better than you would think. We were very good at guilt trips. We scared many people into becoming Christians the Church-of-Christ way.

Whether you grew up in it or were converted into it, this pattern of “outreach” wrote itself deeply onto our psyche. Many of us are still overcoming it. Scare tactics aren’t the MO for many of us anymore, but they still surface as occasional, nagging feelings: “You aren’t good enough.” “God doesn’t really love you.” Although most of us no longer believe that our church brand contains the only saved ones, the mentality of “us vs. them” won’t let us go.

But it’s not just our people. This is a plague that visits members of most other Christian churches as well. They have comparable, judgmental pasts (and presents). Evangelicals believe that only the “born again” are going to heaven. Liberals believe that fundamentalists don’t know the heart of God. Conservatives think liberals have lost their moorings and their salvation. Charismatics doubt the legitimacy of non-charismatic faith. On and on it goes. Christian doctrine and Christian leaders have sadly taught us to divide, judge and condemn.

It’s a legacy we shouldn’t be proud of. Yet this is our inheritance in American Protestantism. We have learned how to shame and belittle those who aren’t like us. This is hardly the way of Jesus. But it’s the way of Jesus’ followers here in the U.S.

Even though some of us are learning a more generous orthodoxy in questions about who is and who isn’t saved, we can’t shake the fighting mentality. Some have transferred this way of thinking straight over to politics. Which is odd for a movement like ours that was deeply suspicious of human institutions. Yet some now believe that those human institutions—the presidency, Congress, the courts—are our potential salvation or downfall.

Some who learned to be gracious about faith are unable to be gracious about politics. Did they transfer their primary allegiance to the nation-state rather than to Jesus and his church? I find it deeply disturbing when otherwise grace-filled Christians have no trouble trashing fellow Christians over matters of politics. In conservative churches like mine, it’s mostly those favoring a particular flavor of the Republican Party who sometimes rip into anyone espousing love or appreciation for the other party or for policies that strike them as “liberal,” “socialist” or other related transgressions.

This is why the afore-mentioned college student despairingly awaited a torrent of criticism for someone else’s post that showed support for presidential pardons. He had seen people’s comments get torn apart for exhibiting the wrong political leaning. He had been personally excoriated by fellow Christians for what they perceived as wrong stances on immigration, gender issues and so forth. He’d seen it before. Figured he’d see it again.

But here’s where hope is. When my worship minister saw this, she reached out privately with love. She said, “I know you have reason to be skeptical. But you’re bigger than that. Think about how your words portray the community of faith.” There was silence for several hours. Then finally he replied, “Sigh. I know you’re right. Thanks for caring enough to say something.” And he took down the comment.

There is hope for the future because young people are open to learning a new way. There is hope that the peace-loving people among us can turn the tide by loving and investing in a new generation. Young people may not be perfect, but they are thankfully tired of our judgmental ways. And with just a little coaxing, I think they are the ones who can guide the church back onto the non-judgmental path of Jesus that leads to reconciliation rather than division.

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