(Edited and reposted from a blog entry in 2009. Still applicable today, I think.)
M dad didn't like "church" much. Don't get me wrong, he was a born-again believer in Jesus, served on the board of trustees of several churches he'd attended, taught Bible studies, and believed in God as his creator, savior, and shepherd.
But at many churches, too much attention is given to the "religion" of the church (trying to follow rules and create the right image) when the real truth of "religion" (faith) is in the heart, and with God.
My dad loved God. He lived his faith, but he didn't like "religion".
And I'm coming more and more to understand his point of view.
I do believe the Bible is the inspired word of God on this earth. I believe it is the written wisdom that God judged would be sufficient for mankind to see His hand at work, get to know Him, and learn to love and worship Him. It is the story of God's love for man, and man's search for God. Jesus' death and resurrection is the culmination of the story, and the pinnacle of God's love revealed for us.
I believe that faith in God alone, through Jesus, is what saves a person. Jesus gave himself a sacrifice for all people, was raised from the dead to prove he was God and was sent from God, and by that sacrifice we can be assured that God will do what Jesus said: forgive our sin, and justify us to Himself for eternity.
With the faith that God gives me as his child, I can say God loves me. He called me and I responded. I tell others about Him, they hear God call, then they respond, and so on.
That's God's will for us here on earth. Its not complicated. It's not hard to understand. It's very simple. Love the Lord God with all your heart, and love one another as yourself.
Its the "how" of loving each other that I think we get tangled up over.
I think we complicate things in our churches. Jesus said, "they (the world) will know you are my disciples by your love for one another". That's a very simple concept. Our love for one another is to the beacon on display to the world. It should be different from how people in the "world" show love for one another.
We, the body of Christ, are to be patient with one another, gentle, slow to anger, quick to listen, strong in shoulder and long in embrace. We are to be slow to judge, quick to forgive, and show deep understanding in our consideration for each other.
One way to love one another, perhaps the best way, is to get to know one another. Walk a mile with each other in each other's shoes. Share our story with each other, and get to know what makes each other move and breathe. Get into each other's lives and see what each other's lives are all about. Help one another, serve one another, and truly love one another.
The problem is that most of us don't really seem to want to get to know each other very well.
Most of us don't want to put in the enormous effort to spend time with someone to get to know them. Getting to know someone takes time, patience, and energy most of us would rather expend on something else, like ourselves. Most of us are, at heart, somewhat selfish people. (Don't be afraid to admit it, because deep down you know it's true, and to say otherwise is a lie. I know I am. Just have someone show me a picture of myself and 5 other people. Who do I look for first in the photo? Myself, every time. So do you. It's how we're wired, so don't kick yourself for it, just accept it.) Selfishness is very easy. Selflessness takes work, that's why Jesus preached so hard on it. That's why getting to know each other is so important, and why so many of us find it hard to do.
The other reason, and probably the larger one, is that most of us really don't want people to get to now US very well. We're afraid others might not like what they see, and we'd be embarrassed and ashamed of what our lives are like in the real world.
In the real world we have blemishes and scars and unseemly behaviors we'd rather not show to our church friends.
Mainly because our churches are pretty judgmental places.
You see, "church" isn't the real world. Church, the gathering together of a congregation on Sunday morning, is often the most phony place you can be on any given day.
Although our churches should be safe havens for all (a place where we can come and be honest about who we are and be accepted and loved most often in spite of who we are), church is, oddly enough, the place where many people put on their phoniest face of the week.
We usually spend one day a week, sometimes two, at church where we dress up nice, we've brushed our teeth, we watch our language, and smile at our fellow churchgoers.
We spend the other five or six days being the "real" us: cursing, yelling at our kids and spouses, being angry with co-workers, impatient and unkind to neighbors, judging the skateboarders and tattooed kids in the park, filling our heads with foul things from television and movies, ..... I could go on but you get the idea.
This is not an indictment of the latter (our "real" life), but of the former (our phony face at church). Why do we do this? Why are we so incredibly dishonest and phony with each other?
I think its because we're afraid.
We're afraid of being judged.
Afraid of being thought "unchristian", or sinful, or dirty, or of being ashamed of who we are, because most of us don't want to be "that" kind of person: we just are! Paul talks about this in Romans 7. We haven't yet figured out how to let God transform us into a "fruit of the spirit" type of person, and we find ourselves being this person we don't want to be. Everyone of us experiences this to some degree or another.
We feel like we're failed Christians in a sea of Christian Titans, thinking everyone else has it right but me, when the truth is, some of the Titans are just as screwed up and confused as anyone at church! They spend their time hiding and faking their way through Sunday after Sunday just like the rest of us. Some of the Titans have simply learned how to play the church game better than others, and this dishonesty hinders honest seekers looking for understanding and encouragement.
This is sad, my friends. Fakery is no way to live.
The church, our local gathering of believers where we fellowship and do life, should be a safe haven. Church should be a place where our brokenness is repaired, and our weakness is strengthened, where we walk arm in arm together, despite the mud and muck. Church should be where God shows his undying love to His world through his children.
Church should be a place where fear of honesty is abolished, shame in asking for help should evaporate and embarrassment over our shortcoming should disappear. Church should be a place where the shocking is not shocking, and the scandalous is not scandalous, and no one looks askance at anyone for who they are, because where honesty exists, shock and scandal do not exist, and askance glances vanish.
If in our own churches we can't love one another with the love of Christ and have patience and compassion toward one another for our "real" lives; if we don't love each other differently with the radical love Jesus modeled for us, why should the world give a damn about what we preach or what the Bible says?
No one cares what you know until they know that you care. (Not mine, not original, but a good thought.)
Please don't take this as a repudiation of all churches, or even my home church. This piece is a statement on the condition I see of American Christianity in general. But if I were a betting man, I'd say there are lots of people who feel this way at every church, including my own. We're human, and no one is perfect or immune to the human condition.
My heart, however, is buoyed and my soul given joy at the Christians I do know in my own church who make it a point to get to know people, and who love one another in a different way, the way Christ asked his disciples to love one another. They are the proof of the thesis of God's love, and for them I truly give thanks to my Lord. They are the salt of the earth and the lights of our congregations, and I pray daily that they'd continue the good work God has given them. They are the folks who will help the rest of us to learn how to love.
As for myself, I have shortcomings in this "get to know each other" department. I'm not perfect or immune to the things I write about. I'm hard to get to know, and I have a hard time getting to know people. I know it to be true, and I'm working on that. But I do have a passion for loving one another with patience and gentleness, and encouraging each other wherever possible.
My prayer is that we, as a church in general, would be less judgmental and more honest with each other. Yes, its hard work, and it's a labor, but people, we must do this if the world is going to see anything different in our lives. If we don't have compassion for the foibles and imperfections of the brothers and sisters we already know, how will we ever have compassion for the unchurched people we are desperately trying to reach in our community?
Next time you are at church, try giving each other more than a phony "Hello, how are you today?" Take a chance and ask, "How's life really treating you?" and prepare to give a few minutes to listen! Take the time to be an ear, to listen to someone who's lonely, to hug someone who's sad, or laugh with someone who's happy. Then, try it at work! Or at the grocery store! Or even... gulp... at home!
Then, be prepared when someone says to you, "How's life really treating you?" to really tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly, and see how that goes. I pray you'd be surprised.
My prayer is that God would move in our churches generally, and in my home church specifically, spurring us on to real love for each other.
No politics. No games. No phoniness and no fear.
1 John 4:6-21 says " God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.
If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters."
After all, perfect love casts our fear. God's love for us casts out our fear of life and living for God. Likewise, a man who is loved, truly loved, by his friends has nothing to fear from those that love him.
Loving God and loving one another. That's what God's will is all about. No great mystery there.