Friday, November 4, 2011

A Home Without Judgment ...

Home.  Just the word invokes a feeling.  When away from it for any length of time we begin to miss it.  We long to return to a place where love abounds, where we are accepted, appreciated, needed, and loved.  Home is where our family lives.  These are the people who know us best, and love us most.  We are not loved in our homes because we are perfect.  But we are loved despite our imperfections.  We may hurt those who love us, or argue with them, but in the end there is always forgiveness, always healing, and eventually peace.  We may go out for activities, or work, or entertainment – but in the end we always look to going home.

Our churches need to stop being churches and start becoming homes.  We do not need to move our belongings into them and sleep there at night to accomplish this.  But we need to realize that a home is a place we treasure, a place we long to be – not for its amenities, but for its complete acceptance of who we are.  It is love that defines our homes the most, and so it must be love that comes to define our churches the most.  Our church must become a home without judgment, a home of love, and a place of healing.  When church becomes this ideal, our members will hardly be able to stay away.  Seating will be in short supply, workers too plentiful, and outreach a natural phenomenon.  Guests will be treated as they would be honored in a private home.  They will be treasured, served, and leave wishing only to return once again.  It is then that we will once again begin to see Christ in His church.  It will be His image that is burned into the minds of member, speaker, and guest.  And it will be His work that will explode again in countries that have long been immune to theological dissertations and warnings of doom.
Some have argued that the church must be a place of standards, doctrine, and truth.  They believe the mission of the church is to spread the unpopular truth revealed in the law that we are wicked and in need of a savior.  Thus church should be only a place for perfection; perfect clothing, perfect cleanliness, and perfect behavior.  But these ideals are seldom lived, and rarely seen in the same believers homes.  It is because they rely too much on imperfect humans to accomplish goal that are beyond their capacity.  Our need of a savior to remove our wickedness and pain is true, but the reason we are drawn to Him is because He cares about us and loves us.  Christ drew people to Himself because He loved them.  Only then was He able to begin to remove their pain.  Condemnation drives people away.  A revelation of our evil condition is not nearly as compelling as the offer of a life without pain, and a future that begins here and now and continues into eternity.  Christ offers us an escape for our pain here.  He offers it to us because He loves us, and for no other reason.
Some argue that if we adopt such a complete standard of love and acceptance that sinners will use this as an excuse to hang on to their cherished sins.  But this is not true.  Have you ever noticed the behavior of a smoker when they visit the home of a friend who does not smoke?  The smoker does not simply quit forever because he is visiting a friend.  But he is conscious about the fact that his friend does not smoke, so he tries to refrain.  Or if he must smoke, he goes outside, or tries to be as respectful to his non-smoking friend as he is able.  If he just lit up a cigarette in his non-smoking friend’s living room, the friend might remind him politely not to light up there and offer him an alternative.  But friendships continue despite the differences between the two. 
Smokers inherently know that their habit is not one everyone appreciates.  They know that the habit may well be damaging their health.  They know that it is a costly habit and they would do better financially if they stopped.  They know it turns their teeth yellow and their lungs black.  They know their smoke can damage other’s health, particularly the vulnerable like children, or pregnant women.  Yet all this collective knowledge does little to inspire people to quit.  Why?  Because it “looks cool”, or “everyone else is doing it”?  These two sentiments are not nearly as true in our society as they may once have been.  It is because the chemicals in cigarettes are addictive.  They are designed this way, to provide the body with a feeling of relaxation that it will crave over and over again.  Chemical addiction is not easily broken, often it requires outside intervention.  But it is ultimately NOT isolation that inspires a smoker to quit.  It is the desire to be included with many who do not smoke that makes him want the change.
Our homes are not places where we excuse horrific behavior.  We seldom welcome unrepentant child molesters, practicing serial killers, and active psychotics over for dinner.  Anyone of those folks would inherently already know that their behavior limits their ability to socialize with others.  But where does a former child molester or former murderer go when they wish to reform who they are?  How can a person change from the evil they embrace to the perfection Christ offers if not to associate in a home where He is present?  We might remove a belligerent smoker from our homes if they seem only interested in hurting us.  But we would not consider removing the friend who smokes, but is very respectful in our homes and really wants to quit.  It is the same condition, but an entirely different interaction between us.  Sinners, of which we are all appropriately labeled, fall into these same categories.  Each of us inherently know what acts we commit that we should not be doing.  And the cure for all of them is Christ.  The only question is whether we intend to seek the cure or not.  It is love that draws us to seek the cure.  It is because we love our families that we wish to become better people so as not to hurt them or ourselves.  It is love alone that can motivate us to do so.  It is indifference that would allow us to hurt others around us; indifference we are shown, and indifference we reflect as well.
If our churches are places of only indifference, apathy, and self-enrichment – we can expect to see no great change in our own lives or the lives of others around us.  No one seeks change for those they could care less about.  But if our churches are homes steeped in love, where genuine care and concern for every single family member or honored guest is the norm, the expected, the routine – then a world of change is inspired both within us and around us.  People crave the company of such groups and such places.  It is a lack of love our world suffers from, not an overabundance of it.  Our world is full of indifference and those who care nothing for us.  Our church MUST NOT BE the same as the world in this regard.  The singular characteristic that will keep our churches from becoming like the world around us is not found in our doctrine, or worship style, but in our application of genuine love for each other.  Doctrinal distinctions were supposed to only enrich our ability to love, not squelch it.  As our ability to love increases, our desire to change increases.  As we forsake indifference for concern, we inspire those objects of our affection to wish to experience the same love we seem to reflect.  It is in this way that world changes into His image.
People will tolerate a number of things they do not enjoy, if what they ultimately care about the most is present.  I may not enjoy a visit with extended family members who I find illiterate, obnoxious, or offensive.  But when those same family members, despite their shortcomings, pull together towards a common goal; when they appear to drop their own concerns and reflect deep interest in those of mine or each other; when they remember first we are truly family and that blood counts – all of the sudden, I remember how much I love those people.  Our petty differences are dropped as we realize how important we are to each other.  We begin to prioritize life better.  The place of our meeting and the conditions of the building become so much less important.  The background music, or what is on TV hardly matters.  What matters is that we love each other.  We care when one of us is sick, or faces a life threatening condition.  We ache when one of us has been hurt.  We want to help when one of us needs it.  We offer whatever skills we have as we are able.  This is family.  This is home.  This is a place we want to be.  This is what our church must become.
A great orator, an excellent speaker, a fantastic musician, and elegant surroundings do not make a church.  They make an entertainment vehicle.  If I am looking to be inspired for a moment, I might seek them out.  But when I have had my fill, I look to go home again.  The effects are temporary, not life altering.  And if given a choice to be permanently in the company of great orators, excellent musicians, and elegant surroundings – or be at home with a family who loves me – I would prefer to be at home.  Love beats performance.  Love has more of an effect than what I choose to observe for 2 hours, once a week.  But what if, those people who I truly love, can be found in church only one time per week?  What if that might be MY only opportunity to be with those people who I love?  Our schedules may not permit more interaction than that.  Or there may be simply too many of us to practically get together more often outside of a building that is big enough to house us all.  Well then, church is the one place I must be at, as those who I love will only be there once where I can see them all, talk to them all, catch up with them all.  I long to experience a true family get together, where the source of our love, family unity brought about by Christ, is the underpinning to all that we do.  It is more important that sermons, or choirs, or lesson studies. 
Our churches need to be more than mere places of education.  They need to be transformed into places where we have the time we need to reflect love and genuine concern we have for each other.  A common goal, a church wide activity that requires all members to participate to succeed should be more the curricula.  Sitting still, with minimal participation, or only as we collectively worship God does little to show person-to-person warmth for each other.  We turn our love to God upwards, from grateful hearts, but refuse to show it sideways to each other where it is needed most.  The person on my left needs to feel that love.  God already knows how I feel.  He knew it before I prayed, or gave my offering, or sang my song.  He is happy I love Him, now He wants me to take that love and apply it to the guy next to me in the pew.  Our services need to be altered so that I have that chance.  Individual praise to God, that is performed in a group, is not the same thing as love to each other.  It is a format that allows us to keep indifference between us.  It keeps us in our comfort zones of not having to interact with someone who may be in great need.  It is not a recipe for the spreading of love, it is a recipe for the maintenance of isolationism.  And it must end.
Our church is in need of the greatest reform.  It is not the forsaking of our evil habits and past that must be addressed, but rather the reason we would seek any kind of change within us.  We must seek first Christ, and His love to be instilled in us.  We must seek first every opportunity to express love, to our families, our honored guests, and the world around us.  It is a reform of love we need in our church.  Each of us needs so much more love than we have, not merely to be loved, but to love others ourselves.  We need to break the bonds of indifference through our submission to Christ.  To begin to see the world as He sees it, with longing in our hearts, love in our hands and feet.  This will be the most substantial reform the church has ever encountered.  It has historical precedent when founding fathers performed great acts of love and courage to take small ideas and turn them into large movements.  It was not their courage, or ideology that saw them succeed.  It was their commitment to love.  It was their actions to try to show and spread that love for those in darkness that led them to succeed.  From Peter and Paul, to Martin Luther, to the early pioneers of every church; it is love that marked success.  It is love than must now mark the greatest reform we can seek as a people or as a denomination.