Friday, November 09, 2007

What Christ Saved You For

Philippi, if the historians and commentators I've read are to be believed, was actually, for the Roman Empire, not a bad place to live. The city was located not far away from a number of mines (which mined among other things, gold) which really helped the local economy. As a matter of fact, Philippi at this time was a growing metropolis because it was a good place to make a living.

From all accounts, the church at Philippi was a strong one... maybe because of the economy, and maybe not. I'm not sure. Although, the nature of the relationships between growing churches and the economy in the surrounding community they are located is a subject which interests me.

Recently at a meeting of pastors I attended, I talked to a fellow pastor who leads a downtown church in a Midwestern town that has seen better days. At one time the church was one of the leading churches in the city, both in size and influence. It counted among it's members, prominent leaders of the community and people of great wealth. If you were a Protestant it was THE place to attend church in town if you were of a certain social stature. If the pastor of that church spoke up on some issue at a local city council or via the editorial column in the newspaper, you can bet his (no women pastors at the church in those days) words were taken very seriously. It was a desirable church within its denomination.. a place that helped springboard pastors to positions of prominence.

Now, though, as the suburbs of the city have grown, and the inner city has deteriorated, the church struggles. The once full sanctuary that held hundreds and hundreds, is lucky to see 150 folks at a morning service. The church is divided over whether the music program, once the envy of every church, needs to change its focus to contemporary music, as opposed to the western European classical music that's been its hallmark. The congregation continues to grow grayer and grayer as the people in the pews age. And as buildings around the church begin going unoccupied, homeless people, many with substance abuse and mental issues, have become evident and numerous.

As we were walking to our cars, talking about the challenges for ministers in this age, he asked me a simple question, "Are you aware of a thriving church with a long history like ours, in a downtown community like ours, anywhere? Because I've asked this question of everyone in the denomination, and now some outside of it, and nobody, as yet, has been able to tell me 'yes'".

And then, he openly wondered, "Do you think in the United States that the growth or decline of Christianity in this country is directly connected to the local economy?"

It was a shocking question, that as we talked, seemed to lead to answers that made us uncomfortable. For in depressed communities in our part of the country, the only urban churches that are growing are largely committed to "health and wealth" theology, which promises that if you are faithful to God's precepts, he'll reward you with material riches in this life. And virtually all the mega-congregations here are now located on the ring outside of cities, where people who could afford it have moved to escape the social problems that come with poverty.

This question give me pause, cause last year after doing some travel overseas, I've a sense that in places in the world where Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds - Africa, South America, and Asia - one wonders to what degree "health and wealth" theology is fueling the faith's growth among the world's dispossessed populations? I saw ample evidence of promises of riches on the part of pastors to the faithful. Is that what people are thinking when they hear the words, "The last shall become first, and the first shall become last"? I don't know.

Anyhow, I have a sense as I read Philippians 3 that Paul is thinking about issues like these. Many of his other churches are struggling or fighting or dealing with all kinds of internal struggle, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Phillipi. Phillipi has remained very strong in its faith, and held fast to what Paul had taught them. Possibly because there wasn't a large Jewish community in the city, the infighting between Jewish and Gentile Christians doesn't seem to have reared its ugly head like it has elsewhere. The church has the financial means to be able to support Paul, and others connected to him, who are continuing to carry the Gospel across the Roman world.... and does so without the kind of grumbling heard in other churches about "money not growing on trees" for evangelists.

In fact, in many ways, the rise of the Philippians church, which would continue long after Paul's death, mirrored the Paul's rise (a body that came out of nowhere, that against all the odds now was a leader in the Christian movement) and I don't think that escaped him. But remember, Paul is reflecting on a life lived. A life (in this world, anyway) he suspects has more day behind, than in front, of it. He probably could have bagged any more days of ministry if he had wanted to. If there was anyone, anywhere, who could have made the argument that he had earned the right to rest on his laurels and become a senior statesman for the Christian movement, certainly Paul would be that person.

But resting on laurels is not Paul's way. The hard driving former Pharisee, who once thought he had God all figured out, had exchanged a privileged, elevated status within his community, for the uncertainty of how he'd be accepted by a new community he had once tried to stomp out of existence. God had delivered him, and now he held a similar status and position elevated again, as now Christians came from all over seeking his counsel and guidance.

I think Paul feared the complacency that can come with success and a job well done. The kind of privilege that had blinded him before I think now he feared would creep into his new life and slowly rob him of his passion. Hence, despite his status as one of Christianity's pre-eminent leaders, Paul's continued need, which we see again in Philippians 3, to express how unworthy he still is even as his stature grows:

I'm not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. 13 Friends, don't get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I've got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward - to Jesus. 14 I'm off and running, and I'm not turning back.

Hence Paul warning the Philippi church to not get sucked into trap of believing that because they had their act together as a faithful congregation, that somehow they to would begin to believe themselves to be "more blessed" by God than others, and begin acting in such a way - moving from grace to legalism -that would make them feel that they understood this whole Jesus thing better. Thus Paul goes further to say:

15 So let's keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision - you'll see it yet! 16 Now that we're on the right track, let's stay on it.

Success. Affluence. Privilege. Position. Status. I wonder how things such as these effect the Christian life. I wonder how they can not only blur the vision of an individual believer, but also a church.

My sense is that the effect of things like success, affluence, privilege, position, and status, often is greater self-absorption. A preoccupation with me, and all things associated with that which is mine, resulting in the banality of our own life appearing to be more important than it really is. Our vision gets blurry as we becoming myopic, only seeing what is directly in front of us, to the detriment of seeing everything else clearly.

Being a child of the 80's, if I'm watching TV late and night and just flicking around, if there's a movie or show from that era, or about that era I tend to settle in for awhile a take a gander at it... no matter how ridiculous it might be. Such was the case when years ago I was flicking around and discovered "Can't Touch This: The M.C. Hammer Story". You remember MC Hammer, right? Rapper. Danced around. Got rich singing a song that said "Can't Touch This" a lot. There's a whole lot of people who wore, in public, baggy, gold-lame', pants and thought they were the coolest people ever because of MC Hammer. He's lucky he isn't sued.

Well, like a lot of people who seemingly overnight get hugely popular, just as quickly, Hammer disappeared from the scene. And if you hadn't heard, the man, who once pulled down $30 million in one year, shortly there after lost everything he owned in bankruptcy proceedings.

But what maybe a lot of people don't know is that Hammer was, and is, a very religious man. Church is where he met his wife, and where he raised his kids. Very serious about what he said and did, Hammer became popular because his songs weren't controversial, and were positive. He was as big among parents as he was children... and this was all by design.

But when Hammer's popularity began to wane, and his financial position began to crumble, in an effort to save all that he had, Hammer decided to turn his back on the kind of positive, bubblegum music he'd been making, and instead tried to go gangsta. He signed with a record label (Deathrow) that was notorious for signing artists that were of questionable character who openly boasted about their use of drugs, alcohol, women as sex objects, and guns. This greatly distresses his wife, who openly questions whether or not her husband is selling out all that's been important to them both, and what it's costing them in the process. But Hammer makes his choice, and pushes forward, to the point where he shoots a music video at his house featuring scantily clad females, open drug and alcohol use, and guns lying around on tables accessible to his own children.

In the movie, that's a powerful scene... Hammer, in the middle of lip syncing some song, seeing the horror on his wife and children's face, who have come home early from visiting family, at what he's allowed in their house. You can see it on the actor's face...

"How did I get here and what have I done?"

Success can blind us. A blindness that leads us to believe that we need to be defined by that success and that it needs to be maintained at all costs... because whatever it was in the beginning that drove us, has been replaced simply by us. By me. My wants, my needs, my desires.

This Sunday, we'll be giving away our weekly offering to the local food bank. It's something that after initial resistance from the congregation, unsure of how a missing offering would effect our financial position, has become some that defines us. It's my prayer that nothing else besides that crazy original idea that maybe, if we leveraged our resources not just within the church, but in the community as a whole, we could eliminate hunger in our community, will always be front and center for us every time we do this. But more importantly, I hope that by giving away what many believe to be the "lifeblood" of our congregation, that we learn the lesson again and again that it is not our offering that sustains us. We don't exist so that we can give to ourselves just so we can give to ourselves again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.

We are only as successful as our ability to give ourselves away. We will only be first if we can put ourselves last. We will only inherit the kingdom if we refuse to crown ourselves kings and queens.

May that be our prayer as individual and corporate disciples of The Way, The Truth, and The Life.

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