Online Book Group: Almost Christian, chapter 5

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This chapter opens with a story that is both heartwarming and reality-checking–how often have we allowed our Christian faith to so transform our understanding of ourselves that we could do something like that? Most of us would be grateful our team had an “easy win” coming up, ready to cheer for our own kids and fundraise with our own concession stands and listen to our own fight song over and over again…and instead the coach asked the parents, classmates, friends, and teachers of his team to cheer for the other team, so they would have someone to support them. To actively work against their own self-interest..and in Texas, high school football isn’t “just a game” so this is important stuff! To then hear that they set an example followed by other schools…wow. I wonder how many of us would do the same? How many of us would even think up the idea, or allow the Spirit the space in our crowded-with-our-own-interests brains and hearts to plant even the seed of the plan? That coach allowed himself to be a vehicle for God’s grace, and that grace spread like a Texas wildfire, bringing hope and love into the lives of kids who rarely experience them.

That is what faith is about.

To be close enough to God that we allow God to form us into Christ’s likeness, to act as Christ would act, to let ourselves be vehicles for the Spirit to spread grace in the world. It’s not about us, however much we want to think it is; it’s about God and what God is doing…are we going to participate, or not? If we do, we’ll likely waste our lives, at least in the world’s eyes. But then again…

“The word “waste” is important.” It appears in that story in Mark 14 where a woman breaks a jar of ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, and the disciples call it a “waste.” It had already been used a few chapters earlier, “though in that passage the Greek is usually translated as “lose”” “Those who waste their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35). Those who waste their lives for Jesus, who squander their talent on the church, who throw away their lives in ministry, will gain it. Following Jesus is a waste. The Bible tells us so.” (p87)

What do you think of that? Is that the kind of faith you have–the kind ready to waste itself for the gospel? If not, how can we help you get there? How can we grow our community of believers into a community of people throwing away their lives in ministry? That’s what following Jesus calls for–a willingness to follow even to ridicule, even to economic/social/cultural “failure,” even to death.

But it’s also a life filled with many things–maybe not physical things, but plenty of intangibles. This is a life of wasteful love, freely given, poured out the way God poured God’s own self out for us. Can we bear this love? This is what we are asked–to know ourselves to be loved, and to pour ourselves out in love for God’s world. This is the ultimate not-about-me moment–when we have to not just say but actually live for others. And this is a faith worth having, worth cultivating, worth sharing, and worth talking about…in other words, the kind of faith we want to pass on to the next generation. Unfortunately, so far what we’ve given them is a faith that’s all about them, and there’s plenty of that to go around so they’re not interested.

One might say that the church in the west has lost its way–we have so separated our institutional and cultural identity from the mission of God, that we now say that “our church does mission” when the reality is that God has a mission and that mission needs a church…not the other way around. We, the body of Christ, participate in what God is doing in the world–that’s our mission. When we are not doing that, we are not a church. It’s a fairly simple connection, actually. The hard part is staying centered on who God is and who God calls us to be rather than on who/what we want ourselves to be.

So how do we do that? By just doing more and more stuff until we drop from exhaustion and a sense that without us people will go hungry and naked and without toys or hope or love? By focusing in on a few big projects? By giving more money or more time or more energy?

What about by spending time focusing on our center instead? It’s so easy to get caught up in all the mission that WE do, we forget to spend time with God asking what GOD is doing. Maybe it’s time for a church-wide prayer vigil, where we all commit to talk to God about this congregation, and to LISTEN for God’s voice, call, and direction. Maybe the problem is not snazzier worship services or better advertising or a cooler Sunday School curriculum or what kind of music we have or who our pastor is or anything like that. Maybe the problem is that we are trying to follow our way rather than asking for God’s way. God has crossed plenty of boundaries before, and asks us to do the same–perhaps the boundary we need to cross right this minute is the one between us and the Holy One. “As the Holy Spirit aligns our lives with the gospel…missional imagination takes root: we begin to view the world as a place where God acts, and to see ourselves as participants in God’s action.” (p97) Without the Spirit, and without our missional imagination, there’s just some stuff to do in a world that appears to have been abandoned by its creator.

The purpose of the church is to carry out God’s mission in the world. That was Christ’s purpose on earth, too–and he spent time in prayer (see yesterday’s Bible study for an example), then heading out into the world. If we are to be (as Martin Luther put it) “little Christs”…if we are the body….if we are God’s people…if we are the Church, then it’s time to put our faith into action. But not just in the way we always think of, getting up and doing something right away–also in the sense of getting to know God, coming to understand Jesus (how else can we follow his way?), being filled up by the Holy Spirit. When we work under our own steam, we’re lost. We’ll flounder, never being as effective as we would like, always one step behind the need, uncoordinated as a toddler learning to walk. As Dean points out, “Maybe we, the church, miss the Holy standing right in front of us because we are too nearsighted to notice that in between faith and doubt, in between God’s call and our response, Jesus waits.” (p103) Or maybe because we jump into that gap with our own solutions when if we’d just hold on one second, we’d see Jesus standing there with the invitation to come and follow a still more excellent way. But if we’re plugged in, connected to God, growing a relationship between us and the Divine and between members of the body, then watch out, world–God’s mission has a church!

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