It’s Not Going to Fix Itself

There’s a reason we have doctors, auto mechanics, counselors, appliance repairmen, and hair stylists. It’s simple:  things generally don’t fix themselves. They need helpful intervention.

That’s also the reality of the world around us. It’s broken – and it’s not going to fix itself.

Those of us who have been in the church for a long time have a tendency to forget that. We often look at the condition of our world with shock and disbelief, stunned that people do what they do and wondering how our society came to this. Now, there’s no question that we should indeed be saddened, heartbroken, and troubled by the things that take place in our world. The absolute evil, immorality, and injustice that flows from hatred, selfishness, lust, and greed should stir an anger within us, a sense that something is profoundly wrong and out of place. The problem is, we seem to think it should fix itself.

Rather than driving us into the world as an expression of the love and hope found only in Jesus, we allow the shock to drive us away from the world and into isolation. We see the darkness and brokenness around us, shake our heads, write it off as a “sign of the times,” and then retreat to the safety of our sanctuaries convinced that things can only get worse. When confronted with our failure to make a genuine difference in the world, we conveniently remind ourselves of how bad it is “out there,” pinning the blame on the world and its unwillingness to come to us.

It’s difficult, though, to truly justify that attitude and response when we consider what Jesus said:  You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. The mess that exists outside our door is not a reason to hide – it is the reason for our call. Darkness and decay is the reality of a world in bondage to sin, but Jesus lays the responsibility on His followers to drive back the darkness and proclaim the liberty and hope of God’s kingdom. If our communities are going to change, the followers of Christ must move beyond the safety of church walls and the comfort of friendly circles. We must accept our God-given responsibility to be salt in a decaying world and light in dark places.

Sinners can’t be anything but sinners apart from the grace of God. We can sit back, pointing fingers in shock and arrogance, or we can love others where they are, remembering our own need for grace.

Darkness can never be anything but darkness apart from the light. If the darkness is spreading in our neighborhood, perhaps we should humbly confess our own failure to accept the call and responsibility to live as His light in the darkness.

A world blinded and damaged by sin will probably not come running to us on Sunday morning simply because our churches are open. Rather than expecting the unlikely and then shaking our heads in disbelief, perhaps we should reach out and take the blind by the hand, loving them with the love of the only One who can open their eyes.

In Surprised by Scripture, N.T. Wright said, “The Bible is not about the rescue of humans from the world but about the rescue of humans for the world, and indeed God’s rescue of the world by means of those rescued humans.” Our call is to be a part of bringing about His kingdom – not hiding out while we wait for its arrival. And if we, as the people called to be salt and light, remain disconnected and hidden from those who are lost and hurting, we really have no reason to be surprised by the world’s condition. After all, the world simply can’t fix itself.

Sometimes I Run Away. . . Sort Of

I never ran away from home as a kid. Yeah, there were times I thought about it, even dreamed about it. Days of frustration or disappointment when I didn’t get what I wanted, or during the administration of punishment that I considered ridiculously unfair and unwarranted. Surely, I would think, there must exist out there somewhere a far-better land, free of such injustice.

Come to think of it, I still have those moments. And just like when I was a kid, the reality of life’s necessities keep me from actually running away. At least in the literal sense. I’ve come to recognize, however, that I do, in those times of frustration, hurt, or disappointment, practice a form of running away. Let’s call it my grown-up way of running away from home that’s not really that grown-up.

I realized it one day while reading the story of Elijah the prophet. There comes a moment in his life (I Kings 19) when he is tired, disappointed, and threatened. So, he runs away. He runs to a cave, reciting the list of reasons why he should just be done with it all:  he’s the only one who cares, the only one who does what’s right, everybody is against him, and he is all alone.

I know that cave. Pretty sure I’ve been there several times. It wasn’t a literal cave of dirt and rock, but one just as real. It was that dark and moody place in my mind and spirit, the one where I told myself that all my work was for nothing, that people were against me, no one understood, and all of the universe is nothing but a great display of unfairness. It’s the cave of self-pity, and it’s my preferred method of running away.

But I can’t be in the cave for too long before I discover, just as Elijah did, that I am not alone there. The voice of God came to His prophet in a gentle whisper, asking simply What are you doing here? Of course, Elijah’s immediate response was his list of complaints that seemed to justify his cave-dwelling. Probably to his disappointment, God didn’t say, “You’re right, Elijah – life stinks and people are idiots. Just stay here in the cave. You’re better off.” (At least that’s what I want God to say.) The message was altogether different:  you need to go back, there is work for you to do, you are not alone, and things aren’t as bad as you’re making them out to be. It’s time to leave the cave, Elijah.

In the darkness of the self-pity cave, I too have heard the whispers of that gentle voice. It breaks through my rantings and in a grace-filled, loving way asks What are you doing here? And as much as I want to hide behind my list of reasons for running away, all of them suddenly seem weak and empty. My heart becomes aware once again that God is still working, I am not alone, and things aren’t as bad as I’ve made them out to be. Instead of running away, I need to run back.

His people are never without hope. His grace is always enough. He still brings purpose to what I do. When I remember that, I know – it’s time to leave the cave.

The Tension Church Creates

Nearly every significant event in my life has been connected with the church in some way. I’ve been a part of it since my birth and I know it well. I am what I am today because of the grace of God revealed to me through His people and His transforming power at work in this thing we call the church. In the deepest levels of my heart, I am grateful for the church. I love the church.

At the same time, there are days I don’t necessarily like the church. Sometimes it frustrates me; at other times it disappoints me. When the people of the church are not what I think they should be, I start to wonder why I remain a part of all this. When the institution seems to lose focus or gets caught up in mere self-preservation, I begin to ask why we bother with any of it.

Most who have been a part of the church for any length of time understand the conflicting feelings. At least if they are honest with themselves they do. We are grateful for the church and love it in so many ways, but often find ourselves disappointed and frustrated by its imperfections, problems, and failures. We have a choice to make: we can live in denial, or we can live in the tension.

Being a part of a church body that is everything it can or should be is simply not an option in this life as we know it. In response, we can deny the failures and brokenness of the church, trying to convince ourselves that everything is great and all that happens in the church must surely be God’s will. We can take our denial the other direction, ignoring the good things that are happening, rejecting the notion that God is doing anything in the midst of the mess, and simply walk away from it all in cynicism and disappointment. Or, we can live in the honest tension of it, recognizing the weaknesses and flaws of the church, but believing that God is still at work in this body, calling the church to be more of what it can be.

I have chosen to live in the tension. I can’t sacrifice my honesty or integrity by denying the failures. Sometimes churches lose their way and forget their purpose. Not everyone in the church is living in a genuine, vital relationship with God – and it shows. Sometimes people disappoint; sometimes they fail. Not everything that happens in the church was ordained by God, or is even pleasing to Him. At the same time, I cannot deny that God has worked, and is working, in the life and ministry of the church. There is too much evidence and too many testimonies – including my own – of God’s love and grace at work through an imperfect community of faith. The tension is real and often frustrating, but honesty leaves it as my only real option.

Paul talks in 2 Corinthians about an all-surpassing power at work in a jar of clay. We are frail, flawed, and a project in process – but God is at work in and through us. What is true of us individually is also true of us corporately. In many ways, the church is indeed a jar of clay, frail and imperfect. We can deny that, living with a perspective that might make us feel good, but keeps us from facing – and dealing with – the reality most see and experience. On the other side, God is at work in the jar of clay, in the middle of all the brokenness and imperfection. We can also choose to deny that truth and walk away in disappointment or anger. The better option? We can live in the tension, recognizing both the jar of clay and the all-surpassing power.

What the church needs is honesty – not denial. We can and should recognize, confess, and work to resolve the problems and issues of the church. But we can do so in the positive hope that God is at work, and by His grace and power, the church can become more of what it should be. For this body we call the church to become more of a reflection of Christ, we must have followers of Jesus who are willing to live in the tension.

The Easy Path of Settling

There are some things we have to accept; then there are things we willingly choose to accept. Somewhere in between are those things that we don’t want to accept and don’t have to accept, but we somehow end up living with them anyway. We simply settle for what is. Perhaps it’s our way of defending ourselves from disappointment. Rather than believing things can change, and face a let down if they don’t, we choose resignation. But whatever the reason, we have this tendency to follow the easy path of settling for what is or who we are, even when our deepest longing is for something more.

On one occasion, Jesus approached a lame man at the pool of Bethesda. (John 5) He asks the man a question that would seem to have an obvious answer – Would you like to get well? The man had been sick for 38 years. Suffering, unable to provide for himself, totally dependent, trapped in a broken body. Given the situation, the question almost seems absurd. How could he not want to get well? But the lame man’s answer is not what we might initially expect – he tells Jesus why he can’t get well. People believed that an angel would come and stir the waters of the pool, and the first one in would be healed of their illness. The man tells Jesus that he can’t get well because there is no one to help in into the pool at the opportune time.

He was asked if he wanted to get well; his answer was not Yes, but I can’t.

It’s interesting that rather than expressing a desire to be well, his first reaction was to give an excuse as to why nothing could change. His situation had become so familiar, so much of his identity, that the reasons for things never changing seemed much bigger and stronger than any faint hope of his situation being different. He was not the first or the last to sit in defeated resignation; we all face the temptation in one way or another. Our lingering maladies – whatever they might be – can become so much a part of our identity that we choose to settle for what is, living with a ready list of reasons for why things cannot change rather than a bold belief that we can be healed.

We continue to relive the hurts of our past, allowing their chains to imprison us, forcing us to live life looking backwards. But instead of seeking freedom, we remain where we are, weighing ourselves down with any number of rationales for why we can’t – or shouldn’t – let it go.

We choose to see nothing but our failures and sins. Defeated and broken in spirit, we permit them to define us. As much as we might tell others about grace and forgiveness, we hold to a list of reasons as to why we personally can never be more than our failures.

We have those pieces of our lives or character that we know should not be, ways we need to grow, aspects of our being that need to be transformed more into the image of Christ. But instead of confronting them and allowing His grace to work in us, we rationalize that it’s just who we are and we can never really be different.

We resign ourselves to situations of hurt, brokenness, or frustration. Instead of trusting that Jesus can bring healing to those areas of life, we settle for what is, protecting ourselves from disappointment by hiding behind the excuses that tell us things will never change.

When asked Do you want to get well? our first response – like that of the lame man at Bethesda – is not Yes, but I can’t.  We allow ourselves to become so identified with the illness that the voice of hope is silenced by all the reasons screaming things cannot change. And so we settle into our place of brokenness, where excuses and rationales blind us to any possibility of healing.

But here is the thing we learn from the story: Jesus is always bigger than the reasons and excuses that claim healing is impossible. His grace is always greater than the arguments that hold us in bondage to our hurts, weaknesses, and failures. His mercy and power are always enough to bring hope and purpose out of every circumstance – even the painful and seemingly unchangeable ones. You see, Jesus doesn’t ask us Why can’t you get well? What he asks is Do you want to get well?

If we do, then we have to trust that he is greater than all the reasons we can’t.