What We Can Learn from the Messiest Church in the Bible

One of my favorite books in the Bible is 1 Corinthians. It’s not my favorite to read devotionally (that would be Psalms); it’s also not my favorite because it has a grand, sweeping narrative (Colossians gets my vote); and it’s certainly not the easiest one to read. What I love about 1 Corinthians is that it is so … real. You can practically see the flesh-and-blood people behind the letter as Paul writes, with specificity, about the problems the Corinthian church faced.

I love 1 Corinthians because it reminds me that faith and church are not always simple and straightforward; sometimes, in fact, they get quite messy. In 1 Corinthians, I get to see that just because a church makes it in the Bible doesn’t mean they have their stuff together any more than we do.

But in a church that has some real issues, like sexual infidelity, disunity around communion, and questions about the resurrection – in other words, real stuff – I am amazed that nowhere in 1 Corinthians does Paul challenge the elders to step up and get things under control. I’m not sure why that is, but the result (at least, in part) is that the folks who make up the Corinthian church need to take responsibility for who they are, and how they live out their faith.

Which leads me to think that, as important as leadership in the church is (and I think it’s very important), equally important is the responsibility we all have to walk faithfully – and live out our calling as followers of Jesus, together.

In light of all of this, it’s also interesting to me that Corinth is the only NT church where tongue-speaking is mentioned (and maybe even used?). Corinth is also unique in regard to the visible demonstrations of the Spirit through things like miracles and healings. At the same time as they had all of these dramatic spiritual manifestations, they were a mess (see above). And so, in 1 Corinthians, Paul challenges them to stop worrying about the dramatic, and focus on the daily.
We see that in 1 Corinthans 11-14, the longest block of material in the New Testament that describes early Christian worship. In this section, Paul talks about:
  • a proper communion approach (including revolutionary ideas like: Wait for each other, and: Don’t get drunk);
  • love (not just for weddings, love also works very nicely in church);
  • men and women prophesying (though we often focus on the head-covering element, to me, the more fascinating reality is that men and women are prophesying in church).

The involvement of all of the Corinthians in worship then comes into clearer focus in chapter 14 – where Paul challenges the Corinthians on their desire to speak in tongues. Glossolalia (tongue-speaking) is something no one can understand, yet it is a dramatic and noticeable gift – so, apparently, many of the Corinthians were clamoring for it. Instead, Paul challenges them to seek to prophesy.

As I’ve shared in my most recent sermon, I see prophesy as a message of the moment; that is: what does God want to say to these people, right now? Prophesy can have a future element, but the focus of it is to point people to how they should live, right now.

And apparently, Paul believes that all people in the church can share in this: You can all prophesy one-by-one, Paul says, so that all may learn and be encouraged (1 Cor 14.31, RSV). In fact, when the church came together, Paul says: Each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation (1 Cor 14.26).

So, for me, this means: leadership is important, but ALL of us should take responsibility for making sure we know truth, and teach truth, and live truth. All of us have a responsibility for building up the Body, for encouraging and challenging those who need it.

I believe that the Spirit will do what the Spirit needs to do to make Himself known. Sometimes that involves the “wow” factor: things like tongues or healings or miracles. But this can’t be the focus. In fact, it’s notable that in no other church in the NT do we read of tongue-speaking. It doesn’t mean it didn’t occur – see Acts 10.46 and 19.6, the only other 2 clear cases of “glossolalia” that I can find in the NT. But what Paul hints at to the Corinthian church, he makes clear to the Galatian church: that the clearest evidence of the Spirit is fruit – beginning with love, and ending in self-control.
In other words, the Church needs strong leadership and, sometimes, a dramatic expression of the presence of the Spirit. But what helps the Church to be what it is called to be, year after challenging year, is faithful people, faithfully walking in love, and patience, and kindness, and self-control – as they use their gifts to build up the Body.
So, pray for your church leaders, but also pray for yourself – that where you need to speak, you’ll speak. Where you need to encourage, you’ll encourage. Where you need to admonish, you’ll admonish. And make sure to do it all in the name and the power of love. For the sake of the Church.

Yes, Jon, We’re All Terminal

I was listening this morning to a speaker, Abby, where she described a recent conversation with her 92-year-old grandmother. Her grandma told her: I’ve been diagnosed with a slow-developing form of leukemia. The doctors have given me 2-10 years to live.

To which, Abby replied: Grandma, I could have told you that.

Yes, the truth is: a 92-year-old has 2-10 years; or less. But the truth is also: you and I may have 2-10 years; or more; or, maybe less.

I remember sitting in a ministry class one time, and one of the students got to talking about a chaplain at the hospital where she worked. His approach was to pray for miracles for the people there. One day, when he was doing it, the patient said, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but shouldn’t you be preparing me to die?

I am haunted and captivated by that question. In some sense, isn’t that the responsibility of a pastor? At a deep level, shouldn’t Death be an element of every life-changing message given by every preacher and teacher?

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean by this what some often  mean. I don’t mean that we dangle people over the abyss of death to spark fear or worry, or to literally scare “the hell out of them.” We don’t point to Death so as to get them simply to make a “decision.” Instead, an honest look at Death calls us to face clearly, as one of my friends puts it, “the reality of my mortality.” And when I do that – when I am honest that Death will eventually come calling – then I can learn how to live.

I love the song “Terminal” by Jon Foreman. In it, he reminds us all that we are, in fact, terminal. He sings:

The doctor says I’m dying
I die a little every day
He’s got no prescription
That could take my death away
The doctor says, It don’t look so good
It’s terminal

The truth is: We are all facing a death sentence. Sound morbid? Not the pick-me-up you were looking for? Maybe that’s true. But isn’t the best way to learn how to live is by remembering that we are going to die? Don’t we get the most intentional about life when we realize we can take nothing for granted?

In fact, what do people usually do when they find out they only have so long to live? They fight. They grab onto life. They love better, live more fully, appreciate each moment. They have that hard conversation. They forgive. Petty things fall to the wayside. And they look beyond themselves – to God, to others, to what really matters.

So, as a minister, if I can get people to face the reality of their death, I think I’ll have done a big part of my job. Because, maybe then, they’ll really learn how to live.

Learning & Laughing with Fred

Fred Norris passed away last week. Fred was one of my teachers at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. He was a really smart man; his PhD was from Yale. But the first thing a person would notice about Fred was not his learning, but his laugh. Fred had a large laugh – and he was very liberal with his laughter. He spread it everywhere, to everyone. You knew Fred Norris was coming down the hall, because his laugh preceded him. It exploded out of his lungs, with such force and feeling that it was obvious: he simply couldn’t hold it back.fred-norris

Fred knew a lot of stuff, but his specialty was history and world Christianity. And with 2000 years of church history, that’s a lot of material for a guy with Fred’s sense of humor. So Fred delighted to tell us about the time the reformer Martin Luther heard a sermon from a guy he didn’t care for. Luther’s response? I’ve heard a sow fart before.

Then there was the day Dr. Norris sat in on a class led by another professor. In the context of class discussion, a student asked a question, and the teacher had to admit he didn’t have an answer. I don’t know, he told the student. To which, Fred replied, Another dumb question! – as he burst out laughing.

As much as I enjoyed Fred’s laughter, I appreciated his insight and wisdom even more. He didn’t first love history; he first loved people. Once, he told us of “a wonderful spiritual woman” in a congregation he served in Oklahoma. She never once took communion, and he thinks that she probably went to her grave not having taken it. Why? Because she didn’t feel worthy – in part, because she had been left by her husband. Fred grieved over how difficult it was for this woman in his church to know and experience grace.

In a more serious moment, Fred said it this way: “Don’t let yourself get to a place in ministry where grace and mercy sit as an apostrophe somewhere.”

Fred Norris was perhaps the first person to introduce me to the phrase Credo ut intelligam – “I believe so that I might understand.” Inherent in this phrase is the idea that faith seeks understanding – not the other way around. Learning about faith helps, no doubt; but it’s living it that truly leads a person to understand what faith is all about.

Perhaps all that I learned from Dr. Norris can be summarized by a story he told in the early 1990s when I first had him as a professor. In class – one that no doubt focused on some point of theology or doctrine – I remember how he talked about some guys coming over to his house to work on his truck. They got talking (and laughing, no doubt), and learned that Fred was a minister/teacher. They asked: What kind of church do you go to? As in: You’re not like any ministers we’ve ever known. We want to see what kind of church someone like you must be in.

But as Dr. Norris told the story, he ached. And his jovial demeanor quickly turned sad, even tearful, as he reflected: They wouldn’t feel at home in my church. Fred’s congregation was a good, faithful church, but consisted of mostly educated folk. And these guys were decidedly blue collar. And so, Fred grieved at the distance between the beauty and power of what we believe, and the common man on the street who needs to experience it. And how hard it is to bring those 2 together.

Of all the things I learned from Fred Norris, that’s the most abiding lesson. The gospel is for everyone. Faith believed must be faith lived. And we should never stop finding ways to make our faith come alive with joy – in our churches, in academia, and out on the streets.

Thanks, Dr. Norris, for teaching me that unforgettable lesson. I look forward to seeing you again, where there will be no more tears – but, I am convinced, plenty of laughter. You’ll be in the middle of that, for sure. And, no doubt, I’ll hear you before I see you.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21.3-4, NIV)

Ten Commandments of Marriage, part 2

Last week, I gave the first part of what I called “Ten Commandments of Marriage.” If you missed them, find them here. Now that you have those first five down pat (piece ‘o cake, right?), here are the next five:

6. Laugh together. Life is funny. Sometimes it’s ha-ha funny, sometimes it’s LOL funny, and sometimes it’s are-you-kidding-me-right-now funny. A healthy couple learns to laugh at the funny stuff, as well as the stuff that’s often only funny after the fact. Laughter is a true bonding and uniting experience for two people who are facing all of life together. One marriage and family therapist has observed this truth: Unhappy people reserve laughter for everyone but their mate. Don’t let that be you. Don’t laugh apart; laugh together.

7. Pray together. Even when you don’t feel close to each other, praying together brings you together before the One who holds you together. Praying together is an act of faith, a commitment to unity, regardless of how you feel that particular day. Praying together says: We need God smack dab in the center of our relationship. Without God, we don’t have a prayer. Literally.

8. Never stop doing life together. To me, this is the reminder that we can’t let our marriages slide into a rut, where, for example, every Saturday is the same, or every evening is spent in front of the TV. Instead, marriage should be about going on the adventure of life together. As often happens, though, the adventure morphs into just going through the motions. Psychologist Arthur Aron tells us that doing adventurous things together draws couples closer. So, take the challenge. Don’t let the TV or the internet be the extent of your time together; when you go out together, don’t fall back on the predictable dinner-and-a-movie. Try something new, together. You’ll probably find that it helps you do #6 above. And, if it’s crazy enough, you might find it helps you do #7, too.

9. Learn to listen well. Even though this is #9 on my list of commandments, that’s not an indication of its importance. Listening well is vital. I remember reading someone say that half of ministry is listening. As a minister, that’s a helpful reminder for me. But I also need that prompt for my marriage, too. True listening (the put-down-the-phone-kind-of-listening) is what we need from each other, and what we need to offer to each other. And it needs to be non-judgmental, too. There are plenty of people at our jobs, or in our extended families, who are happy to listen in order to assess our weaknesses and mistakes. That’s not the kind of listening we need from our spouses. Healthy listening is the kind that helps your spouse give voice to her deepest feelings and needs. Often, I think you’ll find that when you truly listen, your spouse will find she is able to give voice to the challenge she faces, and to the way forward. Which means – you’ll look awfully smart, without hardly saying anything at all.

10. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart. I don’t believe any marriage makes it very long without the pull of other attractions. The couple that doesn’t think it can happen to them is the one that … invites it to happen to them. This means that healthy boundaries must be established. Unfettered internet access can be deadly; work relationships without proper boundaries can be devastating; an unguarded heart can lead to broken hearts. The wise couple recognizes: Yes, it CAN happen to us. And they act accordingly. John Leax writes: “As part of the marriage ceremony, a couple promises, before God and gathered witnesses, to be faithful to each other until separated by death. This promise is not demanded by sentiment; it is demanded because everyone present at the marriage knows the truth of human nature. Both bride and groom will change. Ambitions, new dreams, other bodies will attract them. Their only hope for success will be the reach of their vow.”

Their vow: the promise to live and love together til death “do us part.”

As Ephesians 5 points out, this amazing thing called marriage is actually a reflection of Christ & the Church. A picture of love and redemption. Of sacrifice and unity; and sacrifice for the sake of unity.

Easy? No way. Will it take a lot of effort? Absolutely. But in a world where faithfulness and commitment are in short supply, marriages that last are a glimpse of grace and growth. And also a place where Jesus is reflected.