Is the Church Standing Between You and the Cross?
When I was pregnant with my first son, life was beautiful. I loved being pregnant. People showed me favor everywhere I went. I’d get extra helpings of food and free ice cream. People opened doors for me and strangers would start conversations with me and share their stories tips about childbirth.
No matter how many horror stories I heard about the ugly side of childbirth, I remained optimistic. I took Lamaze classes, and carefully chose who I wanted to be in the labor room with me to witness this beautiful miracle that was about to occur.
I shunned any mention of pain medications that would make my labor easier- I wanted to do this all natural so that my baby would be healthy. And on the day I had my son, I was ready- so I thought.
The first half of labor was great. I was using all of my breathing techniques, there was calm in the room and everything was going as planned. I remembered thinking that the women who’d told me how bad it was going to be had to be pretty weak. This was going to be a piece of cake.
Then it happened; the last stage of labor. I don’t remember much about it, just that I suddenly went into panic mode. Things quickly spiraled out of control and I begged anyone who came into my room to give me drugs.
Gone was the modesty about who would see me, or the concern for hospital procedure. It didn’t matter if the people who came near me had just washed their hands while singing the “Happy Birthday” song, or if they were just there to empty the trash.
I didn’t care about the credentials of the hospital workers, or how many people knew who they were, and it didn’t matter to me if they were admired and respected among their peers- if they could help me then they were in.
Today, the torment of that last stage of childbirth is long gone. But I’ll never forget the feelings of despair and fear that engulfed me that day.
I think a lot of people are feeling the same way about the state of the world today.
The systems that once seemed safe and dependable are now crumbling and unstable.
The right education and the good job, which once brought contentment and a cushion from the human condition, can’t fix the continual state of emergency present in the world. Something tragic is always happening, somewhere.
People are tired of the pain and fearful about the future.
Those of us in the church have the answer. His name is Jesus. Everything missing is found in Him. Everything broken, only He can mend.
They will come to our churches for relief, and peace, and comfort and the certainty that only a relationship with the Creator can bring.
But are we ready to receive them? How will we, who are in the church, treat those who come to us for answers who probably won’t fit into our church culture, act like we act, or talk and dress “accordingly”?
Because the people that the King is drawing to Him, probably won’t care much about our credentials, or the petty infighting over positions and favor from people that are taking place behind the scenes of our churches.
When they come, I wonder what they’ll see: A people of God holding on tightly to titles and church order and programs? Or will they find us, endowed with the power of God, poised and ready to bring comfort and relief and able to help others in the journey to the One who will teach them His ways?
Gang- A group of friends or members of a family that claims control over a territory.
A Look in the Mirror
2018 is my year of self-reflection. Or as we say in the church this is the year that I want to get the board out of my own eye before I go after the speck in yours.
So this year I am determined to do better and be better. This means coming out of the church gang.
I know, I know, Christians don’t like to associate churches with groups of thugs that live on the fringes of society and take part in menacing activities.
But a gang mentality can exist anywhere people are, because wherever we go we have the propensity to bring with us our own insecurities and weaknesses, and the innate desires to feel important, be liked and please others.
To understand the dynamic of a gang mentality, we first have to understand the psychology that causes people to gravitate toward groups that dominate areas and fight for control over territories.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, young people join gangs for a variety of reasons including respect, position and protection.
But being a Christian is a process. Although we should always be moving away from juvenile thoughts and behaviors, and toward the transformation that the blood of Jesus gave us to exchange the dark places in our lives for the marvelous light of Jesus Christ, doesn’t mean that we’re there yet.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were two religious groups in the Bible. Although they had differing opinions, they stood united in their attack against Jesus.
The Saduccees had power, influence and wealth. They used religion for control and their own purposes. While the Pharisees couldn’t see God beyond the law.
Both were adamant about their own “rightness” and in the process missed seeing the God they were supposed to represent, when He stood right in front of them.
When He speaks to me, I don’t want to be so distracted with my own agenda that I miss Him.
Knowing What to Take and What to Leave Behind
I grew up in the church. From the time I can remember Sundays were an important part of my life.
There was always an electricity in the air at our house on Sunday mornings. We’d wake up to the music of Mahalia Jackson or my dad singing an old song by the Five Blind Boys, and the smells of my mother preparing dinner, for after church.
Then we’d pile in the car to take the 15 minute ride across town to our little Baptist church.
I always remember this church as the foundation for my Christian teaching. It was the place where I learned about faith, and community, and fellowship.
It was also the place where I learned about church culture.
Our church was like an extension of our family. Everyone knew everyone. we knew where everyone lived, and worked, and even how much money each family gave each year when the year-end report was posted on the church bulletin board.
The order of service seldom changed and always started with Sunday school. After, we’d take a break to socialize then meet upstairs for service. Service would begin as the congregation stood, and the choir would come marching in wearing long robes and singing one of three of four songs.
Then there were the announcements ,given by our church secretary, telling us who was in the hospital and what was coming up on the calendar, followed by a sermon from our pastor, and then the opening of the church doors.
This was the time for anyone who wanted to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior to come up front for prayer.
We don’t believe that the ability to draw someone closer or unconsciously nudge them away rests on those of us in the church- but it does.
Most of the time it was just us, and since most of us were already saved, this part of the service was usually short and uneventful, but every once in a while there would be visitors in our congregation.
When this happened, we’d twist in our seats and sneak curious looks at them. Or offer quick smiles to show them that we were friendly.
These visitors were individuals or families who’d been invited by a church member. And sometimes someone who’d been passing by would turn in to see.
Some of these visitors came back; some for a few weeks, some for a few months. And some of them even made the short trip to the front to sit in one of the hard folding chairs that the ushers had set out at the end of service.
But few ever became part of our church family.
We’d see them less and less and then they would disappear and things went back to normal.
I never asked any questions or gave much thought to where they went or why they left. And after some years, I grew up and away from church.
I picked my way through life trying to find my way in the world where I didn’t fit, before realizing that I needed to get back to God and to the church.
Seeing From the Other Side
A family friend, who knew that I was looking for a place to reconnect with God, suggested that I visit his church.
The first day I walked into that place, I didn’t know what to think. It was far from the church where I’d grown up or from any churche I’d ever visited.
The preacher was white, I was black. The congregation was made up of people of every color. And they were loud as they sang and clapped and shouted back at the pastor. They seemed excited to be there. But as I looked around I didn’t see one face I knew (turns out the family friend had relocated to another state).
I felt out of place and a little uneasy. No one knew my name. These people didn’t know that my dad had been a deacon or my mom used to be on the church board. They didn’t seem to care that our family was well liked and respected in our church. They didn’t know my background.
Now I was the visitor. And my flesh wanted to run screaming from that place, because I was felt uncomfortable and intimidated, but the God part of me, that part that knew I needed to be there, prevailed.
But there was something about that place.
The pastor talked about how God’s purpose included us and wasn’t just for a select few. I saw myself taking part in God’s big plan. I was inspired and hopeful, but when service was over, I promised myself that I would never come back.
The next week, I went back.
Church gangs can form when we lose sight of what God wants
Pressing in to Place
It’s been 20 plus years since that first day at a new church. I have found a place of belonging among a group of people who were once strangers to me.
My church is a place where I am free to demonstrat
e my faith, and a platform for me to grow alongside people of every race, ethnicity and station of life.
We are a church full of the power of God. A church where people who join us can find hope, and encouragement. We are a people who love God and are intentional about moving the kingdom forward.
We are rooted and planted globally and in our communities. And our Bishop, who is an advocate for maintaining a spiritual environment of unity, inclusion, and a focus on God, is always pushing us to be better.
But as people of God, wherever we gather, whether it is in a small Baptist church or in a service that is part of a burgeoning network of churches, everything we do is challenged by the things we still carry with us into every situation and into every single place we go.
They are the desires to fit in, the need for love and respect, the cravings to be liked and accepted, and the resistance to change what feels comfortable.
And there is always a battle between what we want and what God wants for us.
Sometimes we lose the battle, but if we get back up, run back to Him, and tell Him we’re sorry, He wipes our noses and puts bandages on our knees and pushes us back out there, because there is something much greater at stake; the souls of others who are coming to us for answers.
Walk it out!
“When it was evening, Jesus’ disciples came to Him saying “This is a remote and barren place and the day is now over; send the crowd away so they can go into town and buy food. But Jesus said to them, “They don’t need to go away; you feed them.”- Matthew 14:15-16