Thoughts on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and my Preemptive Refusal of the Next Challenge

I wrestled with whether to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. As one friend told me, it felt a lot like one of those ridiculous emails or Facebook posts that told me to share this with the threat that if I didn't, I didn't love Jesus. And I don't like feeling pressured to do anything.

Then I wondered about ALS and embryonic stem cell research. Others, as I have seen by their Facebook posts, wondered about ALS and their ethical treatment of animals. There may be even more issues. These are good issues to wrestle with, and we shouldn't support an organization that we feel violates issues that we care deeply about. For those who objected on issues of conscience, I salute you. I am a big fan of not violating one's conscience and celebrating the right we have to do that.

Just to share from my brief investigation on ALS on embryonic stem cell research, the embryonic stem cell research that they do is done from a grant that came in specifically for that study. They only have one study relating to embryonic stem cell research that is done from a batch of embryonic stem cells created years ago. I abhor it, yet I realize that none of the money that I donated or money from the people that I also encouraged to donate would be used for that research. So I felt, on that issue, I could donate and have a clear conscience. Others may disagree. Again, honor your conscience.

I also worry, as one of doctor friends has pointed out, that this is just a temporary band-aid over a larger wound. We have cut medical research in this nation, and this behavior is destructive for having a better future. Charity efforts like this fail to drum up the money that just transferring 1/20th of our military budget over to medical research would create. Through government initiatives, a lot more money can be invested in medical research than having everyone pour water on their heads in order to raise money for a cause.

But this is the last time that I will be joining in on an event like this. I just have an uneasy feeling left in me. I'm posting this now, so that when the next time happens - and it will happen because of the success of this one - I will just share this post. I am not against the organization doing the next attempt at fundraising through a viral marketing scheme. I am just against the peer pressure tactics that are apparently acceptable in marketing.

I have two main issues that I think are the source of my unease.

First, I hate being public about what I am giving money toward. I don't want people to see the money I give. I understand this may come across as hypocritical because I have to do some very public giving as a pastor in order to get people to donate to the cause that I want to help with. But I'm not Bill Gates with the ability to just cut a check to help whatever issue I have laid upon my heart. I have to mobilize others to join in with me so that we can do something together that we would not be able to do individually. Because of this, others get to join in on the loving actions that otherwise would not even be accomplished.

Second, I deliberately, regularly, and conscientiously give of my finances. As many people out there, we give a double digit percentage of our income away to others. This is part of our budget. And this feels awkward to admit publicly because we don't do it to receive any acclaim from any people. I share it here to show that it can be done, to encourage others to do it, and to show that I am not a selfish person when I refuse participating in the next marketing challenge. We try to live a lifestyle of giving. We spend many conversations considering where and how we want to give. And these sort of things use peer pressure and impulsiveness to increase giving. I'm just not comfortable with that.

The only thing that I hope happens as a result of this (besides finding a cure) is that we create a culture of giving in our society. I would like to encourage others to give regularly. Give away a double digit percentage of your income every week. Give generously to your church, causes you care about, and people you know who have needs. The thing I worry about in the ALS ice bucket challenge is that it may make people feel like they are super generous when they are not really all that generous. Many people who are refusing to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are more generous and loving with their money than those who have participated.

Rediscovering Church

Community is Costly

"If we can't live together, we're going to die alone" (from the Lost clip).

This becomes a little more obvious when you're in a plane crash and stranded on a hidden island. It may be less obvious when we can surround ourselves with entertainment and other things to distract us. 

In certain place that I have been in Liberia and Mexico, the community only had one television. This, combined with a desire to watch the television, caused everyone to gather together to watch soccer matches or the SportsCenter highlights. What is a tool of isolation in America because everyone has one became a tool of community in a place where the town only had one.

Yet we have everything we need. We have our own televisions, tools, cars. We have become our own self-sufficent islands. And on our islands, we are alone.

And "if we can't live together, we're going to die alone." But it's not just about dying alone, it's about actually never really living. When we live alone, we miss out on so much.

We were made for community. Some get community as it within their biological family. Others get it at work or some other place. But the place of a healthy church is to provide the opportunity to be part of a healthy community to everyone, regardless of wealth, social status, or biological family.
Long ago in a distant land, a prince dreamed of creating more than a geographical or political kingdom. He dreamed of establishing a community in which all persons were committed to each other in loyalty and equality, where every person sought the welfare of the neighbor even at a cost to the self. So the prince called a great meeting of all the heads of clans, all the wise and trusted people of the land, and dared to tell his dream. Each chieftain and his clan were invited to join in the foundation of a new society. As part of the community's inauguration, each was requested to search his cellar for the best wine produced from his ancestral vines. These treasured bottles would be uncorked, poured into a great communal vat, and blended, as the true community it represented, into a common vintage.

"How can I mix my exquisite wine with that of my neighbors?" asked one of the winegrowers invited to this covenanting. "I would sacrifice the unique variety of grape, the special climate of the year, the sweetness of a late harvest, the indefinable magic of bouquet, and I would violate my art as a winemaker. Impossible! Give up my distinct variety? Lose my separate self? I will not be adulterated in such a common cup."

So he corked a bottle of tap water, affixed his most beautiful label to the bottle, and at the time of the ritual the water ceremoniously into the vat, thinking that nobody would notice one bottle of water mixed in with all the other bottles of wine. When the covenanting was solemnized, all filled their glasses for the communal draft, the toast that would seal commitment to community. As the cups touched their lips, all knew the truth. It was not wine. It was water. No one had been willing to pay the cost of community.

A modified excerpt from from David Augsburger's Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor (60-61).

A Brief Look at Community in the Bible

Community is costly. And the early church decided to pay the cost.

If we look at Acts 2:42, we see that.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47 ESV).
They were gathering together daily. They were sharing life together. A real relationship with God has as its natural consequence, community. If we aren't experiencing community, we need to grow closer to God. We need to spend time sharing meals with brothers and sisters in Jesus. We need to spend time praying together. Taking care of each other, as we see here, is a natural part of community.

They were the church. This is the type of church we need to strive to be.

So we have to shift the way we think of church and the value we attribute to church.

The writer of Hebrews wrote:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV).
Some have given up meeting together. When they do this, it is to their own spiritual detriment. Others still attend, but they don't really encourage others. They just come to church and want others to love them. They will take, take, and take and never give back.

True community is just real friendship. It's people giving and receiving. It's a place where you belong rather than just go. A place where you know people will encourage and love you when you need it. And you look for ways to encourage and love others. This is the type of real community that we are called to.

It's overly obvious but we sometimes don't notice the overly obvious things and allow them to penetrate our thoughts and shape our life the way that they should. Jesus didn't change the world alone. He assembled a group of people to change it through. This group of people who followed Jesus became the first church. One conversion after another, we are part of that chain of disciples that go all the way back to Jesus Himself through them.

Stop Playing Church

Yet somewhere along the way, things have morphed. Our society has passed down to us a broken church, with broken people in and out of the church.

We have been taught to keep our faith personal, when Jesus always taught us and modeled for us to keep our faith relational. We are to reflect Him and have a transformative faith that changes ourselves and those around us.

True, he teaches us to love God. That may be able to be construed as just having a personal faith. But He links that with loving one another. That is relational.

The early church followed that model. They didn't follow Jesus in isolation from others; they followed Jesus together. They went throughout the world assembling believers into churches. These groups of believers learned to live a life of loving God, not in isolation, but in community with each other.

We have bought into the personalization/privatization of our relationship with Jesus. Just caving to the pressure of the secular culture around. Instead of having dynamic churches expressing the kingdom life in a relevant way, we have communities with struggling churches (struggling for vibrant spirituality, attendance, and funding). Instead of being the light of the world, churches just struggle to just keep the lights on. This shouldn't be.

Our communities aren't going to get any better by more people only developing their "personal/private" spiritual lives. They will improve when the people who claim to follow Jesus gather in a church community together and start doing life together, pray together, and serve the community they live in together. They will proclaim the Scriptures, which they fervently study together, when the opportunity arises and help out with the needs of those around them as they notice those needs and have the resources to meet them. This is church. 

Where did America go wrong?

Yet every church in my town  is struggling. And it's not just my town. Satan is winning the heart of America because he is winning the hearts of people in one community after another.

Where did America go wrong? Those who claim to follow Jesus stopped being the church. We started pretending to follow Jesus without the church, as if that is even possible. Now, before you want to project blame on someone else or something else, humor me for a bit and let me explain. I think we, the church, are at fault and are the ones that need to change.

Jesus came to establish His kingdom, not to just create Lone Ranger Christians following Jesus in their own way outside of the church. Jesus wanted to show the world the way it should live, and He did this through transitioning the Kingdom of God from the Old Testament kingdom of Israel with its military and borders to the Kingdom of God as we now know it, the church. The church is a kingdom without a military whose weapon is love. A kingdom without borders who welcomes everyone. We need to rediscover God's kingdom plan for the world, pray that it be done here on earth as it is in heaven, and begin to bring that will into this reality. We have to role to play as citizens in the Kingdom of God. And this can't be done alone. It must be done together. We need to live, following Jesus, together. We need to be the church.

A lot of the time it may come across as self-serving when a pastor stands in front of the church and asks people to be more involved in the church and to give more to financially support that church. Because it is true that if those things happen, the ministry of the pastor will often flourish.

That is not the case here. I won't benefit one bit by you getting more involved in your local church. I won't benefit any by increased offerings to your local church. But you should get more involved and make giving to your local church an important part of your budget.

Because you will benefit. 

But when I phrase it that way it is just appealing to your selfish ways. You get involved. You give more. You benefit. See the selfish appeal. 

What I really want to convince you of is that God made you for this. He made you, not to express your faith privately, but to express your faith through a community of believers. And you will probably benefit through this process. It is natural for benefits to follow in the wake of us following in God's plan for our lives.

God made us to be the church, to share life together, to love our communities, and, from there, the world. Together. Not alone. We were made for real, genuine community. We were made for life together.

Yet the world keeps lying to us, telling us to do it alone. To be self-reliant. To be self-sufficient. To be spiritual but not part of a church. Those are all lies, yet we fall for them time and time again. And when we believe the lies and live for them rather than God's truth, our lives suffer. From there, it spirals into our communities suffering. Consequently, our nation and the world follow in the suffering parade that we are grand marshalling. The lie that we can follow Jesus alone will not help us be the people that God has created us to be.

So I will not benefit one bit if you make being part of your local church community a greater focus of your life. However, if you have already surrendered your life to Jesus, there is nothing greater that you can do than to become a real active, tangible part of the church. Give your life to being part of the church. Help your local church, through the guidance and strength of God, transform your community. Be part of  a city on a hill. Be part of the light of the world. This is what God is calling all of us to. God transforms the world through transformed churches that are, at their core, just the melding together of transformed lives.
We can complain all we want about the world going to hell in a handbasket. Just seeing the news often makes us feel that way. From Iraq to Israel to Ukraine to Ferguson. It's chaos right now.

And then it may be more personal. Chaos may be entering our family life. Our relationships with friends. It may all be falling apart.

But in all of the situations we only control one person. Me. If we spend our time trying change others rather than allow God to transform us, we're really just projecting blame rather than being the necessary change.

We cannot change the world, America, or our communities through my own strength, knowledge, or methods. But we can allow God to change ourselves and allow Him to graft us into His church. Because the only reason the world, America, or this community has lost its way is because the church has lost its way. The people in the church have lost their way. And, most assuredly, the people who claim to follow Jesus but stay aloof from the church have lost their way.

The church has stopped being the hub of society. And that's not society's fault. That's the blame mentality. Blaming the world and others will get us nowhere. But if we take the blame on ourselves and say that it's our fault. It's the church's fault. It's my fault. Then we can change and, hopefully, see change around us.

Let's be honsest. Most of us aren't loving the people around us the way we should love them. We aren't showing the world the alternative plan for living that God wants us to express through being people who identify with Him and His kingdom more than we identify with any earthly affiliation or nation. 

The church isn't viewed as a safe place for sinners when we would should be the first place a sinner wants to go. 

Let's fix who we are. 

Let's stop complaining about who they are. 

Let's bring change, starting with ourselves, rather than focusing on who to blame. 

Blame is the tool of the lazy to not change. Change is the tool of God to bring about His will here on earth.

We shouldn't expect the world to be Christian when we aren't even willing to make the sacrifice and be an active part of a Christian community and radically, whole-heartedly follow Jesus with others who are also trying to figure out how that looks. 

An Alternative to SuperChristian Approach

Personal rant time. There is something that frustrates me more than nearly anything. People will watch Duck Dynasty and act superChristian. They will be political on certain issues that seem Christian, publicly proclaim a love for God and act superChristian. They will eat Chick-fil-a and act superChristian. Yet they have abandoned the church - the bride of Jesus. They expect the world to allow prayer in schools - our secular schools - when they won't even come to church and pray. The church should be known as a house of prayer, yet Christians are more concerned about getting prayer into secular schools than are they about actually getting together and praying. This is wrong!

Trying to force others to act Christian while we avoid doing the Christian things ourselves is not the response we should have as followers of Jesus to noticing that the world is out of sync with God's will. To project blame and excpectations on others is not superChristian, let alone even simply Christian. SuperChristians have taken some individualistic twist to following Jesus, wrapped the American flag around it, and act like that is the kingdom Jesus died for. But we are not to be about forcing others
to live the life of a follower of Jesus through legislation, policy, or even social or peer pressure. Instead, we should live the life of a follower of Jesus as best as we possibly can and join in with others doing the same. This is church. Living the life God wants us to live together so that others can see the glory of Him.

When we see corruption, we need to be people who live together without corruption.

When we see hopelessness, we need to be living in such a way that we are hopebringers.

When we see selfishness, we need to model what it looks like to selflessly live for others.

When we see sin, we are called to live holy lives.

Rediscovering the Way

We are to provide the answer to society's ills through letting the Holy Spirit guide us. We let Jesus take over our lives and spread His love and bring Jesus to the world around us. We are to be a people set apart for the work of God.

This is what community should be like. This is what church should be like. A group of people living this alternative life - the Jesus life, the Kingdom life - in the midst of a world that has not yet joined in. We are to be a living example of God's plan for humanity.

Church is not just about gathering together at a certain time on Sunday morning or Saturday evening. It is more than that gathering although that gathering is an important part of a group of people being the church, but it's more than that. Church is about gathering together, encouraging each other, studying and praying together, and sharing life together.

The greatest witness of Jesus to our isolated, lonely, and disconnected society is those who claim to follow Jesus actually being a community of connected people - a group of people connected to each other because of our shared love for Jesus and His plan for this world. 

The cure for loneliness is real relationships. 

The cure for what ails our world is real relationships. 

This is why Jesus gave us the cure, the church. We are part of the cure. His death on the cross empowers us to have real relationships with each other, glued together by Him. Jesus established the church because the church provides the answer for the world's problems.

All of the other places that we experience community only offer earthly help. Church offers help of an eternal nature. And people are lying to themselves if they think they are in a right relationship with God without being in a right relationship with a church family.

Satan satisfies us with just enough community in other places that it distracts us from the essential, life-changing community with other Christians.

You may be in Rotary like I was, but as soon as you have to cut back on finances and stop going to the meetings, you are out of the community. You may have community at your workplace, yet as soon as you find another job, you are no longer part of that community. You may be on a softball team and you have community with the other players.

The church is a place that is different than all of those. The church is a place where people who have different interests, hobbies, and are from different walks of life can still have community with each other because we share the same Lord and Savior. Facebook users and Facebook haters can be brothers and sisters. Democrats and Republicans can worship together. Buckeye fans and Wolverine fans can share at the Lord's table.

It's true that when we give up gathering together or give up following Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we lose church community. But beyond that, if you change jobs, lose your health, get injured, lose all your money, move, or whatever would remove you from the communities in this world, you will still have community in the church.

The church has lost its way. We aren't loving the world the way we should love the world. We aren't praying together. We aren't doing life together. When we deflect self-reflection through wallowing in blaming the world for being the world, we stop the necessary change that needs to happen. Let's fix who we are. Let's stop complaining about who they are. Let us live in community together. Let us be the church. 

Community Is A Natural Consequence

Trudging through old posts on community for a message I am working on, I ran across some quotes from Living In Christian Community by Arthur Gish.

Nothing can state my experience with Christian community like the introduction by his wife, Peggy Gish. It stirred up emotions of excitement and encouragement in me.

Here are some excerpts from her intro.
When Art and I began to talk about the need for Christian community in ourlives, it was mainly theoretical for us. Yet we felt moved in that direction and we began seeking. It was only after living and sharing more closely with other Christians that the concepts took flesh. We began to see and understand more than with our minds what community meant - but also with our hearts and innermost beings.

Not only did the church become alive to me, but I also found myself challenged to examine and deepen my own faith and commitment to God. I began to experience much more the daily leading of the living Christ in my personal life and in the corporate life of the Christian fellowship. The Scripture began to speak more directly and authoritatively to me.

I began to see that so much of the gospel does not really make sense taken in fragments, as concepts, or "Christian principles." It must be understood and experienced in a loving, sharing, deeply committed community of believers who daily lay down their lives for each other. Apart from such a fellowship, so much of what Jesus calls us to seems impractical and impossible to live out. It has been exciting and encouraging in our pilgrimage to discover groups of Christians who, in spite of their human weakness and imperfection, have been living out their faith together with real depth and power."
This book touches on what many are currently missing in their church experiences. The same passion that causes me to long for community was the same passion that God used to prompt me to plant the DC3 in Lansing. It's the same passion that made us focus on being an Acts 2:42 church in Antwerp. It will be a passion I carry with me as I leave and move on to Redford as their Community Life Pastor. I long for Christian community, not for Christian community's sake, but for the sake of the glory of God.

Too often we try to do Christianity alone. It shows up in our evangelism when we try to convince people of a belief statement in order for them to attain a personal salvation. That just isn't what following Jesus should be like. Our faith should be lived out in community as a group of believers. I discovered in Lansing, when living in Christian community that witnessing came naturally when living a collective faith. It is joining that physical, tangible Kingdom that makes one a Christian, not individually adhering to a set of belief statements and practicing the spiritual disciplines in the privacy of your home or at your favorite spot.

Now, I have to use a disclaimer here. The church really doesn't fully exhibit the Kingdom of God. The church is a collection of sinfuly yet redeemed people striving in their best way to follow Jesus. Some are genuine, some are mediocre, and some are even fake Christians.

It has always been my goal in life to be in a group of fellow followers striving for perfection. A group of people who are striving to bring God's kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. A group from which I can tell seekers, "View the faith of anyone in this church and see what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is the Kingdom of God. Welcome and see God."

Back to Peggy Gish's introduction:
To some, what is written here may sound idealistic. That has been a common criticism of radical Christianity. For me it is a living reality that I have seen, touched, and tasted. God really does give people the strength to live out the new life that is offered to us. Although still very human and imperfect, genuine community is possible for all who will open their lives totally to God's love.

Another reason for not seeing this as idealistic is that, not only down through history, but also today, many communities are actually trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount, are living in peace and unity, and are demonstrating for the rest of the world the reality of God's kingdom...However, while seeing some validity in it, most have not seen such an approach to Christianity as alive, compelling and practical option.
This view of Christian community is radical for many. Living in it is contrary to the common thinking of people about church. We'll hear, "All that matters is one's individual salvation." "There really isn't a tangible church; it is invisible." These are almost necessary lies to hold due to the sorry state of the church around us. However, they don't help foster lifechanging community. Living our lives as if those statements are true is stifling the growth of the Kingdom of God. If we want to see a revival in our towns, cities, nation, or the world, then we need to see the church become the Church. There is no scriptural basis for an invisible church. Contrast that with the often ignored yet pervasive biblical teachings about the physical Kingdom of God, the Church.
In light of this blessing of community which is offered to us, and all the biblical emphasis in this direction, it is curious that a tendency in Protestant thinking from the Reformation period to the present has been to maintain that the true church is invisible. Many Protestanst today do not even have a doctrine of the church. For them salvation is individual and, at most, there can be a gathering of individual Christians for praise and edification, but little sense of the visible, coprorate body of Christ.

Protestantism has been weak in the whole area of its vision of the church. The Reformation was more concerned with reform of worship and doctrine than the nature of the church. Many popular revival preachers openly suggest that new converst go to any existing church which suits their fancy. The implication seems to be that there are not many differences between groups, or that these differences are not important. The emphasis in the Bibles is on a visible community of faith. There is no mention of an invisible church in the New Testament nor any suggestion that the true church is the invisible collection of individual, pure Christians around the world. Although the church certainly has a spiritual foundation and nature, this is expressed in her social character and cannot be separated from it. Rather than"an external support of faith" (Calvin), the church is a necessary consequence of faith."
I like that. The church is "a necessary consequence of faith." Let us grow in faith to the point where community is just a natural consequence.

Jesus Is That Hungry Person

Article from NPR on the Homeless Jesus statue: Statue Of A Homeless Jesus Startles A Wealthy Community

Quote is from From Brokenness to Community by Jean Vanier.

"Those with whom Jesus identifies himself are regarded by society as misfits. And yet Jesus is that person who is hungry; Jesus is that woman who is confused and naked. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we all discovered that? The face of the world would be changed. We would then no longer want to compete in going up the ladder to meet God in the light, in the sun and in beauty, to be honored because of our theological knowledge. Or if we did want knowledge, it would be because we believe that our knowledge and theology are important only so long as they are used to serve and honor the poor.”