Here is my Church Write-Up for this week:
A. I went to the LCMS church. The text on which the pastor focused was Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9. The pastor said that one of his favorite books is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is a modernization of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. Much of that book revolves around a debate between an educated Chinese man and another person over the meaning of the Hebrew word timshal in Genesis 4:7: is God telling Cain that he has the ability to master sin, to choose good and to avoid evil? Well, in Deuteronomy 4, God is speaking to the Israelites as if they have the ability to choose. The problem is that we all have our personal definitions of good, and we use those to reassure ourselves and to condemn others. When we encounter God’s objective standard in the Ten Commandments, we see that we fall short. The solution is God’s nearness to us, for Deuteronomy 4:6-8 talks about God’s nearness to Israel and the righteousness of God’s law. The pastor recalled something that existed before GPSs, called Triple A Triptiks. They were maps that had an orange line marking people’s itinerary. He got to sit in the middle and hold the map when he was a kid and the family went on large family trips. The map guided them, telling them to turn here and there. The pastor likened that to God being with us as we walk the path of obeying God.
B. I then went to the largely African-American Baptist church. The sermon there was about service, and the text was Matthew 20:20-28, in which Jesus teaches about service. We try in life to exalt ourselves, and we measure our success by how many people we have under us; we look forward to retirement, when we do not have to deal with people anymore. When we serve, we try to serve those above us because that can exalt ourselves. But Jesus taught another way: we also serve those whom society considers unimportant, even when nobody is watching. I thought about the ministry of Jesus: he went about doing good, trying to enhance the lives of others by healing (Acts 10:38).
C. I then went to the “Pen” Church. It was playing a video and telling stories about last week’s service projects. One of the projects, incidentally, was at the home for unwed mothers that spoke to the LCMS church weeks ago! Back to the “Pen” church: someone talked about a homeless person who wanted to join the church because she was impressed by the service that people were doing. The pastor then preached, wrapping up a sermon series that he was doing about happiness. The pastor shared one of his famous quotes by actor Jim Carrey, about happiness not being found in fame and fortune. And Jim Carrey knew what he was talking about, since there was a time when he earned millions of dollars for each movie he was in! The pastor talked about the importance of being rooted in Christ (Colossians 2:7-9). Strong roots are planted in water, so that the plants thrive even when the weather is bad. The Bible likens trusting in God and meditating on God’s law to putting our roots in water (Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:8). We do this as we conform to God’s blueprint for our lives: Jesus made a similar point when he talked about building our house on a rock, the foundation of his teachings, and how storms cannot threaten that (Matthew 7:24-27). Part of conforming to God’s blueprint is by un-clinching our fists of trying to be in control, and letting God through the Holy Spirit work in our lives: so many times, Paul exhorts believers to “let” such-and-such happen. The pastor told the story about someone who recently joined the church. This man was moving towards his 80s and wanted to spend that decade of his life serving God. He moved close to the church and got involved in small groups. He became a Christian when he was a child and had committed a crime, and the next decades were filled with addiction and alcoholism; he likened his marriages to holding his wives hostage! But he joined twelve-step programs, and he has found that, to keep out of his own head, where he can get mugged, he needs to be a mentor and to have a mentor.
D. I listened to the sermon from the “Word of Faith” church the night before. Apparently, the series on the Book of Revelation was not over! The pastor made a variety of points. He said that the Babylonian system in Genesis 11 tried to climb its way up to God, when God wants to come down and dwell with us. He said that God does not call us to love every single person but to love and serve our neighbors, those near us. And even then, our allegiance and love is directed towards Christ, and that is what motivates us to love our neighbors. The pastor likened showing love to difficult people to the faithfulness unto death that the martyrs of the Book of Revelation possessed! The pastor said that it is easy to give to a food bank, but that the Gospel is letting the homeless dwell in our homes. I thought of Isaiah 58:7, which says regarding the fast God has chosen: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (NRSV). The pastor also talked about the importance of focusing, not on programs (evangelism, social justice), but on Jesus, then the evangelism and justice will fall into their rightful place. He shared that the church does not focus on songs about God filling us up, as if the focus is on us, but rather on songs that exalt Jesus.
E. This last items will be personal reflection. I have no intention of inviting homeless people to stay in our home! That can be dangerous. Did not Jesus tell his disciples to be wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16)? I think that giving to charities that can serve their needs is the way to go. On faithfulness unto death in my relationships, I remember something that another pastor said: we love Jesus as much as we love the person we love the least. The thing is, when I hear that, I just resign myself to saying, “Well, then I have problems loving Jesus, then!” On service, I am thinking of helping out with an LCMS project this week. It is within walking distance (I don’t have a car). I am reluctant to do so because I do not know many people, but, as someone online told me a year ago, the thing to do is “Just show up!”