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September 27th, 2015

Member Care circulates healing in the body of Christ.

Colossians 3:12-17

September 27, 2015

What God prefers

In all my years of preaching, there’s one line that I hear quoted back to me more than any other:   “God prefers imperfect intimacy to outward conformity.”  It was from a sermon I preached three years ago on Jeremiah 31:31-34 I titled “The New Covenant.” God anticipates the covenant he will make through Jesus and says, “They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.”  That last phrase gripped me as I thought about my family.

When Linda and I married in 1978, we had no delusions that we would have a perfect family.  But God being our helper, we wanted to do it right by him.  We took a marriage and family course in Bible college together so we could learn and discuss what it means to be a godly family.  We learned that Mom and Dad should put their relationship first.  Divorce is not an option.  Don’t go to bed mad. Don’t fight in front of the children.  Teach them God’s Word.  Lead them to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord.  Let them see you in prayer and worship and Bible study.  Prioritize date nights.  Spend time with your kids as a priority.  Balance discipline and love.  Make family devotions a priority.

Looking back, I would say we did all that, and did it fairly well.  Ask our young adult kids.  But they will also tell you something was missing.

This is what they say now: you were too good, setting a standard we couldn’t live up to.  We don’t even know how to have conflict with a spouse because we never saw you fight.  Our son Phil says he had a lot of doubts about his faith but he didn’t think he was supposed to have doubts.  If he asked a question, he received clear instruction on what the Bible says about what’s true and right.  What he didn’t hear was validation that it’s OK to ask questions.  He stopped asking questions.  Our daughter Cara once said to me, “I wish you had known how much pain I was in.”  Our daughter Jeni said, “The whole time I was growing up, I never saw you cry.”

Philip said it perhaps most poignantly as he reflected on those years:  “We knew your faith; we didn’t know you.”  I now realize through all those years I was parenting for conformity.  I was not parenting for intimacy.  When your kids are young especially, obviously a certain amount of conformity is necessary.  But at any age, it can’t be at the expense of intimacy.  While I never thought we did have, or could have, a perfect family, I did have an ideal in mind for my family.  I know realize that when it comes to relationships, even striving for an ideal sabotages intimacy.

When God says of the New Covenant, “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more,” it means that this covenant is not about outward conformity, like the old covenant.  What the cross makes possible is for God to overlook our sins so that we can get to his deeper longing – for us to know and be known by him.

I’m still learning what that means in family relationships.  What would it look like for a church to prioritize imperfect intimacy over outward conformity?  We come to our sixth core value: “Member Care.”  What does that mean, and how does it foster intimacy?

Core(inth) Values

This year at Corinth a Strategic Planning Team is envisioning what the next five years might look like for us.  They are asking for your help.

A few weeks ago, we invited members and attenders to tell us what they see when they look around now at Corinth.  We asked you to tell us where you believe Corinth currently excels.  Way at the top of the survey responses:  Worship & Music and Teaching & Preaching the Bible.  Four other responses formed a second tier of strengths:  Prayer, Welcoming Visitors, Facilities, and Children’s Ministries.

In the same survey, we listed the same categories and asked where you would like us to improve in the future.  The top four answers were Connecting New Members, Discipleship and Personal Growth, Fellowship and Community, and Community Service and Local Outreach.

Now the Strategic Planning Team is asking you to respond to a second survey.  The new question is which Key Initiatives we should for the next five years.  If you are a member or regular attender, we’d like your feedback today or tomorrow.

The current sermon series arose out of this survey process.  As we consider strategic planning, we need a fresh grasp of our Core Values.  The issue is “Why We Do What We Do.”  What drives us as pastors, church leaders, and the congregation?

We have identified six of these core values.  The two legs represent movement outside the church to share the gospel (Evangelism) and meet material needs (Compassion).  One arm is raised to represent Worship, and the other is bent to represent our being fed by Scripture.  Discipleship is following Christ, which is both a personal process and a shared journey.

Member Care is about relationships in the church.  It’s about the “one another” commands of the New Testament – greet one another, pray for one another, love one another, submit to one another.  It’s about the unity of the church, hanging in there together because what we have in common supersedes our differences.

Which of these Core Values do you think we should prioritize in time, energy, and money? I’m not asking which ones are most important, because they all are or we wouldn’t call them Core Values.  I’m asking which one(s) you think the pastors and leaders should emphasize the most, preach on the, invest the most money in, focus on – not just in the next five years but all the time?  Work on that while I keep talking.

I now want to turn your attention to Colossians 3, where Paul is in the middle of a section of his letter applying his Gospel to this church.  All six of the Core(inth) Values are included in at least one of the commands in 3:1-4:6.  When we zero in on 3:12-17, the focus is on what I’m calling Member Care.  Every verb and pronoun in this section is plural:  “Y’all clothe yourselves with compassion….Y’all let the peace of Christ rule in y’all’s hearts….Whatever y’all do, y’all need to do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.” This togetherness is what I mean by Member Care.

1.      Embrace imperfection (vv. 12-14)

The phrase that grabbed my attention in Jeremiah 31 was, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  God says, “I want intimacy with you while you are still ‘wicked.’  I will not let your sin – past or present – create a barrier.  I just want you to know that I know you and I want you to know me.”

In verse 12 Paul says to “dress yourselves in empathy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”[1]  Why does a church need those?  Because they’re at different places, spiritually speaking.  There’s imperfection in the community!

Verse 13 hit me the same way.  Paul continues of this imperfect community, “sustaining each other and forgiving each other if any of you has a complaint against someone.  As the Lord forgave you, do likewise.”

Why would you need to “sustain” (hold up/support) others?  Because they’re  imperfect.  How could you forgive a complaint (“grievance” in NIV) unless there is one?

Verse 14 continues the theme by suggesting an overcoat of love – “the bundle of completion.”  Love is either a perfect bond among equals, as in the love that exists within the Trinity, or it is about intimacy where one or both partners is imperfect. This whole paragraph presupposes that the community is full of people who are a long way from where they need to be – which is why they need compassion, forgiveness, and most of all, love.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II German martyr, says that Christian communities often break down because they began as a “wish dream.”  Someone has the vision for an ideal church – one that will finally get it right where all others have failed.  Bonhoeffer says that Christian community is a “divine reality” not an “ideal.”  Why does the wish dream to “get it right” in a church destroy intimacy?

In your mind, what is an ideal Christian community?  One where everyone tithes? Everyone shares the gospel?  Everyone gets involved with the poor?  Everyone’s in a small group?  Everyone worships in a certain way?  Everyone’s committed to prayer?  Nobody gossips?  Nobody drinks?  Nobody’s a racist?  Nobody uses porn?  Everyone’s theology is correct?  All the families are intact?  Everyone volunteers?

Once when our Consistory (church board) was having a conversation about getting more people involved – you know, fighting the 80/20 rule – I said to them, “Let’s keep in mind that we’re not going to fix this.  If we had 100% of the members using their gifts in some way to serve at Corinth, we would be doing something wrong.”

Why is that?  Because the only way to get to 100% service is by enforcing outward conformity. When you cast a vision for whatever you think is an ideal community, those who don’t measure up have only two options – hide or leave.  Those who believe they do meet the standard become proud and condescending.  Then they hide or excuse other areas that the church never talks about.  So, for example, if we don’t tolerate gossip, those who do gossip will do it out of ear shot.  Those who don’t gossip will feel very proud of meeting the standard even though they beat their wives at home.  If our ideal community is one where nobody uses porn, those who do will make sure they never admit it, and those who don’t will think their lack of concern for the poor doesn’t matter.

Earlier in this chapter, Paul says to put to death a whole set of sins – lust, greed, anger, and so on.  Then he follows it with “Do not lie to each other.”  That may sound like another sin to avoid, but I think he’s saying that we need communities where we don’t have to lie.  We can be honest about our sins.  Don’t cover them up.  We need a community not where it’s OK to flaunt sin, but if you’re a sinner, of any variety – not just a past sinner but a current sinner – you can admit it and still belong.

So when someone says, “Do you realize your church tolerates a lot of immature Christians,” you might respond, “You say the nicest things!”  Inside your head you’re thinking, “So that’s why I feel so at home.”

In other words, we want to be a community where Member Care is not conditional.  We don’t care for you if you behave – if you come to church, if you join a small group, if your morals are right, if you serve.  We care for you because you’re here.

2.      Make church safe (vv. 15-17)

Paul continues in verse 15, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts….” (NIV).  “Peace” is shalom in Hebrew; eirene in Greek.  It’s a state of wholeness, wellness, security, safety.  “Let Christ’s safety take charge in your hearts, since to this you were called as one body.  And be thankful.”  A warm blanket of safety needs to characterize our fellowship.  When someone exposes a habit or doctrine or even opinion that is out of step, the response shouldn’t be an anxiety that creates separation but a calm response that moves us closer.

Verse 16 says, “Let the language of Christ lavishly move in with you, as you continue instructing with all wisdom and reminding one another with psalms, hymns, and Spirit-songs, singing to God with thankful hearts.”

Notice that it’s not about giving up standards for right and wrong, for truth and error.  We “instruct” and “remind.”  What I love about that verse is this mutuality.  It’s not that there aren’t spiritual gifts of teaching or that some are better at singing than others.  But we all have something to give each other.

Finally, he says in verse 17, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Remember, these are all second person plural verbs and pronouns.  This is not about what you do out in the world as an individual.  It’s about “whatever you do” when you’re among believers.

When I use the phrase “Member Care” as a Core Value, what I mean is how we interact with each other in “whatever we do.”  It includes “teaching and admonishing one another” and “singing together, which we would consider more “spiritual” acts.  It also includes specialized caring, like a support group or Stephen Ministry or taking a meal to someone who had surgery or sending a card when a loved one has died.  It includes just saying hi, getting to know someone’s name, sitting in the same seat every week because those are the people whose story you know, eating dinner in a foyer group, sending a card, posting a birthday message on Facebook, pulling weeds on a Work Day, planning a committee in a committee meeting, throwing a football in the courtyard, watching a ball game or going out to eat with friends.

We prioritize those simple acts of connection at Corinth.  Does this sort of Member Care really rise to the level of a Core Value like Evangelism or Discipleship?

A couple of weeks ago I ran across the statement that there are 1035 commands in the New Testament.  I went looking for a list.  I found out the 1035 commands are found in 683 verses of the New Testament.  I then copied and pasted those verses into an Excel spreadsheet and categorized them using our six Core Values.  I wanted to know what the New Testament emphasis is.  Which areas should we stress most often?

Here’s the result of my very imperfect analysis:  Compassion – 28, Evangelism – 51, Worship – 77, Scripture – 82, Member Care – 210, Discipleship – 228. It’s not about whether a particular Core Value is important.  But what needs the most emphasis when you teach the Scriptures?

If you think of the church as a body, a very biblical analogy, Member Care is the circulatory system.  At least a week before my annual physical this fall, I will have blood drawn. Before Dr. Parker checks my hearing or taps my knees to note my reflexes or listens to me complain about the pain in my knees or the cramps in my toes, he will review my labs.  The blood will reveal more about my health than any external function.

The blood delivers nutrients, hormones, oxygen, and water.  It carries away carbon dioxide, ammonia, and other toxins.  Member Care is the church’s circulatory system.  Member Care makes possible every other function.  There is power in the blood.

To follow that health analogy, it’s not we are inattentive to health threats.  It’s not that we think spiritual injury or disease (sin, to use a biblical word) is OK.  One of the reasons we undertake strategic planning is so that we can pay attention to ways in which we can improve.  But while we’re always trying to do better, we remember that the quest to be ideal actually works against itself.  The ideal Christian community is not the ideal.

The Soul of Shame

Dr. Parker told me one of the key functions of blood is healing.  Whether you have a wound or a virus, without your circulatory system your body can’t heal.  He told me that on the day I finished reading Curt Thompson’s new book, The Soul of Shame.  Dr. Thompson will be our keynote speaker for the Family Life Conference October 9-10.  (Please register by October 1 and encourage others to do so as well!)

In chapter 8, Curt tells the story of a young man named Eric who came to see him.  Eric could have been one of my children.  His family was a strong Christian family whose motto was, “You don’t have to be perfect, you simply have to do your best.”    In Eric’s family, the children learned that if they said something unpleasant at the dinner table, that wasn’t their best.  If they struggled with doubts about why God allows suffering, they needed to pray about it.  Eric crumbled under the burden of always having to be his best for Jesus.  Curt says shame in this family wasn’t about abuse.  It was a “subtle undercurrent of perfectionism.”  Bonhoeffer would call it a family “wish dream.”

What was missing in that family was the same thing that was missing in mine.  Curt Thompson calls it vulnerability.  Is it safe to name my struggles with the places where I am not my best, or do I have to hide them because they don’t meet the standard?   I wish I had heard and applied as a young Dad what Curt said: “When we share our own vulnerabilities with our children, we send a powerful message to their brains that they are not alone in their own weaknesses.” I’ve been working on vulnerability as a Dad, because it’s never too late.  I’m also working on it as a pastor.

Curt says that shame is universal.  We learn it before we can use language to express it, and it affects everything about us.  As I read his book, I wondered why God uses families and churches to change lives.  If all parents grew up in shame (and on some level they did), and all churches add shame (intentionally or otherwise), why didn’t God create ideal communities where the shamed can be healed?

God apparently knows that imperfect communities are the actually the best places for imperfect people to move toward healing.  Oh, that does make sense.  If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t look for support among those with no history of addiction.  You find your healing in a community of people who always see themselves as recovering alcoholics and who simply determine to share the recovery journey together.  It’s safe there because everyone admits their story is essentially a variation on the same story.  AA would never have helped as many people if it weren’t about addicts helping addicts.

Somewhere we got the idea that church is supposed to be about strong Christians helping weak ones grow in discipleship.  If Curt is right that shame is at the root of what keeps us from God and from each other, then all we do when we even try to be a perfect church is add shame to fellow sufferers already bowed with shame.  If, on the other hand, we throw that warm blanket of safety (“peace”) and unconditional acceptance (“love”) as we teach and admonish and sing the word of Christ to one another, we allow healing.

Shame doesn’t transform lives.  Relationship does. Member Care simply brings us into constant contact with one another where the healing can take place in community.  We offer one another the gift of our shared imperfection.

And why can we do that?  Paul begins this section, “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved…” (12).  Do you know whose you are? Do you know that you are known by him, fully known, that nothing is hidden from him?  Do you know how he sees you in Christ? Have you embraced that your sins are all counted as if they never happened because of the blood of Christ?  And not only your sins but the sins of every believer in the community?  Do you know how much you’re loved and wanted?  Do you know you belong to him?

And do you know you belong in this imperfect community we call Corinth Reformed Church?  When you do, that’s Member Care.  The more that kind of vulnerability and acceptance circulates in the body, the more of Christ’s healing takes place.  There’s power in the blood.  Amen.

[1] The Scriptures today are mostly original, in some cases modified from the New International Version.

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