Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Come. Sit. Stay. Stand. Shake hands.Fetch. Play dead.(Stuff you do at church)

You might think I’m continuing the saga of dog behavior. But last month’s message was actually about God’s unfathomable love for us. And this one isn’t about dogs at all.

I grew up in a church-involved family. When I was little, our congregation met in the Christian school’s gymnasium, and we sat on taupe metal folding chairs. My brother and I could not talk or fidget. Those services seemed to take hours, considering our stubby little legs were dangling above the floor. The services seemed more interesting after I was elected a church pianist at age 10, because I was actively involved instead of a spectator.

Our web site coordinator, Laura, said that the last time she sat in the church transept (the families-with-fidgety-kids section), her five-year-old and a little friend, instead of going on a sanctioned mission to help with the offering collection or to listen to a story, actually ran downstairs to play tag. Laura figuratively collared and leashed them, and walked the naughty puppies back upstairs to obedience class.

Sometimes church attendance is like an obedience class. We learn the rules, like where not to be seen doing bad things like chewing on the pew (or, um, a church member). We learned to come every week on time, bathed and brushed. To sit. To stay and not fidget. To fetch an offering check to the deacon. To shake hands at the greeting time. To howl on command during the music. To play dead during the sermon—oops, not during the sermon, but certainly on Tuesday night, when someone wants help at a committee meeting.

Is any of that “proper” behavior meaningful to the Lord? Is that what He wants: churchy acts? We’ve kept the commandments and lived morally pure and physically healthy, without even a traffic violation. We’ve volunteered for the church in many roles, attended every meeting through the week, contributed offerings and service year after year. We’ve got catechismic responses, when the doctrines are discussed. We’re pretty good then, right? Exceptionally good, compared to many folks that spring to mind.

When the rich young man (Matthew 19) came to Jesus and said that he’d kept all the commandments since his youth, and asked what more needed to be done for salvation, Jesus commended him, but said to go and sell his possessions to benefit the poor, and then come and follow Jesus. So was salvation earned by behaving well plus helping the poor? Or was Jesus saying to throw—even waste!—every self-saving act and self-preserving resource to the winds, and fall at His feet in utter dependence on His sovereign mercy?

Being “good” without divinely-inspired love is unnecessary noise (1 Corinthians 13). All my “righteousness,” because it is of my own devising, is meaningless. It’s worse than that, really, because I’m so blinded by my own lack of “badness” and so full of pride in my respectability and all the points I’ve won, that I can’t see how truly arrogant and needy I am. Jesus told a parable of a man who accumulated much wealth, but when the man congratulated himself, there was no one to listen. Family and friends had been discarded or tossed away.

Being good is not the opposite of being bad. On a bar chart, you’d put badness at the bottom and paint it black; and moral, respectable behavior fractionally above it, painted dark gray. But where’s the pure white marker, the divine nature? It’s off the scale. Won’t fit on the paper. Because that goodness is nothing we can work for or even aspire to on our own. Only God is good. Only God gives the “goodness” that counts. When He creates a new heart within us (Psalm 51), He pronounces it “Good,” in the same way that He did of all His work at the Creation. That is grace.

To “sit pretty” in church or live a moral, respectable life is only a false sacrifice. “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” 1 Samuel 15:22 KJV.

What does God require of us? To obey His law of agape love for God and man, certainly. “ Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NIV. To be like Him: humble, merciful, generous in giving and forgiving, loving, compassionate (Micah 6:8). To reflect His light not only to those around us, but even to our own worst critics—ourselves. To worship Him not in the way we think it ought to be, in a “worship service” of tasteful music and an educational sermon, but the way He modeled: in loving service to His people—all the people He died for, even the ones we don’t approve of.

What are you doing at church? Sitting pretty, or helping the Shepherd round up those strays?

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