Church is a Collaborative Project

ballchain

By Joe LaGuardia

Christianity is a collaborative faith.

In a letter to churches in Corinth, the apostle Paul confronted several congregations that were arguing with each other.  No two churches were alike and each one served a purpose in the Body of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 12:27, he wrote, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”

Fortunately for us — 2000 years removed from Paul’s situation — collaboration is still highly valued in our society.  Businesses, organizations, and individuals that value collaboration succeed.  We have sent men to the moon and rovers to Mars all because of the cooperation of thousands of individuals.

Non-profit and governmental agencies that promote teamwork are able to combat social ills that have long plagued society.  Churches that cooperate in the public sector not only fulfill part of Jesus’ Great Commission, but thrive in a marketplace in which the lines between secular and sacred often blur.

Rockdale County enjoys a great deal of collaboration on multiple levels.  The Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families, for instance, hosts a free networking lunch monthly for non-profits in the area.

I’ve attended several of these lunches, and I’ve met so many different leaders, laborers, and clergy who also cherish the value of partnering together to resolve some local issues that need tackling.

Without this network, we would have to go it alone; and, for a church as small as Trinity Baptist, going it alone means not being able to reach out as effectively as we hope.

For far too many Christians and churches, however, collaboration still brings with it a sense of fear and anxiety.  Some churches believe that they cannot collaborate with organizations that do not share their exact political or theological beliefs.  They would rather “reinvent the wheel” than partner with another organization that is already making a difference in the local community.

Such churches feel that in order to collaborate they must compromise their convictions.

This approach brings with it more issues than one might initially guess. For one, a church that refuses to collaborate assumes that it has all of the answers and knows exactly what a community needs.  This is not always the case.

Sometimes, Christians can be so brazen about their theology that it actually works against the impact their church can make in the community.  It may also exacerbate needs rather than resolve them.

In other situations, a church that assumes it has “all the answers” can sometimes fail to ask the right questions.  Where social economic justice is concerned, this can mean the difference between a church enabling dysfunction instead of empowering a community to become economically sustainable.

Failing to assess needs can lead to dependence rather than interdependence or, better, synergy that utilizes all of the creative gifts that can benefit an entire spiritual ecosystem.

Such differences of opinion within Christ’s Church is not new.  Paul’s admonishment to churches in his own era prove that divisions and squabbles will always pervade church and society.

Yet, we must be passionate about reaching out, communicating what we have to offer, and seeing ourselves not as lone rangers in a threatening prairie of dry spiritual barrenness, but part of a much larger Body of Christ working within a vibrant oasis of plenty in which God’s Spirit is already present.

May we be ever mindful of our neighbors and the partnerships we share, for we have more in common than we know.

Next week, we will continue this conversation about collaboration as it relates to racial reconciliation in our community.

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Take time to be with loved ones

Japanese MapleI have spent a lot of time in gardens this year, more time than ever before.

One of them was a large garden–Gibb’s Gardens up in Canton–and the others were gardens of those who attend my church.  At church, we have been working on a prayer garden of our own for our 30th anniversary as a congregation.

Each garden I visit, I have to remind myself to slow down, enjoy the view, smell the flowers, and appreciate the beauty and wonder of all that God has created.

The other day, for instance, I was visiting Fox McCarthy’s garden.  You may know him as the man who ran a Japanese Maple nursery in town.  He must have upwards of 100 Japanese Maple trees on his land right now, and for almost every one of them he stops and says, “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

Before, I would have simply said, “It looks just like the last 99 trees you showed me;” but, now, I have learned (and the secret to enjoying a garden is learning and listening!) to see every tree and every flower as unique and beautiful, a result of mother nature and God in partnership with one another.

It was during this same trip that Fox and I were remembering some people who passed away this last year.  His wife, one-time county commissioner Barbara McCarthy, and my father died within 8 months of each other.  (This Saturday would have marked my parent’s 44-year wedding anniversary.)

We recalled the great things we remember about their lives, and we recalled all of the people that we’ve met at the different funerals and memorials we attended.

Fox asked a question I won’t easily forget: “At these memorial services, you meet all of the people who were touched by the lives of the deceased.  Why haven’t we met half of them before that day?”

In other words, why do we turn out in droves when someone dies and come together as a family only after someone leaves our presence on this earth?

I thought about this more, and I realized that the very same patience with which I enjoyed those gardens is the same patience I need in the relationships I have in my life.

My family should not have to wait for me to die in order for all of us to enjoy the company of good friends and family no matter how much distance separates us.

We need to put our relationships with others back on our top-priority list.  If you’re like me, you’ve been working too hard and for too many hours to spend time with loved ones.  You make excuses, and you let days or even years pass before you call a cousin or a friend with whom you needed to connect.

Ever since my father’s passing, I have made an intentional commitment to spend more time calling my cousins, siblings, and family or by writing letters to them every so often.

There is something special and intimate when you take time to write or call someone just because you are thinking about them.  On holidays, such contact is expected; but, on ordinary days like today or tomorrow, it comes off as a real blessing.

As Fox and I stood in the midst of those uniquely, well-adorned Japanese Maples, I realized that I stand in the midst of people whom I have failed to keep in touch with.  I have failed to encourage people and remind them of their unique beauty in the Lord too.

The poetic, Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes encourages readers to enjoy one another and let tomorrow worry about itself for “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9, 10).

As we enjoy all that spring and summer affords us, let us foster the friendships and family relationships that have long been torn asunder by time, distance, and seasons of separation.

 

The United Church

UnityTexts: 1 Corinthians 1:4-10; 2 Chronicles 5:5:11 – 6:3

I.

I took an immigration class in college in which my professor stated that the description of our nation as being a melting pot was inaccurate.  We are more like a tossed salad, he told us, in that we are mixed together but we maintain our own identities.  A tomato is still a tomato even if it mingles with lettuce, and its unique flavor adds to the mix.

I like to think that church is the same way, except I liken churches to stews.  Sometimes its tasty; other times it can be a bit soupy.  All of us are unique and we think differently.  We see things from different perspectives.  Sometimes we even disagree and do so fiercely.  But the fact that we still join together in worship week after week even after some heated Facebook and email exchanges is a miracle.  Our diversity, although trying at times, is a gift.

When the Bible referred to Christ’s Church as a Body, this is what it was getting at: We all play different parts, but our goal is to be united.  We are Christ’s Church, not our own; we are called to transcend beyond those things that we don’t have in common in order for us to rally around what we do hold in common: worship, ministry, missions–our love for Jesus.

This month, we are exploring different ways to be Christ’s Church in the world.  Last week, we talked about what it means to be a worshiping church.  We celebrate Christ and set our sites heavenward because only He is worthy of all our worship.  This week, we are exploring what it means to be a united church.  I feel like I am speaking to the choir this morning because this church is very harmonious and collaborative; but, we need reminding now and then.

II.

In my personal devotions, I’ve been studying the book of 2 Chronicles.  Like the books of Samuel and the Kings, it is considered history.  And, like the books of the Kings, it records the rise of Israel under David’s leadership, its expansion under Solomon’s leadership and the eventual disintegration of this nation through civil war and strife.

In fact, Israel was quite a fractious nation to begin with.  One of our parishioners likens ancient Israel to present-day Afghanistan: a nation marred with tribal and regional factions not unlike that ancient nation of old.

David and Solomon were powerful enough to unite the small country.  They did so by rallying the people about what they had in common: Their identity as the people of God, their mission to the rest of the world, and worship at a centralized location, that is Jerusalem.

Our scripture lesson for today in 2 Chronicles 5 is but a piece of a larger narrative in the book that records Solomon’s construction and consecration of the new Temple.  He moved the ark there upon its completion, gathered all of the priests throughout the land, rallied some pilgrims and had a dedication like no other.

The Bible tells us that it was during this time that the people united around that central place of worship.  Only when their hearts sought God first were they able to overcome their differences.  Second Chronicles 10 says that the unity was solidified by those who “set their hearts to seek the Lord.”   That is the lesson of the Chronicles.

III.

When we take a closer look at our lesson, I think we can learn a thing or two about how to grow as a united church.  First, let’s take a look at 2 Chronicles 5:11-13a:

“Now when the priests came out of the holy place (for all the priests who were present had sanctified themselves, without regard to their divisions, 12and all the levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kindred, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with one hundred twenty priests who were trumpeters). 13It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord…”

In this text, we see that the priests had to come together “without regard to their divisions.”  This means that they had to put their differences–be it regional or tribal–aside for the sake of a larger purpose to which they were called: namely, to worship God and to see God’s own purposes come to fruition.

They also had to work at becoming “one body”: All the musicians, singers, priests, and artists had to “make themselves heard in unison.”  This was not easy and it took work.  We here at Trinity often say that we are a “liturgical” church.  The word “liturgy” simply means the “work of the people.”  In other words, despite all our differences, we have to work hard to make our church become a beautiful tapestry that both honors and reflects the very glory of God.  We do so in “praise and thanksgiving,” not with a cacophony of disharmony, in-fighting or divisiveness.

I can hear Paul’s own lesson echoing in the background when he made an appeal to the churches in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to be in agreement, that there be no divisions among you; that you be of the same mind and purpose.”  What mind is that?  We are called to take on the mind and purpose of Christ.

Although this church is quite united, there are differences that still threaten the church’s very unity.  This is not unique to our church, so it is important to consider these threats.

The first threat to unity comes from generational differences.  We experience various generations having different preferences for how to do church, worship, and discipleship.  When we come to church for God rather than our own preferences or even without concern for our own “needs” or desires, however, then we can overcome the things that might differentiate us.  All of us sacrifice something to be a part of the community, and none of us can get all of what we want in any one worship service.

Other threats to unity include cultural and ideological differences.  We all have our own opinions, ideologies and partisan leanings.  All of us have our various upbringings and cultural traditions.  All of us, however, must bow to the Lord who is Lord even over our own ideologies.  If we don’t submit our ideologies to the Lord, then our ideologies can become idols.

A third threat relates to ecclesiology, a fancy word for “how to do church.”  Many of us have particular views of how to do and be the church.  I think that the single most important factor in this is that we all think about how we are the church in our own community rather than trying to be perfect in some ideal sense of the word; we have to bring the church to others or else we can spend the rest of our time naval-gazing in self-reflection on how we can improve this or that.  Every church is imperfect, and every church needs improving; but, that fact can’t dominate our ability to be the church for one another.

A united church is one that has a commitment to unity.  It is intentional in respecting differences, but it is also intentional in setting our hearts towards the one Lord we all have in common.

IV.

Next, in 2 Chronicles 5:13b-15, we read:

“…And when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.”

Here we see that once the people became united, the very glory of God filled the Temple.  The people stood in amazement and adoration in the midst of God’s very presence.

I am reminded here of the song, “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus of Galilee..,” for all of us need to remember why we come to church in the first place: To witness and bear witness to the acts and movements of God, not for our sake, but for the sake of God’s glory.  We need to stand amazed now and then, and be awed with our experiences of God in this place.

We don’t keep that experience to ourselves, however…our experiences must be shared with others.  It must cultivate a spirit of missions and outreach, as well as greater adoration and compassion.  Texan pastor, Kyle Childress wrote in Gathering Together that…

“The more we worship the God we know as the Trinity the more we move from discrete individuals to a community, a single Body of Christ.  At the same time, as we learn to practice a shared life with each other, we also come to know this Trinitarian God in deeper and more profound ways” (p. 4).

God’s glory can only fill a place in which the hearts of the people are united and the focus–and our adoration!–remains solely on Christ’s lordship over all.  A united church has a shared experience of God.

V.

The last part of our scripture lesson today says this:

“Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would reside in thick darkness. 2I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to reside in forever.” 3Then the king turned around and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood.”

Here we see Solomon blessing the people.  This is a physical and symbolic reminder that God called the nation of Israel not only to be the people of God but to be a blessing to all nations.  I like how this story is told in 2 Kings: it states that when Solomon faced the people, he lifted his hands towards them.

Whenever we commission, ordain, or even welcome someone to the family of faith here, I ask that you reach your hand forward as a sign of blessing.  That’s because a community held in solidarity is one that is blessed and is a blessing for others.  Why, the basic function of priests is to bless and be a blessing.

When we leave this place every week, we engage in our various ministries in the world.  We all go our separate ways and join with God in reaching different communities, be it at work or in families.  However, we all hold in common one of the reasons why we do ministry: to bless others.  That is what we have in common, even when we are separated by geography.  A united church blesses others.

VI.

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend time with the youth.  I gave them the time to ask me any question they wanted about the Bible or church or religion.  One of the youth asked about church attendance: How much can we “miss” worship services before God gets angry?

There was much to address in this youth’s question, but I simply told him that I view my relationship with God like my relationship with Kristina.  Because I love Kristina, I want to do the things that she loves and I want to be with her whenever I can.

Same with God: We make up the church because God loves the church, and we gather together because its a biblical way to show and express our adoration for God.  Let us do so, not by abandoning those things that make each one of us unique, but by testifying to the power of the Spirit to make us one in Christ and to unite us around those things that we hold dear and in common.

*Kyle Childress, “Worship and Becoming the Body of Christ,” in Gathering Together: Baptists at Work in Worship, ed. Rodney Kennedy and Derek Hatch (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), p. 4.