September 2, 2015
Years ago I was at a conference where the featured speaker was one of the well know “gurus” of the “church growth movement.” If you don’t know what that means, well… not sure how to explain but I’ll try. You may remember Robert Schuler. He was one of the first proponents of this “movement.” Essentially it was the intended direction of many churches in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and into the 2000’s where the emphasis was/is on getting more and more bodies through the doors on Sunday morning. Sadly, too many people saw it as a way to “save the church” and not as the way to “save souls” or draw people closer to God. Anyway, the conference I attended featured one of the well-known speakers from that movement. He told the following story. He was doing consulting work for a local congregation and was told about an older man who attended worship each Sunday but had no other connection to the church. He sat in the back, came in at the last minute and departed as soon as possible. He was gruff, cynical, impatient and most folks just avoided him. The consultant decided he wanted to visit the man and discover why he attended church at all since he didn’t seem to like anything about it. When he asked the question the response was this. The older man got very somber and said, “Because church is the only thing in my life that doesn’t change.” Setting aside for a moment how we might feel about change in the church, that statement is very “telling.”
Last week I wrote about God being a God of surprises who is unpredictable. Not inconsistent I should add, just difficult at times for us human beings to get a handle on how He might respond to His creation. So we worship a God of surprises and yet I believe that most if not all of us long for what the older man was seeking. I really think we desire predictability and consistency in our lives. Think about it for a moment. What do you want at the end of a long, hard, tiring day? Do you want a surprise party in your house where people act in all sorts of outrageous, maybe comical ways and don’t know when to leave? Do you want to have an adventure on your way home by getting lost? Do you want to stop at your favorite eatery and discover that it’s under new management and everything is different? Not at the end of the day you don’t! You just want to go to YOUR home, and walk into YOUR front door, and flop into YOUR bed. We want what we know; we want our norm; we want predictability. And yet we worship a God who is not predictable.
Don’t get me wrong… I enjoy “change” and “variety” as much as the next person… under the right circumstances. Mostly that means under the circumstances with which I feel comfortable. Which of course implies predictability which undermines the notion of change which… get it? Even those of us who appreciate change… well, we don’t really want it a good part of the time. I know, someone is going to say, “But young people like change.” Really? Tell a 12 year old you are moving to a different state. They will be leaving behind everything they have ever known along with friends and family. “Oh boy!”, they say, “I love change!” I think not. As a matter of fact they may be so angry they refuse to speak to you. They just think they like change. And yet they can watch the same thing on television over, and over, and over again. What they really like is not being bored. But they like their bed at the end of the day as much as we like ours.
Ah yes, the God of surprises in the midst of a world desperate for stability and certainty. What do we make of that?
Well let me say something seemingly contrary to all I have said so far… God is in fact VERY predictable. It’s predictable that God will love us no matter what. It’s predictable that God’s grace is free and undeserved. It’s predictable that God is present in all circumstances. What’s not predictable is “how” God might do those things. Love for example means saying “no” at times. We don’t live in a world of “no.” We live in a world of permission, tolerance, acceptability and varied lifestyles, but not a world where the word “no” is appreciated or practiced. So when God says “no” we question who He is, whether He exists or whether He is in fact a God of love. Doesn’t love mean “never having to say you’re sorry” and “yes” to all things?
Well, not only is God a God of surprise and predictability, but He is a God of “no” on many occasions. Read through the Old Testament and you will find over 600 laws, many of them laws of “no.” Jesus himself spoke in terms of “no” on many occasions. Maybe the most well know of those “no” passages is one that is often quoted incompletely:
John 8: 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I have heard this passage used as a proof text for “not judging” others. I’m okay with that on some levels, but the conversation about “judgement” will have to wait for another time. Notice how the passage ends. Jesus tells her that he does not hold her life choices against her. BUT he goes on to say “NOW STOP DOING WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN DOING!”, i.e., “No.”
The great deception that has been perpetuated by many in our culture is that you cannot say “no” and love someone at the same time. (Good thing my kids don’t think that!) Granted it’s hard, but it’s who we Christians are called to be.
Don’t be surprised when God says “no.” Nor should we be surprised when God “predictably” loves us beyond measure.