Biggest Loser?

A couple of days ago, I shared some observations on the idea of the church losing members in a time of transition. After noting that a co-worker and brother had worried about “stopping the bleeding,” I shared my ideas with him. He then shared his ideas with me.

Let me just start by saying that it is good and healthy when members of the body can share their different takes, even in a somewhat passionate manner, and still remain friends. I’m pleased to say that we’re doing that.

I’m also pleased to admit that his response pointed out a significant flaw in what I said–or at least a limitation. After mulling the thing through the afternoon, I’d like to share this.

Who’s Your Gardener?

First of all, it is biblical and understandable that, in a time of significant change, there will be pruning of the church. But actually there will be pruning during other periods as well. Jesus made that clear in John 15.

But here’s the key thing. In that discourse in John, Jesus never hands us a saw and clippers, sending us to start chopping on things. Whatever pruning that gets done should be done by God.

It’s our job to treat everyone the same, showing them the same value that Jesus showed them by offering himself for them. I think the attitude we’re to effect is reflected in what Paul says to the Corinthians, culminating with this verse:

To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.

1 Corinthians 9:22

Here’s what it boils down to. There will be pruning. There is a gardener. I’m not the gardener.

We’re Not Managers

When I talked about the church needing to lose the fat and keep the muscle, I was piggybacking on Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body. That’s sound, but it is, like all metaphors, limited. Some idiot, who might have been me, suggested something worthy of the most draconian Fortune 500 CEO:

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

Really? What pathetic excuse for a servant of God would say that? Sure, if all we care about is the short-term profitability of the organization, then that might make sense, but we’re concerned with more. In fact, that statement was callous and wrong for several reasons:

  • Church members are not static. I know a woman who two years ago was a disaster and today is putting most of us to shame. Who’s to say what other “fat cells” will morph into something powerful?
  • Fat and muscle, while easy to distinguish in the human body are not nearly so easy to distinguish in the church body. God can make that call, but it’s not for me to do it.
  • Finally, this attitude is just mean-spirited. Many people who leave the church will not go to another. Shouldn’t I care about them? Shouldn’t I grieve over them?

The Bottom Line

So to my brother, concerned with the “bleeding,” I thank you for making me look at my own words from a few steps back and realize that while I will stick with most of what that said–especially the personal responsibility we all have to become more spiritually fit and less fat as individuals–I never want to be guilty of taking lightly even one person who leaves us. I think Jesus shared his feelings on those matters pretty clearly:

And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:5-6

Body Fat Percentage

As I’ve mentioned here, my church is in the process of replacing a popular pastor. It’s early days, and a certain amount of uncertainty hangs in the air. Last week, at a committee meeting, a dedicated brother spoke passionately about his perception of the present season: “We have to stop the bleeding.”

The “bleeding” that this man perceived was an apparent decline in church service attendance. Frankly, I’m not sure, in the middle of July, that we can really see a dramatic reduction in numbers, but I’ve never been good at eye-balling crowds. Let’s take his perception as true. Let’s assume that we examined the numbers and discovered that, in the wake of the pastor’s departure, we saw a 20% reduction in average attendance compared to the same time last year. Should that cause alarm?

The Bleeding

Bleeding, I’m told, is a good thing. Last week, I cleverly rammed my left thumb onto the sharp point of some garden clippers I held in my right hand. It hurt, but then it bled. That bleeding let me know that I needed to stop my work and attend to the wound. It also, so I’m told, cleaned out any of the dirt and debris that might have been injected into the wound by the clippers. Bleeding can purify.

But of course bleeding can also kill, so let’s not get too giddy over that bodily process. What I would ask my friend to consider is that “bleeding” might not be the best metaphor for what we’re seeing.

Pruning and Dieting

One of our pastoral leaders used the term “pruning.” That has the advantage of being biblical. In John 15:2, we read of God as the gardener:

He cuts off every branch in me [Jesus] that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

That would suggest that if people leave, they do so not on their own volition but as God cut them away. Pruning makes sense, but I’d like to suggest another metaphor.

Looking in the mirror this morning, I was reminded of something that has been nagging me for more than a year. I need to lose weight. At the same time, however, I find that I don’t have all of the strength that I had a couple of years back. If I should manage to get myself back into discipline and drop 10 or 50 pounds, I want to ensure that what leaves my body is fat and not muscle. In fact, I’d like not just to eliminate fat-weight but add some muscle-weight.

The Fat in the Church

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

We’re using these metaphors, both the pruning and the weight-loss ones, to refer to the entire body of the church, but we could also apply them to the individual within the church. Just as I look in the mirror and realize that I’ve allowed my physical fitness to get away from me, I can–in fact I should–look at myself as a spiritual creature and recognize that I’m not as fit as I should be.

What if every member of my church, starting with me, were to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror? What if they were to truly evaluate their dedication to Christ and to His body? What if we were to all ask ourselves some hard questions, rather than saying, “What the church ought to do is . . .” They might ask:

  • Should I be using my gifts in service more than I am?
  • Should I be spending more time in God’s Word?
  • Do I have a proper burden for the unsaved people around me?
  • Am I giving an appropriate amount of my money to build God’s kingdom?
  • What’s the state of my prayer life?
  • Am I wasting time, money, or energy on the vapors of this world that will be gone in a few years?
  • What am I doing to ensure that my church is a tool for God’s projects?

The list could continue. If 20% of our people would take seriously such a self-evaluation, if only one in five were to honestly ask and try to respond to these questions, then we would be stronger and more fit even if we did lose 20% of our total number.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, far too many of us respond to our spiritual obesity in the same way that we respond to our physical obesity. We think good thoughts, generate good intentions, and then eat a big bowl of ice cream on the couch.

Just as it was important for me to stop my bleeding last week, it is vital that truly committed Christians take seriously their own spiritual fitness even as they aim to be part of the solution for the whole church body.

That process, my friends, will begin with me. How about you?

Habit Established!

I’ve done it! I’ve established the habit. With this being the last day of March, I can happily report that I’ve written an entry for Tune My Heart every day this month and actually through the last week in February. That’s almost 40 days, and most of the self-help gurus, Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and the like, agree that you can establish a habit in 21 days. Apparently, that figure comes from Maxwell Maltz, whose book Psycho-Cybernetics, serves as a sort of Bible for people who don’t want to use the Bible to improve themselves.

With my 21-day habit almost doubled, I should find daily blogging doubly established as a habit in my life. There’s just one problem. I’ve done this before. I’ve gone months regularly posting entries, sometimes writing not just regularly but every single day. And then I’ve seen that habit fall by the wayside. If you can establish a habit in 21 days and it then goes away, how much of a habit was it?

Maybe I just didn’t go long enough? Maybe I need to keep posting daily through April. That’s what science seems to tell us. And we know that science is never wrong.

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.

For all the wisdom that is in work by either scientists or by people like Maltz or Ziglar or Robbins or Dale Carnegie, they frequently lean more on human understanding and ability than on God’s understanding and ability. They ignore the short and long-term effects of sin in gumming up the machinery of our lives.

The book of Judges in particular and the entire Bible in some ways records a pattern of habits: sinning and then returning to God and then falling away and then returning. It’s summed up in Judges 2:18-19:

Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for the Israelites, the Lord was with him and saved the people from the power of their enemies while the judge was still alive. The Lord was moved to pity whenever they groaned because of those who were oppressing and afflicting them. Whenever the judge died, the Israelites would act even more corruptly than their fathers, following other gods to serve them and bow in worship to them. They did not turn from their evil practices or their obstinate ways.

I have established a habit. Whether it is good for you or not, it is a good habit for me. Will I allow this habit to fade away like I have before? That’s not my intention, but I wouldn’t be shocked. Sin has a way of corrupting all our behaviors.

We can’t say that this is okay, but it is the way of a fallen world. And if I could succeed by following the prescriptions of Maxwell Maltz or some other best-selling guide to self-actualization, I really wouldn’t need God, would I? And we know that won’t be happening.

 

 

Get Your Motor Running

tired-runnerYou’ve probably had the experience: You set out on a longish run. Let’s say you’re going five miles. You know you can do five miles. Five miles is a piece of cake. (And by the way, if you’re thinking that five miles is more like a sledgehammer than a piece of cake, you can get there eventually.) You could do five miles without breaking a sweat. (Okay, maybe not that.)

But then, 100 yards into your five miles, you feel as if you are going to die. Your lungs are heaving; your heart is pounding. Your legs are saying, “No!” Everyone who has ever run has experienced this. To a degree, we will get the same feeling when starting out on a bike, playing basketball, or doing anything else that pushes the body very hard. Happily, this feeling of impending death does not last. If you push through it, you’ll find yourself a mile and half down the road saying, “Hey, this is pretty easy. Five miles is a piece of cake!”

Jason Saltmarsh takes up this topic in a recent article, artfully titled, “Why does the first mile of my run suck so much?” Not only does Saltmarsh explain the physiology leading to those first-mile agonies but he offers advice as to how to lessen the blow.

Basically, what’s happening is you’re forcing your engine to work (aerobic state) before it’s had a chance to properly warm up (anaerobic state). I bought a Subaru a few months ago, and now I sit patiently in my car and wait for the little blue light on the dashboard to go off before leaving home. That little blue light goes off when the car is warmed up, the fluids are moving around nicely, and it’s ready to go.

Like so many things, that physical warm-up has a spiritual parallel. Have you ever had a hard time settling in to pray or to read the Bible? At first it seems hard. No, your legs aren’t complaining, but your brain might be saying, “You have other things to do.”

A few years ago, I attended a prayer retreat. During Saturday morning, the schedule called for an hour of solitary prayer. An hour. How was I supposed to prayer for an hour. I fidgeted. I shifted. I got distracted. I was in my first mile. But then I hit my stride. The “blue light” went off, and I prayed. When the hour expired, it was too soon.

The beauty of both running and spiritual disciplines is when you get past that initial warm-up period. When we get there, prayer seems like something that could go on forever. The Bible is something to linger within. And the miles don’t seem endless.

The Endless Hunger

woman-praying-silhoutte-168fe02ec159dbda85f31317c4972b91I’m writing this just before lunch at the office. A container of kung pao chicken is waiting in the fridge. I need to take a couple of steps behind me, loosen the lid, and then start the microwave. Or I could step to my right and open the file drawer that holds raisins (including yogurt-covered ones) and a few other morsels of non-perishable goodness. I am hungry.

Or am I? My guess is that when I say, “I am hungry,” I only mean that my body truly needs food about one time in twenty. Instead, I’m really saying, “I want to cram food in my mouth” for a variety of possible reasons. Right now, it’s probably to avoid actual work.

Esther Crain catalogs eleven reasons why you might be hungry. These include factors such as eating the wrong things (as opposed to not enough) as well as matters that have nothing to do with eating. One that caught my eye was eating because of stress.

Who hasn’t dealt with a high-pressure workday or relationship rough spot by giving into cravings for a pint of Rocky Road? But stress has a sneakier way of making you voracious. When you’re tense, your system ramps up production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, says Rumsey. Elevated levels of these hormones trick your system into thinking it’s under attack and needs energy, so your appetite starts raging. Stress also reduces levels of the brain chemical serotonin, and that can make you feel hungry when you aren’t, says Moon. Consider it a case for making it to yoga class more often, or cranking up a soothing playlist on your commute home.

I mention this because as pervasive as stress is in our culture, the Christian has tools at his or her disposal that can greatly diminish the weight that stress places on us. As therapeutic as yoga might be, prayer and meditation in God’s Word can certainly bring more power than twisting yourself into a pretzel and chanting “Om.” The problem is that too often we fail to make use of the spiritual disciplines.

Whether it is to grow closer to God or to eliminate stress from your life–and I’d argue that doing the first will inevitably lead to the second–you should not ignore the power that getting close to the Creator can provide.

Talking to Ourselves–Mark 1:35

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

 In the various movies of recent decades in which God has made an on-screen appearance–I’m thinking here of George Burns in Oh God and Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty–we discover among the rather commonplace morality that Hollywood can espouse the inevitable oddities of language that would naturally follow when God himself speaks. When George Burns is sworn in to court, he finishes the oath by saying, “So help me me.” You have to wonder if God, in their mind, would text “OMM.” But then how can an omniscient God be sufficiently surprised to want to text such a thing?

Obviously, those who write such scripts either never read or didn’t pay close attention to Job. Somehow the smug Morgan-Freeman God doesn’t quite seem like the one who asked, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” If those writers were creating a scene surrounding Jesus in today’s verse, they’d have something like this:

Peter: Hey Jesus, what are you doing out here?

Jesus: Just talking to myself.

Peter: Whoa! That sounds crazy. Next thing you know you’ll claim to be God!

Happily, they haven’t written that script, but the question does arise: If Jesus is, as we claim, God Incarnate, then why does he need to go out and pray to himself? Like the trivial oddities of language that the oh-so-clever Hollywood writers deploy in their comedies, the oddities that come when you suggest a character as fully man and fully God simply demand attention.

In reality, I can’t understand the behavior or plumb the thoughts of my own wife after 30 years of marriage. How could I ever hope to understand the God-Man in all his complexity. Answer? I can’t. But I do observe that Jesus, “being in very nature God,” did roll out of bed early in the morning and head out to pray. Perhaps he need the prayer time to keep him from simply obliterating the petty and self-serving people who claimed to be his biggest fans!

This morning, I rolled out of bed with the alarm, went immediately to the bathroom and performed my morning routine. What I did not do was brave the chill to spend a few minutes in prayer. You’d think, needing it so much more than Jesus did, I would follow his lead more carefully, but I didn’t. How about you?