Dread is probably too tough of a word. But I am a little concerned about my first day back at the gym when everything opens up again from the COVID19 lockdown. I’m trying to do some exercise now, but it’s not the same and when I finally make it back to the weights and inclined treadmill – I think it’s going to kill me.
Anticipation is the right word though when I think about the first Sunday morning back with my church family. Like many churches, we are doing what we can with technology to share my sermons and stay connected, but it’s not the same. Yes, life has been different the past six weeks and thus people have been forced to take stock of what’s important and remember deeper truths. I hope that when we move out of this dark valley we will see central truths about the church as well. Though there are more, here are five of those truths about the authentic church I hope people will see.
1. The True Church is the People.
Are we closed or open for business? If church is merely a Sunday morning gathering club, then yes, we’re quite closed right now. Yet when we unpack the word, church, it identifies the people of God who are called out of the world to himself. The church is the people and not the building or program. I hope we will see that while we may not be able to meet together in large numbers, we are still called to live out our mission for Christ and those around us.
2. The True Church is a Team.
Christian work is not reserved for the professional leaders while everyone else does their worldly job and merely shows up on Sunday morning to be taught spiritual mysteries. Rather, Paul notes in Ephesians 4:11 that the role of leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Coach and player might be the right feel here. Every Christian is filled with gifts and talents needed to advance the ball down the field as we work together. I hope that when this is done every follower of Jesus will see their unique and essential role in the Kingdom.
3. The True Church is a Family.
“God’s Family” is the actual phrase Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:10 and I have loved seeing some of that play out in my local church. I have seen our church family checking on and supporting each other, continuing to support the mission financially, and the numerous little acts of love like when a team of volunteers went out to sing from the sidewalk to seniors who cannot get out at all. We are loving each other the way God intended for us to do and I hope that this will continue with an even greater fervency in the future. People need a family and that is what the church is.
4. The True Church is a Life-Saving Station.
After the resurrection of Jesus, he gave the first believers what we now refer to as the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20. Here he called them to make disciples the world over. Some will suggest that this commission was meant for the first disciples or professionals in ministry. But the context of the New Testament does not lend itself to such an interpretation. On the contrary, the apostle Paul referred to everyone in the church as “Ambassadors of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:20. As an ambassador, our mission is the mission of our king. Jesus declared his mission in Luke 19:10 as one of seeking and saving those who are lost. I hope that we will see that when Christians leave the church assembly on Sunday morning they are truly leaving the lifesaving station to go out into the world to reach the lost just like the Coast Guard leaves their shelter in a perilous storm to save drowning sailors.
5. The True Church is not to be Taken for Granted.
The first gatherings will be exciting when the lockdown is lifted. The question though will be the following months as life yawns into routine. It’s sad, but how often do we decide to attend, or not attend, the local assembly based on how we feel that day or what we may or may not get out of it for ourselves? When we do this we forget the purposes of the true church. When we do this it becomes less important and is eventually dropped to the bottom of our priority list. This has been the case many times in history dating back to the first century where the author of Hebrews exhorted the first Christians to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another.” In thinking about our time apart, maybe we can remember that in some countries, today and throughout history, Christians have been forbidden by atheistic or Muslim governments from gathering together. When this season passes, I hope we can see how much of a blessing the weekly gathering of the saints is and work to never take it for granted again.
At this writing, I don’t know when the restrictions will be lifted. The opening may be gradual and I’m sure new safety efforts will be put into place. But it is my hope that whenever and however we return, it will be with a renewed passion and energy for the body of Christ. Jesus built the church and the church is his bride. God’s heart is for the church and I hope that when this season begins to draw to a conclusion, your heart will be drawn closer to the church as well.
I’ve never been a boxer and the last time I was in a fist fight was in the spring of 1988 when I was actually trying to break up a brawl when one of the combatants jumped me. But I’ve come to appreciate the phrase, roll with the punches, which is originally from the sport of boxing. It is the practice of strategically moving one’s head back and forth away from the opponent’s glove to lessen the impacts of blows. But there is a larger application to the statement than sports.
The first time I remember hearing the phrase was back in 1994 while serving as a missionary in Moscow, Russia. When I heard “we’ve got to roll with the punches, Steve” it came from a mentor who was advising me on how we needed to respond to an unexpected situation. In daily life the battle phrase is often used as an encouragement to adjust with flexibility and thus withstand and even find victory amidst ever changing and even negative circumstances.
With all the changes going on these days, this phrase certainly seems appropriate. Earlier today I was looking at my 2020 wall sized calendar on which I had sketched out a general path for the new year back in January. Now we’re making plans for streaming Easter services online instead of logistically planning for people to gather in our church building. Life has changed. While the present COVID19 situation is certainly a unique example, the reality is that life seldom goes exactly as we would like. Accidents happen, people get sick or make choices we weren’t expecting, and often our plans are sidetracked by something or someone else.
But we don’t have to allow the blows of life to dictate our thinking and actions. We can roll with the punches. As noted, I’m not a boxer and don’t know how long I’d last in the ring. But here are three simple starting pointers that will help maneuver through the punches of life that come our way.
1. Decide to take a deep breath and keep calm.
One verse that has continuously rung through my head over the past month is from 2 Timothy chapter 4 where the veteran apostle Paul is encouraging the young evangelist Timothy. After a charge to continue preaching Christ no matter what, Paul told Timothy to “keep his head in all situations.” We don’t know everything that Timothy was facing in his day, but this exhortation would obviously apply for us now. It’s so easy to let our imaginations run wild or to begin making judgement calls when we don’t have all the data. This is especially true when we are bombarded with a news media that thrives on fanning the negative while ignoring the positive.
2. Deliberately look for good.
In thinking of Paul again, I’m reminded of the book of Philippians which was written when the apostle was in prison for Christ. Despite his bondage, Philippians is truly a book of encouragement in which Paul concludes toward the end; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Yes, this season of COVID19 will bring pain. But we can choose to look at the recovery cases which don’t always show up as headlines and the tiny pieces of good around the globe which are often swept under the rug of panic. One example in this season of chaos, is that we are seeing people take stock of what is really important in their lives and that is a good thing.
3. Do what you can control.
Personally for me, fear has not been a big emotion in this season. Anger on the other hand has been something I’ve had to wrestle with. I know that there is usually something deeper at play with anger and I suppose that probably one underlying issue for me is just all the things that I simply cannot control. This past fall a wise man rightfully encouraged me to leave most of the uncontrollable things alone and focus on what I do have control over. This principle is something that made U.S. Grant such a great general in the Civil War. While many Union officers were consumed with worry about what general Lee of the south was doing, Grant continued to push forward with what he could control and eventually brought the Army of Northern Virginia to it’s knees and a conclusion to the war. So maybe a huge help for us would be to honestly admit that there are things in life we cannot control. Then we can let them go and have the freedom to focus on what is in our power right now to change for the good.
Today, right now, I can . . .
-Own my own mistakes.
-Get up and keep fighting after a failure.
-Continue to readjust and plan for the future while all the while holding it gently in my hands.
-Make the most of the immediate and present relationships and opportunities right in front of me.
-Thank God for the small blessings around me each day. Wow, I really do love hearing those birds early in the morning each day in my front yard.
-I can encourage someone else who is struggling and trust that God is still on the throne no matter what life brings.
What would you add?
It’s funny, as I actually recounted the “roll with the punches” phrase a few days ago to one of my children. After I shared it, I had to stop and wonder if they even knew what I was talking about. It was a life lesson for them and I hope that it will be an encouraging pointer for you as well.