The Church and Stuart Larkin

Only sick, twisted people like me ever watched MadTV.  Don’t judge me!  But there was one recurring character by the name of Stuart Larkin (played by the hilarious Michael McDonald) who just made me howl.  Stuart was a a little borderline-albino, simple-minded, manipulative boy, who was very large for his age.  His catchphrase was, “Look what I can do.”  He would repeat this phrase to a group of adults until everyone would pay attention to him.  Then when he had everyone’s attention he would just sort of jump around wildly.  It was high quality entertainment!

So, what does this have to do with the church, you are probably asking yourself.  Here’s the deal, throughout the past 29 years I’ve been in ministry, I’ve seen churches do some pretty wild things to get attention.  It’s as if the church has had some kind of Stuart Larkin syndrome, yelling out to the community, “Look what we can do!  We can talk like you.  We can put on dramas and produce cool videos like you.  Look at us, we can dress like you.  Hey, we can dance like you and we can serve Starbucks like you!  We can even drive Harley’s onto our stage!  We ROCK!”

Now, I know I am prone to cynicism.  Sarcasm is my middle name!  But I have just been wrestling with the whole idea of the church scrambling for attention like some preschooler trying to get everyone to look at them.  I really think it’s time we grow up.  We need to understand that it’s not about us.  We need to be giving attention to Christ and not to ourselves.  We shouldn’t be robbing the spotlight that should be focused only on Him.

This morning I was reading Matthew 6.  The first verse caught my attention, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”  I realize Christ is talking here about not doing good deeds in an effort to be seen by others.  We are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing.  We are to serve in secret so our Heavenly Father who sees in secret will reward us.  But I think this principle also holds true in this situation.  We shouldn’t be so concerned about getting the world’s attention, as we should be focusing on God and serving people.  Especially when the church comes together in corporate worship.  Worship is about telling the story of Christ and the cross, not a time to wow the audience with some great publicity stunt. 

I believe when we love God and serve people, we are acting as mature believers.  We are being salt and light in a dark world.  We are loving as Christ loved, humbly without fanfare.  Stuart Larkin may be funny, but he’s totally obnoxious.  I pray that’s not how the world sees the church.

Full Moon Reality

I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Houston (pronounced “House-ton” in NY) handing out gum and invitations to a new church in Manhattan.  As people ascended from the subway station I would offer them free packs of Wrigley’s.  It’s a pretty effective way of getting the word out that there’s a new church in town.  People are pretty responsive and appreciative of free gifts.  But often they assume there’s a catch, some kind of string attached.  But that’s the point of servant evangelism, “Showing God’s love in a practical way with no strings attached.”

As I continued my gum give-away, I noticed a woman aimlessly wandering the area.  She was wearing several layers of tattered and mismatched clothing.  Her matted hair was partially tucked under a dirty stocking cap.  It was apparent to me that she was probably homeless.  She wandered up and down Houston Street talking to herself and sometimes walking over to another woman who appeared to be her friend or acquaintance. 

One thing I’ve figured out doing free give-aways is that sometimes people pass by the first time ignoring my offer.  But then they notice other people taking my free gift and realize it really is free.  So they turn around at the corner and come back to get their gum.  It’s pretty humorous to recognize these patterns of human behavior.  So since this homeless woman kept walking back and forth passing me each time, I assumed she was trying to get up the nerve to approach me for the gum.  Kind of like a stray dog who can’t decide whether to trust me or not when I’m trying to pet him or give him a treat.  So, I just stood there, waiting to see if she would ever come over to take the gum.  She never did.

About that time, I realized a big crowd of commuters was coming out of the subway station, so I busily passed out pack after pack of Big Red and Juicy Fruit.  When you get a big crowd like that, you kind of get into the zone, using both hands reaching in and out of your backpack like a two armed robot.

After the rush died down I got a chance to take a breather.  I stepped away from the steps of the subway and leaned up against a lightpost nearby.  As I took a deep breath, I heard the graspy, tired voice of the woman’s friend saying “Oh my God!” over and over again.  I looked up and to my amazement and embarassment, the homeless woman was relieving herself in the gutter, just ten feet away from me.  I quickly turned away from her fully exposed moon and walked around the corner.

In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about how he will seperate the sheep from the goats.  The scripture says he does so on the basis of whether of not we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked.  He says that when we do that for the “least of these” we have done it unto Him.  This scripture shows us that however we treat those in need, it’s as if we are treating Jesus the same way.  If we help them, we are helping Christ.  If we abuse them or ignore them, it’s as if we are doing the same to our Savior.

So this scene with the homeless woman in New York haunts me.  This woman was in need of assistance.  She didn’t need gum.  She didn’t need me eyeballing her to see if she’d take my free gift as if she were a stray dog.  Yes, she was obviously mentally unstable or dealing with some kind of drug or alcohol induced stupor, but none-the-less, she represented Christ to me.  She was the “least of these.” 

So, here’s my question.  If this homeless woman represented Christ to me and she was mooning me, was Christ, in effect, mooning me?  Was He saying, “I’ve got a job for you to do.  I’ve asked you to feed my sheep.  I’ve asked you to help the weak.  I’ve asked you to clothe the naked and visit those in the hospital and prison.  But instead, you are offering me gum.  So, here’s what I think of that!”

I believe Christ is challenging me to stop trying to get people to come to church and instead, get the church to go to the people.

Deceived by a Lie

His name was Kyle…or was it Lance?  It’s not really important, I suppose.  It was the summer between the 4th and 5th grade and I got to go to RA camp.  Kyle/Lance was a counselor at that camp.  For those who don’t know, RA stands for Royal Ambassadors.  It’s sort of a “baptized” version of the Boy Scouts.  Most Baptist churches had RAs when I was growing up.  But there aren’t many left today.  I fear that many RA chapters had become breeding grounds for Al Quaeda terrorist cells causing them to be shut down. 

I loved RA camp at Camp New Hope.  It was rustic and had lots of interesting history.  For one thing, the campground was built around an old church that had once been pastored by Jesse James’ father.  We thought that was pretty cool.  There was also an old cemetery next door.  While we lied awake in our bunk beds in Cabin B, we would scare each other with ghost stories of “Myrtle with the Purple Girdle” who had been buried alive in the cemetery.  You had to be a 10 year old boy to truly appreciate this.

Anyway, back to Kyle/Lance.  He was a favorite counselor at camp.  He was in high school and he was cool.  He joked around with us kids and he let us wrestle and goof off.  We all liked Kyle/Lance. 

But, alas, camp was over and it was time to go back to school.  One day, I was hanging out with a friend who lived across town.  We decided to walk to the park behind his house.  As we walked through the ball fields on the way to the park we came across a disturbing scene.  There were two teenage boys beating up a little kid.  One of the teenagers  had the boy pinned up against the chain link fence and was pounding his fist into his face, giving him a bloody nose.  We stood there frozen.  As the teenager turned towards us, I realized it was Kyle/Lance!  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!  I had this sick, queasy feeling in my gut.  I was shocked, disillusioned and mortified.  My camp hero was a bully.  He had deceived us.

I tell you this story because I experienced this same queasy feeling again last weekend.  Sally and I took my mom and dad to the movies.  We had seen the hilarious trailer for a new movie by Ricky Gervais, “The Invention of Lying.”   It was rated PG and we thought Ricky was funny so we thought it would be a good choice.  Plus, there were many famous stars making cameo appearances.

The setting of the movie is in an “alternate reality” where the people never lie.  Everyone speaks the truth, even if it’s hurtful, disgusting or shameful.  There were many awkward and absurd moments and some were downright funny.  But then came the scene where Ricky’s character, Mark, discovered lying.  His mother was dying in the hospital and she was frightened.  She didn’t want to die into a “state of nothingness.”  So, Mark, overcome with grief at seeing his mother so fearful, decided to lie to her and tell her she was not going to die into nothingness, but she would, in fact, go to a happy place where everyone she loved would be there and there would be no more sickness or fear.

As people got wind of this “lie” that they believed to be true, Mark had to continue with the “deception,” so he invented a story about a man up in the sky who created everything and controlled everything.  As I sat in the theater and witnessed this, I had the same sick feeling in my gut, as I did the day I discovered my camp hero was also the town bully.  I had been deceived!  I had been enticed into the the theater with the promise of a funny comedy and instead was subjected to a propaganda film written by a closet athiest.  My comic hero was in fact a Hollywood bully.  Ricky Gervais decided to take advantage of his celebrity in order to belittle people of faith.  It was quite discouraging and bewildering.  And what was really sad was the realization of how hopeless reality is for those who believe the way Gervais does. 

So, what should we do about this?  Boycott Ricky Gervais movies?  Perhaps.   How about the other famous celebrities who had cameos?  Should we stop watching their shows and movies?  Maybe.  But more importantly, I believe we should do something else.  I think we should live is such a way as to prove Gervais and his friends wrong.  My prayer is that this would wake up Christians to start living our faith.  Stop buying into the secular worldview and start living with convictions.  My prayer is that we encourage and support movie makers who use their gifts and talents to make positive films.  I also pray that we as a culture would stop worshiping the idols of celebrity.  I’m certainly guilty of this, as I’ve shared numerous stories of Sally and me chasing after celebrities in New York City.  The more we idolize the rich and famous, the more prone we are to buy into their belief systems.  We need to remember that it doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or rich and famous, without faith in Christ, you are still living a hopeless life.  And that’s no lie!

New York Teaching Moment #2 – A Justice Fail

On our first day in New York, Sally and I discovered a street festival right outside our hotel.  They had closed eight blocks of Broadway and set up booths and tents where vendors sold everything from pastries to pashminas.  We literally shopped our way up Broadway until we reached Central Park! 

After a long afternoon of shopping we stopped by “Crumbs,” one of the many cupcake bakeries in Manhattan.  We bought an oversized Red Velvet cupcake and went outside to find a bench where we could sit and enjoy.  Just as Sally was opening the box, a man approached us.  He was a rather short fella with several days worth of whiskers covering his weathered face.  He asked if we had any money so he could get something to eat.  Sally offered him our cupcake.  He politely refused and said he really needed something a little more substantial.  I reached for my wallet and pulled out a few one dollar bills and handed them to him.  He was grateful and promised he’d use the money for food and not for cigarettes or booze.

As we turned our attention back to the cupcake, I chuckled.  I told Sally her offering the cupcake was a bit reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s offer to “let them eat cake.”  She didn’t find that humorous.  But I was feeling pretty good about myself.  Not only had I helped this guy out with a little cash, I was able to do so without him seeing the wad of twenty dollar bills bulging out of my wallet.

Now, please don’t think I’m really proud of myself for any of this.  As a matter of fact, I’m ashamed.  In all honesty, it was a feeble attempt to rid myself of guilt.  I spend lots of time doing missions work in New York, but this was a pleasure trip for us.  So, for some strange reason, I thought I shouldn’t have to be bothered with mission work on this trip.   My thought was, “Here’s five dollars, now leave me alone to enjoy my cupcake!”

To make matters worse, I found myself confronted at least two more times with panhandlers looking for a little help.  But because I had helped this man on my first day in the City, I decided I had done my job and I could now feel justified to ignore all the other requests.  I remember standing on the sidewalk in Soho, while Sally was in a store shopping.  A woman came up to me with her hand extended.  I shook my head no and turned away.  I didn’t take the time to hear her story or even make eye contact.  To me, she was a nuisance.  She was ruining my attempt at having a self-absorbed pleasure vacation.  I treated her no differently than I would have a dog that came up to me begging for a treat. 

This New York lesson was a hard one for me because it has come to me through failure.  I flunked the test.  I told God that I wasn’t willing to be His hands and feet except on my terms.  Missions was not on the itinerary.  So, now I deal with the haunting images in my mind.  I live with the regret of not praciticing what I preach.

Every human being has worth and value.  God thinks so and so should we.  As a Christ follower, I am Christ’s hands and feet, even when I don’t feel like it.  What would it have taken for me to look these brothers and sisters in the eye, to extend a hand, to express concern and Christian love, to help fill their stomachs with nourishment?  What makes me think I can throw five bucks at one guy and think my job is done?

In Matthew 25, we get a glimpse of the final judgement.  We see Christ separating the “sheep” from the “goats.”  It never occured to me until recently what the criteria was for this process.  You see, Christ doesn’t separate us based on what denomination we belong to, or if we were immersed or sprinkled.  He doesn’t ask if we are Calvinists or Arminians.   He doesn’t even ask us if we went to church or not.   He only asks us if we fed the hungry and clothed the naked.  He asks if we welcomed the stranger or visited the sick and imprisoned. 

 Isaiah 58:6-8 states, “Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?   Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily;  your righteousness shall go before you;  the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

I don’t know about you, but this has been a long and difficult lesson for me to learn.  But it really shouldn’t be that hard.  Simply give what God has given you to bless others.  I’m praying that from this point on, I pass this test with flying colors.  How about you?