Four essentials of a church: love

Love is like heat. So many things in life seem wonderful — pizza, a shower, a cup of coffee, a seat by the window, an iron — until you realize they’re cold. After all, what do you call a morning when you step into the shower and find there’s no hot water? A bad way to start the day.

Love is the warmth of life. It sustains us, inspires us, redeems our weakness, revives our hope, restores our strength, and animates our relationships. Inversely, its absence is its opposite in effect, which is why love matters in a church.

A friend was visiting a seriously ill relative at an out-of-state hospital. After a week-long bedside vigil, she excused herself on Sunday morning to find comfort and encouragement at a local church with a friendly website. Sixty minutes later, after no greetings, zero eye contact, eight songs, and a trendy talk on gender identity, she made her way to the door. There, she was handed a plastic egg with a note inside: “Join us next week for Easter!!!”

A bit of love would have found more traction.

So, where is all the love? There’s nothing more important than figuring this out. Scripture delivers sturdy reminders on the topic. Without love, spiritual gifts mean nothing. Knowledge means nothing. Faith, generosity, and sacrifice mean nothing. Toil and perseverance and discernment and endurance mean nothing. Love must come first.

On the positive side, who wouldn’t want to belong to a group known for its patience, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, humility, and grace? Who wouldn’t welcome friends and family who see the best in you, believe in you, root for you, pray for you, honor you, accept you, care for you, serve you, forgive you, build you up, bear your burdens, comfort your soul, lift your spirits, and do you good? Sign me up!

If this is all true of love (which it is), where is all the love?

First of all, there’s plenty of it throughout the church. One sad story doesn’t mean there’s no love anywhere. But it’s not always easy to find, and it’s even less easy to practice. Love is costly, and for most of us (including myself), it needs to be learned. What is the meaning of love? Where does it come from? How does it work? What’s the right way to do it? Are there wrong ways to do it? How do you know you’ve loved well, even when it isn’t reciprocated? How do you keep loving when your tank runs dry?

These questions are worth answering because love can be learned. After all, it’s a byproduct of walking in the Spirit. But it requires intentionality.

Back in the day we heated our house with a wood stove. Fuel was everywhere (we lived in a forest), but felling, cutting, carting, splitting, stacking, fetching, arranging, igniting, and cleaning up the mess were neither easy nor natural. But once the effort was made, it brought warmth, satisfaction, self-confidence, strength, and legendary tales of log-splitting exploit. Plus, “free” heat!

The church that learns love will be a church without enough seats. But that’s OK. I’d be willing to stand in the back of such a church.

Taking root and bearing fruit.

People leave. They leave marriages, families, churches, communities, and companies.

Leaving can be innate, as when birds leave nests. It can be natural, as in leaving town for a new job elsewhere. It can even be necessary. Dangers, deprivations, and emergencies insist.

But just as often, leaving reveals brokenness. Something isn’t working, so we leave.

Such departures seem mandatory in the moment, but there are reasons to reconsider. One such reason was featured in a New Yorker piece on Orange City, a multi-generational town in Iowa. It’s about being with the same people at the same stores, schools, churches, and coffee shops, every day, always. Consider this excerpt:

In his 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit — stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice — complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically — it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.

There’s much to be said for the deepening of relationships (communities, churches, workplaces) through “voice” and faithfulness. There’s love in this. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And it’s reciprocal. It sees beyond.

As the third and fourth generations flourish.

The beauty of treachery

It’s said that friends make the best enemies — especially when there are three of them. Triangulation is great for navigation but terrible in relationships. All it takes is one friend “confiding” to another about a third. A delicate stack of dishes, easily toppled!

Which is where the beauty comes in. There’s nothing so human as to wound with the tongue. The world is full of former friends.

But God radiates reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness, and grace.

What a beautiful thing it is to watch three friends founder in the flesh and rise in the Spirit. Rise to bless each other and grow strong together in faith and love.

As always, it’s time to learn a few things from our students.

A Student’s Perspective / Being Hurt and Heard

My youth group is huge. There are nearly one hundred of us. Even our “small groups” are eight to ten students each. In the freshmen class alone there are more than twenty boys. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd.

One night several weeks ago, I sat by a girl who was obviously hurting. When the youth pastor called for prayer requests, she burst forth in whispers to me of the pain in her life, her abusive mom, and her absent dad. She told me of her sadness over the past several years, and then looked at me expectantly.

All I knew to say was, “I’m so sorry.” And as her eyes filled with tears, I saw that was all she needed.

Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to us. Be that person.

Stepmoms, Part Two

Sometimes dads remarry because their wives die while the kids are young. We learned of three such situations recently, and none of the new stepmoms had prior experience being moms.

The first new mom was the victim of a cheating husband in her previous marriage. She views the kids’ first mom as a competitor vying for the family’s affections, so she discourages all talk of her. There’s an underlying tension in that family, and everyone is hurting.

The second new mom loves her stepchildren dearly, but the family doesn’t have much joy. Why? She doesn’t want to intrude on what the kids had with their first mom, so she avoids all talk of her. Consequently, her new daughter, a sad and withdrawn freshman, has no one to help her process her first mom’s death.

The third mom joined a family that was still heartbroken three years after the first mom’s death. Yet, once she joined the family, joy returned. And love. How did that happen? Kim decided to view the first mom as her friend. She encouraged conversation about the first mom, and all the old family pictures still hang beside the new ones that include her. On their first Mother’s Day together she gave each child a photo album of that child with the first mom, and every album ended with a letter affirming Kim’s love for them.

The main thing we hear from these students is this: Don’t be threatened by the love stepchildren have for their first mom. Encouraging such love won’t diminish their love for their new mom. Instead, their appreciation and love will likely grow.

Stepmoms, Part One

A volunteer who uses our book called with a stepmom story. She told us about Stephanie, a girl in her group who got a new mom this summer. Like so many, Stephanie’s blended family is struggling to communicate and love well.

One example: Stephanie left dishes in the sink. Her new mom quietly asked her to wash them, but Stephanie didn’t do it — so the mom complained to the dad that his daughter didn’t do what she asked. That hurt.

It didn’t just hurt the dad, though. It hurt everyone. The new mom felt ignored, the dad heard that his daughter was a problem, and Stephanie got in trouble for something she wasn’t even aware of. You see, Stephanie’s previous mom would rant and scream when she wanted something done, so the new mom’s quiet request slipped right under Stephanie’s radar.

Deep down no one needs to be hurting in this family.

Stephanie actually wants her stepmom to be firm.

The stepmom wants Stephanie to respect her.

And they both want to be loved.

There’s much to learn by considering the perspective of students. They often see more clearly than we do. For example, Stephanie had this to say: “If my stepmom understood my first mom better, she would understand me better.”

More tomorrow . . .

Sailing and the Spirit’s leading

A Dutch kid from Kalamazoo grows up well, finds Jesus Christ, moves to Chicago, and enjoys success in his work. Over time he embraces one of his father’s hobbies — sailing.

He’s good with his boat and pulls together a team for racing. One member of his crew, a good friend, doesn’t share Bill’s faith in Christ. Not at all. But it’s OK — they’re sailing together, not attending Sunday school. (Though it sometimes feels like it. Bill often mentions his faith.)

This goes on for many years, and eventually Bill prevails upon his friend to join his family for Easter . . . which involves attending the Easter service at church. His friend drives over, attends the service, eats lunch at Bill’s house, then prepares to leave. It was a great visit, but registered zero on his spiritual “Richter scale.” No interest.

As Bill stands in the front doorway watching his friend walk down the driveway toward his car, he’s thinking, Man, I’m going to be spending eternity in Heaven with Jesus and all the people I love, and my friend will be spending his eternity in Hell. I can’t stand the thought of missing him forever, and I can’t bear the idea of him in eternal agony.

Suddenly, Bill senses the Spirit urging him to go tell his friend exactly what he is thinking. Are You crazy? How weird would that be? But the urge persists. Go tell him. Now, before he drives away.

So Bill steps out of the doorway and starts walking down the driveway. “Hey, wait a minute!”

His friend is standing with the car door open, about to get in. “What is it, Bill? Did I forget something in the house?”

“No, I just wanted you to know what I was thinking just now. I was thinking how I’m going to be spending eternity in Heaven with Jesus Christ and the people I love, and you’ll be spending eternity in Hell. First, I can’t bear the thought of you suffering in Hell, and second, I can’t stand the thought of missing you for all eternity. I want you to be in Heaven with me.”

His friend stares at him. A long awkward moment passed. “So, that’s it? That’s what you wanted to tell me?”

“That’s it.”

More awkward moments. “OK, Bill. Thanks.”

He gets in his car and drives away. Bill goes back into the house and thinks, That was weird.

Six months later that friend was loving and following Jesus Christ as Lord.

It’s not that hard. Care about your friends, and when the Spirit prompts you, go along with it. He knows what He’s doing.

Let God use your influence.