3 Things We Don’t Talk about in Church

There are three things we don’t talk about in church. Or, maybe I should say: there are three things we don’t talk about very often or very well in church.

The first is death. To be fair, we don’t talk about death very well anywhere in our society. It’s easier to avoid death until you can’t avoid it anymore — like when someone you love is very ill, or when you go visit a friend who has lost a loved one. We have gotten so good at dancing around death that there is an entire website devoted to the many, MANY ways we have of talking about death — without ever actually using the word.

The second thing we don’t talk about in church is sex. Again, we have reasons for this, and some of them are good. One, it’s difficult to preach about it when there are people of all ages in the congregation, including teenagers and kids. Two, it can be awkward and personal — kind of like sex itself.

And the third thing we don’t talk about is politics. Now in some churches this isn’t true. They jump into politics very quickly and regularly. (The truth is: some churches also talk about sex and death regularly, too.) But politics can get a preacher into trouble pretty quickly — with good reason.

In other words, some of the more personal and intimate areas of our lives are the ones we are most likely to avoid in church. It is much easier to talk in flowery generalities and abstract theories. It is more challenging to speak about the realities that hit closest to home.

But should it be that way? Should we avoid these things?

For example, what about politics? Should church be a politics-free zone? Well, yes and no. I believe that church is not the place for us to preach in favor of policies and procedures and laws. No one coming to worship should be told that all true Christians vote one way, or support one particular political party. Our goal, especially in worship, is to point people to Jesus, not a flag, or a political figure, or an ideology.

Even so, not preaching politics is not the same as not being political. For the truth is: we are all political. The root of the word, politics, is the Greek word for “citizen,” or “city.” To be alive and human is to be political — to be a part of a community of people seeking the common good. And that we should preach — that we as followers of Jesus are called to be political (small p), while being careful not to be consumed by the Political (capital P). We have a responsibility to be faithful citizens of our communities, state, country, and world — recognizing that we can do this while also holding different Political views.

What about sex? Can we talk about that? Well, if we are going to talk about the life of faith, and how Jesus transforms people from all walks of life, then church must be a place where all of life is discussed. And sex is certainly a part of that. In fact, if the church isn’t talking about sex, then how will our kids learn a healthy view of sexuality? From Instagram? Or Hollywood? Yikes! For that matter, if we don’t speak about sex, how will married people, or single people, or those widowed, or divorced, or with same-sex attractions know how to find God in the midst of their sexuality? If we aren’t honest about sex, how will we point to the hope of healing for those who have had abortions, or struggle with porn, or have been abused?

And then there’s death. As for the question: Should we talk about death in the church?, I would give an unequivocal “yes.” What seems like such a downer, and certainly a conversation-stopper, should, in fact, be something we don’t hesitate to discuss. Because, if you live long enough, you will die. And not talking about it doesn’t make it any less likely to occur, or any less painful, or push it off even one more day.

For, the truth is, we should be talking about all three of these — faithfully, thoughtfully, and honestly.

As for me, though, I’ll start with the easiest. This Sunday I’ll be talking about death. (Which, I guess you could say, is the whole point of this blog: to make preaching on death seem like a walk in the park. And, compared to sex and politics, that’s what it is. A walk in the park — a park with lots of granite.)

From Handouts to Real Help

Three stories of recent encounters I’ve had with people in need.

Encounter #1
Last week, my wife and I took a trip to Florida, along with another couple. The other guy and I were going to a ministry conference, and our wives were tagging along because, well, it’s January and we were going to Florida.

On our way down, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia. We didn’t have to be in Orlando until dinner time, so we had a leisurely Georgia morning before we got back on the road. I woke up early, and walked around Savannah’s historic district. At one point, I met a guy named Lonnie. We got to talking, and the conversation flowed pretty easily. At that point, when he had me engaged, he asked for help. I’m homeless. Can I get a few bucks for breakfast?

My response, which is pretty typical for me, was: I can’t give you money, but I’ll take you somewhere to get something to eat.

He answered: I gotta meet someone here, so I can’t go with you. So, I went and grabbed him some breakfast – and coffee, too, he asked.

His name was Lonnie. He seemed appreciative.

Encounter #2
This week, I was at the church office. A guy came by asking for bus money to get to Wayside Mission. He told me his name, and then I recognized him. Our church had been a part of helping him and his family. I had personally taken him some food when he was in a long-term hotel. We had assisted in other ways. And, more significantly, his wife had come to worship a few times — and was even baptized one Sunday.

He told me she was currently in Georgia with the kids. He was staying at Wayside til they could reunite. Bus fare was $2.25, he said. As he told me this, I thought to myself: My son has a basketball game near downtown. I could just take him myself, and save him the bus transfers and cold bus stops.

So, I offered to take him. He seemed good with that. We’ll leave in about an hour, I told him. I’m going to run over to Kroger, he said, where a buddy of mine is going to get me some food.

Ok, just be back in about 45 minutes, I told him. An hour later, he hadn’t returned.

Encounter #3
I was leaving my son’s basketball game (different game, same week), and I stopped to get gas on the way home. It was cold. Really cold. (So this is why people become snowbirds.) I went inside to get my receipt, and as I opened the door to head to my car, I immediately began to jog — because, well, did I mention how cold it was?

As I ran, I heard a guy over my shoulder call out, Hey, buddy. He said something else, I’m not sure what, but it was clear he was looking for some kind of help. I never broke stride; I waved him off. It was cold. It was late. And my wife and son were waiting in the car.

Three encounters. Three different people. All in one week. And I mention these not to make me look good (or bad), but simply to highlight what you already know. There are tons of folks out there asking for help, in need. Life is full of opportunities to help, and often I have no idea what the real need is.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to help. I want to love. I’m called to love. But what does that look like? I mean, really look like?

Sometimes, yes, I believe it is as simple as a sandwich, or a bus ticket. Or maybe, taking the time to actually listen to someone. Or pray with them.

But the reality is: need is so great, and needs are so deep, that it is often difficult (sometimes impossible?) to truly discern what is needed. And I wonder, are some of the ways we help more about the helpers (us) than those we are trying to help? Is it easier to give a guy five bucks, or a box of food, or gather Christmas presents that are then given anonymously? Is it much harder — and messier — to really get involved in people’s lives? And when Jesus said that we’d always have the poor with us, he clearly wasn’t saying that we should just accept it as a reality of life, was he? Wasn’t he pointing us to the reality that poverty is a persistent challenge we will never quite resolve, this side of God’s Perfect Kingdom? Even so, he wasn’t advocating giving up, or ignoring the need — but isn’t the challenge for us to care enough, so that we do the hard work of learning how to really care?

I have very few answers, and way more questions. But maybe it was providential that, after a week of different encounters with people in need, I read this article. I hope you’ll read it too; it’s ten minutes that just might challenge your thinking. I know it challenged me, and gets me to thinking: If I am serious about loving God and loving others, I’ve got a lot more learning to do. So, I am going to continue to pray that God leads me, and the church I serve, to better discern how He wants to use us to minister to those in need. I hope you’ll join me in praying that prayer, too.

Leadership Lessons from George Washington

What does leadership look like? Is it posture, or position, or title? Well, those things can give you the role of leader, or the look of a leader, but none of those are leadership. If you have to tell people you are a leader, well … you’re probably not.

Interestingly enough, our country’s first great leader understood that. In fact, George Washington didn’t feel up to role he was asked to fill; he was reluctant to take on the title of Commander of the Continental Army. And maybe with good reason. As David McCullough writes in his book, 1776, when Washington took over command of the Continental Army, his only prior experience was in backwoods warfare – very different from what he would now be doing. When he took his new command, Washington had never led an army in battle, never before commanded anything larger than a regiment, and never directed a siege.

In his formal acceptance of the role, he told Congress: “I this day declare with utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I (am) honored with.” He wrote to his wife Martha that “far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it…. It has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service” (David McCullough, 1776, page 49).

Washington’s first major engagement was the siege of Boston. Four times Washington called for an attack on Boston; four times his generals wisely said no (1776, page 87).

The Battle of Brooklyn was almost disastrous. Though Washington was a man of details, he let the Jamaica Pass stand unguarded. Only through a decisive retreat, aided by the cover of bad weather and fog, was Washington able to lead his army back until it could fight another day (1776, pages 193-94).

Later, Washington would mistakenly open a letter from one of his associates to another, where one of his generals questioned Washington’s indecision. Later, Washington would tell one of them, “I was hurt not because I thought my judgment wronged by the expressions contained in (the letter), but because the same sentiments were not communicated immediately to myself” (1776, pages 254-55).

What do we learn about leadership from those meaningful snippets of Washington’s life? Well, I’m sure some come immediately to your mind. Here are some that come to mine:

  1. None of us is ever really ready to assume the role of leadership. The arrogant leader is no leader. The humble leader is at least one step closer to understanding what leadership really is.
  2. Even on our best days, we are dependent on the wise counsel of others. True leaders never go it alone.
  3. Leaders understand the moment. They may not feel completely adequate to the task ahead, but they see the opportunity, and they have the courage and the faith to step into it.
  4. Which means, of course, that a good leader never stops listening and learning. True leadership is first good “listener-ship.”
  5. Which also means that a truly good leader learns from her mistakes. Good leaders aren’t the ones who don’t fail; they are the ones who know how to learn from those failures.
  6. Sometimes you need a little help you couldn’t have planned on – weather, an unexpected ally, or simply the grace of God. Of course, we always need the grace of God – but sometimes that grace shows up in surprising ways, like a foggy day.
  7. Good leaders don’t hold grudges. They deal with difficult issues and difficult people (sometimes decisively), but a good leader can learn even from his opponents.

Of course, George Washington would go on to learn, and grow, and become a strong General and our country’s first president. But much of that was because he knew how much he didn’t know – and he kept learning, and growing, and leading. And who knows where our country would be if he hadn’t?

Be Careful What You Read

Scholars during the Middle Ages suggested that there were two “dangerous books” in the Old Testament — books that, if not handled carefully and faithfully, could do more damage than good.

The first was Song of Solomon. No surprise there, as it never mentions that name of God — but sure mentions love. A lot. Let’s just say that it’s probably not a book you’d want to study with middle schoolers.

But the other “dangerous book” was Ecclesiastes. And no wonder. It uses the word “meaningless” over 30 times — five of those times in just the first sentence of the book.

Dangerous? Well, sure, if these words from Ecclesiastes are any indication:

  • “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of animals; the same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other.” (3.19)
  • “Better than both (the dead and the living) is the one who has never been born.” (4.3)
  • “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless (there’s that word again) days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (6.12)

And then there’s the book’s conclusion. It’s a poetic, if painful, description of the end of life. And then the main part of Ecclesiastes ends in 12.8 with a repeat of 1.2: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Everything is meaningless!

Depressed yet? Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and probably shouldn’t be read in winter (oops; too late now). It really is tough reading, and, like Song of Solomon, reminds us that scripture isn’t the kind of book you just pick up and read like the newspaper. It’s helpful to know what you are reading, and what it’s purpose is.

And for Ecclesiastes, we are reading something that is simply not like anything else in the Bible. It is clearly written from the “other-side-of-the-coin” perspective. The writer of Ecclesiastes believes in God, but wonders what the point is. Yes, there’s a God, but life is still messed up — and what difference does this all make?

And, in a way, he’s right. Life is a mess, and sometimes the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. And no matter how hard you work, or how honest you are, or how faithful you try to be — you still die in the end.

So Ecclesiastes agonizes over the struggle. And by its inclusion in the Bible, we are faced with a stark and brisk reminder that life isn’t always peach tea and puppies and peppermints. Ecclesiastes is a theological slap in the face — and a reminder that without hope beyond this life, we are no different than the animals.

You see, the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see into the future. He couldn’t see the day when God’s plan would fully be revealed; when death would be defeated; when Jesus would take on this life’s meaningless, and overcome it. In other words, without hope beyond this life, we ultimately lose hope in this life. Without a purpose beyond our 70 or 80 years, then the best we can do is enjoy the moment.

But there is more. And it’s not a “more” that is pie-in-the-sky heaven someday. Instead, the hope we have through Jesus is the kind that transforms not only our future, but our present. Because we have hope, we can live life to the fullest, right now — filled with joy (not just happiness), peace (not uncertainty), goodness (not simply a good life), love (with abandon), and meaning (not meaninglessness).

That’s where Ecclesiastes points us. It doesn’t get there itself, but it knows there must be a way there. And there is. His name is Jesus.