Friday, September 01, 2006

Hollow Hallelujahs

Reaching the Brokenhearted

What if Isaiah reappeared and stood on the steps of the courthouse in your home town? What if he preached his prophecies again? His messages were earmarked for a people who had strayed from serving. Oh, those long ago hearers did perfunctory worship-rituals but void of meaning because of their daily lives.

Isaiah cautioned about offering habitual sacrifices on holy days and then living like they wanted to the rest of the time. My Sunday school teacher Bill Owens says that kind of burnt sacrifice disturbs God, gives him “heavenly heartburn.”

Isaiah, God’s messenger for that long-ago age, told Israel: “Stop doing wrong and learn to do right!” Not ever vague, God then gave examples of “right”: seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

Today, when non-church-goers look at church work, what do they see? Do they see us housekeeping? Do they see us tending a building, grooming a lawn? Or is the church known for seeking justice and encouraging the exploited? The churches in every community are called to assist those who have hard lives?

A Christian lecture I attended had a shocking title: “Can You Preach a Prostitute into Heaven?” The teacher told a true story from his congregation: a known prostitute, who had several children started attending church. We’ll call her Susan. The congregation welcomed her, and she came to know the grace of God, repented, and was baptized. For over a year she attended every service, helped fellow strugglers and volunteered when she had time off from her now honest work.

But her honest odd-jobs only paid minimum wage, and she and her babies continued to live far below poverty level. While the congregation rejoiced that she had turned her life around, they didn’t assist her with enough help to feed and cloth her children. She had the heart to belong to God and a young inexperienced faith. When her children became hungry, she returned to her former life to put bread on the table. Her life ended that night at the hands of a drunken man.

What if that church had attached themselves to Susan and her kids like an umbilical cord? Perhaps her outcome would have been different if a sponsor-family watched for needs, helped out, sheltered, fed her family, and trained her for better paying legitimate work?

Christian churches are like an Army unit. Some members prefer clean, orderly command post work, but there is a battlefield of casualties outside the safety zone. In What Jesus Did / 365 Devotionals from the Gospel of John, Phil Ware asks if the community sees “us doing predictable ‘church stuff’?”

Phil Ware then reminds his readers that Jesus said the church would do greater things than he did! Profound! Are we asking that God to do a greater work in 2006 than Jesus did while on earth?

If churches are to represent Jesus, if we are to be Jesus to the needy in our community, we can’t hide in our sterile church kitchens or on our padded pews. The brokenhearted and the Susans need more than a hollow “hallelujah.” They need the embrace of a church, of a church that has the heart of Jesus.

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