We live in a culture that values people for what they contribute. The question, "What do you bring to the table?" is everywhere--job interviews, sports teams, college applications, even friendships and dating relationships.
This question can quickly become distorted, especially when we try to approach God with this attitude. It's easy to start telling God all the ways we can contribute, all the things we bring to the table. This goes great until we find ourselves in the wilderness.
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The wilderness is a recurring theme throughout Scripture. It is a place of trial and temptation in both Testaments.
Here's the thing about the wilderness: there's nothing there. No food. No work. No friends or family. Nothing to produce. Nothing to create. Nothing to show off how accomplished we are, no way to contribute anything. To anyone.
If I am loved because of what I contribute, what happens when I can't contribute anything? What happens when I show up at the table empty-handed? Am I still loved? Am I still valuable?
In the season of Lent, we are called to enter a sort of spiritual wilderness, to remember that we are but dust and ashes, coming before God empty-handed, unable to save ourselves. For me, this is both terrifying and life-giving.
As a pastor, I constantly ask myself what I should be doing to care for God's church. Who should I call? Who should I visit? What should I preach? What should I teach? What skills do I need to improve?
My mother-in-law posted a verse just yesterday that speaks directly to these questions: Ephesians 5:29 - "No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church."
|The fruit will still ripen on the ground after the branch breaks.|
Recently, I was invited to join a campaign with the slogan: "Zero Zeroes." On the surface, it's just a question of numbers: moving past zero new members, zero baptisms, zero increase in giving, etc. At the end of the year, I will be encouraged to report "zero zeroes" in key areas of growth.
However, in a culture that values production and gives awards to those who produce the most, this is dangerous language. This sounds like:
- Zero empty hands
- Zero travelers in the wilderness
- Zero of the burnt out, the broken-down, the disheartened and discouraged
- Zero losers
- Zero who are suffering too much to have anything to offer
- Zero addicts or people facing the challenges of mental illness
It sounds a lot like, "Losers are not welcome here, only winners."
I will never pastor a church that preaches this gospel. I will never pastor a church that values people solely for their contribution, their productivity. I will never pastor a church that only welcomes winners.
I will never pastor a church that preaches this gospel because it is too much of a temptation for me: I am always concerned about what I have to contribute, what I bring to the table. I am always trying to leverage a skill or a bit of knowledge to find value in someone's eyes. And it leaves me empty. It leaves me feeling worthless and unloved when I can't contribute the way I want to. It turns my relationships into transactions: I will contribute this so that you tell me how much you value me. In the end, it is utterly destructive and absolutely contrary to the good news of the gospel.
During this Lenten season, I have two important messages to share:
1. You are completely loved, even when you are completely lost, broken, discouraged, and hopeless.
2. You are completely welcome to bring all of that mess with you to church. I may be a pastor, but I have a mess too. We'll just bring it to God together and let God sort it all out.
"Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."
All the zeroes are welcome in the kingdom of God.