Christians Under Construction: It’s Gonna Cost More

One of the most creative and impactful churches in this country is the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. It all began in 1947 with three people: Gordon and Mary Cosby and her sister. In Gordon’s words, “We don’t exist as individuals. According to our faith, all of us are connected… To move from individually understanding it to corporately embodying it is one of the most important journeys in the world.”

Most people learned about Church of the Saviour because of its many outreach ministries, including a coffee house, clinic, housing assistance, job training, and placement care for children and the elderly. Realizing that intimacy and high expectations were necessary for spiritual depth, the first priority of the church was a total commitment to the Christian life. Over the years, Church of the Saviour intentionally divided into small independent and affiliated congregations, each committed to the reconciling way of Jesus where all people were welcome.

In the beginning years, Church of the Saviour provided a Sunday lunch that was free for first-time visitors. One Sunday, a woman went there for the first time, and a church member invited her to lunch. She said, “I’d love to.” He said, “Is this your first time here?” She said, “Yes.” “Then your lunch is free since it’s the first time you have visited.”

She said, “Oh no, no, no. I’ll pay my own way. Thank you.” When she got to the cash register, the man said, “Remember, this lunch is free.” She said, “Young man, I want to pay for this lunch. I want it to cost me something!” He said, “Lady, you stick around this church long enough. You stick around this Jesus about whom we preach, and this lunch will cost you your whole life!”[1]

There’s no free lunch in this world, even in the church. There is a cost to everything, especially to being a Christian. Last week, I began a series of four blogs based on architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s advice to his clients about how contracting and construction work will disrupt their lives. He says, “One: the project will take longer than you planned. Two: it will cost more than you figured. Three: it will be messier than you ever imagined. And four: it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.” This week we are going to look at Wright’s second bit of advice. It’s gonna cost more than you figured.

From 1989-1993, I was the pastor of Hart United Methodist Church in Hart, Michigan. After serving half-time for eight years in two previous appointments in order to care for three young children, I was now full-time and was eager to help this county seat congregation reach its full potential. Soon after I arrived, church leaders decided that the time was right to do an extreme makeover of the building and property by literally turning the church around. The west end of the sanctuary, which was the previous main entrance, would now become the chancel area, and a new main entrance would be created on the east end of the church. That’s where we planned to build a new parking lot, a large fellowship hall, handicapped restrooms, and a wide hallway/narthex area.

It was a huge endeavor for a medium-sized church, but we were a growing congregation. The building plans were completed and presented to a church conference, but the project was voted down. Despite our disappointment, we counted the cost. Realizing that we had more work to do in “selling” the many benefits of a more hospitable, usable, and accessible church facility, we waited another year. In the meantime, we refined the building plans, engaged in more fundraising, and welcomed new members.

To everything there is a season. The next year, the plans were overwhelmingly approved, and we quickly moved to the bidding process. There was so much energy and enthusiasm and willingness to do “whatever it took” to get started. But we weren’t there yet. The building committee understood very well the phrase, “It’s gonna cost more,” because at every meeting it seemed like something new and unexpected had to be added to the contract. Unfortunately, we let out for bids right during the Persian Gulf War, and we were also in the throes of a recession. On the positive side, contractors were looking for work, and several bids were lower than expected. We ended up borrowing a little more than $200,000, and the loan was paid off handily.

Yes, building projects cost a lot more than we think they will. But isn’t it the same with our faith? For the longer we stick around Jesus, the more we understand that being a disciple will cost us our life.

Jesus illustrates this point by telling two parables from Luke 14:25-33 CEB. He introduces them by saying, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters – yes, even one’s own life – cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

In the first story, Jesus asks us to imagine that we are building something. He mentions a tower, but let’s pretend it’s a house. Before you start building, don’t you sit down and calculate how much it’s going to cost? Sure, you do! You decide how much money you are willing and able to spend. Then you’ll know how much of a house you can build. That’s the procedure we went through in Hart.

You may have your dream house all planned out in your mind, but if it’s going to cost twice as much as the financial resources at your disposal, you’ll have to scale the house down to reality. Because if you don’t, you’ll end up with a foundation and nothing else. And because you can’t finish what you started, everyone who passes by will ridicule and laugh at you. Before you build, Jesus says, count the cost.

The next story is about a king going to war with another king. He only has 10,000 soldiers, and he knows that his opponent has 20,000. So, the prudent and wise thing to do is to sit down with his generals and consider the cost of the entire campaign. Because the king is outnumbered, he has to think through his strategy carefully. And if the king decides that he doesn’t have a chance, he should negotiate a peaceful settlement before the war starts. Before you go to war, Jesus says, count the cost.

But what does it actually mean to count the cost? When Jesus talks about counting the cost, I do not believe he is saying we should never risk or move out in faith or be extravagant. All Jesus is saying is, consider all angles.

There’s a place in the Christian life for risk. There’s a place for shooting the wad, so to say, for giving it all now. There’s a place for building the most beautiful church we can and purchasing the most useful furnishings we can. Nothing is too good for God. But if we insist on saving something to the death, whether in the church or at home, someone may open our safe someday and find only ashes. None of us can experience abundant life until giving lies at the heart of our existence.

There are indeed risks in being a Christ-follower. Least important is the financial risk of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, that’s what many Christians think hurts the most – giving their money. Oh, that we could embody a generosity that changes the world. A second risk is the emotional cost of our faith, which means giving up our lives to Jesus, dying to self, and radically reorienting our priorities. The third and the highest risk of our faith is the spiritual cost. Jesus’ invitation to carry the cross and follow him is not easy or convenient. We may even be ridiculed or suffer. When you and I profess faith in Jesus Christ, we look at the world with different eyes. We see needs that we ignored before, for now, we are looking through the eyes of Jesus.

“Young man, I want to pay for this lunch. I want it to cost me something!”

“Lady, you stick around this church long enough; you stick around this Jesus about whom we preach, and this lunch will cost you your whole life.”

 

 

[1] Tom Tewell, Sept. 1, 1991, “Before You Build … Consider the Price Tag,” Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church Houston, Texas.

 

 

 

The Wright Principles: “It’s Gonna Take Longer”

I’m sitting at my desk in my office at the episcopal residence in Clive, Iowa. Facing west, I can see the sun set and the silhouettes of two men, who are still working on the roof of a new house that is being built across the street. It’s a large house, and I can hear the hammering sound of shingles. I do not have any practical skills in the building trades, but Gary and I have had considerable experience leading building projects in various churches we’ve served. The name that immediately comes to my mind is Frank Lloyd Wright, who taught me the theology of building and of spirituality.

Frank Lloyd Wright is synonymous with architectural genius. Wright is known for his innovation, creativity of design, and attentiveness to detail. Anyone who has ever studied Wright’s architecture immediately recognizes his work because it is so distinctive.

There is a story about Frank Lloyd Wright, how he always sat down with prospective clients before finalizing a contract because he wanted to offer four pieces of advice about how contracting and construction work will disrupt their lives. Wright’s counsel is timeless and is applicable to most any building project, including churches, as well as to life in general.

He would say, “One – the project will take longer than you planned. Two – it will cost more than you figured. Three – it will be messier than you ever imagined. And Four – it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.”

Not only do I believe that Wright is correct, but also that he has given us a metaphor for the Christian life. For the construction of a new building is very similar to what God calls us to do with our own lives. Just as our church buildings are in need of repair, remodeling, and new construction from time to time, so many of us may look okay on the outside, but on the inside, we, too, could use some repair work. Each one of us needs to continually reinforce the foundation of our spiritual lives. I believe that Jesus, the divine architect, has some advice for us in the next four weeks as we explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles for building projects as well as for constructing our life in Christ.

Today our theme is: the project will take longer than you planned. We know from first-hand experience that this is a general truth of contracting. There is no telling what unforeseen obstacles may emerge that will cause a delay in a building project. If the architect says you can begin in August, don’t be too surprised if the start date is in December. If the contractor says the project will take six months, you might want to add two or three extra months to be safe.

I remember when we decided to gut the lower level of the historic 14th century Tudor Gothic style First United Methodist Church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was founded in 1836. Gary and I served there together for thirteen years, and Gary continued there as senior pastor for seven more years. Wesley Hall, which is used for a yearly juried art show as well as for many other events, hadn’t been renovated in decades.

In discussion with our architects, we told them what our timeline was. We wanted to be finished by the end of January so that we could proceed without delay with Celebration of the Arts and our Lenten activities. As you might expect, we were told, “No problem! You’ll be in the new Wesley Hall in plenty of time, with a cushion built-in as well.”

We all felt the timetable was very achievable. Then the building environment changed. Within a month, contractors found themselves fully committed, with more work than they could handle. Some builders decided not to even bid on the project.

We shouldn’t have been surprised because Gary and I purchased our first and only home the year before and spent much of the summer installing new windows. Unfortunately, a one-week project turned into a month. Work that was supposed to be done entirely from the outside turned into a mammoth mess when inside walls had to be cut into so new headers could be installed.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a brilliant man – and he was realistic and honest. When people engaged his services, he warned them of the pitfalls and peculiarities of construction. Building is no simple thing, and the challenges encountered are often unknown. Frank Lloyd Wright’s first piece of advice to would-be builders is that it will take longer than you think. Plan on delays. Count on setbacks so that when they come, you won’t be surprised. Even though it took longer than we thought, Wesley Hall looked stunning after the renovation and is used for many different activities over the course of every week.

In many ways, our Christian life is also like the construction of a building. The gospel lectionary for March 7 was John 2:13-17 (CEB), where Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover and discovered people in the Temple selling cattle, sheep, and doves as well as exchanging currency. Jesus was furious because of the disrespect he witnessed, so he chased everyone out of the temple. Then he overturned tables and said to those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here!”

When the Jewish leaders questioned Jesus’ authority, he replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” They responded, “Hey! It took us 46 years to build this temple.” Sometimes building projects drag on so long it seems like 46 years! But Jesus was actually referring to himself, that after he died, he would lie in the tomb for three days before rising from the dead. It was only after Jesus’ resurrection that the disciples remembered and believed.

As it is with building, the construction of a Christian life calls us to follow through on our decision to claim Jesus as our Savior and Lord. What if the builders of the magnificent First UMC, Grand Rapids, when the current structure was constructed near the beginning of World War I, had made the decision to create a new church building, then simply stopped the process? What if they had not followed through? Church members would still be in their old, aging, cramped building that was affectionately known as the Church of the Holy Toothpicks because of its many spires!

Decision must be followed by commitment and determination. The choice to live as Christ would have us live is not the end of the journey. It’s merely the beginning. We then pursue the long, challenging, and gratifying road of Christian growth and service, a road that will sustain us for a lifetime.

In the same way, Christian “follow-through” goes far beyond having one spiritual experience or making one significant decision. It involves finding a church home, attending worship regularly, practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study, sharing our financial blessings with the church, and reaching out to others in mission and witness.

As I watch the house across the street go up board by board, nail by nail, and shingle by shingle, I realize that maturing in the Christian life is gonna take longer than any of us can plan. It’s not just the right “talk,” it’s the right “walk.” We need to adjust, be flexible, and keep our eyes on the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.

And, yes, it’s going to mean commitment, trust, action, and community. In fact, practicing our faith is a life-long journey. So, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

Thanks be to God!

The Madness of March

March Madness is back! After the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled last year because of COVID-19, pent-up anticipation awaits as the Final Four takes place on April 2 and 4 for the women and April 3 and 5 for the men. I might add that the Iowa women’s basketball team (20-9) reached the Sweet Sixteen for the eighth time in program history and the third in its last four NCAA Tournament appearances. Despite a valiant effort, #5 ranked Iowa lost on Saturday to #1 ranked Connecticut.

Freshman star Caitlyn Clark of Iowa, who is from West Des Moines, averaged 27.8 points a game in the regular season, shot nearly 50%, and led the nation in scoring. Called by some as the most exciting player in college basketball, Clark was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It’s Madness!

The 2021 Women’s Final Four is scheduled for Friday, April 2 and Sunday, April 4, and the Men’s Final Four is set for Saturday, April 3 and Monday, April 5. Can you tell I’m pumped??

© Adobe stock photo

 March Madness was first used to refer to the excitement around Illinois state basketball tournaments sixty years ago. The phrase did not become connected with the NCAA tournament, however, until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger used it during coverage of the 1982 tournament.

The increasing popularity of the NCAA tournament is maddening, isn’t it? Basketball has always been my favorite sport. I shot endless hoops in my driveway as a kid and played in high school and a bit in college. I don’t get to watch much basketball these days other than the semifinals and finals of the NCAA Tournament for both men and women.

People across the country love to guess which teams will be in the Final Four, with thousands of office pools and formal and informal betting going on. CBS Sports and Turner Sports expect to rake in more than $1 billion in advertisements for the men’s tournament. And up to twenty million people are likely to watch the final men’s game, with up to 47 million people expected to place bets throughout the tournament.

The “madness” can be a lot of fun. In a twist on all the betting pools, one of the churches that Gary and I served celebrates March Madness for Missions every year. People contribute $10 for every bracket they submit, and it raises thousands of dollars for missions at home and abroad. No one wins anything but the bragging rights, but the Missions budget sure flourishes!

At the same time, I am a bit uncomfortable with the effects of our national obsession. I hate to be a party pooper. However, to paraphrase Judas, “Couldn’t the staggering sum of money bet on the NCAA Tournament have been used to feed the poor?” Businesses suffer millions of dollars in lost productivity because of our madness. Not to mention the poor graduation rate of many athletes and how our adulation of young athletes affects their ability to put the game in a proper perspective. Could it be that we have some misplaced priorities?

It seems so, given the plight of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, which is played at the same time as the men’s tournament but receives much less attention and does not turn a profit. This year the NCAA was called out big-time by women coaches and players who were furious over the imbalance between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

In a social media post last Tuesday, Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner criticized the NCAA, “Thank you for using the three biggest weeks of your organization’s year to expose exactly how you feel about women’s basketball – an afterthought,” she said. “Thank you for showing off the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments that are on full display in San Antonio. From COVID testing to lack of weight training facilities, to game floors that hardly tell anyone that it’s the NCAA Tournament and many more.”

I trust you are aware of another kind of March Madness taking place simultaneously with the NCAA tournament. St. Paul called it foolishness. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18. NIV) It’s Holy Week, and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. It’s not going to be pretty. Jesus will be betrayed by Judas, arrested, tortured, humiliated, denied by Peter, abandoned by his disciples, and crucified on a cross while soldiers madly gamble for his garments.

The disciples don’t understand that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, so they argue over which one of them is the greatest and who deserves the richest contract. Could it work for us?

  • We could sell advertising space on our clergy robe and stole to bring in a few more bucks.
  • How about clergy shoe contracts? After all, when we wear a robe, our shoes are the only item of clothing that stands out. We could start a new trend in dress Nikes, changing color with the liturgical season.
  • If a church pays 100% of its apportionments, each staff member gets an extra week of vacation.
  • Anyone who brings in five new members gets their own parking spot.
  • If a child invites a friend to virtual Vacation Bible School, they can go to the front of the refreshment line at coffee hour for the next three months after in-house worship resumes.

Yes, all of that is madness. But during this most holy of weeks, how will you enter into the real madness, the madness of the cross rather than the hype of the NCAA? Will you take the time to read the Passion stories in all four gospels? Will you make the journey from Jesus humbly riding on a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds waved palm branches; to cleansing the temple; to weeping over Jerusalem; to discovering a fig tree withered up and teaching on faith; to eating a last supper with his disciples and washing their feet; to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the Sanhedrin; to the madness of trials by high priest Ananias, Pilate, and Herod; to his crucifixion on a cross; and to Jesus’ seven last “words”?

Will you pay attention to what is truly important and not let the world dictate your thoughts, words, and deeds? Will you play the fool for the sake of the gospel? How will you embrace the madness of the cross and lead with your heart?

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves. But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 NRSV)

The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, April 12.