It’s Gonna Be Messier

Last Thursday I was at a cabinet meeting in the Iowa Annual Conference Center in Des Moines and went out for a walk at lunch. This has become a common practice of mine as the weather moderates. A month before, walking in a nearby industrial park, I noticed that there were little plastic bottles strewn randomly in the grass beside the sidewalk.

My curiosity aroused, I picked up one of the empty bottles and read the label, Fireball Red Hot Cinnamon Whisky. Hmm, I said to myself. That’s strange. Over the course of my forty-minute walk, I counted 273 empty Cinnamon Whisky 50 ml bottles (3.38 tablespoons). What a mess!!! Although they were quite small, the sheer number of bottles that were obviously thrown out of cars by drinking drivers was scary.

I need to offer a disclaimer up front that I have never had a drink of alcohol in my life, except for a few tiny sips of communion wine in the Lutheran chapel at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio when I was a college student. Choosing to refrain from alcohol is one way in which I can witness to my faith, and it has occasioned many fruitful conversations over the years.

Curious, amazed, and innocent, I went on the Fireball website and discovered their slogan: Tastes like Heaven, Burns like Hell. I also found Fireball swag for sale, such as a men’s Fireball blazer, a Fireball Counter Freezer, a baby’s Fireball Onesie, Fireball rain jackets and sweaters, and a Fireball bottle-shaped string of lights.

Since my first discovery of the Fireball Cinnamon Whisky bottles, I have made similar forays in the area of the Conference Center to pick up and recycle whisky bottles, including last Thursday, which was Earth Day. Ever since the birth of the environmental protection movement in 1970, we have observed Earth Day on April 22 as a way of raising public awareness and inspiring people to protect and save our environment. The theme for this year’s Earth Day was “Restore Our Earth” and was focused on emerging green technologies that can restore the world’s ecosystems.

I am continually reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s counsel to prospective clients before he made a final contract with them. “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.” Any kind of building project is, by definition, messy. But those of us who are not familiar with construction usually learn that the hard way.

https://it.usembassy.gov/for-earth-day-2021-download-this-free-poster

Our earth is a mess in a lot of ways, too, with way too much violence, a lack of regard for the environment, and great disparities between the haves and the have nots. COVID-19 has turned our world upside down as we struggle to reinvent how to live faithfully and fully in the midst of the Pandemic. As of April 23, 93.1million people in the US have been fully vaccinated (28.4% of the population), but many others are choosing not to receive the vaccine. Meanwhile, there is continuing debate around when churches can safely go back to in-house worship and how long we need to wear masks and socially distance.

This past week has provided a grim reminder that we are not done with racism, either. Last Tuesday Derek Chauvin was convicted on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. The verdicts were read a day after jurors began their deliberations. It was messy. Countless lives have been affected as we have tried to come to grips with a police officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as he lay face down, hands cuffed behind his back, and pleading, “I can’t breathe.” Philonese Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, told a news conference after the verdict that he had hoped and prayed for a guilty verdict. “I am fighting for everybody around this world… Today we are able to breathe again… Justice for George means freedom for all.” It was messy, yet justice was served. And God expects us to continue to confront racism in whatever form it presents itself.

The United Methodist Church has had our share of difficulties, too, as we have struggled around human sexuality since 1972. General Conference 2020 had to be postponed until September 2021 because of COVID, and just last month we learned that General Conference has been postponed again until August 29-September 6, 2022. Meanwhile, some congregations can no longer wait and seek to disaffiliate with The United Methodist Church and go their own way. It’s messy.

What I have learned over the years is that if I build my life on the solid foundation of faith in Jesus Christ, I am much better equipped to deal with the inevitable messes. I am reminded of Matthew 7:24-27 (CEB) where Jesus says, “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”

In the midst of the messes of life, God calls you and me to build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and his righteousness. We dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. The solid foundation of our Wesleyan faith is based on this premise, “Do not harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.”

Yet, the reality of our lives is that, at times, it’s gonna be messier than we think. Even if the messiness in the church isn’t always as dramatic as we anticipate at times, the world out there is as messy as ever! The plethora of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky bottles, along with the tragedy of addiction is just one small example. All of us want to live in a perfect world, just as we wish we could engage in construction without any inconvenience. We don’t want any problems. We want a world where there is no oppression, no hunger, no war, no COVID, no racism, and no taxes. We want to live in a country where there is no unemployment, no poverty, no crime, and no cancer. We want to be part of a family where there is no divorce, no violence, and no sexual abuse. And we want to belong to a church where there is no interpersonal conflict, disagreement, or financial distress.

But the reality of life is that it does get messy! And people in the church do not have any fewer messes than people outside the church. In the midst of our struggles, the words of Jesus remind us of the foundation that we must build in order to really live – a foundation that will not crumble in a crisis as if we had built on sand.

I am going to keep picking up and recycling Fireball Cinnamon Whisky bottles. It’s the least I can do to help our environment. At the same time, I know that even doing the right thing can be messy. Making difficult decisions, choosing grace in the midst of conflict, and attempting to lead an anti-racist life is not always easy. Yet I am convinced that God will empower us to build our houses on rock by making a solid commitment to doing no harm, doing good, and staying in love with God. Only then can we live out the words of Ben Cramp, head of the team of lawyers representing George Floyd’s family, “Painfully earned justice has arrived for George Floyd’s family and the community here in Minneapolis, but today’s verdict goes beyond this city and has significant implications for the country and even the world. Justice for Black America is Justice for All America.”

Yes, living our lives with a solid foundation in Jesus Christ is gonna be messier than we think. But it’s also gonna be more beautiful and more hopeful as we reimagine God’s call in our life and respond by saying, “Here I am Lord. Send me.”

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!