Life Together: Renewal

Cafe
Click here for the audio version of the sermon.

Sanity Sick Days

The year or so before I left the corporate world for the ministry, I was emotionally just this side of a frazzled mess. When I began the transition in earnest, it was a relief to step away from the working world as I knew it. For three years, I had been working in a marketing department as a graphic designer for a mid-level transportation company while trying to figure out how to transition from the secular world to the ecclesial world. One of the hard things about working in media arts for the corporate world is no one really knows what you do or how you do it.

Since marketing and sales are almost always tied together, I spent a lot of time with sales people designing presentations, magazine advertisements, and video productions. I want to apologize in advance for this because it will not necessarily paint salespeople in the best light. That is not to say that there are not some excellent people in the sales profession. It is simply to say that I have known only one, a single person, who is a former artist turned salesperson that understood the process.

By this time, I had been working in the business for about fifteen years; fifteen years of people staring over my shoulder saying, “hurry up” or “move that around” or “I don’t like that color.” One thing I can tell you about almost every artist I have ever known, digital or fine arts: none of us like co-pilots or backseat drivers. Graphic design in this day and age is both an artistic and a technical pursuit, requiring a reasonable amount of skill in layout, color, visual effects, and a host of other nuances that are learned over hours, months, and years of practice. It is not just putting a logo and a picture on the page. Most designers I have known are not quite wired the same way as what you might term normal people. We have habits and peculiarities that make us exceptionally good at doing what we do and yet not so good at relating to those we work with. Most of us have knick-knacks and other paraphernalia on our desks that will seem odd to the rest of the world. We almost all listen to music, usually a different genre for each artist. If you want to drive artists nuts, stand behind them and ask a dozen or so inane questions about what you don’t know but think you know about what they are doing.

I was having a week of inane questions and unrealistic deadlines, coupled with a torrent of emotional baggage that somehow got out of its trunk. At the time, we had recently transitioned to having a new vice president of marketing, a woman who managed to help those of us on her staff keep our sanity for the time she was there. Kevnie was part coach, part friend, and part older sibling to our little band of misfits and miscreants. She managed to keep the ‘suits’ out of our hair (not that I had any) and let us do what we were good at. When the suits were around, she ran interference. Mostly, she watched and listened. She developed a good feel for the mood of the department and kept us from losing what little sanity we creatives were allotted.

One of my favorite things that she implemented was something I like to refer to as ‘the sanity sick day’. In theory, it was the recognition that when you got to the end of your rope, you could be handed a noose or a knot. The ‘sanity sick day’ was the knot. It said, “Get out of the office and go look at nature, go to the library, go sit in the car, do something other than stare at the computer monitor stewing over the latest insane thing you were being asked to do.” I tried not to abuse it, but I will admit to needing a few of them over the last year.

One in particular came just before a major annual corporate event that usually taxed the art department to its limit. It required a full-on, audio-visual presentation using multiple screen projections with camera feeds, animation, video, and PowerPoint. The audio setup was equally massive, and the entire thing required multiple high-end computer systems running a theatrical lighting rig. Even working with an outside company, it was a chore to say the least.

I was having my second or third Monday that week, staring through rather than at my computer screen when I was told to take a ‘mental health day’. I wasn’t sure at first if this was the result of some psychological evaluation I had taken without knowing it or just the glazed, dead expression on my face, but I took my things and left. For the first few minutes after I got in my car, I was still fuzzed out but by the time I got away from the office a few miles my sanity was beginning to return – in as much as such things are possible. By the next day, I was almost in decent enough shape to call myself normal. And not long after that, I began the road to a new kind of insanity – formal church ministry.

Forced Renewal

In my Wesley Study Bible, the header for this section reads, “The Church Scatters.” It is an interesting thought, the church scattering. What happens when we scatter something or take it apart and separate the pieces from one another? Sounds almost like the opposite of everything we have been talking about the last two weeks, doesn’t it? And yet the writer of Acts seemed to believe this was an important moment in the life of the early church as well as an introduction of Saul who would play a role in the church moving forward. For the most part, the church had been growing and the stories of the first seven chapters are composed of many stories about how the church overcame adversity, offered community, and brought healing and wholeness to those around it through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Then we come to chapter eight. Since chapter markers in the Bible are an arbitrary construct used to mark things for easier study, I think it best to simply follow the story itself as written without regard to that.  If you look at the lines just above the reading for today, you find the end of the Stephen’s martyrdom story and find Saul, persecutor of the church, holding the coats of Stephen’s executioners and looking on at the murderous rabble in their rage. Saul seems here to be a passive character, little more than a valet. Yet, in the next few lines of the story we find that Saul agreed with the decision and then according to the story, “began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another” and dragging the people before the Sanhedrin to be imprisoned. If there was a bogeyman story told to frighten children of the early church, it probably had something to do with Saul; Be a good boy and eat your soup or Saul will come get you. Be a good girl and go to bed or Saul will drag you off to prison.

For some of us, being persecuted would be enough to have them give up their faith or perhaps make it a more private than public faith. Maybe we might think it better to believe in the privacy and safety of our homes rather than make a public declaration and risk being punished. One writer takes a hardline perspective of this saying, “The idea of suffering for the sake of Christ is foreign to us. We have substituted the pursuit of happiness for the pursuit of holiness.”[1] I think, however, persecution for the early church became an opportunity for renewal. I believe the apostles found in this, not only the fear of being found, punished, or executed but also a chance to live into a way of life that was transcendent beyond their physical circumstances. While the Jerusalem congregation was scattered, the apostles remained, continuing the ministry handed down to them from Jesus.

But we see that the scattering had an unintended consequence: missionaries. If you read on in Acts 8, you find that Philip, one of the deacons chosen to serve widows, becomes Philip the missionary to Samaria. We read how he preached to the crowds and performed signs through the power of the Holy Spirit and even lead Simon the Sorcerer to the faith with a little help from Peter and John. The chapter continues on to show that Philip eventually would lead an Ethiopian Eunuch to be a follower of Jesus, an event that according to church history paved the way for the Church to make inroads and take root in Northern Africa. And after that, the writer of Acts records that, “…the Lord’s Spirit took Philip away…Philip found himself in Azotus [ancient Ashdod on the coast]. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.”

Throughout the history of the church, even until today, persecution has strengthened and grown the church rather than hindered it. You have only to look at countries like China and Iran to see the explosion of growth in the church.[2] Yet, renewal comes not only from persecution but also from being fed up with the status quo. Consider the generation of people known as Millennials, those who were born between 1981 and 2000.[3] They are a generation maligned by some as being sheltered, pressured, and believing that they are special when compared to people of other generations. They are also a generation that is civic-inded and oriented toward achieving goals with a team mentality. Their expression of spirituality is one that questions what they see as the showy nature of the contemporary worship, megachurch extravaganza in favor of quiet, reflective expressions of worship, an extension of their emotional respect and dependence on their parents.[4] Thus, culture shifts outside the church lead to change and renewal within the church, where ministries like Fresh Expressions are teaching churches to create worship space in unconventional places like home churches, bar churches, restaurant gatherings, and worship around community service and involvement.

So, what does that mean for us? It means keep your eyes and ears open. Be looking and listening for the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and the lives of others and get on board with it. Where someone is reaching out to love a neighbor, help and encourage. Where there is hurting and suffering around you, do what you can to alleviate it. Where there is need, provide to the best of your ability. The building is not the church, you are. Carry the church into the world that the world is changed by seeing the hands and feet of Jesus still walking around and meeting people where they are.

One of my favorite sayings is that we should give feet to our prayers. I think that is what we are talking about when we talk about renewal. We are responding to the need to do something rather than just talk about it. Renewal is saying the change starts now, literally making new what has become old and stale in our soul by looking for a new way to express the truth we know: that to love God and love neighbor are the greatest commandments and they are commandments, not suggestions.


References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco/HarperCollins, 1954.

Bridges, Jerry. True Community: The Biblical Practices of Koinonia. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012.


[1] (Bridges 2012, Kindle Version, Ch. 10, Sec. 2, Para. 3)

[2] https://www.christiantoday.com/article/which-country-has-the-fastest-growing-church-in-the-world/95924.htm

[3] https://students.rice.edu/images/students/AADV/OWeek2008AADVResources/Characteristics%20of%20the%20Millenial%20Generation.pdf

[4] ibid

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