June 3, 2012
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
As many of you know, because of my background I tend to keep my feet in two different areas at the same time. I read and study a lot in the areas of spirituality, theology, and religion, but I also spend a lot of time reading in the areas of psychology and the social sciences. The reason is that I remain constantly fascinated by people and why we are the way we are. I don’t believe in focusing only on one area of human life, and so I try to be well-integrated in my understanding of what it means to be human and how we can live better lives. It’s not easy having feet in both camps because many in the scientific/rational camp are hostile to religion, and many in the religious camp are hostile to science. But I try to be a bridge between the two.
On of my favorite magazines in the science camp is Scientific American Mind. It’s a magazine that explores human psychology from a mostly neurological and physical perspective. In their May 2012 issue, they had an interesting article titled, “Are Believers Really Happier Than Atheists?” by Sandra Upson. Like many articles of the kind, it cites a growing body of research that says that, in fact, religious people are happier than non-religious people.
This body of research has basically demonstrated that just by your being in church this morning you are healthier and happier than those who aren’t. Much of the research done in the past 20 years points to higher levels of health and happiness, even if you control for unhealthy factors. For instance, if you are a smoker and you are part of a church, you are healthier than a smoker who isn’t. If you are diabetic and part of the church, you are healthier than someone who isn’t.
The article admitted, more or less, the validity of these studies. But then it went on to take a next step. The author adopts the perspective that what makes religious people healthier is that they spend time with others in a community of support (a conclusion which, by the way, isn’t really supported by research). She believes that there is nothing inherently special about religion other than being a community of support, and she goes on to speculate that atheists could be just as healthy as religious people if they could form similar communities of support. She then offers her ideas on how atheists could form similar communities.
As I read the article, I kept thinking that the author was really missing the point of the research. She never delved into the reason atheists don’t have these kinds of communities. The reason is that atheists don’t is that they aren’t driven by the same impulses as religious people. What drives a religious community is that it is filled with people looking to love God and love others. Love is the glue of the Christian community. We may love very imperfectly, and we may fall short in the details, but we try. As flawed as we are, we are driven by a desire follow God’s command to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love others as ourselves.
This is not to say that atheists can’t love or don’t love. It is to say that love isn’t necessarily a driving force of atheism. What drives atheists? Obviously what drives each atheist is individual motives, but as a group they are driven as much by what they are against as they are by what they are for. Being against God and religion, they block the possibility for the kind of community religion brings. You can’t create a community of love by starting out being against religious communities of love.
Christian communities actually become unglued when love is diminished and taken out of the church. The churches that fall apart generally are ones in which the members forget about love. They become so focused on individual agendas and power struggles that they become divided. And you see this same forgetfulness in churches that give Christianity a bad name. For instance, you heard about the pastor of Providence Road Baptist Church in North Carolina, who recently preached in sermon that went viral on YouTube. He said that we should gather all the homosexuals and “queers,” put them behind a compound behind a high fence, and send airplanes over to drop food in. His vision is that eventually they would all die out because they won’t reproduce. The following week a pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church in Seneca, Kansas took the issue a step further by saying that all homosexuals should be rounded up by the government and put to death. These are pastors and churches that have forgotten the primacy of love. You see the same loss of love in the members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas who stage ugly protests at the funerals of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. And their lack of love sparks non-Christians and atheists to paint all of us as unloving.
Still, what this article really brought out for me is something that makes what we do in this church, and all churches, special. We are a community rooted in a drive for love. I want you to reflect on how special that is. How many communities are you a part of, or are you aware of, that can say that they are primarily rooted in love? Your school? Work? Your neighborhood? Your favorite sports teams? The clubs you belong to? The reason a religious kind of community is missing among atheists, and among those who’ve rejected church because they are spiritual but not religious, is that there really aren’t other kinds of communities rooted in love. If you can think of one, it is a rare one.
What makes any church special, and this church specifically, is how we try to make love visible. I never want to suggest that we are perfect at it, but we try. I want you to think about everything that goes on here at Calvin Presbyterian Church, and how it impacts others by focusing on others. A focus on others is the essence of love. Love is about putting aside what is right for us so that we can do what is right for another. In that sense, Calvin Presbyterian Church is a church for others.
Take a walk with me though the ministry of Calvin Church and I’ll show you what I mean. Let’s start with worship. The focus of worship, at its core, is to enhance our focus on God. It is meant to help us grow in our love of God. Think about everyone who participates in the worship service on Sundays. What’s the focus of those who serve as greeters? They don’t greet you and hand out bulletins because of how wonderful it feels. The skeptic will say, “well, they’re doing it so they can get into heaven.” We Presbyterians don’t believe that our deeds get us into heaven, only God’s love and grace do. So I’d be hard pressed to agree that any of our greeters are saying “good morning” and handing out bulletins in order to get into heaven. If that’s the case, then the bar for entry into heaven is awfully low. They greet as a simple act of love, focusing on others.
You can apply the same focus on all the other things people do in worship. The folks who play music or sing, serve communion, serve on the soundboard, offer coffee after worship, serve in the nursery, or even those of you who sing hymns in worship, don’t do so because of you. You do it for others. Worship is a manifestation of being other focused—either focusing on God or on others. It is hard to do worship when we are the only focus. It is easy to do worship when the focus is on love.
Think about our education program. We have over 40 people teaching Sunday School on Sunday mornings. These are people who often are cutting out little paper hands at 10 p.m. on Saturday night, reading curriculum on Saturday night, preparing classes from scratch, or are spending time being trained to teach. They could easily be doing other things, but they do this because they love children. And the parents who endure their kids’ whining and complaining on Sunday mornings to take then to class do so because they love their children and know how important it is for their children to learn about God and love.
Our youth program is similar. Whether we are talking about Bruce Smith, our youth director, the adult leaders, the youth leaders, or the parents, they all lead and support the youth involved because of their love for the youth. They want the youth to grow up with a sense of God’s love in their lives, and with a desire to love others. No one is there because it is so self-serving. They are they because it is other-serving.
Look at other areas of ministry at Calvin Presbyterian Church. We have a great pre-school, taught by loving teachers, with loving parents and church members serving on the board, the session committee, taking part in fundraisers, and more because of love of children. All of our committees are served by people who do so because of a desire to make Calvin Church a place of love. Whether it is a committee devoted to caring for the building, overseeing our finances, tending to worship, coordinating our mission, developing a great education program, and more, they are served by people primarily driven by a love for God and others. If it wasn’t so, who would serve?
Our drama program is rooted in love. We don’t just put on plays to please ourselves. We put on plays to teach a religious and moral message to others, both inside and outside our church. And the people who commit to night after night of rehearsals and performances certainly like to act, but if that was the primary motive Calvin Church would not be their venue. The folks who take part in our plays like to act, but they also like to be a part of something that shares God’s love with each other and with us.
Giving is another act of love. When we give to the church, we are acting out of love. We are recognizing our own limitations by saying, in effect, “I may not be able to spread God’s love by acting, teaching, singing, counseling, visiting, playing an instrument, or the like, but I can devote part of my day, each day, to support others who can do these things. So I give money to the church to support others’ acts of love.”
As Paul says in his letters, we are the body of Christ, and every part of this body works together to be a body of love. In a body there is no dominant part. All work together or not at all. We are a body of love who come together, coordinate together, work together, and serve together to love not only those within the church, but those outside the church. We are all ministers. The word “minister” literally means “a servant.” In the Protestant faith we believe that people like me are pastors, called and trained to care for those in ministry, but all of us are ministers. All of us are servants serving in ministries of love. This is what makes churches both distinct and special.
What the article got wrong is that we aren’t happier and healthier because we’re involved in something that gives us a sense of community or even meaning. We’re happier and healthier because we are trying to live out the source of happiness and health: God, God’s love, and God’s grace. It’s not what we do that makes us happier and healthier. It’s who we become as a result. As we serve in ministry, we become people of love who love God, love others, and love ourselves.
We are all sent by the Spirit to be involved in ministry with each other. The thing I’d ask you to reflect on is how open you are to the Spirit’s calling to become involved in the ministry of this church?