Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where I've Come From

I was in High School. I was beginning to come into my own as a leader in the youth group and was frequently asked to serve in various ways at church--much like most teen males are today--serve communion, speak communion thoughts before it was served, lead singing and sing on praise team, pray, read scripture, and even preached a couple of times.

This particular Sunday was a little different than others in the past. A new man was in charge of the Lord's supper ministry and was wanting to require the guys who serve to not only wear shirts and ties, but full blazers and slacks too. I did not own such items. I was not a dressy dresser. I usually wore jeans, but was starting to dress a bit better on my own, for myself. I had a couple of shirts to choose from and one nice pair of dockers that matches both shirts. I even had one tie!

I knew when it was my turn to serve again, he was going to ask m(just my luck, his clothes would fit me). I showed up that Sunday dressed in one of my nice shirts and dockers. That was it. No tie...mind you, this was the late 90's and dress shirts could be plain, but we also had some flashy patterns and those were the ones I liked at the time. So there was no way he had a blazer to match my outfit. I figured, he really couldn't do anything to help me that week. But it happened. I found myself with him in the restroom where he had his spare blazers and ties hung up and asked me which one I would wear...
e to wear a particular outfit I didn't own. He was a big guy too

Ugh! I told him I wasn't going to do it. If he wanted me to serve, I would serve as I was and he would accept me as I was to pass out the communion trays and if he didn't like it, he could take me off of the list of servers. I served that week in what I had worn to church but found myself never on the list to serve again.

This has stuck with me to this day. In fact because of this drama, I adopted the verse in First Samuel 16:7 as one of my lifelong verses I would maintain.

But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." (ESV)

I didn't want people to think that it was okay to discriminate by what someone wore. This was something I struggled with all throughout my teen years. I wasn't wealthy enough to buy new clothes when I needed them and frequently wore clothes until they disintegrated on my body or were just worn and stretched out and faded to nothingness. It was very hard on me that this focus on clothing reached into the body of Christ and his people when I knew I would never live up to the expectations.

This legalism about what we wear has in many ways fallen by the wayside. I still felt this pressure in my first youth ministry position when I dared to wear jeans to church and when I dared to wear shorts on a summer Wednesday evening. I was told it was a West Coast mindset that I would have to get over. How is that? I wore clothing I had. I thought it was a poor view of the world then and still do today. But for the most part, the church in general has forgiven this duty to wear certain clothes on Sundays.

My fear is that we still have legalistic tendencies like this in other areas though and they are about as helpful as the one that made me reject serving communion because of the kind of decisions that were made about clothing.

Some who are reading this might think that legalism is purely an act of ultra-conservative brethren. No, no, no. I'm afraid not. I see it in our more progressive/contemporary brothers and sisters too.

Dictionary.com defines legalism:
1. Strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
2. Theology
a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
Anytime we elevate doing works the right way and are so strict that the law becomes more important than the spirit of Jesus, we are being legalistic. I recently read a book written by one of the contemporary leaders of the faith that told me I wasn't praying right (praying in a spiritual way that leads me to experience God's presence rather than the "rote" way I usually pray) unless I prayed the way he wrote about. He also said the same thing about reading scripture (unless I read it this special way, I am not going to receive God's word for my life). Now I am sure many would disagree and say he wasn't really saying that, but that is the way it struck me because in his book, he had a "special" way that dated back into history to ages past.

I hear daily those who push all believers into doing everything the same way even if they aren't spiritually in a place where they can work at the same "level" as others. Service and social justice has become the legalism of the left and there are other ways legalism is expressed in our contemporary settings that I won't go into. These are just two examples of many I could list, but the point I want to make is that it is legalistic to force this onto others when it isn't forced by Scripture in the same way.

Legalism exists in many forms. When I was a teenager, it existed in the form of the way I dressed, whether I wore a hat in church, whether I sang songs by myself or in a singing group, whether I clapped my hands, and if I was in the right denomination. Today is still exists in this form and in the way we pray, sing, serve, whether we have "freed" women and "sinners" to be leaders, and how we organize the leadership of the church.

The good news is that we have been saved by grace through faith and not by works. I cannot boast in the things I have done right because I will inevitably mess that up and won't be able to boast in those things either. I am positive I will still mess up something I do, something I say, the way I serve, and the way I lead. It's going to happen, so let me apologize now and get it out of the way so we can move forward.

When we serve, we should serve out of the blessing of salvation we have received. Those who are forgiven much, love much. Sometimes it looks like me being a good stay-at-home dad and nothing more because that's the extent that I feel able to serve. Sometimes it will look glorious and impressive in the way I lead my church and the other leaders and people in it.

The good news for you is that you may only be able to spend a few minutes a day loving your neighbor in the way you raise your kids, in the way you are nice to the people you encounter, or in the way you submit to your spouse (and by submit, I don't mean what you think I mean...).

The good news is that Jesus Christ died to forgive you of the sins you have committed and you no longer have to worry about trying to atone for what you have done.


That experience in my teenage years with serving communion had a negative impact on me. I pray that things are not still done the same way. It showed me that my service cannot be the thing that defines me because my service is not who I am. I am the person I am in Jesus Christ and the glorious good news of his Gospel that saves me. There are so many more people living in a legalism that can never be fulfilled because the expectations are so high. I pray that if you have experienced the same thing, you can see that hope is not lost just because of legalistic people. Your hope should be in Jesus Christ.