Ugly Chairs

This is an ugly chair.

It’s okay.  You can say it.  This is an ugly chair.  But I keep it for that very reason, to remind myself that we don’t always see the ugly chairs in our lives.  This chair wasn’t always ugly.  Back in the 70’s when my parents bought it, this was a very cool chair.  It was considered “contemporary” and “stylish.” It used to have armrest covers and a little cover for the top part where your head leaned against it.  The colors were much brighter of course.  I remember it having bright, thin streaks of red mixed in with the orange. It stayed in our family living room for decades, even long after it had gone out of style, long after the colors started to fade, and long after the armrests disappeared.  Eventually, my mom convinced my dad to move it into their bedroom, out of sight of the rest of the world.  But get rid of it?  Never.  My dad loved this chair and would fall asleep in it nearly every night.  After a very long while, it even got too ugly even for their bedroom and made its way to the garage where it still had a place of honor.  My dad would sometimes just sit in it and watch the world go by.  He’d be fiddling with something in the garage and just sit in that old chair.  Even though the rest of us saw it as a beat up, ugly old chair that had served its purpose, my dad looked on it as a treasured possession.  It wasn’t until 45 years later that they let me take it with me.  For this very purpose.  To show you an ugly chair.

My dad’s ugly chair. Now it’s mine! Should we reupholster it?

I’m betting most of us have an ugly chair in our homes.

Maybe not like this, but something that’s hard to get rid of.  Something we don’t want to part with even though it’s long outlived its purpose. Something that’s important to us because of its meaning or the memories it stirs up inside of us.  But to the rest of the world, they see it for what it is – an ugly chair.  Churches do this, too. It may not be a chair or even a physical object, but there are things we have a hard time letting go of even if they don’t work anymore.  It could be the way we do worship, the way we do fellowship, the way we do Sunday School.  It’s part of “what we do,” and it’s part of “what we like,” and it makes church seem like church – but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair.  For us it makes church seem like “church,” but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair.  Let me give you an example.  Dressing up for church used to be a thing.  In some places it still is.  And if you didn’t come in your Sunday finest, people would look at you with either scorn or pity.  Scorn for your disrespect for God or pity that you didn’t have better clothes.  But where did that belief come from?  How did we equate dressing nicely with respect for God?  That idea came from a minister named Horace Bushnell in 1843.  He wrote an article called “Taste and Fashion” where he said “sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them.”[1]  Maybe he was a minister that had absolutely no training or ever studied the Bible because that idea runs completely counter to what James wrote in James 2:1-5:

1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

I do love getting dressed up for special occasions like Easter, Christmas, baptisms and weddings, but you’ll often find me in more casual clothes so those visiting our church know we don’t expect them to have to be dressed up to be welcome here. (This is me serving at Bethel UMC in Washington, GA on Easter Sunday back in 2007)

Dressing up isn’t Biblical and nowhere does the Bible imply that the clothes a man wears brings him any closer to God or more like God.  In fact, the clothes of the disciples and Jesus himself were likely dirty from the ground as they were walking, the dust everywhere kicking up and making their clothes get covered.  Yet, I’m pretty sure God loved them anyway.  But one guy writes an article about dressing up for God and it somehow becomes part of “what we do” and it remains that way for over 100 years. Now, there’s nothing wrong with coming to church looking nice.  In fact, it’s probably how some of you ended up with your spouse.  But as times change and expectations change and the world around us changes, we have to be willing to change, too.  We have to recognize when “what we do” does the opposite of what we want it to do.  And then be willing to part with it.

What we need is a fresh perspective.

We have to take a step back and look at ourselves honestly – from top to bottom.  Do we have ugly chairs in our lives?  In our church?  In our businesses?  Because if we do we need to get rid of them. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, would you please go to Romans 13:8-10.  Romans 13:8-10.  This idea of needing to get rid of something scares us because we can’t help but take it personally.  It’s like telling us that everything we’ve done is wrong.  But that’s not what it’s about at all.  It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong.  It’s a matter of doing what works.  For example, our mission as a church is to bring people closer to Christ, so if we’re driving people away or we’re not connecting them to God in a way that’s meaningful to them, can we honestly say we are fulfilling our mission?  Are we serving the purpose for which churches were created?  Paul’s words this morning will remind us of exactly what that mission is.

8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. – Romans 13:8-10

Love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul writes about it so simply I think sometimes we forget it.  We become rigid in our thinking over time.  We get so caught up in routines and traditions that we can’t see they don’t work like they used to.  And we become reluctant to change.  Like the Pharisees and the church elders back in the early first century, we get so caught up keeping church going the way we are use to, we forget what it is all about.  But Paul reminds us, it’s really about love of others.  When we make the love of others our priority and our focus we are doing exactly what God wants us to do.  When we love ourselves more than others, we end up turning inward and forgetting our real purpose.

At a conference with Andy Stanley sharing about Irresistible Churches

Which brings us back to the ugly chair.

Andy Stanley, senior pastor at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, once put it like this. Keeping an old couch in your home is fine.  Nothing wrong with holding on to memories of the way things used to be.  But holding on to old couches in church life is deadly.  Because to an outsider, they see the couch for what it is. [2]  An ugly piece of furniture.  Something that needs to go in the trash bin.  And they don’t understand why in the world we would hold onto it.  But to us…to us they are filled with memories…because that’s the way we did it and that’s the way my parents did it and by golly that’s the way my children will do it, but your kids are thinking, “Really?”  And honestly, weren’t there some things your parents did in church when you were growing up that you just didn’t understand?  But when you’re in it, you don’t see it that way.  You see it as the way a church is supposed to be run.  Our memories cloud our vision and these couches, these things that define church for us, become so draped in memories we don’t see them anymore for what they are; old, ugly couches that need to be let go.  If we want people to know the living God, he can’t be draped in dead things.  We have to point to the living God in ways that are relevant to people today.  If want our children, and our children’s children, and their children to live a life in God, then we have to meet them where THEY are instead of where WE are and be willing to constantly examine what we do.  We have to be willing to let go of our old couches to reach those who are far from God.

The challenge is recognizing what those ugly chairs are.

We have to be willing to put everything under the microscope. Odds are there will be stuff we don’t even realize are ugly chairs.  Any church that is shrinking or stagnating instead of growing likely has some of them lying around.  If the average age of a church just keeps going up, it’s likely some ugly chairs are sitting there unnoticed.  We have to be open to change, we have to be willing to admit without shame when things are not going well.  And instead of casting blame, look together for a solution to make it better.  The same is true for other aspects in our lives.  Is your marriage stale?  Are there fewer customers coming to your business?  Maybe you have some ugly chairs lying around you just haven’t seen.  So we need to open our eyes.  We need to be willing to look hard into that mirror and see what might be holding us back.  And then do something about it.  Pray about that this week.  Pray about how open you are to change and if you’re willing to do the honest and hard work of looking in that mirror and doing something about it.  And pray for God to help reveal to us what the ugly chairs are in our lives and see them for what they are.

[1] Barna p. 147.

[2] Paraphrase from the talk “Don’t Be That Couch” from Catalyst One Day in Atlanta 2009.

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