The hurricane in Texas, and now Louisiana, has wreaked havoc with torrential, recordbreaking rains, out of control flooding, dramatic rescues and tragic deaths. I especially feel for those individuals who have already fled their homes years ago when Katrina’s devastation was upon them and resettled in Houston as a “safer place,” only to be reliving the nightmare now. Sadly, these kinds of natural disasters occur around the world in a variety of ways year after year, and suffering is not unique to Harvey’s victims.
In the midst of it, Joel Osteen has come under attack from lots of directions with the charge that when asked to open his church as a shelter for those needing refuge, the request is said to have been denied. I have read a portion of a statement officially issued by the church that indicates they have been purchasing and placing mattresses in the building, and that they plan to open it as a refuge once the other shelters are full.
I find that statement rather interesting, in that the church does not see the need to be among the first to respond to those in need and suffering, but as a refuge of last resort. I don’t have direct knowledge of any of the charges and controversy, just the bits and pieces I have picked up here and there, but it doesn’t sound good, does it?
It certainly does not sound like the way Jesus responded to those in need, nor how teaches his followers to respond…but I also acknowledge that there could be more to the story than I know. In fact, I have read of an interview that he gave indicating that there is another side to it all, and that they have been working with the city since the beginning. I don’t intend to jump in and rush to judgment with limited information (which seems to happen a LOT on the internet, it seems to me).Since that is not the bandwagon I plan to jump on with this blog, I will leave that investigation to others, while I pursue some lessons that could be relevant for all of us instead. Don’t misunderstand and assume that it means I approve of the actions that have been claimed against him…I am simply choosing to address a different concern.
I want to focus on a different aspect of this whole discussion.
Have you noticed how much attention Osteen is getting from the secular media and community is all of this? News sources that would never give the time of day to the various ministries his church does or the messages Osteen brings on a regular basis (and I’m not saying I agree with everything the man teaches…frankly, I don’t spend the time on his ministry to even find out). But now, all of a sudden, he is the major focus of attention by people from every walk of life! Why?
I think there are several reasons. First, there are people around who despise anything Christian, and like vultures, just wait, watching for any error on the part of any Christian leader so that they can swoop and a pronounce judgment, point out hypocrisy and declare a foul. These individuals believe that finding fault with fallible Christian people somehow disproves the validity of the Christian faith.
That, of course, actually demonstrates how little they really understand of the teachings of the Christian faith, because the very core teaching of Christianity is that we are fallible, desperately in need of forgiveness and grace, which is why Jesus died on the cross in the first place. Committing one’s life to Christ doesn’t mean we no longer fail and make poor choices, it means we are trying to learn a better way, and that we acknowledge our failings and need for forgiveness.
This vulture type mentality exists not only on a national level, but on a local level as well. There are individuals in every community who delight in pointing out the faults of the church and seek to undermine its ministries. There are, sadly, also individuals in every congregation who think their calling is to find fault with their pastors and church leaders, and spend their time watching and waiting, when they would better be served by spending some time before a mirror, taking careful stock of their own shortcomings.
The second thing I want to point out is the underlying assumption that the church and Christians are SUPPOSED to be helping those in need.
Despite all the maligning Christians have experienced in our secular and often hostile culture in recent years, the message has still gotten through that the church is a place (at least in theory) where people in need can find help and individuals who care. I have experienced this personally as a pastor, when time and time again, individuals in a community who never step foot inside a church for worship, do not hesitate to turn to the church when they need help with utilities or food; the assumption is that Christians are people who care about the needs of others.
So when people in your church get discouraged because they think the message isn’t getting through, consider that more may be getting through than you realize.
One doesn’t hear the media raising any stink about whether scientologists, Mormons or Muslims are doing anything to help down in Texas. It is Christians who have historically been known as individuals who care about and seek to minister to those in need. Perhaps the greatest example in recent years would have been Mother Teresa caring for the lowest of the low in Calcutta. It is the witness of Christians around the globe and throughout history. Hospitals and colleges exist because Christians cared about the sick and the illiterate, not just their own people. I visited a poverty stricken country some years ago with a missionary friend of mine, and as we drove, motorcycled and then finally hiked back into the back areas of the country, my friend commented that nobody else cares about these people, that even their own government doesn’t go back to help them. Once there, I saw schools being built, nutrition and job skills being taught, and new Christians seeking to learn what it means to follow Jesus in their context.
The final, and main point I want to raise is this: people are watching.
If you claim to be a Christian, whether you realize it or not, people are observing your life to see if what you say you believe matches up with how you live your life. And, as Joel Osteen and his church in Texas are rapidly discovering, actions (or inaction) speaks far louder than words. Our changed lives, the good deeds are the outward evidence and manifestation of the work God has done within our hearts. If they are non-existent, or counter to the way Jesus lived and taught, then that should serve as a warning sign causing us to examine whether or not we really have committed our lives to Christ, and what it means to you that you have done so. But if your life is reflecting well the character of Christ, you are silently teaching people what it means to be a Christian, and when the day comes they need help, or want to know more, they will know that they can turn to you because your faith is genuine. Perhaps that is the real reason for the outcry against Osteen and his church: people are searching for faith that is genuine, and are disenchanted by the disappointment of times when the evidence of individual lives says otherwise.
So if it was you the media was scrutinizing and judging, what would be their declaration based on your life?
Remember that old saying: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Are you first on the scene to help people in need, or have you become a refuge of last resort, too?
In a day of mixed messages, the world is hungry for genuine, meaningful, life-changing, humble faith. I hope they can find it in YOU! (and me!!)