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Somewhere in rural, southern Arkansas this summer, my family and I drove past a church’s marquee sign which read, “Some Assembly Required.”  “Clever,” I thought.  “Quite clever, indeed!”  The implications of the sign’s message kept rattling around in my head off and on during the remainder of our journey home from vacation.  I wondered if some astute, local church member had dreamed that one up, or if it had pre-existed in the larger public domain of “churchy” quips and quotes.  It turns out that it was the latter.  A quick Google search the next day revealed that the longer version (requiring far more letters and a bigger sign) reads, “The church is a gift from God; some assembly required.”

While true Christian faith is based on a personal, individual relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, it is equally true that God has chosen to keep His children in community; He adds us to a family, a body, a kingdom of believers, His church.  It is within this community of faith that many of us have likely experienced some of our most precious spiritual memories, as well as our worst ecclesiastical nightmares.  It is with the “church assembled” that we have shared laughter and tears and felt the weight of burdens lifted by a loving Christian family.  It is also where we have likely had our feelings hurt, felt like a complete stranger, or had salt rubbed in our wounds.  We have been in assemblies in which we felt transported to the very throne of God by voices and hearts united in praise, and we have also been in gatherings where we sensed that the Spirit was a million miles away; or perhaps it was our own emotional distance that was responsible for that feeling.  Such are the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, the blessings and disappointments of life in the Body of Christ.

Yet, it is good to be reminded that our failures and foibles in the implementation and execution of God’s plan for His people do not negate His divine wisdom in calling us to assemble and to share our common faith in a living and dynamic community. 

Carolyn Arends shares a brilliantly insightful opinion piece entitled, “Taste the Soup,” in her “Wrestling with Angels” column in the current issue of Christianity Today.  It captures and articulates the thoughts and feelings that I had been mulling over ever since I saw the “Some Assembly Required” sign.  She expresses these sentiments so effectively that I wish I could just provide a link to the article, but it is currently unavailable on CT’s website.  However, it will likely appear on Arends’ blog sometime soon.  I’ll share a few excerpts in hopes that you will soon be able to read it in its entirety.   Arends’ title comes from an illustration in which an annoyed restaurant patron repeatedly asks the server to “taste the soup” in order to communicate that no spoon has been provided on the table.  Her point:  “Sometimes you have to do what is being asked of you before you understand why it’s required.”

Arends writes:

“Lately, for me, the command to ‘taste the soup’ has been about attending church.  Trouble is, I just haven’t felt like going.”

“I’ve been sliding into pews (or modern equivalents) from infancy; my vocation has taken me to hundreds of churches around the world.  I’ve met some of my dearest friends and endured some of my darkest betrayals in youth rooms, foyers, and sanctuaries.  I’ve cried, sung, prayed, committed, disconnected, recommitted, scribbled sermon notes, doodled, been wounded, been healed, encountered the Mystery, and dozed off – sometimes all in the same service.”

“Like anyone who has logged serious pew time, I’ve got reasons to be jaded.  I’ve seen churches split over trivia while they trivialize glaring immorality amongst their leaders.  I’ve encountered gossip posing as prayer, and bullying masquerading as ‘spiritual guidance.’  I’ve watched the realignment and reduction of the gospel into a business plan for membership growth or personal improvement.”

“People who complain that church is boring have no idea.  Church is scary.”

“There’s just one problem.  Beneath my rhetoric of antilegalism, enlightenment, and self-protection there remains a still, small – but increasingly insistent – voice.  And it’s telling me to taste the soup.”

“Obedience in this area is simply intentional proximity with a group of people who love Jesus and each other.  It is coming together to his table, if only because that is what he asks us to do.  And it is trusting that he’ll show us not only the spoons we’re missing, but also the feast he has in store.”

Thank you, Carolyn!

We assemble as Christians, not because we serve some cranky, attendance-taking Divine Curmudgeon who delights in marking us down for unexcused absences, but for reasons of our own spiritual benefit, and that of others through us.  

If it has been quite a while since you last assembled with other Christians for praise and fellowship, let me encourage you and challenge you to muster up the resolve to do so this Sunday.  I know that I’m asking a lot, because some of you have been severely wounded, neglected, misunderstood, or perhaps just “overlooked” rather than “overseen” in the shepherding ministry of the church’s leadership.  All of these negative experiences are caused by the fact that churches are made up of people exactly like ourselves, plagued by similar weaknesses and failings. 

“Taste the soup” this Sunday, and be open to the multiple reasons why God calls us together.  He may be counting on you to be there to reach out to someone who really needs you, someone to whom you can extend understanding and compassion because of your own painful experiences.  I pray that healing will begin to overcome the hurt.

Kent Smith, a dear friend and brother in Christ, went home to be with the Lord in the early hours of last Thursday, August 30, after a courageous and inspiring battle with T-cell lymphoma.  Kent touched the lives and hearts of so many people in so many different ways over the course of his life: as a son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, farmer, cotton ginner, AIMer, youth minister, teacher, preacher, worship leader, elder, deacon, missionary, storyteller, author, encourager, co-worker, and friend.

Kent and Paula had just placed membership at the McDermott Road church when my family and I joined the work of that congregation in ministry in September of 1999.  We were still meeting in the facilities of the Waterview church at the time.  Kent would soon be serving on the Steering Committee, a group of seven men who provided leadership for the congregation in the early days of the church plant as it transitioned to its own facilities in north Plano.  Kent’s very obvious faith, maturity, giftedness, and passion for Christ resulted in him being asked to serve among the congregation’s first elders.  He served well, exhibiting the heart of a true shepherd.  As deeply as Kent felt called to serve as an elder, he, along with others, demonstrated great spiritual strength, courage, and humility in willingly stepping aside from that role of servant-leadership when they believed that it was best.  That selfless act of love for Christ’s church helped to ensure the ongoing stability, spiritual health, and numerical growth of the congregation.  True to his nature, he continued serving in a variety of other ways, right at the heart of the life of the church.  He had a special place in his heart for the work of Christ in Honduras and the Rio Grande Valley where he was involved in numerous mission trips. 

Kent had an extraordinary ability to connect with people’s hearts and lives, a gift that was just as effective in the affluent northern suburbs of Dallas as it had been in rural West Texas.  He loved to teach, especially by exploring how faith in Christ translates into daily life.  He communicated so naturally through stories from his own life and experiences.  When Kent told a good story, it became a great story.  Many of these anecdotes and insights are included in his book, Everyday Christianity: Life Learned Lessons and Observations from an Ordinary Man

Kent was noted for the nicknames which he lovingly gave to family members and friends.  He even nicknamed himself “Grumpy,” which was an immediate and enduring hit.  Kent dubbed me “R.P.”: Reverend Pyles.  He would often call me at the church office about 11:30 in the morning and say, “Hey, R.P.!  If you don’t have any plans for lunch, why don’t we go get ourselves a sandwich?”  Kent had a unique cadence and inflection in saying the word “sandwich.”  Any attempt to explain it in written form would fall short of adequately capturing it, so I won’t even try, but it was quintessentially Kent.  We had many such spontaneous lunch dates.  Kent used to say, “Tim stays awfully busy, but, if you want some of his time, all you have to do is wave a couple of tacos in front of him.”

Kent will be on my mind quite a bit this week.  On Wednesday, I am driving to Abilene to share a lesson with the Oldham Lane church.  On at least two previous speaking engagements there, Kent rode shotgun with me.  Although he had somewhat of an ulterior motive in being able to share a brief visit with his sister who was a member of that congregation, he provided great company on the drive and helped to pass the travel time with a lot of laughter.  We would get to Abilene in time to eat at Cracker Barrel before the service, would stop in at Sonic on the way out of town for something cold and sweet for the road, and would roll back into the Metroplex about 11:30 or midnight.  Our last trip was in July of 2008. 

Among other things that I have scheduled for this Thursday on my return journey from Abilene is a round of golf at Stevens Park in the beautiful Kessler Park area of Oak Cliff.  Kent and I played our first round together there on March 31, 2000.  The date is memorable because it was the Friday before our first Sunday worship services in the new, modular building at McDermott Road on April 2.  The previous Tuesday evening, we had dodged tornadoes which inflicted extensive damage in downtown Fort Worth, Arlington, and Grand Prairie and had threatened to scatter our deca-wide modular all over Collin County.  It was a very exciting but quite stressful time, so Kent suggested that we escape for an afternoon of golf.  Stevens Park was already my favorite course in Dallas, and Kent became the first of my McDermott Road friends to accompany me there.  We would later add Coyote Ridge in Carrollton, Stewart Peninsula in The Colony, and Plantation in Frisco to the course rotation.           

I last visited with Kent and Paula in their home last April.  Though our time was rather brief, it was very encouraging, which was par for the course with Kent.  I was unable to attend Kent’s memorial service last Saturday, but I heard that his son, Josh, and son-in-law, Chad, did an amazing job in honoring and celebrating his life.  All of us love our families, but Kent had an exceptional affection for Paula, their children and their spouses, and their grandchildren.  He was so very proud of each and every one of them.     

When Kent encountered challenges in his life, he always faced them with perseverance and hope.  Setbacks were only temporary, and light always followed the darkness.  There was always a way forward.  Even cancer wasn’t allowed to have the last word.  He utilized his illness just as he had used his entire life, to glorify God and to draw others closer to Jesus. 

Kent shared a message at McDermott Road on July 29, a month before his death, in which he beautifully communicated his faith, his hope, his confidence, and his conviction that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  He didn’t just preach it; he lived it.  You can hear and see Kent’s message by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Thank you, Kent, for leaving such a powerful testimony and lasting legacy of faith and hope for your family, your church family, and your friends.

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September 2012