Next to Tinseltown

When I was five or six, we lived in a rent house. I can recall two things about the house: one of the windows had a very long hose coming out of it from the washing maching down to the lawn, and our next-door-neighbor liked to work on his cars and I liked to sit on the engine and “help” him. (This is the closest I’ve ever been to working on a car.)

When I was thirteen, we lived in a different rent house, in a different state. I remember two things about the house: my bedroom was in the basement (which I loved) and the big open room next to my bedroom seemed big enough to play racquetball in. (It was probably 10'x12'.)

Rent houses don’t seem to generate a lot of fond reminiscing. They typically don’t generate much reminiscing at all. We’re not usually in them long enough to acquire many memories, good, bad or otherwise. The result is that very few of us wax eloquently about our childhood growing up in a rent house.

Which makes this week all the more remarkable. Tomorrow is our1 church’s last day in its “rent house,” the building we’ve leased for the last eleven years. Next week marks our entry into the wonders of home (building) ownership, a day seventeen years in the making.

Unlike those two rent houses I lived in as a kid, however, I have all kinds of memories in this building that wasn’t ours but felt like it was.

I remember writing names of people we were praying for that didn’t know the Lord on the top of the four beams containing our core values that hang in the main hallway. Many of those people have given their lives to Him in the intervening eleven years. The names on top of those beams said to me that, although we have core values that we hold to without apology, our over-arching value is people.

I remember the excitement we all had the first day, mostly because we no longer had to do the “121 Crouch”.2

I remember the switch from donuts to “more healthy” fare (scones!?!) that nearly caused a church split.

I remember the caging of the drums that nearly caused another one, or maybe it was just me. (Drums, like big cats, should live out in open spaces, where their sounds can be heard for miles around.)

I’ve learned a lot in this building. I’ve learned that first impressions aren’t always accurate — the number of people who see our building from the street and then walk through the door and say, “Oh my goodness, this is amazing!” are legion.

I’ve learned that having men’s and women’s bathrooms in completely opposite sides of the building make for interesting looks from first-time visitors.

I’ve learned that 9:15 and 11:00 are more guidelines than actual rules.

I’ve learned that not being on a major thoroughfare is a serious impediment to conversation. If “Next to Tinseltown Grapevine” and “just down from Stacy’s furniture,” didn’t work, whoever we were talking to probably weren’t going to find us, Google Maps or no Google Maps.

I’ve re-learned, or had reinforced, something I learned many years ago — preaching is the least important job of a pastor.3 I was privileged to spend a few years on the leadership team (elders without the age or formality), and I saw all of the things that really make a pastor: how they lead, how they let others lead, how they deal with difficult situations and decisions, how they learn from others. As much respect as I had for Ross going in, I had even more going out. Organizations take on the character and personality of their leader, and who we are at 121 is largely a result of who Ross is.

Which brings us to the greatest thing I learned while in this building that wasn’t ours. After wrapping up a year-and-a-half series(!) on Romans, Ross decided to preach through Amos(!!) during the summer of 2007. It seemed like a pretty innocuous decision at the time, but God brought a number of things together that summer that changed us all.

If you haven’t read a minor4 prophet lately, it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience. They’re not very happy, because God isn’t very happy and He’s given them a message of unhappiness to spread around. But there’s usually a little bit of comfort in the reading because at least we don’t have those problems. Right?

Not so much. Amos starts out by tricking his audience — he launches into several diatribes against all of the surrounding nations, and you can almost hear the “Amen!"s piling up. Then he pulls the rug out from under them — "Oh, by the way, you’re the worst of all of them.” The book did something similar to us. We went in thinking it was the usual “you’re worshipping idols” stuff, and clearly we don’t worship idols5. Instead, we found out that the thing God was the most upset about was Israel’s lack of justice — of not only not taking care of the poor and widow and orphan, but of either actively taking advantage of them, or turning a blind eye when others did so.

Hey, that’s my shoe you’re stepping on, do you mind?

A couple of other things happened that summer that intensified the message. The end result was over the course of the summer it dawned on us that justice really matters to God. I realize that sounds like a “Duh!” statement in 2017, but believe me, a decade ago in that still new building, it came as something of a surprise. I’m the first to admit that it shouldn’t have, but bacon shouldn’t be that bad for you, either, and yet here we are.

We weren’t the only ones learning — Ross was learning right along with us. Unlike most of us, though, he tends to act on what he’s learned. As we left the summer and headed into fall, we were about to raise some additional money for the building, part to build-out some of our unfinished space so we could separate our then-combined pre-school/children’s area (we were multiplying faster than Tribbles6 at the time), and part so we could finish paying off our loan for the initial build-out. Ross decided to add on another $300K for “something related to justice”.

With no more of a definition than that, we ended up raising more than the goal, paying off the old build-out, the new build-out, and funding “something related to justice,” all in less than three years. That “something related to justice” has turned into eight years of working with organizations in SE Asia, Central America, and several other local ministries. You can see its seeds in our using the new building to have childcare that will be available to low-income families in the church’s neighborhood, and in our Good Neighbor Teams that welcome refugee families and help them as they make a difficult transition to a new country. You can see it almost everywhere at 121, because the message has permeated everything we do.

Justice matters. Leadership matters. People matter. God’s word matters, because it is what tells us those other things matter.

It’s been a pretty good rent house.

  1. It’s not ours, we’re just members there. But “the church we’re a member of” is ungainly and sets off the preposition police, and “the church we attend,” while accurate, is just as ungainly while also sounding uncomfortably impersonal. “Our” in this case doesn’t indicate ownership, just that we’re a member of its community. 

  2. Our former space only held 250 people (which caused us to have three services), and it only did that if the rows were really close together. So close that you couldn’t stand all the way up or your legs would push your chair back into the person on the row behind you. So we didn’t really stand while singing, we did the 121 Crouch. 

  3. I didn’t say it wasn’t important. I said it was the least important. 

  4. My friend William would be upset if I didn’t note that they are called minor because of the length of their books, not because of their stature in the prophet community. 

  5. We do, but that’s a subject for another time. 

  6. Look it up while you’re getting off my lawn. 

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