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Featured Book

Trolls & Truth:
14 Realities
About Today’s Church That We Don’t Want to See

(New Hope Publishers)

 
About the Author

Jimmy Dorrell is the pastor of Church Under the Bridge, an interdenominational church that grew from a Bible study with 5 homeless men in Waco, Texas, in 1992 underneath an interstate bridge. Today, there are 300 diverse people of many races and economic backgrounds who meet outside under the same interstate bridge each week. He and his wife, Janet, have four children, Seth, Josh, Zach, and Christy.

 
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APPEARANCES

A Church for the Least of These

By Jimmy Dorrell

CBN.com – Excuse me, sir, are you having Bible study?” the tall, bearded man inquired. “Can I join you?” And with that, one of our best teachers sat down among us.

Kruger’s life had been hard. Reared in a small Texas town, his alcoholic dad relentlessly rejected him with rarely a word of approval. Forced to go to church as a young boy, he resented every song and sermon as hypocrisy. Outward signs of religion were everywhere in this small community. Believing in Jesus was as normative as Friday night football. But with each verbal and physical beating, Kruger waited for an opportunity to leave his two-faced family. At 15 he was gone. With a few odd jobs here and there, the army became the first stable environment for him. But this stability came wrapped in the Vietnam War, alcohol, and drugs. Before a year had passed, Kruger was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and released back to the care of the Veterans Administration (VA).

“Certified crazy by the VA,” as he said of himself, few opportunities existed to work and keep his small government allowance. Certainly there was not enough income to maintain his growing drug habit. So to the underworld he went, and Kruger became an accomplished car thief. Claiming membership in a large gang of thieves from all over the Southwest, he could steal and sell automobiles with the best of them, with plenty of cash to support his habit.

Then the inevitable happened. He was caught in Alabama in a burglary gone bad, and whisked off to jail. Using a false identity in hopes of remaining anonymous, Kruger laid down in his lonely cell. Noticing a book on the window ledge, he reached for it and thumbed through the pages. It was a Bible. “Not one in that foreign KJV language,” he quipped, “but one I could read and understand.” For the next three days with only short naps between chapters, he read.

Overwhelmed by the truth, he cried out to God to change him and unweave the messes of his life. “God, if You can open the door of Peter’s cell, open mine.” To his amazement, when he pulled on his cell door, it was unlatched. With no guards around, he walked to the end of the hall and made a collect call to his mother, requesting her to send bail money. She did and he was again free on the streets.

But something had happened in that jail cell that forever changed him. The God he thought was more like his abusing father had become a God of grace and mercy. The words of a gospel that had felt more like bad news than good news had given him a new perspective for living. He was freed on the inside as much as the outside. New life, new direction.

Traveling back to Waco, Kruger did what new Christians are supposed to do—go to church. On Sunday morning, dressed in the only clothes he owned and with his mangled beard and unwashed hair, he entered the vestibule of the first church he found. “Hey, you, mister,” the assigned greeter barked, “What are you doing here?” “I just came to church,” Kruger said. “Not looking like that,” pointing to the clothes. “You’ll have to find some church clothes and clean up if you want to come back here.”

And with that, memories of his childhood flashed before him. Rejected for his soiled appearance by those who deemed themselves keepers of the earthly kingdom, this new child of God asked what many are asking today, “If I in my poverty am acceptable to God, why am I not acceptable to His people?”

In his simplicity, Kruger’s question defines the challenge. Though few of us would openly acknowledge that appearance matters to God, our actions suggest otherwise. The preoccupation in Western culture with the appearance of one’s outfit, house, yard, car, and office complex has affected how Christians determine their own values. What might seem like a shallow or legalistic issue unveils a basic core value that followers of the kingdom must face.

Appearance Really Doesn’t Matter (Or Does It?)

From the time most babies leave the hospital, outward appearance becomes paramount. Young parents and new grandparents spend millions of dollars for infant and baby clothing that are usually loathed by the child and worn only a time or two. Yet the oohs and ahs from well-wishers of the new family are validations of this “prettiest baby I have ever seen” conditioned response. Neatly tied bows, knotted hairstyles, and well-starched outfits are hardly appreciated by the baby just leaving the comfort of the mother’s womb. But from that time on, appropriate public appearance is a value embedded in life.

Americans spend millions a year on clothing that has little to do with need. Add the cost of accessorizing the outfits with belts, ties, scarves, hats, earrings, jewelry, and purses, and millions more are added. Shoe sales alone add millions more. Include the cost of haircuts, cosmetics, tanning, manicures, pedicures, and hair removal and the amount skyrockets. Name-brand and designer labels drive the fashion industry.

Even in the simple dress of Jesus’s day, when clothing choices amounted to little more than a pick of robes or sashes, the issue was important enough to the Teacher that He reminded the hillside listeners of their little faith with the question, “Why do you worry about clothes? . . . Pagans run after all these things” (Matthew 6:28, 32). Concern for clothing, food, or drink is a futile endeavor, and is compared to idolatry and paganism. Jesus chastised the religious Pharisees because of their preoccupation with outward attraction. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:2). Driven by some insatiable desire to be approved by others for what they wore instead of who they were, the issue was significant enough to the Son of God that He frequently used the concern for outward appearance as a sign of infidelity to God.

Yet it is the nature of humans to judge others by their physical appearance. Somehow we imagine that the wrapping paper is representative of the gift inside. If we are pretty, we are pleasing to God, we assume. But nothing could be further from the truth. “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). “Stop judging by mere appearance, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). “You are looking only on the surface of things” (2 Corinthians 10:7).

The prophet Isaiah recognized this human dilemma and reminded the expectant children of Israel that the coming Messiah would Himself be unattractive by human standards. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Yet in our paganlike way, we recreate God in our own image. We make Him soft-skinned and handsome, often with white skin and blue eyes. We make him average height and weight with normal features. With a haircut and a business suit, He could sit in the boardroom next to the CEO. But if Jesus returned in the flesh today and was short, a little overweight, black- or brown-skinned, had large ears or had a mole on His face, would we recognize Him? There was simply nothing about Jesus’s appearance that caused others to follow Him.

Nor was there any unique appearance that mattered in His choosing of the disciples. The ragtag disciples were fishermen, tax collectors, and common men, all chosen to be the progenitors of truth across the world. Jesus’s words and relationships confirmed the value He gave to those on the fringes of society. The immoral prostitute, the despised tax collector, the wild-eyed demoniac, the beggars, the lepers, the half-breeds, the old widows, the poor, the blind, the deaf, and the lame were His daily acquaintances. The religious leaders rejected these troll-like people, except as needed for their own attention. Jesus announced that the “least of these” hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, sick, stranger, and naked were His representatives and caring for their needs was tantamount to caring for God Himself (Matthew 25:31–46). To reject the rejected is not right in God’s kingdom. No smells, appearance, moral depravity, or economic condition was worthy of turning them away. Alternately, part of what it means to be in the kingdom is to have relationships with the least ones.

The apostle Paul also knew firsthand how supposed truth seekers prefer the handsome dispensers of truth instead of the truth itself. Some Bible scholars suggest that Paul’s personal appearance was somewhat repulsive. They claim he was somewhat disfigured or that his eyesight was failing, and still others think his “thorn in the flesh” was a disease such as epilepsy or severe respiratory illness. But whatever it was, Paul was certainly not humanly attractive. Ironically, when the false teachers challenged him in Jerusalem, Paul’s own words indicate that external appearance was a factor in their challenge. “God does not judge by external appearance” (Galatians 2:6), he proclaimed, and pointed to his vocational call as the measure of his acceptance by God and His followers.

Pretty People and the Uncompromising Gospel

Research continues to show that men and women and boys and girls who are identified as pretty, handsome, or cute are given special privilege in our culture. No surprise there. The dilemma for Christians is that this value has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. Not only are disciples of Jesus not to regard another’s looks as important, Paul’s plea for modesty would suggest that we should not attempt to draw attention to ourselves based on physical appearance. The Christian virtue of modesty suggests that we are to blend into the cultural norms. Overdressing or underdressing bring notice to our external appearance and cloud the beauty of character. Yet the advertising industry has seduced us to believe that the designer label, the stylish attire, the showy jewelry, and the revealing swimsuit are worthy objectives. The mass marketing of Christian jewelry and clothing lines merely compounds the challenge.

“Wear your best for God,” was the norm for church folks when I was a child. At age ten, living in the record humidity of southeast Texas, I remember the misery of wearing a clip-on tie and a sports coat in the blazing summer heat on the way to church. Although today many churches have loosened their dress codes, there are many congregations that still expect flashy suits, large hats, and matching shoes.

Worse still, the non-Christian world, which identifies Americans as Christian, is repulsed by the pornographic dress of our culture. I remember being in a slum in India, with only one television in the area, and observing a group of men huddled around it, gawking at the program Baywatch, then the most watched television program on the planet. Though they enjoyed the moments of lust, they would never let their own daughters out of the house in such attire.

Ironically, in the Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist worlds, conservative clothing is normative in their countries. Yet in the Christian West, large-breasted women adorned with gold crosses on their plunging necklines are considered attractive and acceptable. In our culture, cosmetic surgery has replaced modesty as the way to become desired.

Church Buildings and Other Religious Complexes

The need for approval of our personal appearance is closely tied to our possessions. Americans seem to have an insatiable need for acceptance and comfort. Driving the right car, living in a beautiful home, getting the kids in the best schools, owning the latest gadget, attending the right charity event, and eating at the finest restaurants drive the lifestyles of the affluent. Unfortunately, it is usually the same for affluent Christians. While the Bible clearly confronts such greed, lust, and pride, rarely do we find modern followers of Jesus who downsize for the kingdom in order to be more frugal with their resources for the kingdom. Looking good in the eyes of others seems to affect every area of life.

Perhaps no greater public display of our sin exists than the appearance of our places of worship. While few Christians still defend the church building as God’s house, the vulgar use of excessive resources to build religious complexes for a few hours a week continues. Confronted with the reality that the average church today continues to give less and less to the poor and needy and spend more and more on themselves, there seems to be little repentance based on each year’s growing budget to rearrange the priorities. Based on most current data, churches in America today spend less than 1 percent of their annual budget on the needs of the poor and hungry of our nation and world. Even among those members who become aware and convicted of this embarrassing disparity, few, if any, are willing to bring it to the church’s attention in those business meetings where budgets and buildings are discussed. Benign neglect becomes the modus operandi for fear that others might point at our own hypocrisy. “We need an attractive and comfortable building to attract the unchurched in our community,” the argument goes. We ignore the basic issue that the values of the kingdom preached and lived among the churched folks should be significantly different from the lives of the unchurched they are hoping to reach. American Christians spend millions on looking good, while the world’s poor go hungry, with no apparent conviction that the two are related.

Trolls and the Kingdom

Kruger’s simple, blunt question about appearance gets at the core of how the poor and marginalized question the faith of middle-class Christianity. If appearance does not matter to God, why does it continue to be a high value among His people? Why do pastors and Sunday School teachers not openly condemn our vulgar preoccupation with looking good and the millions of dollars spent to satisfy the shallow need? Who in the congregation will dare to stand in the business meeting and question the use of tithes and offerings for stained glass windows and immaculate lawns while a world goes hungry? And while appearance is clearly the symptom of the deeper issue, it is one of the topics which Jesus and His followers recognized as primary to deal with more significant issues. Until Christians can comfortably sit next to the Krugers of life and worship God with only celebration of the oneness of being in the family of God together, they are missing the joys of Christian fellowship. Hands lifted together, with fingernails both manicured and grease-laden, are a testimony that appearance does not matter.

The fact that we do segregate around issues of appearance keeps the very people Jesus sought out of our churches. When surveyed as to why folks do not go to church, the poor and marginalized list clothes as the number one reason. Proper attire and church have become so intertwined in many circles that it is better not to go than to go underdressed. Add the challenges of personal hygiene, haircuts, and clean clothes, and the barriers grow.

Kruger’s appearance is a challenge to those around him. His long, uncut fingernails are laden with oil and grease from his mechanic work. His jeans are soiled, beard and hair long and unkempt, and on occasion his body odor is strong. He is, however, only one of scores of poorly dressed folks who attend Church Under the Bridge. There are tattooed bodies everywhere, and lots of missing teeth. One man has severe facial scars from major burns. Another has little of his face remaining after he attempted suicide with a shotgun years before. People wear shorts, overalls, jeans, dresses, and even an occasional tie. But no one seems to notice what others are wearing. It not a high value or one noticed.

At Church Under the Bridge, preference is not given to pretty people or dignitaries. The Scriptures are crystal clear about that. “If 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,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:3, 4).

And certainly the “church building” has little appeal itself. Located outside under an interstate bridge, the graveled “carpet,” overhead noise, pooping pigeons, and inclement weather are hardly seductive in and of themselves to the churched or unchurched. Yet it is the commonness of the place that disarms the hundreds who attend. “This ordinary bridge made holy by His presence,” points to God’s ways when there were no temples and shrines. Like altars made by the patriarchs in the Old Testament from common stones and sticks in deserts and fields, this tabernacle-like location is mobile and unthreatening to those not ready to sit in a pew. There are no light bills, no construction costs (except to the state of Texas!), no utility bills. There is no need to be there, nothing attractive about the place, except that the presence of God is there. Financial resources are consequently freed up to share with the local and global poor instead of maintaining a building. And beauty is found more in the kingdom relationships than appearance.


Adapted from Trolls & Truth: 14 Realities About Today’s Church That We Don’t Want to See, by Jimmy Dorrell. Copyright © 2006, New Hope Publishers. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

 

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