Rediscovering the Organism

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV)

I remember getting the call. There was an emergency meeting of the church elders. I was a young man and had been serving as pastor of a rural church for over a year. As I made my way to the church office for the hastily called meeting I wondered what on earth the problem was.

As it turned out, the problem was me. Apparently, I had not officially gone through the prescribed bureaucratic hoops required to become a member of the church when I was hired. One of the elders had their undies in a bunch because I’d never become a member. I sort of figured that if the congregation hired me, I was kind of automatically grandfathered in. Oh, no. How could I be serving as Pastor of the organization if I wasn’t a member of said organization? We have an existential crisis on our hands, people!!

I did my best not to laugh. At the next congregational meeting I submitted my name for membership, the congregation approved, and that little bit of silliness was put to rest.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered similar kinds of silliness in the institutional church wherever my journey has taken me. Looking back over my journey, I’m struck at how different the institutional paradigm of “church” that I grew up with compares to the word picture of “the body of Christ” that Paul gives to the believers in Corinth in today’s chapter.

The word picture of the “Body” is a living organism made up of all believers. The church I grew up in was an organization made up of just those who chose to go through membership class, go through interviews with the elders, and accepted the “right hand of fellowship” along with a nice certificate (perfect for framing) during a Sunday morning meeting. In Paul’s word picture, every believer has a spiritual gift and has a significant part to play in contributing to the work of the Body of Christ as a whole. The church I grew up in had a few appointed “ministers” approved by the organization to do ministry. The vast majority of us were little more than spectators and financial support. Paul’s word picture of the Body is inclusive and includes all believers regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnic background. The church I grew up in was exclusive to those who had a certificate of membership, which is why the elder in my earlier story was horrified by the notion that I was serving as their pastor but hadn’t jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the organization to get mine.

To be sure, even in Paul’s day the church was struggling to provide some kind of organizational framework for a movement that had gone from just over 100 people to tens of thousands of people in just a few years. Nevertheless, when the organism of the Body of Christ that Paul describes in today’s chapter became an organization and then a political, social, and religious institution of the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later, I believe something was lost.

I’ve observed along my life journey that the church institutions of my childhood are dying. The old mainline denominations have fractured and faded. People are increasingly embittered by the systemic sins of a global religious institution and its leaders who refuse to deal honestly and forthrightly with the issues. When I grew up, a politician was required to be a member of an acceptable religious organization or institution in order to be considered a good candidate. I find it fascinating that a leading politician recently stated that membership in a legacy religious organization is a sign of prejudice and hate speech, disqualifying a person from serving in a government position.

Oh my. The times, they are a changin’.

And, in the quiet this morning I’m thinking that maybe it’s a good thing. History leads me to believe that the Jesus movement is always more effective when it is persecuted and less effective when it is in power. Perhaps we’ll learn how to become an organism once again. You’re welcome to join me. I won’t even ask you to show me a certificate of membership.

My Parents’ 1958 Chevy Convertible

It’s been a while since I’ve done any kind of blogging challenge. Just this morning I found out that WikiTree is starting a “52 Photos” challenge, asking members to post a family photo that matches each week’s theme. The theme for week one is “new.” So, here is one of my favorite family photos of all time. This is a photo of my newlywed parents, Dean and Jeanne Vander Well, in their brand new 1958 Chevy convertible.  They would sell this pretty baby just a year or so later when they discovered that they had two babies, my twin brothers, on the way.

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

“Ten Bucks”

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.“I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.
1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV)

About 20 years ago there was a television show called Ed. It was a rom-com series about a young man who moves back to the small town where he was raised after his life falls apart. He reconnects with old friends and tries to get his life back together. It was an endearing show and ran for four seasons.

There’s a running gag in the show in which Ed and his best friend Mike have an on-going series of dares that they compete to win “ten bucks.” These guys do the craziest things to win “ten bucks” from each other. I still can’t hear the term “ten bucks” without thinking of Ed and Mike (kind of like I can’t hear “two dollars” without thinking of the paperboy in Better Off Dead).

I never enter pools. It doesn’t matter if it’s March Madness or when the ice will melt off the local pond and dump the old clunker to a watery grave. I don’t have anything against pools and lottery type games. I think I’m just a pessimist at heart and assume I’m going to lose my money. I just never do it. It is, therefore, somewhat strange that before the holidays began I entered a simple pool at my local CrossFit box.  You put in $10 and weigh in. After New Year’s there is another weigh in and those who maintained or lost weight during the holidays get their $10 back and split the money of all those who gained weight.

It’s been interesting as we’ve journeyed through the holidays that I can’t get that “ten bucks” out of my head. At every meal, at every Christmas gathering, and when I’m reaching for that second piece of Wendy’s peanut butter chocolate chunk cheesecake I keep thinking about my “ten bucks” hanging out there in the balance.

Along my journey I’ve come to realize that a lot of individual life problems I see in myself and those all around me boil down to some type of appetite indulgence. We indulge our appetites for all sorts of things like power, control, greed, rest, food, sex, adrenaline, vanity, accomplishment, applause, “Likes,” and pleasure. We indulge these normal appetites for all sorts of insidious reasons and the results of our out-of-control indulgence are generally not healthy.

The holidays are a great excuse for most everyone to indulge our appetites. Enjoying good food, good drink, rest, and relaxation with family and friends is a good thing. At the same time, too much of a good thing easily becomes an unhealthy thing. There’s a reason why New Year’s resolutions come annually after five weeks of holiday indulgence.

In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul continues to address a simmering conflict between two factions. Some on the legalistic killjoy end of the spectrum were against eating any meat that had been sacrificed at a pagan temple. Those on the open-minded, permissive end of the spectrum saw no issue with the practice. The latter were quick to say “I am free to eat whatever I want!

Paul’s response is a great example of choosing the “both, and” rather than the “either, or.” He makes the point that while everything may “permissible”  (i.e. a little holiday indulgence), not all things are “beneficial” (i.e. I gained so much weight I need to make a New Year’s resolution). In the case of the bickering factions in Corinth, Paul reminds them that the beneficial thing for the good of the community is to consider your friend’s conscience a higher priority than either my personal freedom or my personal convictions.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my own appetites. I’m thinking about the holidays (still at least four gatherings to go), and I’m thinking about how a silly “ten bucks” has changed my thinking and behavior this holiday season. The question I’m asking myself this morning is: Is a friend’s conscience worth more to me than ten bucks?

The December Celebration Gauntlet

When Wendy and I married, December suddenly became much more than just a Christmas holiday. Wendy’s birthday is December 21, and we married on New Year’s Eve. That means that I have, arguably, the three most important gift-giving days of the year in an 11 day stretch. After 12 years (a number rife with Biblical significance) trying to find balance in this celestial conjunction of celebrations, our first grandchild unexpectedly, like the star of Bethlehem, appeared on the horizon last year and plotted his arrival on December 11th. An already crazy month just got crazier.

Milo and his parents (I state it this way because, let’s be honest, it’s all about the one-year-old) arrived home from the UK in early December. I picked up them up and drove them home from MSP. The kids made our house command central out of which “Operation Celebrations” would be conducted. Milo has four sets of grandparents, a full contingency of living great-grandparents, and at least one great-great-grandparent. Long story short: There’s a lot of people needing a Milo fix.

Our celebration of Milo’s first birthday happened the night of the 12th. We had a small cadre of family over for a relatively small affair. Ya-Ya Wendy made Milo both a chocolate cupcake and a white, funfetti cupcake. He seemed to prefer the funfetti cupcake, proving that his taste bud genes are inherited from his paternal DNA coding.

Walking is a lot easier with one of these things!

The rounds of family visitation continued on the 19th when Taylor, Milo, and I stopped by my folks retirement community to have lunch with the folks. Milo was, of course, a huge hit. Milo also had a fascination with all of the various walkers with wheels. As he is in training to get the whole “walking” thing down (we’re up to about six consecutive steps without falling at this point), it was a huge discovery for him that there are devices designed and manufactured to assist in this basic human motor skill (special “thanks” to Mary for letting Milo run free with her walker).

Skol! Vikings!

Wendy and I began celebration of her birthday on the 15th when we headed to the Twin Cities. On the 16th we went to our first Vikings game at their new “mother ship” stadium. An annual trip to see the Vikings had become a bit of a tradition for us until it was announced that the new stadium would be built. Wendy and cold get along like Hamilton and Burr, so we skipped the seasons they were playing at the U of M’s outdoor stadium. We finally decided to all the trigger on  our old tradition. It was a lot of fun. We’ll be back.

Wendy’s birthday was otherwise fairly quiet except for the doorbell ringing incessantly. She got a trifecta of flower bouquets on her big day. The florist here in Pella was grateful for the business, though they somehow couldn’t get the deliveries consolidated. On the following weekend our friends Kevin and Becky came to Pella to celebrate Wendy. A pint at the Cellar and a pizza from George’s was in order with the rest of the evening relaxing at Vander Well Pub.

Maddy Kate flew in from her home in South Carolina on Christmas Eve day. We visited Grandpa Dean and Grandma Jeanne before I drove her back to Pella. She joined Wendy and me at Christmas Eve services at church while Milo and his entourage were making an all day tour stop at Na-Na Brenda’s.

Christmas day, I’m happy to say, was an all-out, love-and-laughter, food-and fun, lazy lounge-fest with just the six of us. Wendy made her traditional Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, along with an awesome breakfast. I threw French Dip into the crock pot for the evening meal. Lunch was a charcuterie menagerie for all. We opened gifts together after breakfast, then moved a mattress into the family room next to the sectional for a blissful day of binge watching (This is Us took up the entire afternoon), eating, and napping together.

Vocation and Ministry

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
1 Corinthians 9:6 (NIV)

Work has been a little crazy for me in recent weeks. I’m in the midst of my 25th year with our company and completing my first year at the helm, leading the operation. Year-end means wrapping up current year business for clients, writing and managing proposals for the coming year, Board meetings, year-end financials, and all of the administrative work that comes with all of it. Beyond that there is the vision casting and strategic planning for where I hope to lead the company in the year(s) ahead.

When I was hired back in 1994 I left 6 years of working in full-time pastoral and para-church ministry. At the time, my mother was a bit disappointed in my vocational change. For several years she would occasionally ask “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” My response was always, “I never left ministry.” She would roll her eyes and say, “I know. But, you know what I mean.

What she meant was that “ministry” means working full-time for a church; That “real ministry” is a higher spiritual status reserved for those employed in an institutional church organization. I have found this to be a very common belief, especially in previous generations. I still, on occasion, have someone approach me after I teach on a Sunday morning and ask, “Why aren’t you in ministry?” Once again, I always respond with, “I am in ministry.” I always would like to add: “And, so are you!”

I love an appreciate the incredibly gifted and driven full-time staff members of our local church community. The operation couldn’t function without them, and because of them it functions remarkably well. Because of them, the operation accomplishes abundantly more than most of our community’s members even realize. I’m quite certain, however,  that even they would agree with me that “ministry” is not confined to those individuals on the organization’s payroll.

I find it a dangerous notion to place a label of “ministry” on those in full-time employment by a church or non-profit para-church ministry. The implication is that any believer who is not in one of those two vocational silos is not in ministry. This means that those of us not in full-time church or ministry employment are not in ministry (and comfortably off the hook from having to think about all that it might otherwise mean).

This is, however, contrary to the entire paradigm that God’s Message teaches. Every believer is a part of the body of Christ. Every believer is spiritually gifted by Holy Spirit regardless of age, gender, background, education, or training. Why? Because every believer is part of the ministry of the Body of Christ. We, all who believe, are His hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. There are no exemptions or exceptions. I find this to be a radically different paradigm than what the institutional church has taught and exemplified for centuries. I believe it’s time to rediscover the fullness of meaning in the “priesthood of all believers.” We’re far overdue to rediscover the inherent ministry of every vocation.

I couldn’t help but read today’s chapter in context of yesterday’s chapter, in which Paul urged the Corinthian believers to surrender their right (to eat food sacrificed to idols) in order to lovingly honor fellow believers who think differently. In today’s chapter, Paul explains how he has done the very thing he’s urging them to do. He had a right to be married, to travel with a wife, to receive a full-time income for his preaching and service to the church just like all of the other apostles were doing. Paul, however, chose not to be married. Wherever he was living in the moment he chose to work at his family trade (making and repairing tents) to provide his own income. I can guarantee you that Paul leveraged his day-job of tent making and manual labor into opportunities to meet strangers, build relationships, have conversations, be an example, and extend the reach of his ministry. Tent making wasn’t separate from Paul’s ministry. It was a central and crucial part of it.

This morning I’m thankful for an amazing company I’ve had the privilege of serving for 25 years. I’m thankful for a host of relationships with colleagues, clients, and coworkers that I’d never have had were it not for my vocation. I’m grateful for the honor and privilege to lead and serve in both business and among my local community of Jesus’ followers. This morning in the quiet I find my spirit echoing Paul’s sentiment to the believers in Corinth:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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