Tag Archives: Church

God in (and Out of) a Box

God In (and Out of) a Box (CaD 1 Sam 5) Wayfarer

…the following morning when [the Philistines] rose, there was [their god] Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.
1 Samuel 5:4-5 (NIV)

For many years, I’ve had an idea for a book about the things the contemporary church continues to get wrong. If I ever do write this book, one of the chapters would be about church buildings themselves. From an early age, I was taught to treat a church building as a sacred space. The church building was and sometimes is, referred to as God’s house or the house of God.

In yesterday’s post/podcast I spoke of treating God like a good luck charm. I like to think of our perception of church buildings as God’s House as the notion of “God in a box.”

The problem with believing the church building is “God’s house” is, of course, that Jesus was very clear that He was changing the paradigm. In His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus addressed her question about the “right” place to worship God by saying, “…believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

Jesus doubled down on this when He and the disciples were leaving the Temple in Jerusalem. His disciples commented on the magnificent Temple and Jesus replied that it was all going to be reduced to rubble, and it was just 40 years later.

Jesus’ taught that the “church” was not bricks and mortar but flesh and blood. When the Jesus Movement was changing the known world in the first two centuries, it had no churches or temples, no basilicas or cathedrals. The “church” was millions of followers who met, almost clandestinely, in people’s homes. It was only when the church became the Holy Roman Empire that the institution decided that God needed opulent cathedrals. The motivation wasn’t divine. It’s what human institutions do to centralize power and control masses of people. Jesus’ successful paradigm was that of Spirit-filled people loving, serving, and sharing in every home, neighborhood, and business. God was released from a box and carried by flesh-and-blood “temples” everywhere in the world. Jesus was wherever His followers happened to be. In Jesus’ paradigm “sacred space” was now the coffee shop, the office, the home, the pub, the park; It was wherever a believer, filled with Spirit and Truth was physically present in the moment. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Wherever two or three of you are together, I’m there, too.”

The Holy Roman Empire put God back in a box. Then they made sure that only an institutionally educated and approved class of elites were qualified to be God’s representatives. Way too many people still believe that God is confined in the building on the corner and that only educated men in robes represent Him.

Today’s chapter is also about “God in a box.” The Ark of the Covenant was literally a box that represented God’s presence among the Hebrew people. The Hebrews reduced the notion of God’s holy presence to a good luck charm that would secure victory. They were defeated and the box was taken by the Philistines who put the Ark in the sacred space of their patron god, Dagon, underneath Dagon’s statue. Mesopotamian peoples routinely saw battles as not just contests between peoples, but contests between deities. The Hebrews’ God was now subject to Dagon.

But, God will never be contained inside a box of human design. The statue of Dagon fell, its head and hands breaking off. This was significant because heads, hands, and limbs were often cut-off and brought home by victorious armies as proof of victory and as a way of tallying up the body count. It was an omen the Philistines would have instantly understood. There was also a plague of tumors that broke out among the Philistines, which is ironically the outcome God warned His own people about in Deuteronomy 28, should they stray from His ways.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that if I truly believe what Jesus taught, then my home office where I’m writing/recording these words is sacred space because God’s Spirit indwells me. I take Him with me everywhere I go today. God’s temple isn’t a building, it’s my body, and that should change my perspective on everything in my daily life.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Movement and the Institution

The Movement and the Institution (CaD 1 Sam 2) Wayfarer

But Samuel was ministering before the Lord—a boy wearing a linen ephod.
1 Samuel 2:18 (NIV)

As a follower of Jesus, I have been both grieved and incensed as stories continue to break regarding rampant, systemic child abuse that was both pervasive and systematically covered up by the Roman Catholic Church. No one really knows how pervasive it was nor how long it has been going on. The system still has its wagons circled all the way to the Vatican.

And, it’s not just the Roman Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist Denomination recently released a report of all the cases of child abuse and sexual assault that they had been keeping under wraps for years. To their credit, the leaders not only owned up to the truth, but also released a list of all pastors, leaders, and/or employees who were accused of sexual abuse over two decades. It is over 200 pages long.

I was a young man when I made the observation that ministry is a profession. A person with no real spiritual calling, gift, or even faith can go to school, get a theology degree, and get a job leading a church. Along my journey, I’ve met a few that fit this very description. They aren’t serving God. They’re just earning a living.

I would later go on to observe in my study of history that ever since the organic Jesus Movement became the both religious and political institution known as the Holy Roman Empire, professional ministry was conferred with a certain amount of worldly power. The higher up in the institution the more absolute the power became. You know what has been said about power: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Give a man a robe, a title, a dark place, and the perceived power of salvation, damnation, and absolution over a scared and weak child. Bad things happen. Sadly, the stories of Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacarias prove that I’ll find examples of this in any religious institution. The church is not only filled with sinners, it’s led by them as well.

Today’s chapter is a testament to the fact that the problem has existed forever. In the Hebrew religious system God set up through Moses, the priesthood was held by descendants of Aaron. The Tabernacle was served and maintained by the tribe of Levi. You didn’t choose the role, you were born into it. And so we end up with a couple of hypocritical dead-beat priests named Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of the High Priest Eli.

The author of 1 Samuel is careful to contrast the two adult sons of the High Priest and the boy Samuel:

Hophni and Phinehas demanded that people give them their uncooked meat designated for sacrifice. The fat was supposed to be burned as part of the sacrifice and the meat was boiled to get rid of the blood. Eli’s sons threatened pilgrims and worshippers to give them the uncooked and unsacrified meat so they could enjoy a nice, rare steak on the grill.

“But Samuel was ministering before the LORD – a boy wearing a linen ephod.” (vs 18)

Hophni and Phinehas also used their positions of power to coerce and seduce, or perhaps it was that they actually assaulted women who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle just like modern-day priests and pastors who abuse their power and position to prey rather than to pray.

“Meanwhile the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD.” (vs. 21)

Eli confronted his sons, rebuked them, and demanded that they change their ways. They were unrepentant and refused to listen to their father.

And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and with people.” (vs. 26)

In the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but meditate on this contrast. The paradigm that Jesus created with his initial followers was that of spiritual disciples whose lives had been committed and changed by the indwelling Holy Spirit and a dedication to love, humility, generosity, and spiritual discipline. His followers then passed it on to disciples who followed them who then passed it on to their own disciples.

When the organism became an institution Spirit was replaced by human knowledge, calling was replaced with credentials, humility was replaced with power, discipleship was replaced with academia, and spiritual authority was replaced by human bureaucracy. In the forty years that I’ve been a disciple of Jesus, I’ve watched many of the mainline church institutions and denominations splinter and implode. I personally don’t think this is a bad thing at all.

Personally, I have found myself avoiding institutional entanglements on my earthly journey. I like being a wayfaring stranger following Jesus where His Spirit leads me. And so, I press on pursuing that Spirit leading with as much love, humility, and spiritual discipline as I can increasingly muster.

May I never be a Hophni or Phinehas.

May I ever be a Samuel.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Justice

 

Justice (CaD Rev 10) Wayfarer

I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.
Revelation 10:10 (NIV)

Over the past couple of days, I have been watching a documentary about Roman Catholic priests who committed terrible acts of child abuse and subsequent horrific crimes to cover it up. The institutional church also aided in stonewalling the victims, as did the local authorities. There have been multiple times that I’ve come close to turning it off and walking away. It’s hard to watch.

Our fallen world is full of injustice. It always has been. And, the institutional church has been complicit. Just a few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention announced the results of an independent investigation which revealed that the denomination had hidden countless acts of sexual abuse by pastors and volunteers for decades. Even in the conservative small town where we live, there has been scandal and cover-up.

Our children’s generation has championed social justice, and they’ve been critical of previous generations of believers, and the institutional church, for not doing enough to address injustice. My ears and my heart are open to this critique. This world will never be found wanting as it relates to the need for justice. The Great Story is filled with cries for justice from Abel’s blood to the prophets, Job, the psalmists, and Jesus.

And that brings me to Revelation. The judgments envisioned and prophetically predicted for the end times are God’s judgment on a corrupt, unjust, and unrepentant world.

Today’s chapter is an interlude between the sixth and seventh “trumpet” judgments. A giant angel descends to earth holding a small scroll. John is told to eat it. It tastes like a treat from the dessert bar, but once it’s finished it turns his stomach sour. The prophetic words of the scroll are what John is told to proclaim and prophetically predict. The final stomach-churning judgments. Seven bowls of just reckoning and Judgment Day.

Kind of like the documentary I’ve been watching, it would be easy to shut the book and walk away. Revelation is not an easy read. But, it’s a necessary read in understanding the whole of the Great Story.

In the quiet this morning, I circle back to the stories of adults wracked with pain and anger because they were victimized by men who were supposed to be God’s servants. On one hand, it has my heart crying out for Judgment Day. On the other hand, I’m reminded of my own sins, my own complicities, and the injustices I’ve not only failed to address, but to which I’ve contributed either by word, act, or omission.

I hear the question of Jesus’ followers echoing in my heart: “Who then can be saved?”

“With man it is impossible,” Jesus replied, “but with God all things are possible.”

I sit in the quiet and ponder what this means for me on this day. The words of the prophet Micah rise within my spirit, words that Micah proclaims are God pleading his just case to the mountains and the hills:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

And so, I enter another day of this earthly journey intent on doing so.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Pajama Worship

Pajama Worship (CaD Heb 10) Wayfarer

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)

One of the things that changed for many Jesus followers during the COVID pandemic was our “meeting together.” Our local gathering, like most others, moved to produce weekly worship online. I don’t think I’ll ever forget delivering messages to an empty auditorium and a camera.

Like everything in life, there were both opportunities and challenges with staying home and watching worship online. I confess that it was nice to enjoy a lazy morning sitting on the couch in my pajamas. Likewise, I know a lot of families who took advantage of online church to consciously make it a family event. “When life gives you lemons,” as they say.

Our community has been back in regular meeting mode for a long time, though we’re still broadcasting worship online each week. Data from the Institute for Family Studies revealed that the number of regular attenders is down in every demographic while the number of “never attend” is up by similar percentages. There are a number of factors to this decline. Some have legitimate health concerns and a reason to continue being cautious. There are other reasons, however, including those who simply found that they prefer watching, on their couch, in their pajamas.

I thought about this as I read the author of Hebrews encouragement to “not give up meeting together.” For the author, the decline in regular in-person participation was very different. He is writing to Hebrew believers who had gone back to the Jewish synagogue and the sacrificial system of Moses. It’s why he has written so much, and so passionately, about the old system becoming obsolete as Christ ushered in an entirely new spiritual reality. Some couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make the change. They walked away and went back. Old habits die hard.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over both the opportunities and challenges I’ve experienced in the return to a new “normal.” Since in-person meetings opened back up again, Wendy and I have chosen a couple of times to stay home together and watch online. It was a bit of a sabbath from the routine, and it was good for the soul. We also have loved being able to watch online when we travel or are at the lake, and it’s kept us more connected when we’re away.

At the same time, I have personally found that there’s no substitute for meeting together in person. This is also true in business, as the work world has embraced video meetings as a substitute for in-person meetings. What I’ve observed is that there is so much relationship, connection, and conversation that happens around the meetings themselves. Just this past Sunday I caught up with so many friends who are going through different struggles and circumstances in life. I get to hug them, hear how things are going, and learn how I can pray more specifically for them and their situation.

I thought this morning about every personal interaction and conversation I had with individuals before and after our last meeting together. I made a list in my head, pictured the individuals, and considered what we talked about. I then asked myself if those interactions were beneficial for me, for my life, and my relationships, and whether I would have been missing something had I stayed home and watched on the couch in my pajamas. For me, there’s no doubt about the answer. Those personal interactions are as vital and life-giving as anything that happened within the meeting itself.

Things change, and I’m sure that COVID has changed life in ways that we’ll be sorting out for decades to come. Reading about these changes in the media, I observe that the take is often the way the media enjoys simplifying things into binary choices: good or bad. When it comes to people not returning to in-person worship I find it a “yes, and.” There are both good things and bad things that have resulted in the change. C’est la vie.

As for me, I know that spurring fellow believers on and being spurred on by them, encouraging and being encouraged, and loving and being loved don’t happen in equal measure when I’m sitting on the couch watching in my pajamas.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Mysterious Order

The Mysterious Order (CaD Heb 5) Wayfarer

[Jesus] was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:9 (NIV)

Growing up in America, I am used to there being a separation between the government and religion, but for most of western history since the time of Jesus, the two were intertwined in one way or another. When the Jesus movement became the Holy Roman Empire, the pope was both a religious and political authority. Even after the reformation, protestant kings and queens held authority over both their country’s government and state religion. Queen Elizabeth is still head over the Church of England to this day.

For the ancient Hebrews, there had always been a separation between their religion and their monarchy. The priesthood was established by the Law of Moses around 1400 BC. The monarchy wasn’t established for another 400 years when the Hebrew people chose Saul as their first king. Yet the prophets had foreshadowed a Messiah who would unite the two as both priest and king.

In today’s chapter, the author of this letter to Hebrew followers of Jesus makes a head-scratcher of a statement. He explains that Jesus was made humanity’s ultimate High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”

To understand this statement, we have to go back to our chapter-a-day journey through Genesis 14. There we find Abram (aka Abraham) being met by a mysterious sage named Melchizedek who appears out of nowhere, has a bit moment in the story, and then exits back into mystery. Here’s what we know:

  • Melchizedek means “King of righteousness.”
  • He was King of Salem (a shortened version of Jerusalem).
  • He was “priest of God Most High”
  • He met the Abram, with bread and wine, and blessed him.
  • Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils, which was known as a “king’s share.”

When the author of Hebrews explains that Jesus is high priest “in the order of Melchizedek” he is first of all stating that King David was prophetic when he wrote the lyrics of Psalm 110:

The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

The fact that David wrote this is additionally prophetic because God established David’s throne and it was through David’s line that the Messiah would come (FYI: Jesus was a descendant of David). The author then points to this prophetic line from King David and explains that Jesus is the Messiah in the mysterious order of Melchizedek who was both “King” of Jerusalem and “priest” of God Most High 600 years before the priesthood of Aaron was established by Moses.

I find myself reflecting on history this morning. Whenever earthly kings and queens have headed both church and state the results have been typically disastrous. I would argue that much of the apt criticism of Christianity stems from centuries when the Roman Catholic Church held sway over both politics and religion. It was a human institution and kingdom of this world claiming to be God’s Kingdom on earth. Jesus told Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.”

Allowing the persecuted Jesus movement to take over the most powerful Empire on earth was, I believe, one of the most strategically shrewd moves the Prince of this World has ever made this side of the Garden of Eden. Almost overnight, the church of Jesus became about human power, human authority, human control, and all the earthly treasures a worldly Empire both creates and hordes. It was seduced into becoming the very opposite of everything Jesus taught. It became the very sort of human religious institution that crucified Jesus in the first place.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating Jesus, both king and high priest of a kingdom that is not of this world. I’m thinking about my citizenship in that kingdom and the role I’m given as an ambassador of that kingdom. It isn’t an earthly human institution. It’s further up, and further in. It’s rooted in the eternal mystery, like the order of Melchizedek, in which the monarchy and priesthood work together in perfect harmony like a circle dance of trinity in which one is three and three is one.

And, it’s that kingdom I’m called to represent in my day today.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Presence

The Presence (CaD Matt 28) Wayfarer

“And surely I am with you always”
Matthew 28:20 (NIV)

This past weekend our local gathering of Jesus’ followers had what we call Original Works Night (OWN). The auditorium is set up in a coffee house atmosphere and a gallery is set up inside. Throughout the evening people perform their original songs and poems. The gallery is full of paintings, photography, and artwork in various mediums. We even had three musicians who improvised an instrumental piece to end the evening and it was awesome. I’m always blown away by the talent and creativity represented.

It was at an OWN a few years back that a group of children had done a creative project. On blank 3×5 cards, they had written various affirmations and decorated the card. It was set up in a display and attendees could exchange affirmations. You write one yourself, place it in the display, and you got to take an affirmation one of the children made. The affirmation I pulled out was quite simple: “God is with you.” It hangs on my dresser where I see it each morning when I prepare for bed each night.

“God is with you.”

Today’s chapter is the end of Matthew’s biography of Jesus. He leaves us with the resurrected Jesus telling His followers to go to all nations and share His story, making disciples everywhere they go. He then ends with “surely I am with you always.”

Matthew’s account begins with Jesus being the prophesied “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” It ends with “I will be with you always.” As a believer, I believe (and have experienced) there is Oneness between me and God through His indwelling Spirit. Perhaps the most radical paradigm shift Jesus unleashed was that the “temple” was no longer bricks-and-mortar but flesh-and-blood. No longer do I go to a building thinking that I meet God there, pay Him a visit, and hope that He shows up. I am the temple and God is with me always.

This is a basic spiritual truth of being a follower of Jesus and being a believer. It’s one that I observe differentiating those who have, by faith, experienced the transformation of Christ’s indwelling Spirit and those who are simply religious church-goers.

The church building is not God’s house. I am.

Why would I pray for God’s presence? He’s with me always.

About 25 years ago I was going through a stretch of my earthly journey in which I was willfully choosing to make life choices and behave in ways that were completely antithetical to being a Jesus follower. Even then, I was fully aware of God’s presence amidst all of the foolish, rebellious things I was doing. My relationship with God continued and I had regular conversations with God filled with anger and selfishness. That’s the thing I’ve discovered about surrendering my life to Christ and inviting Him in 40 years ago. Even when I choose to “walk away” He goes with me.

“God is with you.”

In the quiet this morning, I am grateful to be in a much better place on life’s road. I’m grateful to be made in the image of the Creator and for the ways that we can express inexpressible truths and experiences through art and creativity, even as children. I’m thankful for one child’s simple artistic affirmation of such an unfathomable spiritual reality.

“God is with you.”

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Two Guys Alone in a Mall

Two Guys Alone in a Mall (CaD Matt 11) Wayfarer

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Matthew 11:2-3 (NIV)

When I was in high school, there was a recording artist named Steve Taylor who I avidly listened to along with almost all of my friends. He wasn’t an A-list celebrity. He was more of a niche artist. Some might even say that he was an acquired taste. Nevertheless, he was a “famous” recording artist and we devoured every song on every album. His stuff was edgy, counter-cultural, and he pushed at a lot of issues and causes in his lyrics that resonated with me and my peer group.

In college, I worked evenings and weekends at a bookstore in the local mall. Despite the category of “book store,” the store sold a lot of music and gifts.

One Saturday in January, the mall was completely dead as is normal for shopping malls in the frigid midwest after the holidays. On this particular Saturday, Steve Taylor was scheduled to spend the afternoon signing albums for fans in my bookstore. I was the only person on duty in the store that day. I seem to remember that only one or two customers came into the store that afternoon. It was just me and Steve Taylor standing around and hanging out for an entire afternoon.

Steve Taylor wasn’t what I expected. He wasn’t as good-looking as the album covers made him out to be. He was witty and right-brained, but he didn’t have the cynical, even caustic spirit I expected him to have based on his lyrics and music. He had less ego than I expected for someone who, in my estimation, was a famous artist. I expected him to be annoyed that no fans showed up wanting to see him and have him sign their albums. He seemed not to care at all. He just hung out with me. We talked, we laughed, and we got to know each other a little bit. It was two guys spending an enjoyable winter afternoon in the quiet bookstore of an abandoned shopping mall.

Like many children of my generation, I grew up going to Sunday School every Sunday and going to Vacation Bible School every summer. All of those experiences taught me about Jesus from the perspective of the United Methodist Church’s institutional education system. I learned a lot of the stories that I continue to read in my chapter-a-day journey. A lot of what I learned was helpful and instructive.

I was 14 when I asked Jesus to come into my heart and life. In a simple, fumbling prayer I personally surrendered my life and asked Him to be Lord of it. At that moment, I had a divine experience. In a way, it was the first time I personally met the Jesus I’d heard so much about. Like any relationship, it has been a process of learning, knowing, and being known. There were even some things I had to unlearn. There were things that were taught me by the institutional education system, all with the best of intentions, that gave me false perceptions of who I’ve found Jesus to be in my relationship with Him.

In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that even John the Baptist questioned whether Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus certainly wasn’t immediately ushering in the Judgement Day that John had prophesied to the crowds. It was clear that Jesus’ teaching and ministry had not met John’s expectations or preconceived notions. John had to send his disciples to ask, “Did I get this all wrong?”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back on a 40-year relationship with Jesus. The Jesus I’ve come to know as I’ve spent nearly 15,000 days asking, seeking, praying, searching, listening, obeying, and following is so much more than the two-dimensional character on my Sunday School handout. Like any relationship, I continue to peel back layers of knowing and being known. There have been moments when I foolishly and proudly thought I fully knew Jesus; There were moments that I thought I had Him “nailed down” (pun intended). If even John the Baptist had moments of needing a realignment of knowing, why wouldn’t I?

From my current waypoint on the journey, I’m quite convinced that I haven’t even scratched the surface. The more I jettison preconceived notions and approach the chapter each morning with an open heart and mind, the more I receive, the more I find, and the more I experience the door opening to new discoveries.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Santa God

Santa God (CaD Gen 15) Wayfarer

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 (NIV)

This is the problem: It’s too easy to mix-up God and Santa Claus.

Life is a meritocracy from a young age. In my earliest cognitive memory around ages 3 to 4, I find myself under the authority of parents who make it quite clear that if I’m obedient and do what they say, then I’m golden, but if I’m disobedient, then I’m going to be punished.

By the time I’m five, the biggest gift giving holiday of the year solidifies this meritocracy in my brain with Santa Claus as the omniscient authority figure determining if the annual balance of my goodness and badness warrants me receiving a stocking full of candy and socks and a bunch of presents under the tree. If the scale tips to the badness spectrum, it’s coal for me.

Within just two years, I become involved in scouting program which rewards my good deeds and behavior with awards, badges, and medals. I continue to develop an understanding of meritocracy. There is a reward for ambition and good behavior, those who excel are on display for the whole world to see with their medals, badges, and awards. If I have less, shame enters the equation. I’m not as good. I don’t have as many badges. I am less than.

And, each year Santa drives home the “naughty or nice” lesson.

At the same time, my earliest experiences in organized sports adds yet another object lesson in meritocracy. The kids who are naturally coordinated, developed, and have knowledge of the game are successful. Meanwhile, I increasingly ride the bench and watch the coach’s wife score the game. (For the record, my little league baseball career lasted two years, but to this day I like scoring games.)

And, Santa, my stocking, and gift haul remind me annually that gifts are a reward for good behavior.

I’m twelve by the time I have my first serious discussions about God. Yes, I grew up attending Sunday School most Sundays and Vacation Bible School each summer, but it wasn’t very exciting and seemed to be a lot about stories that support the good behavior business. In my journey, it was confirmation class in 7th grade that was a year-long primer on the Bible and God.

In retrospect, I had already a well-developed sense of how God worked based on my life experiences. And, it looked a lot like the Santa. If I’m good, then God will answer my prayers, my life will go well, and I’ll end up in heaven. If I’m bad or fall short then my prayers will not be answered, bad things will happen, and I’ll end up in the fires of hell (burning with Santa’s coal, no doubt). As a child, I was pretty darn sure that all four of the Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl losses were my fault, God’s punishment for something I’d done.

I’m sure that Mrs. Washington’s confirmation class attempted to teach me about God’s grace and love, but my brain and soul were already branded by the Santa principle.

In today’s chapter lies a simple verse that is almost never talked about among Jesus’ followers even though it is foundational to understanding Jesus’ core message. Paul uses it to argue that Jesus’ message was God’s message from the beginning. The author of Hebrews does so, as well. For followers of Jesus, this verse is crucial to know, digest, and cling to:

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

No meritocracy.

No addendum talking about being good, pure, and holy.

No mention of achieving, doing unto others, going to church, or giving money.

Just believe. That’s what faith is. To believe.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1:12

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Act 16:31

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 8:9-10

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that it is so hard to get out of the God as Santa mindset. God says “My ways are not your ways” and this applies to perhaps the most important question of all: How can I be saved?

Humanity’s way:

“Be good, work hard at it, keep all the rules, and maybe you’ll earn salvation like a present under the tree.”

God’s way:

“Just believe. Ask me to come in. Receive my love and forgiveness. That’s it. You see, once you’ve truly experienced My unmerited love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy, I trust you’ll be inspired and motivated to choose and practice obedience out of your own freedom and gratitude. That’s how I roll. That’s how I’ve always rolled, like I did with Abram.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about all the ways I still wrestle with “Santa God” after 40 years. It still creeps in to haunt me. Meritocracy is a hard habit to break, both in the way I see God and myself, but also in the way I see, approach, and treat others.

I’m also reminded that I can’t do anything about previous days. I’ve only got this day that lies before me. I’ve got this day to just believe Jesus, to receive His love and grace, and then to let that love and my gratitude flow in goodness.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Blood and Covenant

Blood and Covenant (CaD Gen 9) Wayfarer

“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you…”
Genesis 9:8-9 (NIV)

As my maternal grandparents entered the home stretch of their earthly journeys, they faced difficult financial circumstances that led to a difficult decision. My grandfather’s medical needs were draining their savings which was threatening the financial security of my grandmother, who would most certainly survive my grandfather, possibly for years to come. A social worker suggested that one solution would be for my grandparents to legally divorce so that their finances would be legally split, allowing my grandmother to retain their savings under her name while my grandfather’s needs would be provided for by the State.

I was quite a young man at the time, and I have a vivid memory of my grandmother asking me what she should do. I remember it because it was the first time that I’d considered both the legality, spirituality, and the tradition of marriage. That led me to realize, perhaps for the first time, that while the institutions of both church and state are involved in the process of a couple getting married, there is absolutely no detailed prescription for marriage in the Bible other than addressing it as a basic, assumed relational construct of human familial relationship and cultural systems. So far in our chapter-a-day journey of Genesis the husband and wife relationship has been assumed but no where has there been discussion of ceremony, process, or particulars other than a man and woman leaving their respective homes and becoming “one flesh.”

So, the relational agreement between husband and wife is assumed and its process is not specifically prescribed in the Great Story. What the Great Story does address is the agreement(s) between God and humanity. In the ancient times they were called “covenants.” Once again, since we’re in the beginning of the Great Story, we are going to keep running into firsts, and in today’s chapter we come across the first “covenant” between God and humanity since expulsion from the Garden. God initiates and makes the covenant never to destroy all earthly life by natural catastrophe.

Just before this covenant, God establishes the sacredness of human life, and it is metaphorically established in blood, or “lifeblood.” The ancients recognized that when blood poured out of a person, they died. They made connection between blood and life.

So in today’s chapter God establishes the sacredness of “life,” “blood,” and “covenant.” And just as I mentioned that the flood was an earthly foreshadowing of what would be the spiritual sacrament of baptism, today’s events are an earthly foreshadowing of the spiritual metaphor in the sacrament of Communion:

Then [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:27-29 (NIV)

In the quiet this morning, I am once again awed by the connected themes of the Great Story from the very beginning. God is proactive, from the very beginning, in initiating a committed (a.k.a. covenant) relationship with humanity that will bring life in contrast to the death which came through disobedience and the breaking of relationship. And, God is still doing it as I remember each time I choose to step up and partake of the bread and cup as Jesus prescribed for his followers.

As for my grandparents, they chose not to take the social worker’s suggestion. My family helped to find other alternatives for them. That said, I told my grandmother that I did not believe a legal divorce on paper from the State of Iowa could ever nullify the spiritual bond of covenant and spiritual oneness or the chord of three strands woven between them and God. I believe that still. Matters of Spirit are deeper and more eternal than the reach of any human legal system on earth.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

On Being a “Member”

On Being a "Member" (CaD 2 Pet 1) Wayfarer

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:8 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I have served a number of local churches in either a volunteer or paid part-time basis. As a young man, I spent a total of five years in full-time pastoral ministry and served two different churches in very different denominations. These two full-time stints were very different experiences, but there was one thing the two experiences had in common. In the middle of my tenure at each of these churches, I was called to account by well-intentioned, legalistic busybodies for having not become a “member” of the said church.

I will never forget receiving a phone call asking me to be at an emergency meeting of the elders; the raw emotions of disappointment, anxiety, and suspicion expressed with regard to my reasons for not being a “member.” I will also not forget the abject silliness of jumping through all the institutional, bureaucratic hoops to appease the religious busybodies, including apologizing in a congregational meeting for my “oversight” and requesting that my “membership” be approved by the people who hired me to be their pastor.

It was no different than Jesus getting called to account for healing someone on the Sabbath day of rest. Being a member of a church does not make one a follower of Jesus, and being a follower of Jesus has nothing to do with adherence to religious, institutional bureaucracy. Confusion of the two is one of the legitimate realities that lie at the root of the world’s criticism and condemnation of Christianity. There are a host of other reasons, both legitimate and illegitimate, that lie with it.

In the opening of Peter’s second letter to first century followers of Jesus, he begins by identifying those who are legitimate followers of Jesus. You won’t find mention of a “membership certificate” or congregational approval anywhere in the description. Rather, Peter points to the evidence of ever-increasing spiritual maturity:

Faith that leads to goodness in words and deeds toward all.
Goodness that motivates a desire to know more about the things of God.
Knowledge that contributes to personal self-control in temptation.
Self-control that contributes to perseverance in tough stretches of the journey.
Perseverance that produces deeper levels of godliness in the daily mundane.
Godliness that shows up in sincere affection for others more than self.
Affection that results in acts of sacrificial love for others.

Peter goes on to explain that the goal is life that is effective and productive. This is exactly what Jesus told Peter and the team on the night before He was crucified: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The goal is a life of connection to Jesus, being a “member” of the divine dance in the larger work He is accomplishing in the Great Story. Being a “member” of Christ effectively produces fruit in my life, and that fruit includes the very character traits Peter listed.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about this penchant I’ve witnessed in many for taking institutional church membership so seriously. I’ve just never considered the bureaucracy worthwhile. I’ve always believed that my “membership” is proven, not by taking a class, signing my name, receiving a certificate, and saying “I do” to list of rote questions, but rather by the evidence of my being spiritually effective and productive within my local gathering of Jesus’ followers and my community, just as Peter describes. If I have the former without the latter, then “my faith” is not faith at all. It’s just a membership that carries as much spiritual benefit as my membership in the rewards club of my local grocery store.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.