Tag Archives: Church

That Which I am Gifted and Meant to Do

So Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel counted all the Levites by their clans and families. All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the tent of meeting numbered 8,580.
Numbers 4:46-48 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I’ve come to understand that the organization of human beings to accomplish a particular task (or tasks) is an art form in and of itself. Anyone who has had to lead any kind of large scale endeavor understands this. There are numerous models and theories for doing so.

In this morning’s chapter we find the Hebrew clan of Levites were dedicated to the care, maintenance and moving of their nation’s mobile temple and all its furnishings. They alone of all the Hebrew clans set it up, took it down, carried it on the march, and did the work of the Temple while encamped. If you were born into the Levite clan you would not be a warrior, you would work be assigned religious duties the rest of your life.

Throughout history this paradigm has also been followed by many societies. A father is apprenticed into a trade by his father, and teaches the trade to his son. You were born into your occupation just as sure as you might be given the surname of that occupation: Miller, Thatcher, Farmer, and Doctor.

Had things still been done this way, I might be a carpenter today, just as my great-grandfather was apprenticed to be before he came to America as a young man. Anyone who has experienced my carpentry skills knows that this would be a tragedy. While I am capable to do some basic projects, you definitely don’t want me building your house!

In today’s paradigm, we are taught as young people that we “can be anything we want” and this is somewhat true. In our culture we are free to pursue any trade or occupation. I have noticed, however, that just because you desire to pursue an occupation doesn’t mean that you are gifted at that occupation. I have witnessed for years those who desired to pursue certain ministry tasks or roles within the local church only to frustrate the entire congregation by their lack of skill or giftedness. I’ve known preachers who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag, singers who can’t carry a tune with a handle on it, and directors of worship who are consistently lost and unable to capably give direction to anyone.

Just as the generational paradigm had its weaknesses, so also does the “you can do whatever you want” paradigm. Desiring an area of giftedness does not necessarily make you good at it.

This morning I’m thinking about my experiences in leadership with business, church, community organizations, and even the project management required of producing or directing a show. I’ve come to believe that one of a leader’s critical tasks is helping people find their areas of giftedness and helping them both embrace and develop those areas. Sometimes there is a journey of acceptance required to bring us to a waypoint of understanding that I ultimately find joy when I am doing what I am gifted and meant to do.

Bearing Witness

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.
1 Thessalonians 2:8 (NIV)

Before Jesus ascended into heaven He told His followers: “You will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8) Growing up in the church, I heard a lot about being a “witness” and what being a “witness” means. Along this life journey my understanding of being a witness has evolved greatly.

Looking back, the concept of witnessing taught by my church when I was younger was largely a modified sales strategy. I would learn a standard sales pitch from a workshop or class in church. There were a handful of standard ones that usually involved a series of Bible verses marked in a small Bible or a little booklet you could use as a visual aid when telling people about being a follower of Jesus. I was then encouraged to go out in public, knock on doors, and speak to anyone and everyone in an effort to pitch them on receiving Jesus as Lord.

I’m not knocking the process completely. I admit that learning how to simply explain the message of Jesus was a good thing for me. I knew people who were incredibly successful at engaging complete strangers and pitching them on Jesus. I know many people who became followers of Jesus because some stranger took the time to share the message in this way. I, however, confess to being a complete failure as it relates to “witnessing” by the sales pitch strangers technique, and I carried this sense of failure with me for many years.

As I’ve progressed in my journey I’ve come to understand that being a “witness” carries as many different facets as there are personality types and spiritual gifts. I’m reminded this morning of the description Calvin Miller wrote of a faith healer in his tongue-in-cheek parody epistle, The Philippian Fragment:

Sister Helen opened a great crusade in Philippi on Thursday, and is the sensation of the leper colony. She rarely does anything one could call a miracle. Last week she laid hands on a little crippled boy and was not able to heal him, but she gave him a new pair of crutches and promised to take him for a walk in the park here in Philippi.

Yesterday with my own eyes I saw her pass an amputee selling styluses. She touched his legs and cried, “Grow back! Grow back! . . . In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, grow back!” Well, Clement, I so wanted to see the legs grow back, but they did not. Poor Helen. What’s a faith healer to do with an amputee that refuses to grow legs on command?

She sat down with the little man, crossed her legs on the cold pavement, and began selling styluses herself. Soon she was talking to him, and before very long they were both laughing together. For an hour they laughed together, and by nightfall they were having an uproariously good time. When it was time to go, Helen’s legs were so stiff from disuse, they refused to move. Her legless, stylus-selling friend cried in jest, “Grow strong!. . . Grow strong! . . . Grow strong!”

Helen only smiled and staggered upward on her unsteady legs. She looked down at her lowly friend and said, “I offer you healing, you will see. It is only one world away. Someday . . . ,” she stopped and smiled, “you will enter a new life and you will hear our Savior say to your legless stumps, ‘Grow long! . . . Grow long!‘ Then you will know that glory which Sister Helen only dreamed for you.”

Miller, Calvin. The Philippian Fragment (Kindle Locations 147-159). NOVO Ink. Kindle Edition.

I am to witnessing as Sister Helen is to healing.

I love what Paul said to the believers in Thessalonica in today’s chapter. Paul and his buddy Silas didn’t enter the Greek seaport to be strangers with a sales pitch. They “shared their lives as well.” They built relationship and they worked and lived among the people. They became like family. Paul even uses family as a metaphor for their relationships with the Thessalonians.

I’ve come to understand that “sharing life,” as Paul described it, is the style of “witness” I’m better suited for. Let’s walk together, live together, laugh together, and work together. God is love, so let me try and bear witness of that love in my  imperfect human efforts to love you through laughter and tragedies, harmony and discord, successes and failures, daily tasks and long conversations over dinner.

 

Spiritual Misperceptions from Growing Up in Church

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV)

I grew up in a relatively small neighborhood church. It was a Methodist church that maintained a fairly traditional, liturgical approach to faith and worship. There was an altar at the front of the sanctuary that was respected as a special, holy place. There was a huge, loud pipe organ. The minister always wore long black robes on Sundays. The choirs also wore long robes and marched down the aisle behind the minister to their hallowed place in the choir loft. As a child watching and participating in this pageantry each week, there were some things that I quickly came to assume about spiritual matters:

First, our minister was different. He (and growing up it was always a he) dressed differently both in the church service and during the week. I was expected to behave differently (as in, better than normal) whenever I was around him. I even noticed that adults behaved differently when they were around him. I came to the conclusion that he was spiritually better than me. He was certainly closer to God than me and had a particular spiritual authority no one else seemed to have. He certainly had a pipeline to God the rest of us didn’t have. You don’t mess up or behave badly around him.

Having observed this social and behavioral distinction between the Rev and the rest of us, I came to believe that there is a certain spiritual caste system in life. There was religious nobility (ministers) and everyday commoners (like me and my family). The social system within our church fed this notion fairly rigidly. Even when I joined the youth choir I had to dress myself up in fine robes each week to approach the altar (always behind the minister, our proper place), sit in the choir loft, and participate in singing of the anthem. If I was to participate in the divine then I needed to dress differently (better and more religious) and be on my best behavior (goofing off on the choir loft during the service was a damnable offense). To participate in the ritual of communion I had to be 13, take a year’s worth of classes, and pass the confirmation class test which got me to a higher spiritual level in the system.

Over time, this distinction between the spiritual pageantry of Sunday and the every day life in my neighborhood with my family led me to believe that there was a certain compartmentalization in life between the sacred and the secular. Sure my family said our rote prayers before meals and before bed, but every day life was where you gave a passing nod to the divine and prayed for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl. [The Vikings always lost the big game, of course, teaching me that our minister had, indeed, a better standing with God…he was a Steelers and Cowboys fan.] The real spiritual stuff was always on Sunday morning, for which we cleaned ourselves up and made ourselves presentable.

In today’s chapter the author of this letter to Hebrew believers begins a discussion of Jesus as “High Priest.” Having been raised in the Protestant tradition, I find myself a few steps removed from an experiential concept of “priest.” The priesthood became a theological line of separation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation. Nevertheless, as I’ve progressed in my faith journey I’ve found it an important concept to contemplate and unpack because it goes right to the heart of some of the gross, spiritual misconceptions that even the Protestant church gave me growing up.

Even in the opening of the discussion in which we are introduced to Jesus as High Priest, He is not introduced to us on a higher spiritual plane confined to the holy altar of some Tabernacle on Sunday morning. Jesus is introduced as one who empathizes and has experienced our every day struggles and temptations. Jesus the High Priest is God with us, in our working and playing and eating and drinking. Instead of cleaning ourselves up and approaching God with fearful respect and awkward religiosity, Jesus calls us to approach with confidence, just as we are. Rather than approaching to earn some kind of merit badge in the religious pecking order, we are approaching to receive a generous gift of unmerited  mercy and grace.

This morning as I enjoy my coffee looking out over the lake, I am reflecting on the core misperceptions the church gave me about God as a child. It strikes me that these natural surroundings at the lake are a holier and more spiritual place than the altar of my old neighborhood church. In this “thin place” this morning I’m confidently approaching Jesus and asking for some increased clarity regarding my childhood misperceptions and how they might still be affecting me in unhealthy ways. I am asking God to reveal to me in the days ahead, in the following chapters, the important distinctions between the very human concepts of Jesus as High Priest that I am tied to by my human experience and religious traditions, and the true High Priest revealed in these chapters.

When Generosity Becomes Compulsory it Becomes Something Else

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, Paul continues his encouragement to the followers of Jesus in Corinth to be generous. Paul was specifically asking them to give to an offering that was being collected to support impoverished fellow believers in Jerusalem. Paul wanted all believers in Greece and Asia Minor to give so to help their fellow believers in Palestine and it was a significant personal undertaking that had social as well as economic implications. If believers in the “gentile” world gave to the predominantly Jewish believers in Judea then it could only help tear down the walls and prejudices between the two groups.

Yesterday morning Wendy and I were discussing Paul’s encouragement to generously give to their fellow believers in need. Our conversation deepened from the subject of yesterday’s blog post on generosity to the section of Paul’s letter about equality. Paul argues that those in plenty should give to those who have little so as to bring a level of equality between all.

The conversation between Wendy and me quickly meandered into the fact that the early church is often seen as a shining example of socialism. Based on the evidence, there is no doubt that the followers of Jesus in the first century, connected by a common faith, supported one another financially and were encouraged to do so. As our conversation progressed, Wendy and I surfaced what I believe are some important distinctions in the contemplation of today’s chapter.

The giving and sharing among early Christians was not uniform system but an organic one. It looked very different in varying locations and times. During my life journey I’ve personally become weary of the way our culture (the institutional church in particular) loves to turn everything into a repeatable, marketable formula. We love to try and package what Holy Spirit did at church A and market it in a cool new program so that churches B through Z can easily replicate the experience. It usually creates popularity but I rarely see it result in a replication of spiritual power.

I’ve learned that there’s a reason why God gives us wind as a word picture of Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit mysteriously blows here and quickly moves there. Holy Spirit waxes for a time in one place then inexplicably wanes. You cannot manufacture it or replicate it at will as much as we try.

Paul’s offering was never made compulsory. Money was not demanded of the believers in Corinth. Rather, they were encouraged to be generous and the decision of what and how much was to be sourced in their own hearts. I find this a critical distinction. In Paul’s paradigm each believer was to give as each believer determined and was led personally by God’s Spirit. Paul certainly gave a full court press of encouragement explaining that generosity was a part of spiritual maturity and provided examples of other believers giving. There were, however, no formulas or discussion of percentages of income. There was no larger governing authority demanding it of the Corinthians, nor were there material consequences to be doled out if they chose not to give.

This leads to a final thought. The giving and sharing between believers in the early church happened on a micro-economic level. This was a  relatively small societal sub-culture connected to one another by a loose system of communication and a common faith. It wasn’t an authoritative institutional system trying to provide for all of society. There was no governing authority compelling believers to pay a percentage of their wealth and income to be redistributed to others as that particular governing authority determined. My experience is that things which work on a micro-level in small groups, especially things which are spiritual in nature, are rarely successful at being systemized and institutionally applied at a macro-level across society.

I hope no one will read what I’m not writing this morning. I am not arguing for or against socialism as an economic or governmental construct. I’m not arguing for or against any economic or governmental system or another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and thus we experience the never ending debate around our globe.

The conclusion my heart is coming to this morning is this: As a follower of Jesus, no matter what the societal economic system I find myself living in, generosity is an essentially spiritual act. My free choice and willing decision to give of what I have been given to others in need is, and should be, an act of loving kindness. What’s more, as a follower of Jesus the measure to which I give should be personally motivated by the measure of love and grace I have received from Christ Jesus.

As soon as my generosity becomes compulsory, it becomes something else.

Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

My Butt Ain’t That Big

God’s Message to his anointed,
    to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand…
…I’ve singled you out, called you by name,
    and given you this privileged work.
    And you don’t even know me!
Isaiah 45:1,4 (MSG)

Yesterday, over coffee with a friend, I was sharing my experiences of attending a fundamentalist Bible college one semester. My friend asked me where the college was and I told him where it was located.

He looked at me in surprise.

I never knew there was a Bible college there!” he exclaimed.

Shhhhh!” I whispered, lifting my finger to my mouth. “They don’t want you to know they’re there!

I was jesting, of course, but the truth of the matter is that throughout most of my life journey I’ve found many followers of Jesus, and especially many of the denominational institutions, are an exclusionary bunch. Membership requires strict adherence to a rigid set of doctrinal beliefs and/or public adherence to a list (sometimes formal, sometimes not) of moral and puritanical behavioral rules. If you don’t tow the line, you’re not welcome. Many will go so far as to say that if you don’t tow the line then you’re not only not welcome in their church but you’re also not going to be welcome in heaven either.

The further I get in my spiritual journey, and the deeper I get in my relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more I’ve come to see this exclusionary religious model, adhered to by so many proclaimed Christian institutions and denominations, as antithetical to God’s actual Message and example.

In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah gives a message about Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire in the middle part of the sixth century B.C.. Cyrus was not Jewish. He didn’t claim to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In fact, Cyrus had a reputation of a “live and let live” policy for allowing the nations he conquered continue to pursue their local religions. It was quite progressive in his day. Cyrus was not one of “God’s chosen” people, and yet God through the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus his “anointed” whom He has “taken by the hand.” God has “singled Cyrus out” and “called him by name” even though Cyrus has no knowledge of this.

This morning I am reminded that the Creator, and Almighty God, does not live inside the box of my personal doctrinal and religious parameters. I am responsible to follow the path to which I am called, to follow Jesus’ teachings and example, to live out the comprehensive law of Love, to let God be God, and leave judgment to the Judge who is infinitely beyond all that my finite mind can think or imagine.

The Judgment Seat of Christ is a huge chair.

My butt isn’t nearly big enough to fit on it.

 

We Love Our Rules

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.
Leviticus 21:16-17 (NRSV)

One of the things that I must continually remind myself as I read through the ancient laws of Moses: They didn’t work.

The rules did provide a moral and religious framework for guiding Hebrew society. One could argue that the ideals presented in the chapters we’re reading provided an idealistic goal for Hebrew society to shoot for. The rest of history, however, proves that they continually fell short of the mark. The books of history are a record of the Israelites perpetually doing the things they knew they shouldn’t do. That’s why there are so many books of prophets, because God would always have to call them back to repentance.

One of the cornerstones of theology for followers of Jesus is this very fact. You can’t work to earn salvation because no person perfectly executes the perfection God requires. No human being can reach moral perfection of their own human effort. We are broken people who perpetually do things we know we shouldn’t do and refuse to do things we know we should. All of these rules for moral and spiritual perfection taught us how we couldn’t do it on our own, in and of ourselves. We need a savior.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways I have seen and experienced the institutional church and religious organizations trying to lay Levitical-type legalistic rules over the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice. “You are saved by grace through faith,” we often say and then continue with: “and you must do this and that and not do that or this because it says so in God’s law.” I find it fascinating that God provides forgiveness and salvation freely to anyone who will simply accept it, regardless of our moral standing, and we still want to run back to embrace the religious rules we’ve never been able to keep in the first place.