Tag Archives: Church

“HELLO!?? Yo! Tom!! I’m RIGHT HERE!!”

“But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”
2 Chronicles 6:18 (NIV)

On Saturday morning I woke up to find that Wendy had already gotten out of bed. In our house, this is a rare occurrence. 99.9% of mornings I am the first one out of bed. I got up and found her on the couch in the living room, writing in her journal.

There was nothing wrong, she explained. She had woken up and, in her spirit, heard God’s Spirit inviting her to spend some time together. So, she grabbed her journal and headed out in the quiet for a conversation.

For anyone who is not an experienced follower of Jesus, this might sound totally weird. One of the things that Jesus promised to His followers, however, was that He would send His Spirit (whom we refer to as Holy Spirit) to indwell those who believe. Jesus said that God’s Spirit “lives with you, and will be in you.” Once I learned to be in relationship with God in me, then experiences like Wendy had on Saturday morning aren’t that strange. I also have mornings when I wake and hear God’s Spirit whispering to my Spirit. “Grab your journal and make some coffee. Let’s spend some time together.”

This is one of the radical paradigm changes that Jesus ushered in through His death and resurrection. In sending Holy Spirit to indwell all of those who believe and follow, God is no longer “out there” or “up in heaven” but right here, right now, inside of me, and one with my spirit.

In today’s chapter, Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple he built for God. Solomon’s Temple was dubbed by historians as of the “Wonders of the Ancient World.” The dedication of the Temple was a big deal and the Chronicler records Solomon’s dedication prayer. Time and time again in the prayer Solomon repeats the phrase “hear from heaven.” The paradigm is that God is “out there” and the plea is that God might incline His ear to hear. Yet, even Solomon’s father David wrote in the lyrics of one of his psalms “Where can I go from your presence?” and then described how no matter where David went, God was already there. So, if God is everywhere, then why would He have to “hear from heaven?” Why can’t God just “hear from here?”

Lately I’ve been noticing how even in my local gathering of Jesus followers we say we believe in the indwelling of God’s Spirit and we say we believe in what theologians refer to as God’s “omnipresence” (presence everywhere), but almost every week when we gather to worship the things we pray and the things we sing communicate the opposite. We ask for God to “be with us” even though Jesus clearly told us He would never leave us. So if He never leaves us, why do we need to ask Him to join us? If we believe Holy Spirit indwells each and every believer then why do we sing Come, Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit right here, right now, indwelling us and connecting us?

I’m imagining a SNL like sketch comedy where I’m praying on Sunday morning “God, bless us with your presence,” while God stands right next to me rolling His eyes saying “Yeah, I’m right here. Remember?” As if not hearing God I continue my prayers. I beseech God “please be with me” and sing my pleas for His presence. God gets more and more sarcastic, waving His arms and shouting “HELLOOO!?? Yo! Tom?! Dude, I’M RIGHT HERE!!”

I know may be splitting semantic hairs. I have been, however, truly reconsidering and exploring this whole notion of God’s presence. I’m coming to the conclusion that what needs to change is not God’s location. If I truly believe what I say I believe, then God does not need to “hear from heaven” and move His presence from point A (heaven) to point B (where I am). What needs to change is my acknowledgement and awareness of my reality. What needs to happen is that my every day, every moment reality needs to match up to what I say I believe.

Three Rules for the Prophetic

Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.”
Jeremiah 28:15 (NIV)

On occasion, along my spiritual journey, I have had individuals speak prophetic words to me. In fact, it’s happened more in the last few years than ever before. Prophecy is woven into the fabric of the Great Story, and it is a part of most all of our great epic stories. Even the epics of recent years (e.g. Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and etc.) have strong prophetic themes running through them.

In our age of enlightenment I’ve observed that we’ve discounted and diminished the role of the prophetic. In fact, I confess that even writing about it this morning gives me a certain level of discomfort. I’ve observed over time that the institutional churches in the West have largely ignored the fact that I Corinthians speaks of the spiritual gift of prophecy as being among the most important of spiritual gifts and believers are encouraged to be “eager to prophesy.” Most all the churches with which I’ve ever been associated have simply ignored this or have chosen to interpret “prophesy” as being a good preacher.

I get it. Prophecy is a mysterious, strange, and slippery part of the spiritual journey. It always has been.

In today’s chapter we get a fascinating peek at how it worked in the days of the ancient prophet, Jeremiah. It’s easy for casual readers to think that “the prophets” were unique individuals on the landscape of history but the fact of the matter is that most kings in Jeremiah’s day had hoards of prophets in their service. It was quite common for prophets to be spiritual “yes men” who divined what the king wanted and then gave him the spiritual rubber stamp with their prophetic visions.

Today’s chapter tells a fascinating story of a prophetic duel between Jeremiah and another prophet named Hananiah. Jer was hanging out in his ox yoke (see yesterday’s post) telling all the kingdoms of the region that they would end up in servitude to the King of Babylon. Along comes Hananiah who, in front of everyone, takes the ox yoke off Jer’s neck and breaks it. It was a public slap in the face. Hananiah upped the prophetic ante and told everyone what they wanted to hear: Things aren’t going to be as bad as Jeremiah keeps prophesying. Hananiah then claimed that after two years of serving the King of Babylon, God would restore all the kingdoms that Babylon would conquer.

Jeremiah then goes in private to Hananiah and tells the prophetic contrarian that not only is he wrong, but that he’ll be dead within a year. And, he was.

The realm of the prophetic is a mysterious place. Along my journey I’ve had people tell me that they “have a word” for me, but whatever it was they said amounted to nothing and was ultimately forgotten. I’ve also had some pretty wild experiences in which people have said things which were amazingly prescient and powerfully true.

Three rules I’ve come to embrace when it comes to people saying they have a prophetic word for me:

  1. Hold on loosely and let it be. If it’s true, it will be true. If it’s not, it’s not worth my time, energy or consideration. Those who receive a prophetic word and go out of their way to try to make it happen are likely to be as successful as the tragic hero in that Scottish play Shakespeare wrote.
  2. Consider the source. If someone claims to be prophetic yet, like Hananiah, their words are what most people want to hear and the prophecies usually seem to ingratiate the prophet to the hearer, I’m always wary. The occasions I’ve received prophetic words, the messengers were humble, unassuming, and at times as mysterious as the prophetic word itself.
  3. Listen to wise counsel. On my journey I’ve surrounded myself with wise and mature friends (my wife being chief among them). They know me, love me, and they desire the best for me. I trust them to assist me in being discerning about any prophetic word given to me.

Once again in my pursuit of what is true I find myself holding the place of tension between the two extremes. I don’t ever want to dismiss the prophetic outright, nor do I want to blindly give myself over to any and every prophetic message I hear.

The Pain of Separation

I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.
Jeremiah 12:7 (NRSVCE)

I’m assuming that for many living in the melting pot of America, the concept of a heritage and a people may not be as strong as it once was. My father moved our family away from his home when I was young and I grew up removed from the Dutch heritage in which he was raised. As an adult, I doubled-down and returned to my roots, moving to a town that is rabid about its Dutch heritage. I have an appreciation for what it means to embrace and celebrate the people and the culture that are your genetic roots.

In my Dutch heritage there is a word that you’ll still hear old-timers pull out once in a while: afscheiding, It means to “separate.” When an individual or group left the fold they became tagged “afscheiden.” I get the sense that in most circles it was once the Dutch version of a scarlet letter.

In the previous chapter we learned that Jeremiah had so incensed the people of his hometown with his prophecy that a price had been put on his head. There was a plot to kill him. How appropriate then, to read in today’s chapter, that the weeping prophet is feeling like an afscheiden. God has called Jeremiah to declare the destruction of his unrepentant people over and over and over again. Now his own people have turned against him. He feels separated, ostracized, and alienated. Jeremiah loves his people, his culture, and his heritage and yet his prophecy is all about Judah’s fall and destruction. There is a war raging inside him. Following God meant separation from his heritage.

Along this life journey I have walked alongside many people who have had to battle the deep internal struggle of parting ways with the faith and/or culture of their family and heritage. Every culture and heritage has it’s strengths and corollary struggles. A time comes when for the spiritual health of an individual or family there must come separation from a church, a family system, or a community. It is tremendously difficult for some to risk social and relational stigma and fallout. Jeremiah is feeling that. Following God feels like a betrayal of his family, people, and heritage.

This morning in the quiet I’m saying a “thank you” for all the great things that my family system, heritage, and culture have afforded me. I am also making a renewed commitment to follow wherever God calls me, wherever I’m supposed to be, even if I’m branded an afscheiden.

Spiritual Vision and Hearing Loss

Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,
    who have eyes but do not see,
    who have ears but do not hear….
Jeremiah 5:21 (NIV)

The other night Wendy and I finished watching the third season of Grantchester produced as part of BBC’s Masterpiece Mysteries. I’m four books into James Runcie’s tales from which the television series sprung (a book review to be published on this blog one of these days). It has been interesting to both read the books and to watch the series which was adapted for the screen by Daisy Coulam. The storylines are quite different between the books and the television series.

The protagonist is an Anglican priest named Sidney Chambers who solves mysteries with the crusty, unbelieving local police Inspector, Geordie Keating. As the third season winds down Sidney finds himself having a crisis of faith that is rooted in his institutional church’s inability to see beyond rigid religiosity and demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in any real human way.

As I have been fond of saying over the years, all good stories are reflections of the Great Story. The theme of spiritual blindness and deafness is woven throughout God’s Message. In the days of Jeremiah the prophet it was the people of Judah who were afflicted with spiritual blindness and spiritual hearing loss, as we read in today’s chapter.

By the time Jesus came on the scene some 600 years later, it was the institutional religious establishment who suffered from the affliction. Jesus was constantly accused and criticized, not by the “sinners” and common people with whom He associated and ministered, but by the institutional priests, teachers, and lawyers who incessantly criticized Him and found fault with Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

The upstanding, committed religious people who should have been the first to recognize what God was doing were the very ones who suffered from spiritual vision and hearing loss.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Or, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Along my journey I have found that spiritual vision and hearing loss is more acutely present within the walls of the religious establishment than without.

Wendy and I watched the character of Sidney Chambers struggle through his crisis of faith and grapple honestly with the blind, deaf church. I felt for him. I know that struggle. Many memorable episodes from my own journey bubbled to the surface. I confess, it pissed me off.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded to accept that dealing with those who suffer spiritual vision and hearing loss will ebb and flow along the journey, but will never really end. It is a part of the Story. My role is to continually and increasingly channel the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control to which institutional religion is so often blind and deaf.

Order and Freedom

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I have been a part of worship with many different traditions. I was raised in a very liturgical Methodist church, meaning that every part of the service was very structured around ancient traditions. There was a lot of repetition and it was largely the same service every week with minor differences to account for different seasons of the traditional church year. I get how repetitive religious practices lose all power of their metaphorical meaning when a) no one remembers why we’re doing it in the first place and b) there’s no Spirit connection between the repetitive words/actions and the spirits of those worshipping.

At the other end of the spectrum I spent some time in the Quaker tradition (also known as the Society of Friends) which developed out of reacting to all the liturgical structure of the traditional church. In a traditional Quaker service (even their anti-liturgy style becomes its own form of “tradition”) there is little or no structure. Everyone sits in a circle and is quiet (they call it “centering”) until someone feels moved by the Spirit to speak or to sing or to do whatever. Anyone can do so and can say pretty much whatever it is they want to say. The original intent was that everyone would wait for Holy Spirit to prompt them and to be loving and mindful of everyone else in the group. It’s a beautiful idea, but eventually things were so unstructured that there were problems with things in many Quaker churches becoming what would be described by some as a chaotic free-for-all.

I have come to understand that we as human beings like and need a certain amount of structure and order. I think this is part of us being made “in the image” of our Creator. If you stop to think about it, everything in creation has a certain detailed structure and order to it. This is the way God made it. Even the seemingly chaotic tangle of bare tree branches is actually an orderly visual fractal. At the same time, you can get so lost in the order that you, as we say, “lose the forest for the trees.” I’ve come to believe that corporate worship is another example of truth being found at the point of tension between the extremes.

Along my chapter-a-day journey through Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth, I find there is no doubt that their local gathering was rapidly moving along the disordered chaos side of the spectrum. Paul points this out multiple times. There had been a breakdown to the point that Paul even says their weekly gatherings to worship were doing “more harm than good” (11:17).

In context, I find today’s chapter to be about Paul trying to reestablish some order and structure to the chaos in Corinthian worship. He’s trying to pull them back from their chaotic free-for-alls. Paul hints that they’d come to resemble a pagan food orgy (11:20-22), and the chapter reads like an instruction manual for bring some semblance of structure and order to the Corinthian gatherings. He sums it up by saying “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

This morning I’m thinking about differences, even in our human personalities. Some of us tend toward the side of “free spirit” in which we go with the flow. As such, it’s easy for us to get little accomplished and to create chaos around ourselves that becomes counterproductive. Some of us tend toward the side of detail and order. As such, it’s easy for us to major on the minors and to create rigidity that becomes counterproductive.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself seeking balance: freedom with ordered structure; order with room for movement of Spirit and expression.

Quarrels Among Us

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….
1 Corinthians 1:1 (NIV)

All of us have certain characteristics about the way we communicate. When we’re communicating face-to-face we have particular gestures we repeatedly make. In casual conversation Wendy likes to slap her hand on something. Usually it’s her thigh or the counter and sometimes she just claps her hands. It’s her physical punctuation mark to the message she’s conveying with her words.

I will often tell people I’m mentoring in the craft of public speaking to watch a video of themselves but push the fast forward button so that it’s playing at about four times normal speed. As you watch yourself in fast forward mode your repetitive gestures, pacing, and unconscious movements are revealed. I tend to swing my arms like a flapping fish out of water and will often make this weird movement bending my knees and tilting to one side. It’s pretty comical.

Even when we write we phrase things in certain ways or repeat certain phrases. We have signatures we prefer such as “kind regards,” “stay cool,” “be good,” or “shalom” which is a particular favorite of a few friends of mine.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Paul began most of his letters with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” To twenty-first century readers this is a stock greeting that we tend to gloss over. It’s just the way Paul begins his letters. Big deal. But this wasn’t an unconscious phrase. He used it for a very specific reason, and for the early followers of Christ reading the letter it had much greater significance and likely stirred up a simmering quarrel.

Apostle,” which is a Greek word meaning “one who is sent” was an unofficially official term for the twelve disciples of Jesus. Jesus Himself called them his “apostles.” A “disciple” was a follower, but an “apostle” was one who was sent out. Jesus message was clear. He was sending them on a mission. For the early church, then, the original “apostles” were held in high esteem and the designation “apostle” came to refer to those who had seen Jesus risen from the dead and had literally been designated by Jesus as an “apostle.”

Paul did not literally fit this unofficially official designation that had arisen among the early believers. He had been late to the party. He’d been a persecutor of Christians and was chief executioner of the first believer, Stephen, when he was killed for heresy. Yet Paul, the prosecutor and executioner of Christians, claimed to be confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Christ. He was radically converted into a follower of Jesus, said he was sent by Jesus to preach to the non-Jewish believers in Greece.

So was Paul an “apostle” or not?

Throughout his writings, Paul seems intent on claiming that he is. He starts every letter with it. In his second letter to the believers in Corinth he refers to the “super apostles” hinting that he is not part of the club with the original twelve. In his letter to the Galatians Paul begins by saying he is an “Apostle, not sent from men nor by man” the subtext of which is “Christ called me and sent me no matter what you may have heard from other people regarding whether I’m an ‘apostle’ or not.” He then tells the Galatians that he went to Jerusalem to meet with the “esteemed apostles” (subtext: “I’m not ‘esteemed’ like they are“) and confronted Peter, the leader of the twelve, for acting in a hypocritical manner.

Conflict, quarrels, power, control, authority, who’s in, who’s out, who measures up, who is worthy of the title, and who doesn’t quite cut the mustard. These were some of the things that the early believers fought about.

And, let’s be real. These are some of the things over which we still experience conflict. People are people. Get involved with any “church” and you’ll soon see some of the same arguments about titles and offices and leaders and loyalty and membership and requirements. I’ve got almost 40 years in this journey following Jesus and I’ve seen it again, and again, and again.

This morning I’m thinking about quarrels, controversies, and concerns. It’s the stuff we have to navigate if we’re going to live together in community. It’s inescapable. Having been through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few times, I know where Paul will eventually end-up. I’m reminded that while Paul begins his letter addressing the conflicts (even stirring them with his claim of being an apostle) he ends by reminding us all that followers of Jesus have one leader who gave us one law: love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, or proud; Not dishonoring, self-centered, or easily annoyed, nor clinging to negative feelings or attitudes towards others. Not easy, even for Paul and Peter. At least we’re in good company.

If together we focus on the law of love, we can make it through the conflicts and learn to live together, honor one another, and support one another. Despite their differences, even Paul and Peter did that. So can I.

 

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?