Tag Archives: Religion

Rediscovering the Organism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s My Motivation?”

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

In the art of acting there’s a lot of talk about motivation. It’s sometimes called “the want.” Let me give you an example.

An unlearned actor named John goes up on stage. He walks from point A to point B and says the line highlighted in his script. You ask John why he just did that and he tells you: “The Director told me to. It was at our last rehearsal. I have it written right here in pencil in my script. It says walk right then say the line.” As an audience member you’ll probably see John mechanically waiting for his cue, dutifully walking to a prescribed position on stage, and then saying his line out to the audience.

Now an accomplished actor named Tony takes over the role. Tony has internalized that he’s embodying a character named Ricky who is head-over-heels in love with a girl named Jill. In the previous scene Jill has sent a message to Ricky revealing that she mistakenly believes he’s cheated on her. Now, Ricky sees her for the first time since receiving the note. Actor Tony internalizes what Ricky is thinking and feeling at that moment. He is Ricky, seeing the woman he loves. He makes a b-line to her, looks her right in the eye and says his line with a sense of emotional desperation. You ask Tony why he just did that, and he tells you without hesitation: “I want to convince Jill that it’s not true I cheated on her! I want her to know I love her! I want to spend the rest of my life with her!

As an audience member I can tell you, without a doubt, that you’ll have a much different experience, and a much better one, watching Tony play the role than you will with John.

Motivation is at the heart of great acting because motivation is at the heart of who we are as human beings. There’s a reason we do the things we do and say the things we say. There’s always something motivating and driving our behavior, though many people live their entire lives without ever thinking about it. When we begin to examine our motivations, we begin to understand ourselves on a whole new level. And while most Christians I know think that God only cares about the purity of their words and the morality of their actions, Jesus made it quite clear that He was most concerned about our motives. He knew that if the latter in order, the former will naturally fall into place.

Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica by complimenting their accomplishments, their ongoing toil, and their perseverance in the face of adversity. What’s fascinating is that Paul examines and calls out their motivations for each:

Faith has motivated the works they’ve accomplished.

Love has motivated their ongoing, laborious toil.

Hope has motivated their endurance amidst persecution.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to learn that motivation is just as crucial to things of the Spirit as it is to the actor on a stage. Religious people often do and say religious things because they are motivated by any number of things:

  • to keep up appearances in a community that values being religious
  • to earn admittance to heaven
  • to have an insurance policy keeping me out of hell
  • to build my business network with all those potential customers who go to that church

Motivation matters. Jesus called out the crowds following Him one day. He said, “You’re following me because I fed you fish sandwiches. You want to follow me? Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus didn’t care about the number followers He had, He cared about what motivated their following Him. The resurrected Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then followed Peter’s affirmative answer with a command to “Feed my sheep.” What was important to Jesus was not Peter’s accomplishment of the task, but the love that motivated it.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself examining my own motivations. Why do I do the things I do? What is driving me? What do the things I do and the conversations I have reveal about what it is that I really want in life? Spiritually speaking, if I don’t have the motivation right, all the saying and doing won’t matter.

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Note to my regular readers:
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia. Today we’re moving on to his letters to Jesus’ followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.

At this writing it has been roughly 20 years since Jesus’ resurrection and 16 years since Paul’s conversion. Paul had spent just a few months in the provincial capital of Thessalonica. He was forced to leave town quickly because his life was threatened. He didn’t get to spend as much time with the believers there as he had wished. It’s now a year or so down the road and he writes to encourage his friends whom he’d quickly left behind.
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The Gap Instinct

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

This week I started reading a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling, a doctor and professor from Sweden. In his opening chapter he makes the case that we as humans have a “gap instinct.” We like to divide things into two extremes with a gap between them:

  • rich or poor
  • black or white
  • developed or developing
  • white collar or blue collar
  • liberal or conservative

Rosling goes on to state:

We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.”

Along my journey I’ve noticed that the institutional church and those of us who follow Jesus often allow the gap instinct to invade our belief system and religious lives in unhealthy ways. God’s Message is quite direct in stating that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” and “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Yet, all of the time we condemn ugly sins while silently ignoring the pretty ones. We like to categorize others as sinners and ourselves as righteous. A job in the institutional church is “ministry” while all other occupations are not. Everything from music, to art, to books are divided into either “secular” or “sacred.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in the region of ancient Galatia he finds himself struggling to keep Jesus’ followers from falling back into their gap instincts. One of the marks of Jesus’ teaching and the believers of the early Jesus Movement was that they bridged long-held gaps between people. In Jesus, there were no distinctions. Everyone was welcome at the table regardless of gender, race, background, history, or socio-economic standing.

Now, in Paul’s absence, some Jewish legalists claiming to be followers of Jesus have begun to rebuild the distinctions. Primarily, they were teaching that if a person wanted to follow Jesus they would have to follow all the old rules and regulations of the Jewish law and customs. Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus could only do so through being a good Jew. With it, all the old gaps, distinctions, and differences would be firmly back in place.

Paul does not mince words. He tells the believers that falling back into their old gap instincts is complete foolishness. For his good Jewish readers who need convincing, he makes his case by citing both Law and prophet. He, once again, tears down the gaps:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been examining my own heart and looking for my own person gap instincts. Where have I set up distinctions in my own mind? Who’s in and who’s out? Who’s acceptable and who’s not? Who is wrong where I am right? Who is the sinner on the opposite side of my (self-)righteousness?

Lord, have mercy on me. Tear down the distinctions routinely I make with my own gap instincts. Renew my mind. Help me see as you see, think as you think.

In my silent prayer, the Spirit whispered this passage to my spirit:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Philippians 2:1-8 (MSG)

Have a great day, my friend. If you need me today, you’ll find me over there bridging some of my gaps.

Not Bricks and Mortar, but Flesh and Blood

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.”
Acts 7:48 (NIV)

I remember going to church as a kid and being taught a certain reverence for the sanctuary of our church. It was a classically designed sanctuary with an altar that sat on a dais at the back. Over the altar hung a giant cross and from the bottom of the cross hung an old-style lamp which was “the eternal flame.” Just in front of the altar was a lectern that sat on one side from which the scripture readings and announcement were made. On the opposite side was the pulpit which was larger, and stood higher.

As children we were taught that this santuary was special. This was where you went to worship God on Sunday. There was sacredness attached to the room, the altar, and the pulpit. You were to be quiet when you were in there. No running. No playing. Don’t go near the altar unless Reverend Washington is up there serving communion.

After I became a believer and began reading God’s Message for myself, I came to realize that the entire notion of a “sacred” church building was never a part of Jesus’ paradigm. Jesus never asked his followers to build buildings. Quite the opposite. Jesus said, “I will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.” With His death, resurrection, and the subsequent pouring out of Holy Spirit, Jesus did away with the old notion that there was a physical building that would be the center of worship. The “church” Jesus came to build is not made of bricks and mortar, but of flesh and blood.

A time is coming,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “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.”

In today’s chapter one of Jesus’ early followers, a man named Stephen, is dragged before the Jewish religious authority, called the Sanhedrin, in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the same council who convicted Jesus and gave Him a death sentence just weeks earlier. Stephen, in his defense, walks the religious leaders through the Great Story from Abraham to Joseph to Moses to the Kings and to the prophets. He tells of Solomon building the Temple where he, himself, was now standing. Stephen then says to religious authorities:

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

“‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’”

This morning I’m thinking about sacred spaces, and enjoying the memory of being a kid and finding out that the “eternal flame” that hung over our church’s altar was simply a 40 watt light bulb that sometimes burnt out and had to be replaced by the custodian.

Having a physical building for believers to gather, worship, and create community is a great thing. I just never want to lose sight of the truth that Jesus never intended “the church” to be a building down the street. When Holy Spirit indwells me as a believer my flesh and blood becomes “the church” because God is within me, one with my spirit. I am sacred space. “Don’t you know,” Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” So, “the church” is wherever I happen to be. It’s wherever two or more believers gather together.

I don’t go to church. I am the church.

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

Matters of Heart

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.
2 Chronicles 25:2 (NRSVCE)

In all my years as a follower of Jesus, I’ve observed that we as humans are far more comfortable with flesh than with Spirit. From our earliest years we’re taught to trust what our senses are telling us:

The stove coil is red and it’s radiating heat. Don’t touch it.

The meat smells funny. Don’t eat it.

Something in my knee just popped. Stop running.

I’m feeling light headed and nauseous. Better lie down.

Following Jesus, however, is a faith journey. God’s Message says that faith is “the assurance of what we hope for, evidence of that which we cannot see.” There’s no sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing involved. Quite the opposite. Faith is beyond our physical senses. God continues to say over and over and over again that He judges not on what can be seen, but what is unseen; God looks at the heart.

When God was directing Samuel who he should anoint as king, He told the prophet: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Yet I’ve observed continually that most followers of Jesus, and the institutions we create to organize ourselves, repeatedly revert back to our inherent human instinct to trust our base physical senses. We judge others on what we see in their appearance, what we observe in their behaviors, or we we hear about them from others. Our institutions create rules, both written and unwritten, about a person’s worth and standing before God based on how they look and/or behave. I’ve come to believe that we do this because it comes naturally, it is easy, and it gives us (both individually and as a group) comfort when others conform to the social, religious, and behavioral standards we stipulate and expect.

But that’s not how God operates. He says it quite plainly. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) And, as the Bard so beautifully put it: “There’s the rub.”

Dealing with the unseen motives and intents of the heart, as God does, is messy. It requires discernment, wisdom, grace, and risk.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler describes Judah’s King Amaziah as a person who did the right things, but not from a true heart. His actions were admirable, his behavior conformed to expectation, but his motivations were all in the wrong place. It brings to mind the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom Jesus said:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

“Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.”

The religious people of Jesus day were doing the same things I have observed in religious people of my day. Posturing, appearance, and propriety intended to prove righteousness from what can be physically seen and and audibly heard.

Jesus took a different approach. He gathered a motley crew of followers that included rough, uneducated fishermen, a pair of brothers with anger management issues, a sleazy tax collector, a thief, and a right wing terrorist. He taught them about faith. He exemplified the love he expected of them. He instilled in them compassion. They didn’t come close to measuring up to any kind of acceptable religious standard of their day. But that didn’t matter to God. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

God’s standard is as simple as a Broadway tune: “You gotta have heart!”

This morning I find myself wanting desperately not to be an Amaziah or a Pharisee. Screw religious trappings and the litmus tests of the institutional church.

I want more heart. And I want to find the heart of others, not their conformity to the standards with which I’m personally comfortable.