Tag Archives: Worship

Of Change and Health

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Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 108:2 (NIV)

Do you ever have random conversations that stick in your memory? I was on a trip with a colleague. While aware that we are each followers of Jesus, we didn’t talk about spiritual things very often. My colleague comes from a very conservative, almost fundamentalist viewpoint on things and he surprised me by wanting to ask my opinion about the weekly worship among the institutional church where he was a member.

It happened that my colleagues tribe had recently made the switch from a very traditional worship experience that involved singing traditional hymns, many of them having been in existence for hundreds of years. The church was migrating to using songs of the present-day genre. He was clearly struggling with this.

I have shared many times that I have been a spiritual wayfarer who has experienced and participated in a rich diversity of spiritual traditions. I have been in the emotionally rockin’ pentecostal tradition, the corporate silence of the Quaker Meeting House, the high-church liturgy of Roman Catholic church, the call-and-response of the black church, the intellectual approach of mainline institutions, the simplicity and sincerity of rural worship in a developing country, and the down-home family environment of a “house church.” My attitude has never been to ask “Which is right?” In fact, I’ve never really worried about asking “Which is right for me?” I’ve always tried to be fully present where I have been been led and ask myself “What good can I gain from this experience?”

I am aware, however, that my colleague has a more black-and-white view of both faith and life. The change in music genres within his local gathering had him rattled.

Colleague: “I’m struggling with these ‘seven-eleven’ songs. It’s the same seven lines sung eleven times.”

Me: “You mean like Psalm 117 that only has two lines which were likely repeated in worship?”

Colleague: “It’s just so repetitive. Singing the same thing over and over.”

Me: “You mean like Psalm 136 that repeats ‘His love endures forever’ twenty-six times?”

Colleague: “It’s not right. They take little pieces of a great hymn and mess it up by changing it. It was meant to be sung in its entirety!”

As this point, I could have pointed my colleague to today’s chapter, Psalm 108, because the entire thing is simply a cut-and-paste mash-up of Psalm 57:7-11 and Psalm 60:5-12. In fact, there are multiple examples both in the Psalms and in the writings of the ancient prophets when entire sections would be cut-and-pasted into an updated work. There are also examples of this in other ancient Mesopotamian cultures. It was quite common.

I don’t really know how the conversation landed with my colleague. I could tell that he was disappointed (maybe even a little frustrated) that I didn’t agree with him and provide him an affirmation of his opinions. He never brought it up again.

In my life, I have found change to be really difficult for people in almost any circle of life. When you mix in both change and religious tradition it can take on an added layer of emotion. Suddenly the change gets escalated to a level of religious orthodoxy. Sides are taken. The discussion escalates to arguments. Then comes entrenchment. Very often the next step is the severing of relationships. Groups split.

Along my spiritual journey, I have always assumed that change is a natural part of creation. Most things in life cycle in one way or another. What goes around comes around. Styles come back around and get freshened up. Religious traditions and practices that were once abandoned as “old and outdated” come back in vogue to bless a new generation of Jesus’ followers.

So it is that as I watch the changes that constantly happen around me on multiple levels, I try to keep my emotional reactions in check. Instead of digging in my heels and demanding that my love of the perfectly acceptable way of doing things is understood, I try to divert my energy to asking “What good might be gained from this change?”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded of a mantra that I was introduced to by my friend. It made its way around the internet and I am unsure of the source. I once used it in a message, but I don’t know that I’ve ever referenced it in one of my chapter-a-day posts. It’s always stuck with me:

Healthy things grow.
Growing things change.
Change challenges me.
Challenges force me to trust God.
Trust leads to obedience.
Obedience makes me healthy.
Healthy things grow.
..

Creation Contemplation

Creation Contemplation (CaD Ps 104) Wayfarer

May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    as I rejoice in the Lord.
Psalm 104:34 (NIV)

Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we’ve been asking a lot of questions about distractions and attachments. Primarily, we’re asking ourselves some introspective questions regarding just how attached we are to our phones, tablets, and screens. And, how do those screens and the how the limitless amount of information and entertainment, literally at our fingertips, is forming us. While it might be easy to perceive this as some religious Luddite rail against technology, it’s really an attempt to ask some very sincere, personal questions about time, thought, habits, distractions, and Spirit.

Yesterday our Scottish crew (still stranded by COVID in America) was discussing the fact that back home in Edinburgh they would be spending a lot more time outside in the more temperate winter climate of the UK. Here in the snow and midwest deep-freeze of Iowa (-2 F this morning), that’s just not an enjoyable possibility. So there’s been a tremendous amount of screentime for the wee one as four adults try to work.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 104, is ancient Hebrew song of praise. The theme is the wonder of creation, and this is a great song for anyone who is fed spiritually by being out in nature. What is it that feeds your awe and wonder of the natural world? I know for a lot of people it’s the mountains. For me, it’s always been water. I love being on a ship out on the ocean, a sailboat, or even sitting on the dock in the morning at the lake. There is something spiritual and life-giving to sit in the quiet, to take it in, and to have undistracted time to think, ponder, dream, and meditate.

What’s really cool about Psalm 104 is the thought with which the songwriter structured his lyrics. This is obvious to the casual reader, but when you break it down, it’s really genius. It’s structured like concentric circles moving out from the center (like the expanding universe?), and as the stanzas move out from the center they are connected thematically:

Praise

Three Verses: Celebrating the celestial world above the earth

Five Verses: The earth’s foundations and boundaries

Nine Verses: The diversity and abundance of life on earth

Five Verses: The earth’s cycles and rhythms

Three Verses: Celebrating the nautical world below the earth

Praise

As I meditated on this in the quiet this morning… (Actually, it wasn’t quiet. I had a three-year-old watching a YouTube of Transformer toys on my lap.)… I couldn’t help but think about the thought the songwriter put in to not only write a song about creation, but also craft it so that the whole song’s structure was another layer of metaphor that speaks to the design, order, and structure of the universe.

There is something so beautiful in this that was worth my time this morning with which to sit and meditate. It motivated me to whisper my own quiet prayer of praise for creation that’s all around me.

I also couldn’t help but be reminded of these questions Wendy and I have been asking ourselves about the things to which we are attached, the things that distract us, and the limitless information and entertainment waiting for me there on the phone, the tablet, the television, and the laptop. I can go down the online rabbit hole so quickly and become immersed in a world of information that offers me little or no spiritual benefit.

Or, I can be mindful of making different choices. Which is what I’m endeavoring to do today.

A Time to Shout!

A Time to Shout! (CaD Ps 100) Wayfarer

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Psalm 100:1 (NIV)

I have shared over the years that one of the things Wendy and I enjoy doing is being sports fans. We’re not “rabid win-at-all-costs because our lives are ruled by it” fans, which is a good thing since most of the teams we cheer for have long histories of being underdogs and perennial losers. We just enjoy choosing a team, following the team and the players, rooting for them through the season, and generally being loyal fans.

January in Iowa has typically been made even more bleak for Wendy and me because of the lack of sports that we enjoy. Our Vikings season generally ends early in disappointing fashion. Spring training for our Cubs is weeks away. Our son-in-law, Clayton, influenced Wendy and me to find a English Premier League team to cheer for in order to bridge the gap. It just so happens that his team and our team have a big match this weekend. We’re already planning our watch party. It will be something fun in the midst of quarantine.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 100, is the final in a series of ten ancient Hebrew songs of praise. This little ditty is only five verses long and it begins by calling the worshiper to “Shout with joy to the LORD.”

Throughout my spiritual journey, I have heard teachers challenge congregations with the fact that we cheer more for our teams than we do for God. This, in the institutional and denominational churches I’ve attended throughout my journey, is very true. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Jesus movement became a political empire that was more interested in controlling the masses than it was in sincere worship. The Holy Roman Empire controlled worship in the Western world for 1200 years. When the Protestant Reformation came along, it led into the “age of reason” in which head knowledge of the scriptures and theology was held as utmost in importance. Thus, the Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations were given to quiet, reverent, and generally passive worship styles.

And yet, throughout the Great Story the examples of worship and calls to worship I’ve been reading in the psalms are active, loud, and participatory. Shout, sing, dance, raise your hands, clap your hands, and raise the roof! King David got in trouble with his wife when he was so worked up in dancing and singing to God that he had peeled down like silly shirtless college boys in a December Iowa State football game. I confess that the last time Wendy and I got that excited was the Cubs winning the World Series and the Minneapolis Miracle.

At the same time, the further I’ve gotten in my spiritual journey, the freer I’ve become in worship among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I sing loud. I’ll lift my hands in prayer. Yes, I’ll even shout. And what’s hilarious is that this is not the worship tradition of my local gathering. I once had an elder of the church who was a pious, multi-generational loyalist of the denomination ask me sincerely why I raised my hands when I sang in worship. I pointed him to a number of places in the Great Story where God’s people are called to lift hands in praise and prayer. Funny how individuals who claim to live in devout obedience choose to ignore those things with which they are uncomfortable. Greet anyone with a holy kiss lately?

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. There are times for spiritual quiet, silence, and reverence. Lord knows we need a lot of it right now amidst the 24/7 din of politics and pandemic conflict in the news and on social media. The Sage who wrote Ecclesiastes would tell us that there is a time for quiet reverence, and there’s a time to shout, dance, and blow the roof off. And, I get that there are individuals who will forever be hands-in-your-pockets mouth shut type of followers, and that’s cool too. Whatever.

It’s just that Wendy and I have noticed as we worship that there’s often what feels like a spiritual lid on the room. You can feel people waiting for an excuse, or for someone to give permission to shout, cheer, and let out some God-given, human emotion. Countless times we’ve witnessed that when one person breaks the ice, then the praise really begins to flow.

In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about all the worship traditions I’ve experienced and enjoyed along my spiritual journey from the silence of the Quakers to the call and response of a black Baptist congregation. From the pomp of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland to the down-home fire-and-brimstone of a back-woods Pentecostal church in Appalachia. I find that so often people put their own spiritual experiences in the box of their traditions. Along the way, I’ve found that it’s not a right-or-wrong either-or thing. Once again, it’s a “yes, and.” I can learn from experiencing and participating in diverse styles and traditions of worship. I take things that are meaningful for me and find ways to weave them into my own spiritual expressions. It’s been good. It’s helped me grow. It’s expanded my spiritual understanding.

I promise that if/when I see you next I won’t greet you with a holy kiss.

Finally, it was a bit of synchronicity that I saw this post this morning of a mother shouting her praise as she finds out her son passed the bar exam. It’s worth the watch!

Rest Sans Rule-Keeping

Rest Sans Rule-Keeping (CaD Ps 92) Wayfarer

They will still bear fruit in old age,
they will stay fresh and green…
Psalm 92:14 (NIV)

It’s the first full week of a New Year, and this morning marks the official end of the holidays. I’ve so enjoyed this Christmas and New Year’s having our kids home and celebrating our wedding anniversary. My soul is full.

I found some synergy this morning in the fullness of Spirit I feel coming out of the holiday season and today’s chapter, Psalm 92. This ancient Hebrew song lyric was a “Sabbath” song. Sabbath is the weekly “day of rest” which God commanded of the Hebrews. It’s number four in God’s Top Ten list of commandments given through Moses.

After the Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the Who’s Who of Hebrews had been forced into exile in Babylon. There, without a central place of worship, the Hebrews were forced to find ways to keep the faith without a physical location of worship. The result was that both their study of “the Law” (in layman’s terms that would be the first five books of the Great Story or Genesis through Deuteronomy) and keeping the Sabbath day became cornerstones of the faithful.

After the exiles returned and the Temple was rebuilt, the Sabbath continued to increase in importance. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 500 years later, the Sabbath had ceased to be a day of rest and celebration. It had become a burdensome, endless list of things you couldn’t do unless you wanted to be called out by religious busybodies and even face possible corporal punishment. That’s what human religion does; It takes a spiritual principle meant for health and well-being and reduces it to a burdensome list of rules used to determine who’s naughty or nice, who’s good or bad, who’s righteous or wicked, who’s in and who’s out.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve learned to shun religious rule-keeping and seek those things that promote Life and Spirit. What I’ve learned is that there is a crucial difference between religious rule-keeping and spiritual discipline. I shun the former while fully embracing the latter.

Yesterday, Wendy and I attended worship with our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. We did so, not because we felt we had to but because we desired to do so. We’ve established a discipline over time of joining to worship with other believers because it refreshes our souls to worship corporately, to regularly connect with friends and loved ones, and to be spiritually challenged and encouraged. It’s part of the spiritual rhythm of our lives.

As I read the chapter this morning, I found that the overall vibe of Psalm 92’s lyrics matches the spirit of rest, community, friendship, and worship I experience each week. It promotes our spiritual health and has led to “fruitfulness” and keeping our souls “fresh” and “green” as prescribed.

In the quiet this morning, I find my mind and spirit ready to head into a new work week and a new year. The rest and time with family have been so good. God knows I need regular rest to recharge my bodies, my mind, and my spirit – not as religious rule-keeping, but as physical and spiritual rejuvenation.

Sui Generis

Sui Generis (CaD Ps 33) Wayfarer

Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 33:3 (NRSVCE)

Wendy and I attended worship with our local gathering of Jesus followers on Sunday. We’ve been sitting at home watching the live steam most Sundays since March. There are three spaces set aside for worship with proper space for physical distancing. The music and teaching are streamed from the main space to the other two. The auditorium that is where we usually call home is one of the spaces in which the live worship is streamed.

We walked in and sat down. I knew we were a minute or two late, so I was surprised when we weren’t greeting with the usual decibel level of worship music. It took me a second to realize that while the video of the worship music was live, the audio wasn’t being successfully streamed from the other room. Everyone sat and waited for our faithful tech volunteers to figure out the problem.

What struck me as we waited was that there were individuals already standing in anticipation of singing, clapping, and participating in corporate worship. I stood with them. Most people were sitting quietly while we waited. When the problem was fixed and the audio began to stream, everyone who was sitting immediately stood without prompt. People began to sing. Some people raised their hands in prayer. It was like the worship version of a Lamborghini accelerating from 0-60 in 2.8 seconds.

The thing that struck me in that moment was the feeling that everyone wanted to sing. There was a feeling of hunger to be there, to worship corporately with others and to sing, pray, and shout in praise and supplication.

Today’s psalm was most likely a song written for ancient corporate worship. If you step back and look at it, the “voice” of the lyrics lends itself to the first three verses being sung by a worship leader calling everyone to worship. Verses 4-19 could very well have been for a choir or select group to then instruct through song about God’s power, sovereignty, and goodness to protect and deliver those who place, in Him, their faith and trust.

The voice of verses 20-22 switch to a corporate “our” and could likely have been for the entire crowd gathered to sing in response to pledge their faith and trust.

There is something unique about a corporate worship experience when those gathered are not just going through ritualistic motions but are truly pouring out from their spirits their gratitude, praise, pain, need, faith, and desire.

Sui generis (pronounced soo-ee jen-er-is) is a latin term meaning “of its own kind.” Usually used as a legal term, its broader definition is something that is “unique” and in a “class by itself.” I once heard it used of certain worship experiences when a crowd of individuals begin to worship and, sui generis, a powerful whole emerges from the many. From many voices one voice. From many spirits one spirit. When it happens it is truly sui generis.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about worship, prayer, and praise. I’m grateful for technology that has allowed Wendy and me to join with our fellow Jesus followers through YouTube during the pandemic. Jesus assured His followers that He would always be present when “two or three are gathered” in His name. Wendy and I have enjoyed some really wonderful moments in our worship gatherings via YouTube. I am also grateful to join with others in one place and pour out our hearts and praise just as people have been doing for thousands of years like when Psalm 33 was introduced to the Hebrew people as a “new song” to corporately proclaim God’s protection and deliverance.

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

I Smell.

I Smell (CaD Ex 30) Wayfarer

“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense…”
Exodus 30:1 (NRSVCE)

I typically keep a fragrant candle on the desk in my office. I like scents of vanilla the best. Right now I’ve been trying out a candle labeled as “tobacco and vanilla.” I thought it might remind me of the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Not so much. I do, however, like the scent.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that smell is the physical sense to which we give the least attention. Sight, hearing, taste, and touch get the most of our attention. Our olfactory senses aren’t as necessary for human survival as they once were. Nevertheless, a scent can create a powerful response with me. Some experts say that smells plays more of a role in attracting a mate than we even realize. More consciously, it can bring back a memory like the smell of a rose reminding me of my Grandma Vander Well’s perfume. It can create a sense of peace and security like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting up from the kitchen. It also works in negative terms. Some smells give me a headache or can make me feel physically ill.

Incense played a large part in ancient religious ceremonies. In today’s chapter, God continues to prescribe to Moses how the Hebrew tribes will worship. The chapter begins with designs for an altar on which incense is to be perpetually burned and it ends with a unique recipe for the fragrant ingredients a perfumer is to blend the incense. Because the fragrant oil used to anoint Aaron and the priests, and the incense burned in the traveling temple was unique, the smell would become associated in the hearts and minds of the Hebrews with being present at God’s place and giving their sacrifices and offerings. The smoke of the burning incense also became a metaphor for the prayers of God’s people wafting up to heaven.

Incense once again became part of worship in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in Christianity, though I have head it argued that it was primarily a practical way for the priest to overcome the powerful pungency of body odor emanating from the poor, unbathed masses packing into the church on Sunday. It was never a formally prescribed practice of the early followers of Jesus. In the New Testament, the only references to incense point to either the practice in the Hebrew ritual or else to John’s visions of heaven in Revelation.

The use of incense in Hebrew worship was, however, linked to an important metaphor understood by early believers. In his second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul writes:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
2 Cor 2:14-16 (NIV)

Once again, I find that the physical bricks-and-mortar (or in this case oil-and-incense) of the Hebrew system matures through Jesus and shifts into a flesh-and-blood understanding of what God is doing. In the former, people came to a central location where the fragrance of the priests and the burning incense reminded them of God’s presence. In the latter, every follower of Jesus becomes part of a “royal priesthood” taking the fragrance of Jesus with us wherever we go and among any and all people with whom we interact in our circles of relationship and community.

I have spent twenty-five years in a career in which I travel and regularly visit our clients in their places of business around the country. I am always praying that I will be the fragrance of Christ while I am there conducting training sessions, making executive presentations, and coaching or mentoring individuals.. What’s fascinating to me is that I have on several occasions had someone literally ask me if I’m a Christian. When I confess that I am, the response is typically, “I knew it. I could just tell.” Equally fascinating to me is that in almost every long-term engagement with a client there is an individual or two who react to my presence with intense animosity. In those instances, I get to practice returning curses with blessings and showing (often unreciprocated) kindness.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of the message I gave yesterday among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Today’s chapter so beautifully illustrates a point I was making. I observe that many are stuck in the old paradigm of a religious institution founded on the notion of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. People gather to do the regularly scheduled religious bit, then forget about it until my next scheduled appearance on Sunday, or Christmas, or Easter.

Jesus changed all that in practice. He started with getting the Kingdom of God into the individual, transforming the human being into the Temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. It is the individual who takes God’s Kingdom wherever they go and impacts people in every relationship and circles of influence. I don’t burn incense at the temple, I am the temple from which God’s fragrance seeps out in my love, kindness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness and self-control. Some are attracted. Some are repelled. That’s something I don’t control, though how I respond to it is.

Monday. Another week. Holiday coming up. I have appointments, a little travel, and a weekend full of friends. Hope I’m fragrant in all the good ways.

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

The Church’s Blueprint

The Church's Blueprint (CaD Ex 27) Wayfarer

You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly.
Exodus 27:20 (NRSVCE)

I was raised attending a Methodist church that many would describe as “high church.” The sanctuary was designed to reflect the ancient churches of Europe complete with stained-glass and a pipe organ. In the center was an altar raised so that one had to ascend to it. Above the altar hung a giant cross and from the cross hung what appeared to be a candle holder, but was actually an electric light bulb that was always illuminated.

In today’s chapter of Exodus, God continues to give Moses very intricate and detailed plans for the traveling temple that the Hebrews will build for worship and sacrifice. Todays chapter describes the altar on which sacrifices would be burned and an oil lamp that would be placed outside the entrance to the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was held. The lamp was to burn continuously, an eternal flame.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. An altar? A lamp that burned continuously? Those were front-and-center elements of the church in which I grew up. And yet, when I became a follower of Jesus (in contrast to simply being a member of my church) and I read Jesus’ actual words, I found it interesting that Jesus never gave instructions for church buildings and altars and choir lofts and pipe organs. Nowhere in all the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John are there Exodus-like instructions for the construction of a church, cathedral, basilica, sanctuary, altar, or an eternal flame.

In part, this is because the followers of Jesus were originally part of the Hebrew tribes and they continued to worship in the Hebrew tradition. But, as Jesus’ followers fulfilled their mission to take the message of Jesus to the world, the Hebrew believers became outnumbered by the non-Hebrew followers. Many of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address the division and the conflict that followed. Nevertheless, the Jesus movement had no church buildings for the first three hundred years, though there were gathering places. It was only after the Jesus Movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire in the fourth century that churches were built for all the citizens of the Roman Empire who dutifully obeyed Emperor Constantine and signed up to become members of the new state religion: Christianity.

The Roman Empire then built churches, cathedrals, and basilicas and borrowed the basic elements of all the religions they knew including altars, lamps, candles, and incense. Fast forward 1700 years and we who belong to Christian institutions around the world continue to think of “church” a the local building where we sign-up for membership and gather to worship.

I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Jesus that I quoted in yesterday’s post in which He said that He would “destroy the Temple and raise it in three days.” That was the point of yesterday’s post, and the further I get into the description of the Hebrew Tabernacle the clearer it comes into focus for me. Jesus never gave His followers blueprints for building the church because the church was never meant to be a building. Jesus didn’t tell His followers to go to church. He told them to be the church.

Jesus promised to be wherever two or three believers gathered, which makes worship possible anywhere.

Jesus never gave instructions for lighting candles or having an eternal flame because He called followers to be the Light of the World through their acts of love for others.

Jesus never gave instructions for an altar because with His death the ultimate sacrifice had been made, once-for-all.

Jesus never talked about the designs for the central location where His followers would gather because the mission was not about gathering, but dispersing to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and to bring Light to dark places.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. A central meeting place for believers to gather and worship is a no-brainer. Jesus prescribed the sacraments. Music, liturgy, and traditions of worship began with Jesus and the Twelve and were part of worship for believers meeting in homes for hundreds of years.

In the quiet, however, I find myself feeling adamant about a few key points. Jesus didn’t ask me to go to church, but to be the church. An altar is not a table in my local church sanctuary, it’s my life itself at home, at work, and wherever I happen to be carrying my cross and sacrificially giving myself to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. The eternal flame is not a 40 watt light-bulb hanging over the altar in a church, it’s the Light of Christ that is supposed to shine through my words, actions, and relationships with others.

I’m back to where I ended yesterday’s post. Not bricks-and-mortar but flesh-and-blood.

If there was a blueprint Jesus provided for design of the church, it would look exactly like me.

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

Taking a Wrecking Ball to the Edifice Complex of Christianity

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)

When I was a child, I attended a small neighborhood church that was liturgical in practice. This meant that the sanctuary was laid out in a very specific way that catered to the ancient liturgy. There was a lectern on one side that was “lower” and served common uses such as announcements and a non-clergy member reading scripture or a responsive reading. Then there was a taller lectern on the other side which was only for the reverend to preach his sermon. There was an altar where communion was served which most people in the church believed sacred space. Children were taught to stay away and be careful of offending God by going where we weren’t allowed or treating the space disrespectfully.

As a young man, I attended a giant church that had no such liturgical trappings. In this church, everything was functional. It was all about the audience’s experience. Great lighting and great sound that allowed for a great product. The pastor of this church was rabid about building bigger and better buildings for the weekly show and attracting bigger names to perform in the area.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve had to come to terms with the “edifice complex” I was taught, have witnessed, and in which I confess I have participated. There is definitely something to be said for a nice, functional space for a local gathering to meet, organize, worship, teach, learn, pray, meditate, and serve one another and the community. More about that in a moment.

There is also the spiritual reality that Jesus exemplified and taught. It was a paradigm shift massive as to be difficult for people to believe and embrace 2000 years later. It is simply this: God does not dwell in buildings.

God is omnipresent (that is, everywhere) because Jesus is the force of creation holding the universe together: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Jesus said that after his death, resurrection and ascension, He was sending Holy Spirit to dwell in us: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Therefore, God’s “Temple” is no longer a place in Jerusalem or a bricks-and-mortar edifice down the street. God’s Temple is the bodies, hearts, minds, lives of those who believe and follow: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

For the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, local gatherings of believers met in one another’s homes where they shared meals, worshipped, prayed together and supported one another. Some scholars estimate that over a million followers of Jesus were meeting regularly in tens of thousands of homes around the known world.

In 312 A.D. the Roman Emporer Constantine became a Christian and Christianity quickly became the state religion of Rome. The Jesus Movement, almost overnight, became the Holy Roman Empire.

[cue: Star Wars: Vader’s Theme]

Empires are concerned with controlling masses. Controlling masses requires authority that people will respect, follow, serve, and obey. One way to control the masses is to control their religious beliefs and routines. Therefore:

  • Only “priests” or “ordained clergy” can preach, teach, marry, bury, and absolve you of your sins. (You are a “common” person with no access to God except through the Empirical structures)
  • Only individuals appointed by the supreme authority and his minions (Caesar, Pope, Cardinal, Bishop) are allowed to be priests or ordained clergy. (You have little hope of becoming clergy unless you jump through many difficult and expensive academic and religious hoops set up by the Empire’s institutions. Probably not unless you know someone or a have a lot of money to bribe, oops, I mean, “donate” to the Empirical authorities – which is how we will wind up with wealthy children and corrupt individuals becoming the Pope)
  • The words used for teaching and the worship of God will now only be sung, written, read and spoken in Latin, which the uneducated masses will not understand. (This makes it easier for the Empirical religious authorities to control said masses of uneducated followers as they become dependent on the Empirical authorities for everything including knowledge, forgiveness, salvation, the salvation of loved ones prayed out of purgatory, and et cetera [<– that’s Latin, btw])
  • Worship must now be centered within an opulent, massive, awe-inspiring structure that stands out in the middle of the squalid little local shacks and structures people live in and use for daily business. (The Empirical institution thus reminds people wordlessly, day and night, that both God and the Empirical institution are higher, better, and different than you are in your poor little common life. It is both something for you to ever reach for and something to which you will never reach without the Empirical institution itself making a way for you)

And, that was the beginning of the edifice complex for followers of Jesus. I find it a fascinating contrast to today’s chapter. Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the last week of His earthly journey. Jesus has spent most of His three-year ministry speaking to crowds on hillsides, fields, and from a boat to throngs of people sitting on the shore. He also spoke in small-town synagogues. His followers of backwater fishermen and men from small towns in Galilee were awed by the massive Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, however, shrugged it off with the foreknowledge of what would become of it:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

A couple of thoughts this morning as I ponder these things along side of almost 40 years regularly journeying through God’s Message:

  • I believe a functional, central location for followers of Jesus to gather is a good thing.
  • I believe that making meeting spaces beautiful, inviting, welcoming, clean, and efficient are good things, even God-honoring things, for everyone who gathers there.
  • I believe that architecture is both a highly specialized craft and a creative art form that can powerfully embody and express many things with breathtaking beauty.
  • I believe that the churches and cathedrals built throughout history are works of art that have much to offer in both history lessons and inspiring us creatively and spiritually.
  • I also believe that a building can become an object of worship rather than a setting for it.
  • I don’t believe that a church building, it’s rooms, altars, stained-glass, podiums, and decorations are sacred in any way (though they can be special in many different ways and on many different levels).
  • I believe that it is the individual human beings of simple and sincere faith who gather within a church building and it is their corporate and collective worship, prayer, and fellowship that are sacred.
  • I believe that a church building and an institution’s emphasis can subtly convince individuals that they attend the church rather than being the church as Jesus intended.
  • I have observed very sincere individuals who believe the following, perhaps without giving it much thought: God resides in the church building. I visit God an hour every Sunday to pay respect and spiritually make the minimum premium on my eternal fire insurance policy which, I hope and trust, will get me into heaven and avoid hell. I leave God there at church to go about the other 167/168ths of my week.

This morning I imagine Jesus shrugging as he looks up at the Temple. “It’ll be a rubble heap in about 40 years,” He says to His disciples.

Then what is sacred? What lasts? What remains?” Simon the Zealot asks.

You are sacred, as is every person in whom my Spirit dwells,” Jesus replies. “What remains? The faith, hope, and love that is in you and flows out of you, Simon. And all fruit your faith, hope, and love produce in those whom you love. You are my church, Simon. You are God’s temple. And, you are more beautiful than this temple or any building a human being could construct.

What Jesus actually taught was that when individuals believe and follow, they become living, breathing, active temples of worship in which God’s Spirit dwells. What is sacred and/or profane is what we put in, what flows out and how we relate to God and others from the inside out.

Don’t Stop the Music!

For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)

This past week, Wendy and I went to a craft brewhouse in Des Moines. About three times a year they have an event called “Hymns at the Hall.” There was a large gathering of people that night. There were young families with children playing board games. There were older folks (I guess you have to start including me in that demographic). It was a fascinating mix of people who gathered to eat, drink, and sing the old hymns of the faith together.

Along my spiritual journey, I have experienced that music can be the subject of tremendous religious passion for some people. I grew up with hymns accompanied by a pipe organ and traditional choral music. I witnessed the emergence and growth of the “contemporary” music industry. Music within the churches I’ve associated has shifted radically in one generation. Most children today have never seen a hymnal or sung in a church choir in which you had to learn to read music and sing harmony.

So here’s the thing: I have lent my ears to friends who bemoan the changes as watering down and diminishing worship. I have witnessed heated debates over the theological implications of certain songs. My observation is this: music continues to change and evolve as does music’s place in worship. With all of the change, there are three things that are constant:

  • Our general discomfort with change.
  • Music’s ability to stir spirit, emotion, and thought (sometimes it does all three at the same time) in individuals and groups.
  • Worthwhile things that are discarded by culture as “dead and gone” are eventually resurrected to experience new life.

We are nearing the end of Nehemiah’s account of the return of the Hebrew exiles from Persia and the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, the people made a legally binding agreement to rededicate themselves to the law of Moses, the responsibilities of the sacrificial system, and the contributions required to keep Temple worship going. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah calls all of the musicians together from the region and forms two great choirs to march around the top of the wall in worship and dedication.

At the end of the chapter Nehemiah observes:

For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)

In other words, the music of worship and of the Temple had been silenced for many years. It had been silenced at least 70 years since the destruction of the Babylonian siege. It may have been silenced before that. Nehemiah was resurrecting a worthwhile thing of the past and breathing new life into it for the discovery of a new generation. The subtext of the statement feels as if Nehemiah is defending the action and explaining his rationale for those who are grumbling about the change (see my first bullet above).

As my friends and I shared our “Hymns at the Hall” on social media, we had friends and family who seemed to bristle at the idea of singing hymns and drinking beer at the same time. I quietly smiled to myself knowing that hymn writers such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley often took melodies of well-known songs that were sung in bars and taverns and changed the lyrics. In the days of illiterate and uneducated masses, it was easier if they used tunes that everyone knew (and everyone knew popular bar songs). Ironic that the songs have found their way back home. As I sang I watched people being stirred. You can take the hymns out of the church, but you can’t take God out of the hymns.

In the quiet this morning, Alexa is playing Gregorian Chant and ancient choral music, which is what I prefer in my quiet time with God. Later in the day, I’ll switch to more contemporary worship music as Wendy and I work in the home office. This evening we might switch to Gypsy Jazz, blues, or the music of the Rat Pack as dinner is prepared.

I don’t get too hung up on music. For me, is not a “holy” or “unholy” “either, or” binary thing. Sure, any good thing can be coopted for profane reasons, but it’s easy to turn it off or tell Alexa to skip a song. For me, music is a “both, and” equation.

Connect, Disconnect, Reconnect

The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
Nehemiah 8:17 (NIV)

As a child growing up, I attended a protestant church that practiced what I would call a very “high church” worship. I was part of a children’s choir. We wore robes with embellishments that corresponded to the season of the church calendar, as did the minister. There was a lot of pomp and grand tradition complete with a pipe organ and stained-glass windows. The service contained many prescribed liturgical practices, responsive readings, and the like. As a child, it was at first all I knew and I found meaning in it all. As I got older, however, it all seemed a bit boring and empty. There grew within me a huge disconnect between my spirit and all the rote repetition of those high-church liturgical practices.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teens and quickly left the church of my childhood. I connected with a different church that had what I would characterize as a freer and more laid-back worship style. It felt more personal to me.

The ironic thing is, as I have continued on in my spiritual journey I have found myself reconnecting with some of the types of liturgical tradition I abandoned in my childhood. When I was a child they were empty of meaning for me, but as I have returned to them I have found them to have all sorts of rich meaning for me at this particular waypoint of life.

In today’s chapter, Ezra reads the law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) out loud to all of the assembled exiles who had returned to Jerusalem and repaired the walls of the city. This is some 400-500 years before Jesus. The vast majority of the people were illiterate and had lived all or most of their lives in Babylon. Many had likely never heard the law of Moses read before.

In the Hebrew tradition, the law of Moses prescribed various feasts and festivals throughout the seasons of the year. The “Feast of Tabernacles” (a Tabernacle is like a tent or temporary shelter) happened in the fall and commemorated the Hebrew people camping out as they left slavery in Egypt and returned to the land of Canaan. When the Ezra and the people read about this festival, they realized that they should be celebrating it right then. So, they did.

Ezra and the people of Jerusalem reconnected to a tradition that had been lost and forgotten for centuries, and it was filled with all sorts of meaning for them.

Along my life journey, I have observed that this happens to us a lot as human beings. Traditions and rituals get abandoned and fade away as they lose meaning and connection for those of us repeating them. At some point down life’s road, we rediscover them at a point in our spiritual journey when they meaningfully connect and become spiritually filling. What was old becomes new, what was lost to us as meaningless and boring we find to have all sorts of meaning.

In the quiet this morning I am revisiting the many spiritual traditions that I have experienced in my journey. I’ve experienced a plethora of traditions from the liturgical high-church of my childhood to the Evangelical show. I have sat in the silence of a Quaker meeting house, been in the frenzy of a Charismatic revival meeting, and the energetic worship of a black Baptist church. I long ago abandoned any notion of any tradition being “right” or “wrong.” They are all simply different traditions that have something to teach me. Some connect with my spirit in ways others do not, but each tradition and ritual has something to teach me at different waypoints of my spiritual journey if I’m open and willing to learn them.