WHO NEEDS CHURCH? Part 2

800px-Night_Marina_Fish_Fry

Food for the Hungry

            Ever noticed how a healthy body is a hungry body? Ever fed an infant who has been kept waiting for the warm milk she knows is the only relief for her gnawing pain? Ever sat down atop a mountain trail and pulled out the lunch that had been packed hours earlier for just this moment? A hungry body is a sure sign of a healthy body.

When Jesus calls the first of His followers, He goes to a lake. There are several boats moving about in different stages of fishing. Strong brown arms are heaving their nets overboard for the day’s catch when Jesus calls. He voices an unmistakable challenge.

“Give fishing the heave-ho. I have a job for you that will feed people’s real hunger” (Matt. 4:18-22).

It has always surprised me that they do it. They sail or row back to shore, drag their boats up onto the sand and enter into the most amazing three years of their lives, learning from Jesus how to minister to hungry people. It’s the beginning of the Body of Believers we now call the Church.

But three years later, we find them back in their boats (John 21:1-17). Jesus is gone, and they do what comes naturally to followers who have lost their leader: they revert to old habits. They go back to the mindless grunt work to make a buck to put food on the table. But Jesus is not so much gone as they imagine. Yes, He’s been crucified like thousands of other victims of the Roman occupation of Mediterranean lands, but there are rumours His tomb is empty.

Someone onboard the boat thinks they see Him standing on shore now. The early morning mist makes it hard to be sure.

“No success?” they hear Him call across the still water. “Try tossing the nets off the other side of your boat. That’s where the fish are.”

Moments later they are dragging their boats up onto shore, nets loaded with fish, joining Jesus at a warm fire. They add a few of their fish to the grill where he already has some sizzling. Sitting around the fire they eat the savory meal in wondering silence until Jesus sees they have had enough.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks, pausing to let them think it through. “Then feed my sheep.”

I’m sure they blink in surprise. Of course they love Him. They’ve followed Him for three years. They’ve left family and fortune for Him. They thought the crucifixion had ruined His plans to bring God into people’s lives. But now He is clearly referring back to the vision statement He had emphasized just before His death.

“Love each other,” He had commanded them. He had used analogies from fishing and farming to teach them, but now He uses a new analogy of shepherding. They are not to return to their old ways. There will be a growing body of believers in the risen Christ, and all will need what every body needs: food.

So who needs church? Anyone who is hungry for the real soul-food that Jesus provides needs church; anyone who wants to be obedient to Jesus to serve soul-food needs church; and anyone who is serious about following Jesus even when His presence in the church isn’t as tangible as at other times needs church.

Listen to Jesus saying, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught…and come have breakfast!”

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Wikiprem)

Advertisements

WHO NEEDS CHURCH?

A_beautiful_Hand_with_sea_sand_applied

Part 1: The Bracelet or the Body

          “Besides,” informed one woman to the others, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” The others all agreed and the conversation moved on to other sagacious topics.

How many of us have heard, participated in, or even initiated a conversation like this? It’s an interesting topic because it always seems to be presented with such authority that everyone listening readily agrees. Perhaps it would be a good thing to take a closer look at the issue and decide for ourselves whether we, or anyone for that matter, need this thing called the church. Is it merely an outdated social convention whose glory was Enlightenment Europe and whose demise would help solve religious extremism?

As Jesus was preparing His motley group of followers for his imminent departure, He gave really one instruction upon which His church would be built. He didn’t actually mention sanctuary size, service times, or whether an offering plate should be passed around prior to or following the sermon.

He said, “Love each other.”

Jesus knew he would be crucified within hours and He was distilling His intention for His followers into an easy to remember (though not always easy to practice) vision statement for the Church.

But the thing about vision statements is that they are intentionally succinct. They are intended to describe something much bigger than the statement itself. Website topnonprofits.com defines vision statements as “describing the clear and inspirational long-term desired change resulting from an organization or program’s work.”

So what was Jesus planning for this beginning, burgeoning body of followers on the eve of His departure? What long-term desired change was He envisioning? Rather than leaving orders to execute the erection of a multilevel corporation where KPIs and CFOs ruled the day, Jesus was communicating something much more organic; His Church would be a living body of believers of which He would be the Head, and His Spirit would be the Soul. Every member of this body would be an integral part, necessary for the health and productivity of every other part.

Later followers, like the Apostle Paul, would describe it something like this: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12). He also says, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body”; and “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’”

It’s an interesting description. Parts of the body can neither discount their own importance nor that of any other part of the body because they have something much deeper in common than their individual anatomy and physiology. They share a common Life. They share a common heart that pumps a common blood to every cell in that common body.

Now, if a bracelet were worn on a wrist, that bracelet, quite rightly could say, “I don’t have to stay on this wrist. I can be a bracelet whether I decorate this wrist or not.” The bracelet, of course, does not share in the Life of the body. It is something distinct, and no one could argue that it would not have to stay on the wrist to continue to be a bracelet. But by that same token, it could not claim to be part of the body, could it?

So if we are content to be a bracelet on a wrist, a sock on a foot, or even a pair of glasses perched on a nose, then, no, we are not bound to that body. But if we are part of the body, perhaps it’s time we began to feel more comfortable in that skin; perhaps we ought to be using our eyesight to keep the feet from stumbling, or our ability to sense pain to bring special care to the parts of the body that are aching. The opportunities to “love each other” as Jesus commanded are endless.

OUSTING LESS FROM HOPELESS

IMG_0022

Euthanasia was the solution for our family dog yesterday. She had been getting steadily worse over the past three weeks and there was no improvement even with antibiotics. The vet phoned to prod us to action; the situation was hopeless, and Lassie was beginning to suffer.

The current rise in interest and political lobbying for human euthanasia may have some core similarity to our dog’s situation. I don’t mean about the suffering, because that’s a given. I’m wondering, rather, about that daunting word ‘hopeless’ that has such a dark and hollow ring to it. Is it more an issue of hopeless suffering that begs a solution than just the suffering alone?

We’ve all suffered to some extent. There have been the scrapes and bruises of life, the physical as well as the mental and emotional; there are the deeper injuries of broken relationships and interpersonal conflict. The cancers and dementias and chronic deteriorations take their toll and reveal how frail we really are for a species who thinks we have so much in our power. But is it the pain itself that defines the worst of suffering, or is it the hopelessness we fear?

Could it be that when we can envision no good purpose to our pain that our suffering becomes insufferable?

Read that again. Let that thought mull in the mind for a moment. The bottomless shaft of pain is not really the worst of the suffering, is it? It is the failure of the situation to embody any sort of good purpose. We want to know we are intrinsically bound to a higher purpose, a good that transcends the pain we are feeling now.

And if we can’t find that higher purpose, we’ll do all sorts of things to move that thought out of our consciousness: we’ll destroy ourselves if we have to, but we cannot endure the thought of hopelessness.

So when God, in His Word, the Bible, communicates the main theme of hope, it seems like that is about the most relevant piece of information our species could be given, doesn’t it? Listen:

Ephesians 2:12 “Remember… you were without hope and without God in the world.”

Colossians 1:27 “God has chosen to make known…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Hebrews 6:13-19 “God made his promise…’I will surely bless you’… (and) we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Yes, there is and always will be on this aching old planet more suffering than we can see a purpose for. (Some people will use this as their main rationale to discount God’s existence). But in the midst of it all, God has made a promise to bless us. ‘Surely’, He says. ‘I will surely bless you.’ In other words, the pain may be chronic and far-reaching in this life, but this life is not all there is. There is a life fuller, more expansive, eternal and good for every person on this planet, just waiting to be grasped. There is even a good purpose to our suffering which, while we may not see or realize it in the here and now, will be revealed in that eternal life. That’s what generations of people who have opted for faith in Christ have chosen to believe.

It’s a narrow doorway to hope – we can only access it by entrusting ourselves to Jesus’ work on the cross for us. But it’s the most spacious and expansive place awaiting us on the other side. That’s what hope from hopelessness is all about.

DESERT PLACES BURST TO LIFE

        800px-Unk_desert_flower_3

        Dry. Lifeless. Barren. Deserts sustain their dubious distinction based on their receipt of minimal rainfall. Lack of camouflaging foliage displays clearly every rise and fall, plain and canyon of terrain. We marvel that any creature can exist in the stark ecosystem of deserts.

Life can be like that. Sometimes we feel dry and barren, moving through each day’s routines, numb to beauty and parched in spirit. If we halt for a moment our feverish pursuit of activities that fill our waking moments we find, like grains of sand, they slip between our fingers; nothing of substance is left. Nothing remains to camouflage our emptiness.

Imagine a mist, a growing, spreading, towering cloud forming over some desert. Skies darken; the scorching sun is suddenly blocked. Then drops of unknown rain begin to fall. Faster and faster they drop until it’s a torrent, a wall of water pouring down. At first the sunbaked ground seems to repel the strange element, but soon the water finds the cracks and fissures in the hard earth and seeps its way in. As suddenly as it began, the storm stops and the clouds dissipate. The air is fresh. Puddles are swallowed by softened thirsty sand. Something else is about to happen. Life in the desert is about to awaken. Creatures are about to surface and sprouts; buds and blossoms are waiting to burst open. Transformation is at hand.

Earth’s physical deserts illustrate for us God’s great plan of transforming each of us. The ancient Hebrew sage and prophet Isaiah penned a beautiful description of God’s work. The lives of those, the “redeemed”, who will admit their need will be like deserts, “parched land”, gladdened by the rain of God’s thirst-quenching Spirit. Listen:

 

Isaiah 35

 

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.

Like a crocus it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.

The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;

they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

 

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;

say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come,

he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

 

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.

Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

 

And a highway will be there; It will be called the Way of Holiness.

The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way;

wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there,

nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there.

But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return.

They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.

Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

 

The great Redeemer loves to rework hopeless situations into oases of splendor. Rich with contrasts, Isaiah describes lives lifted from dry subsistence to lush and joyful productivity. He calls it the “Way of Holiness”, a direct reference to God’s own holy nature. This way of living consists of a ceaseless stance of openness toward God. It is a face-to-heaven, hands open attitude of constant expectation. God is the giver; we are the happy recipients.

Isaiah makes exceedingly clear, though, that some things must go. This is not an easy grace, an eclectic collection of feel-good fantasies.

Fear must go. We may not entertain the faithless practice of worry. God is greater in goodness than any evil we fear. He will make all things right in His time.

Blindness must go. We must open our eyes to the presence of God here and now every moment. No longer may we allow ourselves to be deceived by the pride and selfishness that sees all revolving around self. The truth of God’s presence is the light we need to see His centrality in our existence.

Lack of forgiveness must go. It is the haunt of jackals in the recesses of our memories. It destroys the relationships God wants to be productive. We may not cling to past hurts of being wronged. Only God has the wisdom to know where vengeance is the rightful response.

Uncleanness must go. Only those washed by the redeeming work of Jesus may participate in this transformation. This world’s ideas of immortality through empty pleasure or cosmic unity are but foolish thoughts. More than foolish, rejecting God’s chosen Redeemer is wickedness itself. That is a dead end route and has no part in God’s highway.

And sorrow must go. Yes, there is a place for grieving life’s trials, but we must not give in to hopelessness. The overwhelming awareness of God’s goodness swallows up every sigh. Everything from songs of praise to awe-filled prayers of silent thankfulness fills our wondering souls.

God’s blessing is here and now. Yes, we long for heaven but God’s eternal kingdom is at work in us now, if we will receive it. Today, God’s Spirit is raining down thirst-quenching, healing, living water for you and me. We must let it seep into our souls, softening the crust life’s troubles have baked solid. Drink it up. Soak it in. Something is about to happen. Transformation is at hand.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Yummifruitbat)

MINISTRY OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS: CONCLUSION

coupon_code

Limited Time Offer

We’ve been considering God’s kingdom in terms of his outreach to the world, calling it the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We’ve considered it from various angles, noting that people’s reaction to it is polar: some embrace it, some ignore it, and others not only reject it but also actively attack it. It’s anything but passive, because God’s kingdom is not a dry historical treatise; it’s God Himself wanting to reestablish a warm, loving, interactive relationship with each of us. He shows no favouritism, but He continually reaches out to individuals in a way that makes those who receive Him feel like they are His favourite person in the universe. But this state of affairs is a limited time offer. Listen:

“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor. 6:1,2)

It’s like there is a promo code attached to God’s invitation: grace4u. But it can only be applied to access God’s ministry for a limited time. He talks of grace and favour and salvation in terms of its universal invitation but adds the caveat: act now while the offer stands – there will come a time when it will no longer be accessible to those who have delayed.

It’s a hard truth in some ways, but in other ways it heightens our awareness of the value of the offer, doesn’t it? Procrastination reveals our heart, because we always do what we really want to do.

So the Apostle Paul puts God’s invitation right out in the open for us to consider. He’s telling us that if we persist in our stall tactics, if we delay, defer and postpone responding to God’s offer, we will be the ones who lose out. Do you remember the offer?

He says, “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (II Cor. 6:16,18)

Do we sense Him living among us? Does our attention to His presence give us the impression that He is as close as a friend walking alongside us? It does mean making a daily decision. It means consciously transferring allegiance from thoughts and activities that put up a barrier to our relationship with God, to thoughts and activities that reinforce the family bond God wants to have with us. When He says “now is the time” and “now is the day”, He means us to moment-by-moment allow Him access to our internal affairs.

It starts with prayer. It includes reading His Word, especially the gospels, with an ear to the ground for His footsteps leading us in our daily lives. It means humbly applying God’s truths to relationships with people around us – putting their needs ahead of our own, treating them with love and respect, sharing with them the good news of God’s offer.

We must act now; we must make every moment ‘now’ moments where God’s grace and favour and salvation are current and relevant in our lives. And lo and behold, we will begin to find God’s kingdom affecting our lives in ways we never imagined possible. Now.

(Photo Credit: http://www.bankingsense.com images)

THE MINISTRY OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS, PART 7

IMG_1723

Satisfying Cravings

Maslow may have been wrong. He was the one who postulated that we humans have a hierarchy of drives or cravings that organize the way we behave. He said our primary need is physiological – the primal drive for food, water and shelter – and that until that level of need is met, we cannot progress to higher levels, such as social needs and self-actualization. But new studies on the brain show something entirely different (David Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind). It seems the brain puts social needs on par with the most foundational physical needs for survival. In other words, we are wired to be in right relationship with others; our brain is constantly assessing whether to initiate a threat response or a reward response based on social cues. When we feel ostracized, the same part of the brain that feels physical pain is stimulated to produce those chemicals that prepare us for the ‘fight or flight’ response. Our brains are constantly probing our social context to assess whether our survival is at risk. While we may not consciously realize it, we crave right relationships with others.

So it’s timely, as we explore God’s ministry in the lives of people, that we should come to a segment of the Apostle Paul’s letter (II Corinthians 5:11-21) which communicates this same concept. He observes that God’s expression of love for people, if adequately understood, is enough to satisfy the deepest need and craving of any man, woman or child. God is the great Other, the social Being with whom we are primarily wired to be in relationship. If our cues, conscious or subconscious, lead us to believe that our relationship with God is threatening, our brains will direct us to avoid Him at all costs or fight Him with everything we are and have. But if we come to understand that God has done and is doing everything in His power to communicate His love for us, our lives will be transformed; the threat response will be replaced with the reward response and our deepest cravings will be satisfied. Listen to how Paul puts it:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Stay with me here. All this talk of death sounds morose, but it’s talking about the social-spiritual dilemma our species has gotten itself into, having corporately embraced rebellion against God. We have to admit it. Our brains know it, even if we and Maslow have failed to register it consciously. The core message of the Bible is that God designed the one and only means of recovering relationship with you and me to occur by entering figuratively and literally into our world as one of us. Submitting Himself to the human experience of death was a payment in lieu of our own social-spiritual demise. He did it for love. Let that thought percolate in our brains. God loves us and wants us to replace the old scenario of threat with a new one of reward. It’s a transforming thought, if we understand it rightly. Paul goes on to say that when we embrace God’s love through Christ this way, we enter into His ministry with a new mindset.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

It’s an ongoing revelation for every one of us. It’s new because it is not in the easy realm of observable cravings like Maslow’s base level of needs. If we are open to this idea of God’s love for us, it will seep deeper and deeper into our minds each day of our lives and transform us from the inside out. We need God – it’s what our brains having been trying to tell us all along.

 

THE MINISTRY OF INTERNAL AFFAIRS, PART 6

desktop_1024x768

 The Present and Eternity

We don’t commonly hear demons discussing us. But in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Lewis examines human reality through a contrived conversation between two of the fiends. Through the inverted lens of a demon, the character Screwtape discusses with his nephew Wormwood the devilish purpose of destroying humans. Keep in mind the literary device that finds the demons describing reality from their point of view, where God is referred to as the ‘Enemy’.

“The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” Screwtape goes on to advise Wormwood how to impede that process.

God’s Ministry of Internal Human Affairs deals with that strange dichotomy, the connection between the present and eternity. Our present reality is visible and tangible, so it grabs our attention. But eternity is invisible to us earth-bound creatures. How do we connect with a reality we can’t see? So the Apostle Paul paints for us a picture; he illustrates the junction of the eternal with the present (in II Corinthians 5:1-10) by describing our present bodies as a tent, and our future, eternal bodies as a heavenly dwelling. Listen.

“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

Paul is pretty honest about our lives here on earth. He’s relevant. He observes that we are fragile; we feel pain, we know burdens, we fear and resent death. But he’s telling us why we feel this way. He is saying we feel uncomfortable with our own mortality because we were designed for real, immortal, eternal life. So he is helping us understand how we can live here and now in the present, while we wait and hope for our ultimate reality: eternity.

He says that God, who has designed us for eternity, has given His Spirit, like a deposit, as a promise and taste of the reality to come. It’s like getting a taste of eternity while still in time-bound present.

But who of us receives this unearthly and sacred Presence of God in their lives? Isn’t that just for the likes of Paul himself? No. It’s for “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours.” God’s ministry of making Himself present in the lives of people is for all who trust in His Son Jesus. Simple belief. But somehow it’s not easy for everyone to believe without seeing. It’s easier to think about our earthly future or our past than about eternity.

C.S. Lewis describes this, too, in his Screwtape Letters. Screwtape explains to Wormwood how a demon’s job is to keep his human patient busily thinking about past injuries or future plans; never allow the creature to think about eternity in this present moment. Because when eternity touches the present, lives are changed. And demons don’t like that.

Paul summarizes the phenomenon by saying, “We live by faith, not by sight.” We choose to bring His Presence to mind in every moment of our day. Waking, we may whisper, “Good morning, God!” In a traffic jam we may pray, “Lord, how would You react if You were driving my car?” After dinner we may ask, “Jesus, how can I honour You this evening in my leisure time?” These are ways we catch a glimpse of eternity now. There are infinite other ways of bringing eternity into the present in our lives of faith. Let’s embrace them. It’s part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs that God wants for each of us.

Father, thank you for your Spirit with us. Remind us in many ways today to think about Your Great Presence here in our daily lives.

(Photo Credit: Focus on the Family, Radio Theatre)