Church

In the surrounding atmosphere

Photo by  Jason Briscoe  on  Unsplash

I meet and pray at our church with three guys on Saturday mornings.  Officially we meet from 8 to 9 a.m. but our time together often meanders for an additional 10 or 20 minutes.

We discuss, confess and pray with each other about our lives and faith and the life and ministry of our church.  To meet there where we as church convene to worship, do life together, plan and serve is important in a manner similar to how God himself confers sanctity to certain places in his grand story as cast in the Bible.

On any given week, one or more of us brings something from our personal life and faith to weigh into together. I especially appreciate their insights and prayers when I am wrestling with something personal or regarding my relationship with the Lord..

The particular matters are less important than the sense of tough love and wisdom the guys extended even if difficult for me to initially receive well.  Their emphatic guidance that I turn away from myself and dial instead into the Lord is how iron sharpening iron works.  (See Proverbs 27:17)

Sometimes I am frustrated with striving as much as I do.    Why am I so often anxious, so distracted, so often seeking comfort or joy where it cannot be found?  Why would I ever want to engage in escapism from life that is so vibrantly radiant with God’s very essence?  Why indeed?

Perhaps because I don't truly grasp that Jesus’ straightforward claims and teachings about the “at-handness" of the "kingdom of God” is as accessible and near as he so emphatically asserts?  The present reality of life on earth vehemently refutes all such claims.

I'm reading for the third time a book that really spoke to that idea of God's nearness on a day-to-day basis better than anything I ever read before or since - “The Divine Conspiracy - discovering our hidden life in God” by Dallas Willard.  Published in 1998, I first read it in 2003 then again in 2013, and now I am listening to an audio version.

Bringing the kingdom or realm of God near was in Jesus’ teachings and mission and not because this was something new.  Rather, Jesus ministry demonstrated and his message conveyed that the kingdom of God or the heavens was nearer due to him.

A concern of Willard's was that translators of Jesus’ messages sometimes chose words that convey the kingdom as not so near.  For example, phrasing that Jesus used to express the idea of the “kingdom of heaven” (Greek, tou ouranous) could have been literally translated as “air” or “surrounding atmosphere,” instead of the words that were used, like “sky” or “heaven.”

“Now our English sky means something quite different from air, and heaven means something quite different from either,” Willard explained.  “The translation becomes entangled in these meanings. The sky is more a limit than a space, and as a place it is farther away than the air.  Hence, we say, 'The sky’s the limit,' not 'The air’s the limit.' Heaven, of course, is strictly out of sight for us, beyond the moon for sure and quite likely “beyond” the physical cosmos.”  (The Divine Conspiracy, page 71)

I don’t know about you but the thought of heaven as near as the surrounding air or atmosphere feels a lot nearer than it residing in the distant sky or unreachable cosmos.

I bring this up not because its essential to know, only because it shows yet another way how much we regular people living out our mundane lives matter to God and Jesus. Frankly, I never thought of the kingdom of God as far away or lacking access but I'm inspired by the idea that the kingdom is as close as the thin air around us. How about you?

As inspiring as this is for me, my most applied experience of the "kingdom of the heavens" comes from regularly doing life with fellow Christians, such as Saturday mornings with the guys. Us sharing life and faith and mulling over the God’s word in Scripture together personifies another message Jesus offered that posed no issues for translators to clearly impart.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
— (Matthew 18:20

God draws near to us when we draw near to each other in relevant faith discussions, supporting each other, musings and prayer... 

Right here in the surrounding atmosphere.


Notes:

1. If you've not read Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, here's a little excerpt from my book’s cover jacket:

In an era when many Christians consider Jesus a beloved but remote savior, Willard argues compellingly for the relevance of God to every aspect of our existence. Masterfully capturing the central insights of Christ's teachings in a fresh way for today's seekers, he helps us to explore a revolutionary way to experience God - by knowing Him as an essential part of the here and now, rather than only as a part of the hereafter.

2. My practice of Saturday morning fellowship with godly guys actually began in March 1983.  The “Christian Men's Fellowship” ("CMF") met many years at St. Owens Catholic Church in Franklin, MI.  I withdrew from that group in 2001 in order to devote Saturday mornings to personal devotions and later to join the prayer group meeting at our church that I reference in this post.  Meanwhile, CMF still meets including a few of the original members from a study facilitated by the late Fr. Dwayne Stenzel in late 1982 at (then) Duns Scotus Monastery attended by some 200 or so Catholic men from all across southeastern Michigan.  After the study concluded in the Spring of 1983, local fellowships were formed to continue meeting, including ours. At one of those meetings in September, 1983 I recommitted my life to Christ.

Away Church

An "Away Church"

An "Away Church"

We were out of town visiting last weekend and while there my wife and I talked and prayed about whether to attend a local church service on Sunday if our hosts preferred not to go. Although both grew up in church, met at a Christian college and married, they aren’t regular church-goers now.

We talk with them about this now and then and have even “tried” some services with them in their area but they always have reasons for not going back.  

They live a few hours away from us and we visit back and forth regularly.  When they are visiting us, they attend our church. When we visit them, we used to bring up faith and church attendance more often a few years ago but less so now.

This is a sensitive subject with them so we backed off with our "going to church" discussions.  Meanwhile, we regularly pray that they will receive the Lord back into their lives in a way that is discernible to us.

I admit the “discernible” part is somewhat selfish - not that they have to prove to us that they follow the Lord but because they are dear to us.  We care about their faith well-being.

For me, church-going is one solid sign that a person is dedicated to following Jesus Christ.  Let me be clear that church-going will NOT endear a person to the Lord but neglecting church attendance makes faithfully following Him more difficult.

Let's face it, all the rest of our lives competes with the Lord's claim on us, including church-going.  Quite simply, for me, church-going is worshiping the Lord with His people. Two teachings of Jesus anchor this for me:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35, NIV)

That Jesus said this is significant, how he wants his followers to be known - their love for one another.  Pretty difficult to love people you don’t regularly spend time with. Even once weekly church going won't really get you there but it's a start.

Church isn’t so much a place as a people. Going to church and not connecting with the people there isn’t really church in my book.  That’s why we sometimes neglect to find an “Away Church” when we're away from home on Sundays.

I feebly hold a notion is that not being in relationship with "Away Church" people renders church-going somewhat ritualistic. I say feebly because most times when we're away, we find a local church anyway and go but, due to my notion, not always.

Last weekend, the Lord challenged my “Away Church” notion by bringing this teaching to mind from Hebrews:

"And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV84)

Directed to believers of a particular local church, this guidance falls into the middle of a teaching that my NIV84 Bible subtitled, “A Call to Persevere.”

“Let us consider…” is a suggestion vs. do this or else.  Look also at “not give up,” as in don't stop doing something you were doing.  Soon enough, not going becomes a new norm.

Reasons to stop going to church are many.  Outside of church, you won’t find many, if any, reasons to continue going to church.  Giving up going to church is easy but if we give up going, we will not and in fact cannot encourage each other toward the kinds of love and good deeds that mark or should mark following Christ.  

What was God's challenge regarding my “Away Church” notion?  Simply to "go to church” and let our hosts know our plan.

We looked up a nearby church we had attended once with them and picked a service time.  The second sentence on the church’s home page spoke to me: “We are dedicated to taking the broken values of this world and turning them upside down.”

Upside down church is a term we also use at our home church, Grace Chapel.  So while “Away Church” may not be the same as “Home Church,” it still fits my basic definition for church-going - worshiping the Lord with His people.

Turns out, our hosts decided to attend church with us and the teaching was based on John 15:5-9 that believers are like grapevine branches.  In order to bear fruit, we have to stay connected to the vine, God.  

Don’t know if they got the message but we sure did.

Church Home

Sunday service at Grace Chapel

Sunday service at Grace Chapel

I guess I’m a homebody to a fault.  Home is where you find me except for an annual vacation away for a week or two and occasional weekend visits with friends and family within a several hour drive of where we live.

This may seem boring to those who hop on planes almost as much as they drive cars or who at the very least fly or drive somewhere multiple times annually if not monthly.  We know plenty of people like that - adept at travel arrangements and throwing enough into a carry-on to look passable in virtually every situation and able to settle into and be at home in themselves wherever they are.  

Conversely, the life path that found me didn’t include or require travel and, beyond pleasure trips,  I’ve never dreamed about going to or working in faraway places.  So home is where I am and I’m generally content with that, maybe too content at times.

I am writing this on the second of three successive weekends visiting friends and family.  While I enjoy activities and company of these little trips, missing church for nearly a month of Sunday’s has oddly unnerved me.

Sunday church centers me. I’m talking about the totality of church - arriving, greeting, mingling in the hallway before filing in for the worship service that involves singing, a message, monthly communion, often followed by a post-service meeting to process the message.

This isn't about going to any church service but the service at the church where we belong, where many of those who also attend are close friends over the 15 or so years we’ve all belonged.  Not so much friendship in the classic sense but fellowship characterized by our commonality in Christ along with at least a sense to having been called or drawn or committed to this particular community of faith.

I miss “our” church when we are elsewhere on Sundays, even when we attend a service where we are visiting. For me, our church home is home base for my faith in a way that is hard to understand and harder to explain.

See, God has formed our particular assembly of people in this particular venue.  I would offer that we are a unique expression of Christ’s body unlike any other such gathering.  We have a particular role suited for how the Lord has blended and shaped us with all the limitless particulars at his disposal.

Undeniably, God has such an affinity for bodies that he has deemed them sanctuaries of his own spiritual  essence in each of us.  Didn't our Messiah show up in a human body associated with particular places in a particular region on Earth?

Something too about places with God.  His story take places in all kinds of places like Eden, Canaan, Egypt, the holy land, a vineyard, a shepherd’s field, a wheat field, Bethlehem, a manger, the temple, the upper room, Jerusalem, Gethsemane, and Golgotha.

And what about how the church unfolds in epistle letters written to particular gatherings of people known for the cities where they met like Corinth, Ephesus, Colosse, Thessalonica, Sardis and Laodicea?

My attachment to and sense of missing these particular people and place, Grace Chapel, that I consider my/our church home has some basis beyond just me.

“...let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25, NLT)

Given the mentality of this time in history, we Christ-followers are like aliens when we are not with each other centering on our relationship with the Lord and each other.  Recall Jesus declaring (boasting?) that we, his followers, will be known by our love for one another.  (John 13:35).  For that to be witnessed, we have to be seen together.

While I often bring myself before the Lord when I am detached from church home by reading and reflecting on God’s biblical word, praying, sharing about the Lord with my wife and other believers along the way, something about the gathering and the place and the longevity of belonging that is, as I earlier noted, mysterious to understand and harder to explain.

They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.
— Psalm 93:13, ESV

Growing Underneath

Have you seen the recent story about the earth’s biggest living thing?  According to Public Radio International,

“The largest organism on Earth probably isn't a whale or a giant octopus or anything else you might naturally think of first. It's a tree — or a group of genetically identical trees that stretches across more than 100 acres of Utah's Fishlake National Forest.” 

Aspen trees, specifically. The U.S. Forest Service calls the massive, “single-tree” aspen grove “Pando,” Latin for “I spread.”

Found coast to coast across North America, aspens grow in groups called stands. Within these stands, a single tree will spread by sprouting new stems from its roots that either sprout into new trees or live underground, sharing nutrients with each other for a long time.

Aspens are a favorite of my wife, Cindy. She likes how the leaves "waver" in the wind due to their triangular-shaped stems. An Our Daily Bread devotional we read together last week offered another aspen feature - how their underground root system plays a vital, re-foresting role after a natural disaster.  

Apparently, aspen root systems sleep underground for hundreds, even thousands of years, whether or not they produce trees.  After a fire, flood, or avalanche clears a space for them in the otherwise shady forest, aspen roots can sense the sun at last, sending up saplings that become trees.

“Just as natural disaster clears a forest to make new aspen growth possible, our growth in faith is also made possible by difficulties,” wrote ODB contributor Amy Peterson. 

Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds,” wrote the apostle James, “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2–4).                 

According to James, not lacking anything is what a mature and complete faith looks. That’s problematic for me.  While I can claim occasional moments of not lacking anything, I generally lack something that I want or convinced myself I need.

Pride is my struggle.  As a guy, I want to support my family and be competent and capable in my responsibilities especially in my work/career. Unable to secure or retain positions that sync with my competencies, I've accepted other work where I struggle through learning processes that inevitably include embarrassing rookie mistakes.

Each new position presents a new learning curve to work through.  I try to handle the inevitable rookie errors with grace but often I'm shrinking inside, my self-confidence taking another hit. Are these tests of my faith, of God coaxing me, ever reluctantly, to trust more in him and less in myself?

While I do find being a rookie again for the sixteenth time in nine years a little frustrating, I am better about not letting the next mistake "get to me" or define me.  As I gradually learn new duties, I remind myself to thank the Lord for another opportunity to “let perseverance finish its work” in me. 

Like the aspen roots grow underground for a chance to re-forest a devastated region in the distant future, God allows and uses devastation in our lives for his own, re-foresting-type purpose.

Jesus himself established this "organism" that he invited me into, where my maturing faith feeds yours and ours melds with other believers.  Collectively, we are "growing underneath" but seen and approved by God, nurtured into a formidable, reckoning force .

upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
— Jesus, Matthew 16:18b, KJV

We are what St. Paul metaphorically called “the body of Christ.”

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church...to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ
— Ephesians 4:11, NLT

 

May I suggest that the largest organism on Earth isn’t a tree after all?


Bride of Christ — 2006 Ornament

MARRIAGE A MYSTERY:

I was honored this year to be invited by my niece Sarah to offer the mealtime prayer at her wedding banquet.  As I thought about that prayer and about the life that she and Patrick were entering into together, thoughts about marriage came to me that eventually inspired this year’s ornament design.

 Traditionally, a just-wedded couple’s first night together centers on consummating the spiritual and familial union sealed earlier at their wedding ceremony with their first physical/sexual union. This ornament draws its lesson from this most basic of all natures innately human – sexuality.

The terms “Christmas” and “Bride of Christ” encompass elements of our struggles with both sexuality and relating to God although neither term can be found in the Bible.  Rather, each regards aspects of God’s limitless desire to engage us at our level so that He might show us the abundant life that He offers to all people.

2006 "Bride of Christ" Ornament

God gifted humans with sexuality to (1) cause and sustain “oneness” (Matthew 19: 4-6)between a man and woman who have covenanted before Him to lifelong commitment and faithfulness with each other and (2) as a fun way to make babies and proliferate humankind (Genesis 1: 28).

Sadly in today’s world, our first exposure to sex is often in the form of an abuse of His design – advertisers’ use of sex to sell everything under the sun, … casual depictions of sex in our entertainment media … porn – the number one use of the internet, … premarital sex – more common today than premarital virginity, etc., etc., etc.…

In a society obsessed with sex, avoiding temptation is hard. Men in particular but many women as well struggle with maintaining a wholesome sexual perspective. Sharing in this struggle, I’ve devoted a lot of prayer and study to this topic.  Fortunately, God meets us where we are at, uses our struggles to build character (Romans 5: 3-4) and to demonstrate that nothing can separate us from Him (Romans 8: 38-39).  In Christ alone is forgiveness and mercy (Ephesians 1:7).  So, here’s where I’ve landed so far…

While God grieves the misuse of His plan for sex (Jeremiah 13: 26-27), our powerful craving for sex is by His design and He draws on that power not only to enable successful marital relationships but to try to drive home in us His intense desire to be “known” by us at the most intimate level. Throughout Scripture, God uses the language of sex to speak to us because, quite frankly, it is a language we understand – and so does He.   (On the bottom of the ornament, I listed some of these Scriptures.  Note in each how a sexual theme is stated or implied to convey a bigger idea.)

Forgiving my bluntness, a way to depict the “act” of marriage is as a “trinity” of physical, emotional and spiritual ecstasy experienced by a man and woman exclusively committed to each other for life. Furthermore, marital sex is ordained and encouraged by God down through the ages, so much so that He admonishes husbands and wives to not “deprive” each other “except by mutual consent” (I Corinthians 7:5).

I believe that the “oneness” that Scripture declares occurs in sex is when the spirits of two people “merge” via the physical act, which is why sex is set apart in Scripture from all other human acts, why its abuse is listed high on most lists of sins, and why purity and virginity is so highly regarded by God (see Genesis 2:24 &  I Corinthians 6: 15-20).  Think about this “trinity” next time you share this joyful, timeless ritual with your spouse. Marital union is a wonderful, prayerful, God-given example, although incomplete, of what oneness with God is like.

Isn’t it just like God to use our own carnal nature to draw us to Him? (That he GAVE us by the way!) – Another illustration of how He is not a distant God but as close as, … well, I hope you get the idea.

So, you ask, how does the innocence of the Christmas story relate to this theme? Well, one way to look at Christmas is God sending His Savior Son to the world via a sexual scandal of His own making. To a nation that stoned to death women caught in the act of adultery, a girl who claims to have never “known” a man is found to be pregnant. Moreover, the explanation she gives is about an angel visiting, of God “overshadowing” her to cause conception and that the child she bears is God’s own Son!  Imagine that story leaking in today’s press!


Notes:

Label, Front of Heart: Bride of Christ; Ephesians 5: 24-27

Label, Back of Heart:

Throughout Scripture, God uses the imagery of marital intimacy to convey His desire to be cherished by us. Israel, His chosen people, is His lover in the Old Testament and the Church is His Bride in the New Testament.  Not only is God NOT embarrassed by the emotional, spiritual and physical bonds that a husband and wife enjoy together, He defers to the most intimate of all human connections to illustrate the relationship He yearns to have with us. Being “known” in the “biblical” sense was God’s idea in the first place!

Label, Bottom of Ornament (Underneath):

Then the Lord God made a woman…and he brought her to the man (Genesis 2:22).

Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. (Judges 2:17a)

Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood (Jeremiah 3:9)

How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! (Song of Songs 4:10a)

… when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, … you became mine. (Ezekiel 16:8)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25a)

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Revelations 21:9b)

Later thoughts associated with the lesson but not the ornament: (2/15/2013)

  1. Jesus reaffirming the original design of marriage: established by God, two become one, man has not authority to separate. Divorce allowed by God as an act of mercy only because of man’s sinful “hardness of heart.” (Matthew 19: 3-8)
  2. Marriage as a mystery: Part of a teaching by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Ch 5: 22-33).  The “mystery” reference is in verses 31-32 is: “As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.  This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.” (NLT)

    As noted on the ornament text, marriage is a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the church.  God’s relationship with his chosen people, Israel also mirrors this mystery. So both the old and new testaments are spanned by this idea: God/Christ as husband/groom and Israel/Church as wife/bridge.

    So, revisiting key markers of the conversation:
    • Established by God in the Garden of Eden: Then the Lord God made a woman…and he brought her to the man (Genesis 2:22)
    • Affirmed by Jesus: let no one split apart what God has joined together. (Matthew 19: 6b, NLT)
    • Explained by Paul: This is a great mystery… (Ephesians 5: 32a, NLT)
  3. For other biblical nuances of this idea, look at : As alluded in my ornament explanation, the Bible is filled with this idea. Any violation or watering down of it is entirely due to God making allowance due to man’s sinfulness and rebellion.

    Whole book examples:  Song of Solomon (expresses the romantic, passionate aspects), Hosea (expresses the faithfulness of the husband for an uncommitted and unfaithful wife).