Spiritual in the Flesh

10 02 2017

If our view of heaven and the afterlife has become white-washed intangibility with clouds and harps and bodiless spirits, it is largely because we have stopped believing in the Sacraments.   —  C.S. Lewis, from “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory

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It is rather frightening to watch how consistently Hollywood depicts Heaven and the after-life:  a bright light, sky and clouds, figures dressed in pure white togas.  The lack of creativity is stunning.  Because this vision of Heaven is so monochromatic and bland, Hollywood must make movies about other worlds, dimensions, and galaxies that display in digital HD the stunning beauty we all long and hope for.

Recently, upon watching Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, I departed the theater haunted by Eden.  Why?  While the plot and heroics were mildly inspiring, I could not get over the painfully beautiful  planetary landscapes.  Now, I realize our own planet has breathtaking beauty, but for some reason we want to see and experience that beauty in an entirely different, even mythical context.  We long for the other-worldly– somehow innately sensing that this world is not our true and final home.  All of it’s beauty and adventure just leave us increasingly homesick.

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So, why do I have to go to the movie theater to have this experience.  Shouldn’t I be having a glimpse of the other-worldly at church?  Sadly, no.  At least, not in the tradition in which I was raised.  My honest confession is that I am weary to the point of being angry to have to attend Sunday morning services in my current context (which is overall good and necessary).  Songs and a sermon (with announcements and a few VERY brief prayers and Scriptures).  My particular ecclesiastical tradition seems to be terribly allergic to the tactile and aesthetic .  We are fearful where that may lead, so we keep to purely “spiritual” practices in our worship– like songs and sermons.  I arrived at home after the morning service and attempted to watch the Divine Liturgy on YouTube just to have some taste of what I longed for (alas!  The quality of the video was poor, and I found I was a mere observer and no real participant!).

For you churches in this stream of the Christian tradition related to Worship practices, hear me:  I would rather watch a movie or drive into the mountains than sit through your worship services.  And if I, a committed believer raised in the church, have this opinion, how much more so do the unbelievers who sleep in on Sunday morning.  Good grief!  Even the early church suffering under heavy persecution took the time and effort to make beautiful mosaics that decorated the floors and walls of their worship spaces which tended to be in the large homes of the wealthy.

Would it really kill our churches to make our worship spaces beautiful, rather than merely utilitarian?!

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There is a good deal of irony being in a Holiness tradition– our walls are all white (or the same colors as the local Starbucks), with no art-work to be found (except for the occasional banner with a bible verse), our pulpits and communion tables have been removed to make room for the praise band and casually dressed preacher, but in many cases we still have the “altar”, which is actually the altar rail, where communicants, once upon a forgotten time, would kneel to receive the consecrated elements of the Lord’s Supper.   All furniture our forebears used in worship have disappeared except for a piece that is not used as originally intended!

Holiness churches, if we really want to be more spiritual, we need to become more physical in our worship services.  Christians have always done so until the Anabaptists.  It is the natural human inclination across time and cultures.  But sadly, being more spiritual does not seem toholy-communion-cross-in-cup be the goal.  Rather the aim is to be more appealing to visitors and outsiders so that attendance averages and budgets increase.  I know our leaders voice the belief that all such efforts are a means to the end of saving souls– getting people to Heaven and away from the wide highways to Hell.  But in all our efforts to be relevant and cool, we’ve forgotten the body of Christ who have been assembling with us all these years, and how they and we need the vision of Heaven constantly and consistently renewed before our five senses.   Maybe, just maybe, with the bright beauty of Eternity shinning out clear and true from our eyes, hearts and mouths we would all be more effective evangelists, a hundred-fold.  Then such scheming, marketing and contemporizing would not seem so necessary and we can return worship to the center and heart of Christian life as much more than a tool to attract and keep the new and hip.





Shepherds & Thieves, Life & Death

13 05 2011


How is it that those in the entertainment media (movies, TV, internet, and print) continue to make money even though they keep re-telling the same stories over and over, again. In movies, we’re getting to the point of having re-makes of re-makes. It can surely seem that there is nothing new under the sun. But there is obviously something deeper going one here when the masses continue to pay money to experience plots and themes they’ve already heard and seen a thousand times over: good guys verses bad guys in the midst of a romance set in a perilous and dangerous environment. Critics scoff at such things while the cheese and wine crowd congratulate themselves for having more grown-up sensibilities. Still, why do we keep telling ourselves the same stories over and over again?

Simply put, these basic themes are written into the very DNA or our hearts, minds, souls, (and yes!) bodies. We all long to know love, to be rescued (and to rescue others), to see evil go down in defeat. AND, we all long to have a key role in the events taking place around us. That is why we continue to read and watch the same old stories, over and over again– they touch a deep and essential aspect of our being.

Now here is where I get frustrated: Why do so many Bible-believing Christians (especially scholars!) neglect to read Scripture with the eyes of their hearts? Hearts, by the way, that long for the themes of rescue, love and the defeat of evil to be true. For it is in God’s holy word we have the tremendous joy of finding out that these themes are actually, truly real. We have been putting them in stories that we have put forth as fiction, but in Jesus of Nazareth fiction becomes truth. Or as C.S. Lewis has it, in Christ myth becomes fact.

(In much of the preceding I owe a great debt to the ideas and writings of John Eldredge. See for example, his books: Epic, Waking the Dead, Wild at Heart.)

Let me take you to two passages, the famous 23rd Psalm and John 10, where we must be very careful to read with the eyes of our story-filled hearts.

The Lord is our shepherd– Jesus is the good shepherd. Beautiful isn’t it?! Quiet green meadows, babbling streams and glassy pools– a warm sun and puffy white clouds, and a loving, caring shepherd who makes sure we’re well fed. Wonderfully idyllic isn’t it? It is unfortunate that sometimes the Christian reader’s focus ends there and misses some important stuff. It’s almost like the reader has skipped to the last chapter in order to be comforted by the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” There are some extremely important things that must happen before one can arrive at the happy ending. And, there are certain elements we need to know if we’re going to truly appreciate the goodness being described in the happily ever after.

In the 23rd Psalm, in addition to soft grass and refreshing water, there is a mention of a dark valley, an unnamed evil and some enemies. Hmm. . .that changes the kind of story God is telling. Or, how about Jesus in John 10? Yes, he talks about a full and abundant life, but He also mentions thieves, wolves and something about stealing, killing and destroying!

My fellow Christian brethren and sistren, let’s cut to the chase: the land surrounding our pasture is not entirely safe, AND we have an enemy Hell-bent (yes, pun intended!) on our destruction! And yet . . .yet so many of us don’t live as if those things are true! I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that in the midst of a particularly bad day I act surprised! Or worse, I blame my Shepherd! One of the great treasures of the Bible is that we get the inside scoop on our life in this world and we SHOULD be completely un-surprised when bad things happen to good people. Not that we need to become indifferent and callous to suffering, but we can rejoice in its midst because we know how the story ends– the Shepherd totally thumps all the thieves and wolves and provides for our safety and all our nourishment.

Now we must ask how this future hope helps us every day, here and now, where our environment is not quite safe and there are enemies prowling about. The answer? Scripture is trying to tell us that the future is also now. What king David understood about his Lord is that the story began with Him and it will end with Him. That makes the middle part of the story where the going gets tough not only bearable but joy and life filled. See, that Great Shepherd is with us now, providing a good measure of that future victory, peace, love and joy now! Jesus tells us in John 10:10, He has come for the express purpose of bringing us this life, fully. And let me be clear that his not just talking about the sweet by-and-by of eternity in heaven. Our Good Shepherd didn’t come just to lead us up to heaven, but to bring heaven into us here and now.

Let’s look at the famous 23rd Psalm with the eyes of our hearts:

The Lord (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is my Shepherd, therefore, I have all I need! I’m stubborn, so He makes me rest, eat and drink so that my life can be restored. Because my Shepherd is good (and holy) He only ever takes me on good and right paths. I believe this even though some trails take us into valleys that are terrifyingly dark and foreboding. But, there is no reason for me to succumb to the fear of evil as long as I keep my focus on my Shepherd who is never far and who carries the tools that can rescue me and crush my enemies. Speaking of my enemies, sometimes I see them and sometimes they cause me pain. Nonetheless, I laugh heartily with true joy because my Shepherd is preparing a Table of Victory in front of their very noses– they see that their days are numbered! My enemies also see how at that Table my Shepherd-King anoints my head with His oil of blessing and favor. Imagine! Me, a lowly, smelly sheep being treated like the King’s own son! My enemies also see that not only does my King give me the wine-cup of His joy, but He also makes sure that it is never empty– what glorious, extravagant waste (like bringing out the best wine after everyone is already drunk– it is either utter foolishness or the trumpet blasts of joy unleashed!). Therefore, despite my worst days, I have no doubt that I am being chased every day by goodness, mercy and love; and that my home is not this broken world, but is the unending palace and green fields of my Shepherd-King!

Oh, Jesus our Good Shepherd, may You plant Your Kingdom reality deep in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies that we might not be overcome by the wolves and dark valleys of this life; but rather advance the Realm of Joy within us and without us– all to Your glory and the glory of the Father and Holy Spirit, who live and reign with You Lord Christ, One God, now and forever, Amen!






Too Much Grace?

22 06 2010

To get right to the point, YES, there can be too much grace.  Not that God gives too much grace, but inevitably we human recipients of grace misunderstand, misappropriate and miscommunicate that grace.  “I’m just a sinner saved by grace!”  Such sentiments happen to be 100% true, but also 80% of the time used as an excuse for continued patterns of deep dysfunction and sin.

Question:  Did God the Son become human, suffer, die and rise again for the sole purpose of obtaining forgiveness of sins?  Or was His aim to accomplish a whole lot more?

Scripture and the witness of 2,000 years of Christian saints contends unapologetically for the “whole lot more” option.  Grace is not just forgiveness, it is power, God’s power, to be able to be and do what He intended for us from the beginning—to be fully alive, able to love, hungry for righteousness and holiness, all within a life overflowing with hope, peace and joy.

Problem:  Too many of our churches, across all denominational lines, have virtually ceased to proclaim, train, and live out this full Gospel promise.  Perhaps not in our words, but in our lived out performance, it is being proclaimed, “Come to our church, meet Jesus, receive grace, and be the same ole’ broken person you’ve always been—but at least you’ll go to heaven when it’s all over!”  Jesus and the New Testament, however, proclaim a message of real, substantive and perseverant change.  THAT is what our churches need to be inviting others into and then training them in the ways of Jesus to actually be and do what the Gospel promises—all through the power of that grace which God in Christ through the Holy Spirit so freely gives to all who would receive.

(For example, look at Ephesians, where Paul describes a variety of ways grace is active in the world and in the lives of individuals.   In chapter 3.1-12, grace is described as given to Paul for his evangelistic ministry, and is connected to God’s active power and not just His forgiveness:  7 . . . of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.  8 To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. . . .”)

Dallas Willard, in the preface to his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, contends that the church of today will fade into irrelevancy unless it does two things:

“First, it must take the need for human transformation as seriously as do modern revolutionary movements. . . .  Second, it needs to clarify and exemplify realistic methods of human transformation.  It must show how ordinary individuals who make up the human race today can become, through the grace of Christ, a love-filled, effective, and powerful community.”

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Willard goes on:

“We can become like Christ in character and in power and thus realize our highest ideals of well-being and well-doing.  That is the heart of the New Testament message.  Do you believe this is possible?  My central claim is that we can become like Christ by doing one thing—by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.  If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live.  We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practices in order to remain [as Jesus himself did!] constantly at home in the fellowship of the Father.” [emphasis mine]

If I were in church leadership at a high level, I would usher all the resources at my fingertips to re-orient local congregations to this one goal of genuine transformation in Christ.  In truth it is more important than outreach and striving after “first-time decisions for Christ” because without mature, Spirit-filled congregations in which to place new converts, they will become fruit that withers on the vine.  Or worse, they will become corrupt fruit that will cause the whole bushel basket to become rotten and worthless.

I would lead church leaders and pastors into how they can guide their churches away from being program-driven (and entirely too busy doing lots of stuff that may or may not be bringing about Christ-likeness in members and attendees) and toward becoming disciple-making communities.  I would insist that local congregations begin taking steps away from their addiction to marketing strategies, being “cool” and attractive to certain constituencies, and other-wise being numerical growth driven.  Once there is movement away from this and other similar distracting addictions, churches can once again trumpet the call to the high adventure of radical transformation in Christ Jesus.

As Willard says it so well:  “Our local assemblies must become academies of life as it was meant to be.”

Since I am not in a position to call for all of this and more, I must be content to pray for our current pastors and leaders.  May they hear the call and courageously lead many others into the glorious reality to which Jesus invites all to come.  Lord in Your mercy, hear our prayer!