Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Looking for the Holy Church

For the past few years, we've been trying to find the church. Not a church, but the church. 

It's easy to find a church--a community of believers who gather once a week to worship God, connect with one another, and work together to further His kingdom. There are lots of buildings that house communities like this and every Sunday, we are in one of them. But often, I come away unsatisfied, like I have missed something important. We have sung, we have prayed, we have listened to a good lesson, we have hugged and shook hands with friends, but something is missing and now I think I'm beginning to understand what it is.

I expect something else from God's church, something important. I expect the church, more than anything else, to be holy. Holy--as in completely dedicated to God. I expect the people who gather in that building to cling unreservedly to Him. To worship Him, to kneel humbly before Him because we know corporately as well as singly who He is. He is God and we are not.

The church I yearn for does not put on a pretty face. The church I yearn for falls down in thanksgiving, not just raises its hands in praise. The church I yearn for does not just look for one another in their accustomed places. It looks for God. God first, second, and third--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Everything--everything--else comes after.
A feeling of togetherness comes after.
Personal development comes after.
Good sermons come after.
Jobs and committees come after.
Witnessing comes after.
Activities come after.
Ministries come after.
Good works come after.

I want holiness. I want from my church complete dedication to God's very person, all the parts of Him--incarnated Man and supernatural Spirit.

I am entirely convinced that the church is not primarily the place to work with and learn from and celebrate with one another, but to learn together to be like God. He has commanded us to perfection in Him and given us the church as the place where we strive to attain that together. Our church, like the tabernacle of Israel, needs to be a Holy of Holies, a place we must approach on our knees in reverent fear, not a place where we only sing for joy, clap, and wave our hands. The church I yearn for concentrates not primarily on our friendship with God, but on what still separates us--not on what we have, or on what God as done, but on what He has asked us to be.

I want a church that holds up God's seemingly-impossible standard of holiness and urges me forward toward it, reminding me to have courage and strain for what is still beyond my grasp. Don't tell me about your wonderful pastor or friendly congregation or uplifting programs or helpful ministries. Tell me that, together, you unswervingly desire and work to be more like God.

Be ye holy as I am holy.--Leviticus 20:7, 1Peter 1:16

Please, please give me a church who looks at her bridegroom with the same singlemindedness as a bride on her wedding day, all but blind to everything and everyone else, but promising the fruit of that devotion in everything else she does.

...prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.--Revelation 21:2

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Learning from an Atheist

"I don't need an outside source to tell me to be a good person. Seriously? How difficult is it not to be a jerk?"

Everybody should have an atheist in their life. I mean it. We take way too much for granted. Most of us have absolutely no idea how atheists think. We need to know more than how to answer them. We need to understand and respect them.

I love the atheist in my family. She pokes me. She argues with me. She challenges me. She makes me think.
"How difficult is it not to be a jerk?" she asked the other day.
It's a good question. She knows right from wrong for the most part--probably as much as most Christians I know. She knows she was born with this knowledge, a knowledge she didn't summon up for herself. She doesn't much care why she knows--she just does--and tries to live by it. She sincerely wants to be a good person and seriously can't imagine why that shouldn't be enough.

I try to imagine sometimes how God sees her. I know He loves her--that goes without saying. But how does He look on her sincerely good intentions? Are they enough? That's a harder one. Paul, in writing to the Romans, considered the same thing:

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.--Romans 2: 13-16

Atheists have no faith in Christ, but they often have an active conscience--the law is written on their hearts. They, then, can be doers of the law without knowing from Whom the law comes. They are a "law unto themselves", but that law often conforms to God's. If God justifies the doers of the law, will my atheist then also be justified?

She might. God is, after all, in charge of His own heaven. He measures each one of us by something humans can neither see nor know--our hearts.
However, Jesus also said that:
No one comes to the Father except by me.--John 14:6
By faith you are saved.--Ephesians 2:8
My atheist has neither Jesus nor faith. In fact, she has summarily rejected them both but, in her defense, I know far too many professing Christians who think less than an atheist about right and wrong. We might do well to consider them more often.  

Right and wrong are not always instinctively easy to come by. I used to think, for instance, that some certain lies ("No you don't look fat in that dress" or "I don't have to report that income--they paid me cash") were OK to tell. I don't anymore. My notions of right and wrong have shifted with changing age and circumstances.

It's the same for everybody. That's why a country has laws. None of us decides for ourselves what is legal. We don't individually decide our own speed limits and, as a result, we can all share the same roads without constantly crashing into each other. It's the same for life, isn't it? We don't decide right and wrong for ourselves so that we don't destroy one another. I may think it's OK to arm myself to the teeth and use my guns to defend myself and you don't. I may believe it's OK to spank my kids and you don't. I may think I have a right to share in someone else's wealth and you don't. We both sincerely believe we are right.

I don't know about my atheist, but when it comes to deciding right from wrong, I need a place to look it up, something I didn't write--the constitution for the laws of the land and the Bible for everything else. And I take comfort that, as long as I still live, God is working in both of us--me and my atheist. And, as long as she is willing to listen to me, really listen, I am happy to try to return the favor.

In the meantime, recognizing that I don't have all the answers, I cry on both of our behalfs, "Lord, have mercy."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Uphill Both Ways

This week, I was thinking about what it was like to walk to school in the wintertime--wind cutting sharp edges into my cheeks, fingers and toes numb, layers of jackets and snow pants humid from effort, the scratchy red scarf across my mouth--I walked. Not ten miles uphill both ways, but a mile and a half. Every day. Rain, snow, or shine. We had no school bus. Mom didn't drive.

And it occurred to me that I will never be able to explain to my children or grandchildren what that felt like. Never. No words could describe it. Only the experience would explain, and then I would no longer need an explanation. They will never know this. They get in the car not with gratitude, but with entitlement.

They don't mean to--they just never knew anything else. They don't understand. Privilege has hardened their hearts.

Then [Jesus] climbed into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.--Mark 6: 51-52

The apostles knew the same hardening. They watched Jesus day after day, miracle by miracle. Amazing events became their daily bread. And their hearts were hardened by them. They took them for granted. Right after He'd multiplied the loaves and fishes, fed more than 5000 people from nearly nothing, they went fishing and encountered not only a storm strong enough to threaten their safety, but see Jesus walking across the water toward them in the midst of it and they are terrified--they don't know who He is.

The miracle on the hillside did not translate for them into a miracle on water. Jesus relieving a relatively minor problem, giving a bunch of people lunch, did not teach them that He could rescue them from a major one. Why? Because their hearts were hardened. 

He could not explain His power. He had to show them.
So He brought the storm.
He used it to show them: This is what it feels like to be terrified. And this is what I can do for you when terror comes.

We are the same. God's faithfulness in hardship cannot be explained. It has to be experienced.
I will never leave you, God tells us. I will never forsake you.
But privilege has hardened our hearts. It doesn't sink in until after the storm has calmed and Jesus is standing in the boat saying, "See--I told you." Then we know.

It helps to have heard the promise--it helps us to recognize the rescue when it comes, but the promise alone will not convince us. We have been hardened by God's lifelong faithfulness and mercy. We expect it. Only when He seems to have failed do we understand the extent of His rescue.
Then we hear His gentle voice, "Remember this feeling. Believe me."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Putting It Together

Once a year, I work a jigsaw puzzle. My son buys it for me as a Christmas gift, and we spread it out on the dining room table and lay in one piece at a time until it's done. I like laying the pieces in, watching the picture form slowly. It always seemed like a fitting activity for the dark of winter at the end of one year and the beginning of another, and now I know why.

A jigsaw puzzle is a metaphor for life.

Think about it.
A thousand pieces or more that make up a design someone else conceived. Each piece a day that I can only add one at a time. 

The edges first--a framework for everything else.  God, the law, my conscience, the place and time ordained for me above all others. I have to start there.

Then I look for big patterns--the side of a barn, a bunch of flowers, a face, a doorway--and I gather the pieces up, again one at a time, to see whether they fit. Some do. They are a job, marriage, children--the things around which all else must fit. And the easily recognizable parts begin to take shape.

These usually go together fairly quickly. Yes, I look at them one by one, but not always too closely. They come almost automatically. But then I have to join them. I have to piece together a sidewalk, a brick wall, a lake, a bookcase. This is when it gets harder and slows down. The pieces all look so much alike. Raising kids. Going to work day after day. Learning my spouse does not exist to make me happy. These are the days we learn to live with mistakes. I get frustrated when this phase starts, not liking the forced slowdown. I have to individually examine every one of these pieces for size and shape and color, in order to figure out where it fits. I find a place in the puzzle for some. Some I put aside for later. Some I try to force--surely it goes in this spot. But it doesn't. This is when I am most likely to lose or bend a piece.

But all the while, the picture builds. I see more of it every day, become familiar with each region of it. The brown pieces go in the upper right. The green ones go near the door. The ones that look like mottled eggshells are a sandy beach and go next to the water.
I dream about every detail, excited to see where the next piece will go.

And always, always, I see the end approaching. The pile of loose pieces shrinks, but I feel no panic. The empty places in between begin to disappear and I stand back occasionally to see what all those small pieces have wrought.

It is then I see what I am making. One by one, day after day, piece by piece, the overall design, made long ago by my Father in heaven, finally comes together and I can see it, and remember. This is when I did this or this is what happened on that day. This is not a painting, beautiful only for the finished product. It is gradual assimilation of detail, forever made of small things bound together into the finished whole it was always meant to be.

The puzzle only goes together one way and, eventually, I hold only one piece in my hand. The box is empty, all other places filled in. I am finished.

My last day.
And I lay my final piece into place and stand back to look. So that is what I am. That is what You planned for me all along. 
Thank you. It is beautiful.

Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom--Psalm 90:12

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stuck in the World with Other People...

The hard part of life isn't dealing with God, it's dealing with people.
More specifically, it's dealing with shortcomings--my own and everyone else's.
Everybody I encounter messes up. Every single person I rub up against in this life irritates me or hurts me or disappoints me sooner or later. And I do the same for them.

I don't like that.
Some days, it makes me just want to hide.

Dealing with God is different. I can depend on God to be kind and forgiving and constant. Even in exercising judgement or punishment, He is loving me. He never gives me the annihilation I really deserve, but is merciful and generous. I am safe with Him.

So why in the world am I stuck here in the world with people?  Frustrating, inconstant, sinful people?
I am not safe with any of them.
What good, in the end, are we for each other anyway?

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.--Proverbs 27:17

People hone me. Make me sharper, better. 
I would much rather float through life with a perfect God, but His perfection does not provide the testing I need to make me holy. People do.
God gives us each other to show us what not to be.

How does He do that?
Lies teach me truth.
Cruelty teaches me kindness.
Betrayal teaches me fidelity.
Disrespect teaches me honor.
Thievery teaches me simplicity.
Lasciviousness teaches me purity.

When I encounter sin in myself or the people around me, I can use it to change myself. That is it's purpose.
A perfect God shows me what I am to become and sends me imperfect people to take me there.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Not Drowning in the Meaningless

Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!--Ecclesiastes 1:1

Poor Solomon.
I always felt kind of sorry for him, but not so much anymore.
Actually, I've come to understand that he was right, but not in a bad way.
Everything IS meaningless, and that knowledge drives us to find a reason for living. This is a good thing. Understanding that most of what we do and accomplish doesn't last drives us to search for meaning, for a reason to take the next breath.
And that's where Solomon got into trouble.

His dad, David, also thought life was meaningless. He did.
David, like Solomon, knew he was a sinner. He was drowning in his sins, in fact. Like Solomon, he knew that after he'd messed up big time, his good intentions had failed. He'd done very little right. He'd tried, but was not a worthy king, a good friend, or a successful husband and father. Like Solomon, he'd messed it all up.
But unlike Solomon, he didn't sink into melancholy over it.
Unlike Solomon, he didn't lose his reason for living.

Why? In spite of all the wrong turns, God was not enough for Solomon.
But God was more than enough for David.

How can we tell? Look at the symptoms.
Frustration = lost reason
Fear = lost reason
Depression = lost reason
Loneliness = lost reason

Solomon had them all. David did not.
David had repentance and after repentance, David had God.
I must find God, too, if I am to find the source of a balance mind and heart and the source of all health. I must always know the only solid reason for my life. 

I will never leave you nor forsake you.--Deuteronomy 31:8

God will take me beyond this life into eternity. He endures.
It's OK if everything is meaningless. I have God.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Satisfaction--Why Mick Couldn't Get It

We want it, all of us.
The single deep breath with appreciation for the perfection of this moment.
This one.
Right now.
Just one moment in which the world holds no sway over me. I am without a thought about what else I have to do today or where I have to go.
To be calm and full.

We are supposed to know this.
We were made to be filled and confident.
 But instead, we are born with desire.
I want...I want...I want...
When do we stop wanting so much?
When do we reach that shining moment when we don't need or want one more thing?
It's there, you know, and when we get there we have found our natural state.
We were created to be satisfied.

Have you ever known satisfaction?
I have.
Deep, calming satisfaction.

But I found it in the wrong places.
I found it in the perfection of a moonlit night, in the arms of a lover, in the embrace of a sleeping infant, in a job well done. 
But these places are shadows. They were lovely, but they didn't last.
Sure, they've filled me for a while, and they've been sweet.
 But I'm older now. I don't have time for temporary. Not enough days remain to waste them running after what slips away so quickly. I have to still my desire elsewhere, somewhere that won't desert me, somewhere that abides.

Satisfy me with your unfailing love so that I may sing for joy and be glad all my days--Psalm 90:14

That's where lasting satisfaction lies. In God's unfailing love. That is where I have to rest. There lies the calm and satisfaction I seek. 
You see, He promised it a long time ago.

I will make of you a well-watered garden.--Isaiah 57:11

Satisfied. Lush. Filled. Productive.
After all other comforts have proved to fail, one and only one remains.
Sure, days of striving will still come, but when they do, I know where to run--to my Rock and my Salvation.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

No Wonder It Hurts

The burden of life is impossible.
Every day.

Sometimes we know it.
We know it when we are losing our job and the baby is teething and it's fifteen degrees below zero and the babysitter cancels and the hot water heater breaks and the car won't start and our best friend's husband is leaving her.

And, although when things are going relatively well, we quickly forget, life is still impossible then, too.
There's a lot more that we can't control than we can.

We can't control our bodies. Our physical systems depend heavily on one another in ways we never see.
We can't control our relationships. The people we love do what they will without our permission.
We can't control our surroundings. Our comfort depends on complex agencies and services like transportation, power, and waste treatment over which we have no say or most of the time, any awareness at all.
We can't control our safety. Our security depends on men and women who guard us both locally and internationally whom we never even see unless something goes wrong.
These kinds of things fail so rarely that we have no idea what it is like to be truly alone, truly hungry, truly without resources, and we never will.
We kid ourselves about this every day.
When the house is clean and my family is content, and the bills are paid, and the snow shoveled, and the laundry done, and the boss is happy, I think I've done well. I am capable. I have used my intelligence and skill profitably. And I have, as far as they go.

But I have forgotten what I cannot accomplish.
I can't make my heart beat.
I can't stop a random bomber.
I can't deter the lethal work of a drunk driver.
I can't stop my friend from cheating on her husband.
I can't even guarantee that my groceries are free from taint or poison.
All these are completely beyond my control.

I keep forgetting that I do not bear up the world. 
In fact, I must fail to do so.
I must learn that if I fall, the world will not, and fall I must if I am to come to understand even a part of God's power and love.
Yes, I am desolate when life spins out of my control, but that is when the clarity of my place in the world comes most vividly.
And  good thing, too.
God holds the world in His hands. I cannot hold the world. I can only hold God. 

For the Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods. In His hands are the corners of the world and the strength of the hills is His also. The sea is His and He made it and His hands prepared the dry land. O come, let us worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is the Lord our God. We are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.--Psalm 95: 3-7

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Curtain and the Christ

Emmanuel. God with us.
Christmas has passed. Jesus is here.
But not for the first time.

Remember--He's part of a trinity. And God's come to earth before.
A long time ago, yes, but come nevertheless.
Listen to the echoes of parallel times:

David planned the temple and Solomon built it in expectation.
Mary was born already destined as the mother of the Christ.

The temple's Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant--the most perfect structure the Israelites could provide.
Mary remained a virgin--as perfect a host for the Son of God the earth could provide.

Cherubims covered the ark.
An angel came to Mary.

When building of the temple was complete, God moved into it as a cloud.
When Mary had been prepared, God moved into her womb.

Even priests could not stand before the ark.
Even kings knelt before the baby.

And then the two collided.
And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth quaked, and the rocks rent, and the graves opened...Matthew 27:51-52

God came all right--once distant and awful, once up close and personal, and when the two met, the world was undone.
And it will happen again.
God made our world for us, not Himself, and when He enters it, everything changes forever.
Emmanuel. God with us.
Then, now, and someday.
We may not expect it or see the signs of His coming but, to be sure, once He does, we will not miss it.