In the Wilderness

Have you ever felt like you were wandering in circles? Like you do the same things over and over again – laundry, groceries, emails. You visit the same spots – kid’s school, gym, work, church. Certain seasons of life can feel like a holding pattern in more ways than one. Spiritually, physically and emotionally there are times when we just don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

The beginning of the year and all the buzz about goals and resolutions can cause us to ask questions like:

  • Is there a difference between perspiration and inspiration?
  • Could I be missing something important God has called me to do?
  • Does the mundane routine of my life have great value or is there something more?

The people of Israel found themselves in a 40-year-long holding pattern after they grumbled and disobeyed God. During this time they ate the same food, wore they same clothes, and circled the same wilderness. God provided for them, taught them lessons and carried out some consequences for their attitudes and behaviours during this time.

The story of the Israelites in the wilderness is the sort of Old Testament event that was never forgotten. The Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, and several New Testament letters make reference to the lessons learned from the wilderness wanderings. Later God fulfilled every promise he made to his people in giving them victory in the land of promise. They defeated their enemies in Canaan and were once again able to cultivate the soil, make new clothes and live in more permanent dwellings. The wilderness wasn’t forever, but it probably felt that way for the two million people moving through the desert with nothing but manna to eat and dreams of a future home.

When we seem to be in a wilderness season, it isn’t always because of complaining or bad choices. There is much we can learn from the wilderness. “But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.”

This is a reminder that the wilderness is often a place of preparation. The Israelites took a census and got organized during their time in the wilderness. John the Baptist was a voice crying out from the wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Once Christ began healing and teaching, people followed him everywhere, but he often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.

When we feel stuck in routine, like the landscape never seems to change, we can be proactive in prayer during our own wilderness seasons. During the beginning of 2017:

  • If we feel unsatisfied or unsure of our purpose, we should withdraw and pray.
  • If we are weary and tired but uninspired, then we should withdraw and pray.
  • If we know God has big things ahead for us, then we should withdraw and pray so we can be prepared for what lies ahead.

So when can you withdraw today? Can you steal away for an hour, half an hour or even 10 minutes and get in God’s presence? Pour out your heart to him, ask him for clarity and make a list of any nudges toward action you sense while in his presence.

Jesus has things for us to learn in the wilderness, but we need to follow his example to withdraw and pray so we’ll be prepared for all God has in store!

Come and see!

How would your life be different if you were not a Christian? For some of us who have lived surrounded by Christian people, it’s hard to imagine, but what if you had no interest in God? How would your life be less or more or just the same?

What would you miss about church? I would never sing out loud in public were it not for church on Sunday. Which of your friends would not be your friends? If you had never met the people you have met in Sunday school, how great a loss would that be? How would your family change? How would you spend your time differently? Would you be home reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings? What do you do because you are a Christian that makes you happy? Which religious activities could you do without? What would be easier if you weren’t a Christian? Do you feel good about the time you spend helping strangers? Do you wish you still had all the money you’ve given away? Have there been experiences you would hate to have missed—hope-filled books you are glad you read, experiences of God’s grace in worship, times you’ve cared for hurting people? If you were not a Christian, would your life be less interesting?

Every once in a while the disciples thought about how different their lives would have been if they had never met Jesus. It started so quietly. John the Baptist is standing with two of his students when Jesus walks by. John says, “That’s the one. You know how cocky I can be, but I’m not worthy to tie his sandals.”

The two disciples are understandably curious. They start following Jesus. He turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” They answer nervously, “We thought we would see where you’re staying.” In other words, “We don’t have anything better to do, so we’re wondering what you’re doing.” Jesus offers the invitation that will change their lives: “Come and see.”

They stay with Jesus all day because he’s interesting. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They don’t know that they will end up leaving behind their nets, boats, homes, friends, work, and retirements. They will end up changing their ideas about almost everything.

Andrew goes to get his brother. “You have to come and see this guy,” he says. Simon is dragged along, going more so that his brother will leave him alone than out of any great faith. When Jesus meets Simon, he says, “Your name is going to be Rock.” The often-confused Simon is anything but a rock, but everything is starting to change. Most of the time, we move toward God in small steps taken as much out of curiosity as out of faith.

So what are we looking for? What are we looking for in worship? Why do we go to church? Some of us go because our parents didn’t give us a choice growing up. For some of us, our mother’s voice telling us to go to church somehow lodged in our minds, and we can’t get rid of it. Some of us go because it’s easier to go than to argue with our spouse about it.
Most of us probably don’t go with great expectations. The religious reasons we have for going are mixed at best. We’re interested in thinking about how we could live better lives, but only up to a point. If we’re in worship for no good reason, that’s okay.
Lots of people find their way by accident.

Jesus says, “Come and see.” The disciples stumble along, following without knowing where they are going, discovering well after the fact that they have wandered onto a path that leads to grace. “Come and see,” Jesus says, and in John’s Gospel the disciples soon taste water turned into wine, watch in horror as Jesus clears the temple, and listen with amazement to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, that the spirit of God blows wherever it wills. They stumble onto a way of life they have never imagined.

What are we looking for? Deep in our souls, we are looking for something to believe in and hold on to, something important enough to live for, and something big enough to claim our passions. We are looking for challenge and purpose. We are looking for God.

What begins with curiosity becomes a step toward grace. The emptiness we feel from time to time is God calling us to the paths that lead to meaning. God lets us know that we can look beyond our computers and coffee cups into the enchanted possibilities of grace. God is the one who makes us long for something that lasts. God draws us toward life even when we don’t recognize what’s happening.

“Come and see” is how the disciples’ story begins. It’s a wonderful line and a great way to start a story. “Come and see” is the invitation to explore, discover, and travel without knowing exactly where we are going, but to know that if we catch a glimpse of God, we will also catch a glimpse of who we can be. Come and see. Come and look for places where we’ve never been. Come and see what it means to hope, believe, and follow.

We are in church to open ourselves to God, who will lead us to new places. The people who follow Jesus end up doing the things Jesus did. They care for the hurting, listen to the lonely, feed the hungry, pray for the brokenhearted, bandage those who are wounded, do more than is expected. They look for God and find extraordinary lives.

The spirit of adventure is what calls us to worship. We come to seek the meaning of life, join with people on the journey, and ask God to help us see where grace invites us. We come to look at the gifts we’ve been given and the needs of the world. We come to discover the possibilities.

If we worship God, if we share our lives with other people looking for God, we will see beyond what we have assumed. If we look for God, we will find that God is looking for us, offering life.

The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me

Christians today (especially those who follow the liturgical calendar) observe the season of Advent as a time of expectation, preparation and celebration leading up to Christmas or Christmastide. Many may be surprised to know that the original observance of the Advent season had nothing to do with Christmas!

The word Advent means “coming” and is derived from the Latin word adventus, a translation of the Greek word parousia. In the fourth and fifth centuries Advent was a season of preparation — not for Christmas but for baptisms that would take place at Epiphany. It was a season (40 days) of fasting, prayer and penance. Roman Christians in the sixth century began to tie the season of Advent to the second coming of Christ. It was not until the Middle Ages that Advent was celebrated in anticipation of Christmas.

In the modern-church era, Advent is a memorial of Christ’s first coming and an anticipation of the kingdom to come. In fact, the first two Sundays of Advent point to the return of Christ in judgment while the last two Sundays remember his first coming into the world.

Advent is intended to be a time of reflection, penance, fasting and praying. Ironically, the weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with parties, food and shopping. The secular commercialism of Christmas, which begins right after Halloween, can distract the faithful from taking time to reflect during this holy season.

Amid the activities of the season, reflect on the Scriptures for each week in Advent. Also, reflect each day of the week on the themes for each Sunday: hope, peace, joy and love.

Reflection often prompts one to action, and many wonderful gifts of kindness and compassion are expressed during the season of Advent. This is a story of kindness shown by complete strangers.

As is evident in most coffee shops, baristas are trained to offer polite conversation and care to customers while they simultaneously maintain a steady focus on their primary task of preparing and serving drinks. Yet, when baristas Pierce Dunn and Evan Freeman of Vancouver, BC, noticed a grieving woman pull up to the drive-through window of their coffee shop, they did something bold.

They stopped what they were doing and listened to the woman tell them about her recently deceased husband. Then, together, they reached out the window to hold her hand and to pray for her. Unbeknownst to the baristas, the driver of another car also waiting in line snapped a picture of them praying for the woman.

The image ultimately went viral, and the crew’s story was featured across Canada and the United States. When asked about why he chose to pray for the woman, Dunn concluded that “if you can bring yourself to understand what someone else is going through, you can show them kindness and make an impact on the world.”

From a Christian perspective, this story is striking and startling because such a small act of kindness has been viewed by the world as a rare and special moment. Yet, in today’s world, we often find ourselves substituting a “nice” gesture for a “kind” action. A polite habit can even be used as a cop-out or excuse for avoiding deeper conversations and bolder actions. And while our intentions may be good, our nice habits are often void of value and substance, and the power of our Christian faith is subsequently held at bay.

The message and character of Jesus was rooted in kindness and care for others. He never allowed rules, reputation or risk to hold him back from serving those in need. He was and is the perfect example of kindness: one who puts others’ needs before his or her own. His disciples were and still today are called to the same task.

After all, during the first Advent, God gifted the world with a Savior and Jesus gifted the world with salvation. The second Advent promises eternity with Christ for those who receive his gift of salvation.

Where Are You?

When Jesus ascends to heaven, he gives clear instructions: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” What the disciples did next is what we, as churches, do best: they committee-ed the commission to be witnesses.

Instead of finding ways to be witnesses of Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria or the ends of the earth, they felt it was necessary to bring the number of 11 original disciples back up to 12.

We’re all familiar with the concept of taking a mission, a call, a vision, a plan, a purpose and committee-ing the heck out of it until everyone is either over it, confused, annoyed or a mixture of those things. We’ve all experienced talking an idea to death in forms of committees and meetings.

The chapter opened with Jesus instructing the disciples to wait a few days for the Holy Spirit. But the period of waiting was only supposed to be a few days. Our gestation periods often last longer than days. Sometimes, we wait for years to attempt to do something. Maybe we tell ourselves we’re refining skills or growing our ideas while we’re waiting. Sometimes that’s true. Other times, it’s an excuse. Even after Pentecost, if it weren’t for Paul and the persecution of the Christians, the gospel may never have reached anyone outside of Jerusalem.

We have a tendency to gather, secure, protect and hold. We make permanent landmarks in areas that were supposed to be temporary resting places. We build bigger buildings. We make clearer standards of belonging to the tribe, which leads to making bigger walls (both literal and figurative) creating more outsiders. We slowly start thinking that everything holy and good happens here, within our tribe, within our walls. And everything out there is hedonistic, dangerous, secular and can be avoided. Being witnesses of Christ, then, focuses on bringing in here the ones who are out there. Or wait for them to come to us.

At least the disciples were ordered to wait for a few days. What’s our excuse for waiting? We’ve already received the power of the Holy Spirt. We already are empowered and gifted and encouraged. Our call is to go and make disciples. Action verbs. But we wait and see who will come into our doors. Or we wait for the right idea and the right time to do something. And while we’re waiting, we watch the world pass us by.

The heartbeat of the Scriptures is the concept of being sent. Going into the world and reaching out to humanity with love and grace. “Where are you?” God asks Adam and Eve in Eden. From the beginning, God has been reaching out to humanity. God has been relentlessly looking for us and pursuing us.

Later in history, God’s question of “Where are you?” was asked in the form of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God searched for the lost, broken and downtrodden. Today, God’s question of “Where are you?” is asked through you and me. Jesus commissions us to continue the work of his ministry.

It’s nice to have the right plan of action and the right time and place to execute those plans. But that can lead to such a passive life of discipleship. There are plenty of things you can do now. The words of Paul echo in my heart: So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory. (1 Corinthians 10:31).

You don’t have to have the cure for cancer to make a difference – you can show love and comfort for those affected by it. You don’t have to have the solution to eradicating poverty and homelessness – you can treat folks with dignity and remind them that despite their difficulties, they still carry the image of God and are worthy of love and respect. You don’t have to have the answer to ending racism and inequality – you can work to pursue justice and speak out when you witness injustice.

We’re all being invited to participate right now in the ongoing work of God. So what are we waiting for?

A Quote From Bishop John Shelby Spong:

Ultimately the resurrection is a call to universalism. Go to all the world, go beyond the boundaries of your fears. Go to those you have defined as unclean, unworthy, unsaved, uncircumcised and unbaptized. Go to those you have reduced to being the object of your prejudices. Go to those who are different. Go to the rejected of the world and teach them what I have taught you, namely that God is love and that love embraces all that God has made, that love has no boundaries, that love rejects no one and that love is the essence of the gospel. The Great Commission was never meant to be a charge to us to convert the heathen, as it has so often been interpreted to be. It was and is a call to see everyone as living inside the love of God.

House Church

I have for some time considered started a “House Church.” I am hoping to have my plans finalized for the start of October. It looks like I may have some interested souls. Here I would like to share some information on what a “house church” is all about.

Many who first hear about the idea of house churches, think, That’s not real church. They think the only reason a congregation would meet in a house instead of a larger traditional or contemporary church would be because they couldn’t afford a building or they didn’t have the vision or ability to grow into a “real church.” The early church started in homes. So why would anyone in a free country continue to do so when larger churches with exciting youth programs, riveting preachers and spectacular worship music are not hard to find.

House churches are nothing new, though you’ll sometimes hear them referred to as part of a “house church movement.” This “movement” has been around for decades, and it’s often touted as the next big thing. Visionary pastors say, “The age of the megachurch is over, and the age of the microchurch is beginning.” This kind of hype clouds an authentic work of the Holy Spirit, who is interested in diverse ways to reach diverse people. House churches are another manifestation of the body of Christ and meet needs not always met by larger or more traditional churches.

In some places, house churches are the norm. Because of strict government control of religion in China, for example, most churches are underground and are unofficial house churches. A Pew study estimates the total number of Christians attending house churches in China is around 35 million people.

Some people prefer the terms “simple” church or “organic” church, recognizing that these small, more independent groups of believers can meet nearly anywhere: businesses, bars, restaurants, parks or shelters. The key features of these churches are that they are simple and easy to replicate.

We turned our efforts toward house churches because the people we were trying to reach — those who have been hurt, burned or turned off to church — often associate pews, sanctuaries, vestments and hymnals with spiritual oppression. The “institutional church” is referred to in harsh terms. They want to see authentic community lived out in relationships.

Even churches that meet in alternative venues with hip music put most of their energy into creating an event that attracts people: the worship service. A church’s effectiveness is often measured by the size of its worshipping congregation. While these metrics are important, it’s worth asking what we’re really measuring with attendance figures. Does a large gathering indicate faithfulness or discipleship?

Church leaders suggest that an alternative to the “attractional” church is the “missional” church — one focussed on going and living out the gospel in new places. Certainly some large churches are also missional churches, but the focus in missional churches is practices, not programs. Rather than getting people to come to church, the goal is to take the church to people.

From the very beginning, Jesus’ followers have met, eaten, prayed and worshipped in homes. It wasn’t until sometime around the year 240 that buildings were set aside specifically for use by worshipping congregations. According to church historian Everett Ferguson, a site in Dura-Europos in Syria reveals a home that was remodelled to accommodate a Christian congregation. Two rooms were combined to make one large worship space, and another room was converted into a baptistry. Christians started building larger buildings specifically for church use in the third and fourth centuries. When the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of his empire, the building boom began in earnest.

So, for 300 years, the church existed primarily in homes. In John Wesley’s day, Methodism was essentially a small-group renewal movement within the Church of England. People met in homes for Bible study and accountability. Later on in the United States, circuit riders often held worship services in people’s homes as they followed Western expansion.

House churches vary as much as “traditional” churches. They may have an order of worship or no set plan at all. They may gather around a meal. They may or may not do corporate singing. The emphasis is on keeping things simple and replicable. If the house church becomes overly dependent on one person or one structure, it cannot reproduce itself.

It’s important to note that some of the greatest strengths of house churches are also their greatest weaknesses.

Intimacy: Communities are physically close to one another. No “back pew” exists to fill up first when people arrive early. Guests are immediately known by name. While this creates a strong sense of community, it also can scare off people who prefer to remain anonymous. Those who are uncomfortable sharing much about themselves can feel ill at ease.

Hospitality: Some people think they can’t host a house church because there’s dog hair on the couch or crumbs on the table, and the stress of making the house perfect for guests every week scares them away from the idea. “Scruffy hospitality” points out that it’s more important to “welcome people into my humility than my standard of excellence.”

Leadership development and discipleship: In a house church, everyone is a potential leader. Anyone who can read may read Scripture, liturgy or prayer. Anyone may lead singing. Because of this high degree of involvement, the level of spiritual growth is high, but it requires commitment.

Stewardship: More resources mean more ministries to more people. But proponents of house or simple churches point out that 20 percent of typical church budgets go toward building rent, mortgage, maintenance and utilities; 38–50 percent goes toward staff; and only about seven percent goes toward programs and ministries. House churches don’t have to pay for buildings, meaning more of their members’ giving can potentially go toward mission and ministry. Theoretically, house churches can give a greater return on investment for their giving dollars — it’s just that there aren’t as many of those dollars available to do large projects.

House churches are clearly not for everyone, and many house church leaders are wary of the idea being hyped as the next big thing or having it co-opted as a mere growth strategy. But for some groups of faithful followers, they are a tie to our past and a window into our future.