Spiritual Library

Every day when I take my daily walk, I walk past a playground area near my home. On one side of this playground is a little lender library which seem to be appearing throughout neighborhoods all across the country. These are a great addition to our neighborhoods. If you are not familiar with this concept, they are small wooden boxes with a door which has a glass inset and shelves. People place books they have already read into these and if a child or adult is looking for a book to read, they can go pick out one and take it home to read. People are encouraged to add a book if they take one and/or return the book after they are finished reading it. Some of these can be very creative in the size and shape which they take.

As I was walking today, I glanced over at the little lender library. A question came into my mind. If I were to create a lender library for someone wanting to grow in faith, what would I include?

When I designed curriculum for young individuals wishing to confirm their faith and be commissioned as members of the congregation, I had a list of items which I felt were important for them to know. I have never been a huge proponent on memorizing Bible verses or other faith documents but I thought there were a few vital pieces which required memorization. My goal was that if the person was ever in a situation where they needed guidance, one of these items might surface in their mind and be a tool which could be beneficial.

So here are the items which I found to be important and which I would include in my spiritual lender library:

  • A copy of the Lord’s Prayer – This prayer provides a template for those new to, or struggling with, prayer. It provides the basic focus of prayer and can be a launching pad to our own prayers.
  • A copy of the Apostles’ Creed – Like the Lord’s Prayer, this creed is a template for articulating a person’s faith. This can also serve as a summation of the beliefs which underlines the faith which has existed for centuries. Someone exploring what Christians believe can look at this creed for a basic understanding and a basis to start creating questions which can be explored with other believers and on their own.
  • A copy of Matthew 6 – So the person can understand where the basis for the Lord’s Prayer originates and place it in context.
  • A copy of Exodus 20 – Here a person can gain insight into what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments. These words provide a basis for how we are to respond to God and our relationship with God. Contained here also is the understanding we are to have regarding our relationships with other people in our lives.
  • A copy of Luke 15 – This chapter from Luke’s gospel contains the story of the prodigal son. This is a story of selfishness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. I find this story important enough to be one that if a person cannot remember anything else, this story is the one that remains. My reasoning is that we all experience times of wanting to break out on our own and explore possibilities. We make mistakes and choices that are not beneficial for us. We eventually realize that we need to return “home” and hopefully in a more humbled state than when we left. This story reminds us that our Lord stands waiting for that return. When we do return there is not judgment but instead an outpouring of love and reconciliation which is like attending a magnificent banquet in our honor.
  • A copy of Matthew 28 with verses 16 through 20 highlighted – For anyone wishing to know what a believer in Christ is supposed to do with their life, this passage answers the question. Frequently known as the Great Commission, this passage tells every person that in whatever way fits their skills and abilities, they are called to go and share their story along with what they have learned in their faith so far.
  • A copy of 1 Corinthians 11 with verses 23 through 26 highlighted – Here we find one copy of the words used in the institution of holy communion. Holy communion is one of the key sacraments in the Christian Church. Realizing that words used for this portion of a worship service were randomly chosen but have their basis in Scripture helps to strengthen their meaning.
  • A copy of Matthew 22 with verses 24 through 40 highlighted – Jesus’ response to the question of “what is the greatest commandment?” is found in these verses. Christianity is often given the same criticism which is applied to Judaism – it is just about rules. In Jesus’ response, it is made clear that our faith is not about following rules as much as it is about loving God and loving one another.

This would be the start of my spiritual lender library. What would you place in yours?

Big Picture

Sometimes it can be so easy to get wrapped up in details that you lose track of the big picture. Another way of saying this is the frequently used cliche, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” A person gets so focused on the little details that remembering the initiating goal is forgotten. This often happens in the church. People begin focusing on every detail of a project or how to accomplish a mission that they lose track of why the project or mission came to be important.

In April of this year, I wrote a series of blog posts about the purpose of the Church (see Purpose of the Church, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I discussed specific aspects of what it means to be the Church. A one sentence definition which I place before you now is this: “The Church exists to demonstrate the love of God to the world and show what it means to be in relationship with God.” This is the forest which often gets lost in the everyday life of a congregation.

Within the church, we spend too much time arguing about the details of fulfilling the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16-20). We discuss endlessly in committee and board meetings how much money to spend, who is going to be managing the mission, and how we are going to hold everyone accountable for the mission. We wordsmith everything to make sure that we clearly define boundaries and expectations so that no loopholes or confusion exist. Requirements are established; techniques are evaluated; and limitations are set. Our skills in exhausting the details often exhaust us and in the end any enthusiasm for doing the mission is diminished or destroyed.

The leaders of the congregation cannot be fully blamed for this problem. Part of the blame comes from outside of the church completely. We have become a society that spends a lot of time haggling over the details. If someone does not like the results of work done by a group or an individual, complaints escalate and may even result in litigation. Mistakes are not tolerated or acceptable in our lives anymore. All of this creeps into the church because too often we try to imitate corporations and our human behaviors become the norm inside the church just as they are outside the church.

Another problem that leads to being too wrapped up in the details stems from fear. As mentioned above, we have become intolerable toward mistakes. This creates a fear on each person’s part that she/he will make a mistake which will lead to ridicule and personal attacks. Each detail is hashed out over and over to prevent a mistake from occurring and negative consequences resulting. Our fear of failure rules our actions and choices.

What suffers because of this is the big picture. We are unable to focus on demonstrating the love of God and the meaning of being in relationship with God because we have to get all the details correct. On those rare occasions when we do successfully demonstrate these things, it is often because something has forced us to move away from the details and just do. Thank goodness for the Holy Spirit who encourages these times of being forced away from the details.

If you are a leader in the church, or more importantly a member of a congregation, I encourage you to constantly remind yourself and others of the big picture. Look for those times when the focus on details need to be thwarted. Create an atmosphere which allows mistakes and offers forgiveness. Remind each other that failure is only when action is not taken.

Not Here, Well Maybe

The church is filled with perfect people.

Some churches are full of sin but not mine.

At my church we make sure that we protect against those type of people.

Our pastor is an example of a very righteous person.

We are a group of people who have done away with our sinful behaviors and follow the Lord.

Everybody is friendly in my church, takes care of one another and accepts everyone.

Which of these statements do you believe? Amazingly, these are actual statements which I have heard people make regarding their congregation. Add to these statements the perceptions that some people have from the outside. An observer would come to the conclusion that the church is a place where sin does not exist. This conclusion could not be any farther from the truth. The church is as full of sin as any other group in the world.

Since the church consists of humans, the church is going to have sin. We are reminded in the letter to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV). When a person becomes a member of a congregation, either formally or informally, this reality stated in Scripture does not change. This being the case, there is going to be sin in the church. In fact, one of the many sins is lying about this truth.

Honestly, I do not think that anyone truly believes that the church is without sin. Yet a lot of people in congregations everywhere want to downplay or deny this truth in an attempt to present a better image to those outside the walls. I am not sure if they feel that this will cause others to desire to join the congregation or if it is a case of them wanting to show they are better than what is in the world. Either way, this image of a sin-free church does more damage for the ministries of the Lord than it could ever benefit.

Instead of trying to state that the church is a place where sin does not exist, we should actually be sharing a more important message. The message of the church should be that it is a place where forgiveness is given unconditionally. After all, this is the message that Jesus Christ gave over and over again in his actions and teachings. This is the message which the apostle Paul declared as he and others fulfilled Christ’s commandment to go into the world.

Within the church there are lies, hatred, bigotry, hypocrisy, theft, divisions, sexual misconduct, and all other sinful behaviors witnessed in everyday life in a multitude of places. Sinners exist within the church. More importantly though, within the church there is forgiveness, love, grace, restoration, healing, support, encouragement and acceptance. These are the traits which the church should show as it strives to demonstrate to the world an alternative to sin.

Sin exists in the church at the same level it does anywhere else but here it is always forgiven and reconciliation is possible.

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.