A Choice

Read Mark 12:1-9

There are concepts which in their complexity can be difficult to understand. When we are younger, teachers take complicated concepts and break them down so we might understand the parts before understanding the whole. Teachers also learn that a student may need a concept explained in a different way in order to gain understanding. As a wonderful teacher, Jesus understood this. Jesus used parables, or storytelling, to communicate complicated messages in an understandable way.

A parable which Jesus told was about a vineyard owner and the tenants who worked his vineyard. The owner sent some servants and his son at harvest time to collect some of the harvest. As each one was sent, the tenants beat them, put them back with nothing, and even killed some of them including his son. The owner came himself, killed the tenants, and recruited new tenants.

This story was Jesus’s attempt to explain God’s viewpoint of how the Hebrew people have behaved and the coming response. All the prophets, angels and messengers had come to the people to give God’s message and bring the people back in relationship with God. The people rejected and even killed these servants of the Lord. Not wanting to give up on the people, God sends the Son. At some point, after endless rejection, God will let the people go to their own destruction and welcome in those who have chosen a relationship with the Lord.

The proverbial ball is always in our court. God will never reject any one of us. We will be sent messenger after messenger who invites us to share in the final harvest. Jesus came so even if we choose to reject God’s servants, we are given the ultimate way back to God. However, it remains our choice whether to accept or reject those who God has sent.

Hand In Hand

There are times in life when one event, one action, or one experience can change the course of a person’s life. A change in perspective might occur. Priorities may be drastically altered. Decisions might be made in a changed understanding of what is important. Gene MacLellan thought that if a person simply placed their hand in the hand of Jesus, the course of their life would be deeply impacted. As you listen to the song which McLellan wrote, consider these questions:

1. Is your hand securely in the hand of Jesus or have you chosen to let go? (Jesus never lets go.)

2. When your hand is in the Lord’s, how do you see yourself; how do you see others?

3. Are you letting Jesus lead you by the hand or are you pulling back?

A New Understanding

Read Acts 10:9-23a

Various cultures have different understandings of what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Everything from how a person enters a home to what foods are acceptable to eat. Government diplomats actually have training in regard to customs and behaviors prior to being stationed in foreign posts. This training is important so that the diplomat does not inadvertently offend citizens and government officials where they are sent. The rules and customs of a group of people have deep roots. Some of these are linked to history, some to religion and some due to practical reasons.

Peter was a rule abiding Jew. He prided himself on being faithful to the laws and customs of his Hebrew heritage. The Jews had strong dietary laws. Today we would view these laws as practical based upon what we now know in regards to food safety. In Peter’s time, the laws were linked to his faith since they were recorded in the laws which Moses handed down. When Peter had a vision in which he was instructed to eat foods forbidden by the Law, he naturally declined. The purpose of the vision was to communicate to Peter that rules and understandings can change as God reveals new information to us. This was an important message because soon Peter would be called upon to act in a manner considered wrong by Jewish standards. Peter would be asked to go to the home of an officer in the army which occupied Israel. If the vision had not opened Peter’s eyes to God working outside the rules and customs, he likely would not have gone and the good news would not have been shared.

The lesson for Peter is important in our lives as well. We easily become accustomed to our customs, habits and understandings. Our faith can be attached to what we have been taught when we were younger. What we must always keep in mind is that we believe in a living God. Our God is always at work in the lives of people. Our God is constantly revealing new understandings to us as we are better equipped to receive them. As we grow in our knowledge of the world, God gives us new insights. None of us follow all the dietary laws of Peter’s time because we have refrigeration and better ways to store and prepare food. Why would our other understandings of God, faith and the world around us also not change?

Receiving the Signal

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever becau1 se of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God,[a] and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

17 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

1 Samuel 3:1-21 (NIV)

In the day when transistor radios were common, the familiar sound of trying to precisely locate a station on the radio dial included a lot of static and distorted sounds. Car radios of today can still provide a similar experience if you do not use the automatic search feature on them. Anyone who has manually adjusted the dial of a radio knows that often you  have to fine tune the radio in order to receive a clear signal which produces the best sound quality. If the signal is not on the exact frequency, the message or music will be garbled or mixed with annoying static. Getting and understanding a clear signal is important to the listener.

The Bible passage presented today involves a signal and understanding that signal. God had told Eli that because his sons were corrupt and Eli did not put an end to their corruption, Eli’s family would be stripped of their priestly duties. God also said that both of Eli’s sons would die on the same day. Time passed and the boy, Samuel, was living with and ministering alongside Eli. Samuel had been given by his parents to serve the Lord when he was an infant. One night Samuel heard a voice call to him while he was sleeping. Samuel assumed that it was Eli so he went to Eli. Eli told Samuel that he had not called and the boy should go back to sleep. This occurred three times. On the third time Eli figured out that the Lord was calling Samuel. So he gave Samuel a response for the next time the voice was heard. When God called again and Samuel responded as Eli instructed, God told Samuel of the fall of Eli’s family. The next morning when Eli asked Samuel what he had been told, Samuel did not want to give the message but Eli pushed the boy until he shared God’s words. This began the path which would lead to Samuel being seen as one of God’s great prophets.

Have you received a message which you would rather not share? Maybe you have been prompted by God to take a stance or an action which you wish to avoid. God’s calling of people did not end with Samuel. The Lord continues to call out to people each and every day. Some are called to speak at specific times about difficult topics. Others are called to respond or take actions which may place them in an unfavorable light. Like Samuel we may struggle to understand the source of the signal or what it means. We may need a mentor such as Eli to help us understand and know how to respond. We may also feel the fear which Samuel felt so we need to be prodded to follow through. Some fine tuning may be needed for clarity to exist. Whatever our situation, we must always be ready to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Thoughts and Ways

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
    and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
    and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
    for an everlasting sign,
    that will endure forever.”

Isaiah 55:6-13 (NIV)

Each of us establishes an approach to life over time. Our thoughts and behaviors develop out of our experiences, our context and our culture. An understanding of relationships, family and marriage is a prime example of this. We define family according to what we have witnessed within our own family. The manner in which we treat others is influenced by how we have been treated and observed others being treated. In marriage, the type of mate we choose along with the roles and behaviors once we are married are products of the experiences and definitions which have been presented to us. We then project these thoughts and behaviors upon others, assuming they think and behave exactly as we do.

The reading for today begins with the instruction to seek the Lord. As part of this quest, we are told to abandon our ways and thoughts while turning to the Lord who will show mercy and pardon us. Once we have found the Lord, we discover that God’s thoughts and ways are different than our own. The Lord’s thoughts will produce and bring forth goodness for all creation. This discovery will lead to us experiencing joy and peace. Our response will include songs in concert with all of creation.

Often we attempt to project our thoughts and behaviors upon the Lord. We assume God will act and behave exactly as we would in any giving situation. The definitions and responses we utilize in our daily interactions are presumed by us to be the same ones utilized by the Lord. Today’s passage points out the error in these thoughts and assumptions.

We must first seek the Lord. In doing so, it is necessary for us to leave all preconceptions behind. When we spend time in Scripture and prayer, we will discover that some of our understanding of who God is needs to change. We cannot translate our approach to life into being the Lord’s approach. Instead we must strive to adopt the Lord’s ways and thoughts. Then God can produce positive results for us and all within the world.

Living In the Grey

When we are young, we are taught about life in black and whites. Good versus bad, it is or it is not, right or wrong, are all ways we gain understanding of the world around us. When we are younger and have family to help guide us and watch over us, these black and whites make sense and provide us a clear boundary. However, as we get older and experience more of life outside of our homes, the black and whites are not so clear cut. Our world appears to us to be more grey in some areas. This can create times of confusion and tension. Yet through this process we grow and mature.

One area where this becomes clearly true is in relation to our faith. Young Christians are taught Bible stories and given examples of how God chooses us to live our lives. When we are young, these are given in very black and white terms. However, as we mature in our faith and in our lives, we start bumping up against details which cause us to question the clear black and white understandings. We learn more about God and realize that God is much more complex than black and white.

There are some individuals who never seem to make the transition from looking at the world solely in black and white to understanding a world filled with grey. These people have definite views which create an either/or dynamic in their lives. They cannot accept that life can be a both/and situation. Often they experience life on the extremes. Compromise is difficult. Uncertainty creates anxiety for them. They only see two options and determine which is the right option. Easily they can become judgmental of others. In regard to faith, they often ignore other possible interpretations outside of their chosen perspective.

I often tell people that if you truly study the original languages and cultures from which our modern day Bible emerges, you will soon discover that there is a lot of grey. First, it is difficult to truly grasp the ancient civilizations from which the stories and words of the Bible are generated without years of in depth study. Even if a person is a scholar in these ancient cultures and languages, there still are unknowns. Second, since the modern day Bible has gone through a multitude of translations and interpretations, the words we read are filtered through the experiences of Bible scholars and then refiltered through the experiences of us, the readers. Finally, there are multiple versions of the Bible today and in some cases, the words vary greatly depending on which version you are reading because of different word choices available during translation. This all points to the reality that there is grey in the main written source of the Christian faith.

Life is not black and white. There are choices based upon interpretation, experiences, culture, and new understandings which we make every day. These choices can change as we gain new insight. Understandings can be redefined as new revelations occur daily. Throughout all our life this is reality. When it comes to our faith, I believe in a living God who continues to reveal God’s self all the time. As God reveals more and more, we are moved from one interpretation to another. The grey is there because we do not fully understand God. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he says, “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.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)

Is This Heaven?

Thirty years ago, a movie was released which starred Kevin Costner and told the story of a man who built a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa farmland because a voice had told him that if he built it, all the great baseball stars would come and play there. One small piece of dialogue from the movie Field of Dreams became famous, especially in Iowa:

“Is this heaven?”

“No, this is Iowa.”

One of the “ghost players” arrived at the newly constructed baseball diamond and asks the question. Costner’s character provides the response.

I am prompted by this movie scene to consider the question, “What is heaven?” In the movie, the baseball diamond seemed to the ghost baseball player like it might be heaven. A lot of people refer to a certain setting as being like heaven. Images of golden streets and angels with harps are presented as ways heaven may look. While these images and settings my bring comfort and give us a sense of something grand, I am not certain that they truly are heaven.

At the start, I have to be honest and state there is no concrete proof of what heaven is or is not. Jesus tells stories that give us more a concept of the nature of heaven and not a physical description. People recorded in the Bible speak of visions which are often associated with heaven but are not intended to give us a physical description. I think there is a significant reason for this vagueness. In fact, this vagueness is part of what creates an image of heaven for me.

I am convinced that heaven is not an actual location. While we are accustomed to looking toward the sky when referencing heaven, this comes more out of Greek and Roman cultures and their mythology than any theological understanding. Heaven is a spiritual reality which cannot be understood fully in our physical nature. This prompts us to create images in our mind, so we are able to gain some type of grasp on the concept of heaven. Creating physical images to understand spiritual realities is common among humans.

My belief is that heaven should be understood as being present with the fullness of God. While we are physically alive on earth, we get glimpses what heaven is because we receive glimpses of the presence of God. When the fullness of our spiritual being is unbound at the time of our physical death, then we will experience the fullness of God who is spiritual. Becoming aware of the fullness of God which already surrounds us now, though we are incapable of fully experiencing this fullness, is to me experiencing heaven.

As wonderful as Iowa is and a baseball field may be, it is not heaven. Heaven is present in those places but heaven is not a place of itself.

How does this align with your understanding of heaven? How do you disagree with my understanding of heaven?  

Purpose of the Church – Part 2

In my most recent post, I shared my view about what the Church was not. This begs the question, “What is the Church?” In this post, I will be focusing upon what my definition to the Church might be.

As I was discussing in the last post, I clearly do not see the Church as a building. The gathering of the Church takes place in a building at times but the building is not what defines the Church. I shared that the Church is people; people in relationship with God and in relationship with one another. People who are on a journey which we call life and entwined in that journey are relationships. The Church acknowledges that this journey is communal in nature. We discover together, we learn together, we experience together, we fail together, we succeed together, we laugh together, we cry together, we live together, and we die together.

The Church is where we experience life together. Here is where support should be found. When one of us faces struggles or uncertainty, the Church surrounds that person and walks alongside. When someone is searching, the Church shares in the search by sharing experiences. When an individual is feeling attacked, judged, mocked, ridiculed, the Church embraces that person. The Church looks out for every individual but does not control or manipulate them. The Church shares the wisdom gained by experience but does not impose that wisdom on the person but lets the person use that wisdom within their own story.

One of the misconceptions that I encounter in the Church is the idea that the Church is God. I believe that this misconception comes from the interpretations of Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

Too many have seen this as Jesus giving the Church license to judge people, exact punishments, and demand certain behaviors. Instead, I see this as Jesus indicating the responsibility of the Church to look out for the beneficial welfare of all people. This does not mean that the Church usurps God as the supreme authority.

I plan on doing one more post about the purpose of the Church. The last post will be sharing thoughts on how the Church lives out responsibilities given to Peter in the passage from Matthew 16.

Purpose of the Church – Part 1

Why does the Church exist?

This is a question that has been asked by numerous people over an endless number of years. It is a question which challenges church leaders, worship attenders, church members, and those who do not wish affiliation with any type of church. Yet, I find this to be a very fundamental question to understanding life as a Christian who has spent a majority of his life associated with the Church. So where to begin?

I have chosen to begin with a list of what the Church is not. Before I give you this list though, I wish to explain why I capitalize the word “church” at times and at other times I do not. The generally accepted rule of thumb is that if the word is being used regarding the name of a specific congregation, you capitalize the word since it is part of the formal name. If you are using the word to reference the entire body of Christ on earth, then you capitalize the word. If you are using the word as a generic term then you do not capitalize the word. Now on with the list.

What the Church is not:

  • A place to go to be “saved”
  • A place for only perfect people
  • A place to be “fixed”
  • A place to be part of the in-crowd
  • A place to be noticed
  • A place at all

You may have other items to add to the list but I wish to spend some time on the last item which I have on my list. I think it is a mistake to view the Church as a building or a location. While church buildings have specific locations, this is not how I see the Church. There is a song which I learned as a younger person, “We Are the Church,” written by Richard K Avery and Donald S Marsh. In this song, Avery wrote this line of lyrics: “The church is not a building place, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” This stanza from the song is at the core of how I understand the Church.

Beginning with an understanding that the Church is a people, gives us a launching point to discuss the question of why the Church exists in the first place. This also helps us to see why it is so difficult to understand the Church and how imperfect the Church really can be at times. People are not always the easiest to understand and definitely lack full perfection. Yet, for me, this actually allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. I can cross perfection off my list of requirements if I am going to be associated with the Church. I also have the freedom to experience the Church in a multitude of ways.

Now that I have laid out for you what the Church is not, we can move on to examine what the Church truly might be and what is its purpose. I invite you to join me on this exploration. In my next post I will be giving my definition of the Church. I would also like to hear your thoughts and opinions on this subject so please leave comments and questions as we journey this path together. Hint: the thought of a journey together will come into view again.