Treasuring the Uncomfortable Church

One of my reading goals for 2018 is to tackle Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For a myriad of reasons, I need to absorb his hard won wisdom, but most of all I want to lean into his observations about Christian community in the crucible of “life together” in a secret seminary under the looming threat of Nazi persecution. Somehow, in the most challenging of historical contexts, Bonhoeffer was able to address the disconnect between the “dream of a Christian community” and “the Christian community itself.”

Waking up from his own dream church, Bret McCracken confesses that there are a good many facets of his own fellowship — and even about the Christian faith — that rub him the wrong way. In Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community  he analyzes, laments, and offers perspective on the struggle, for as the old saw goes, even if you are fortunate enough to find the perfect church, you will surely ruin it when you join. (Did you know this came originally from Spurgeon?)

Of course, all this insight doesn’t stop us from fantasizing about the ideal facility, the perfect constellation of ministries, a doctrinal statement and liturgical bent that fit like a glove, and the “perfect” Sunday morning music . . . alongside a good cup of strong coffee.  We are immersed in a culture that encourages us to inflate our wants until they take on the dimensions of a need. However, part of the amphibious nature of the Christian experience is that “what we think we want from a church is almost never what we need.” (Loc 302).

“Commitment even amidst discomfort, faithfulness even amidst disappointment: this is what being the people of God has always been about.”

Why the Church Seems So Uncomfortable

Devoting one chapter to each topic, McCracken explores the difficult aspects of following Jesus:

  • The uncomfortable cross that requires an embrace of suffering and sacrifice;
  • The uncomfortable call to be a set-apart people, pursing holiness and a set of values that set us at odds with the world around us;
  • A collection of counter-cultural truths around creation, hell, and sexual ethics that wreck our cool-factor and make for awkward conversational pauses;
  • The call to love outside our comfort zone and to worship beside people who annoy or puzzle us;
  • The controversial differences in worship that arise from different perspectives on God the Holy Spirit, the role of liturgy, music, prayer, and every other imaginable preference;
  • The multiple challenges around authority, unity, diversity, commitment, and even our understanding of what it means to be “comfortable” on a fallen planet.

The End of All Our Petty Preferences

One source of all this discomfort with the church and her people is a discomfort with God Himself. Author Adam McHugh describes the God we long for who “always agrees with us, . . . who always favors our nation or political agenda, [and] feeds us candy and never vegetables.” The God who sent prophets walking naked and barefoot through the streets of Jerusalem in order to make a point will not hesitate to require a modern day saint to walk a path of growth that puts comfort aside for the sake of something greater.

The call of God is a summons to embrace the discomfort of the cross and a counter-cultural call to holiness in spite of the cost to our dreams. The startling truth is that a comfortable Christianity without an instrument of torture at its center and without a message that sits us across the table eye-to-eye with an enemy and requires a loving response is not really Christianity at all.

Christ’s call to spiritual neediness, mourning, and meekness found in The Beatitudes captures the difference between comfortable Christianity and “a kingdom where worldly comforts are nothing compared to the power of the Comforter in us; where all manner of uncomfortable things are endured for righteousness’s sake.” As we look outside ourselves and assign greater value to Truth than to comfort, we find that worship is about God and not about us. We begin to value each other’s differences as we look toward the future assembly of people and nations and tongues and tribes that will one day surround us as we worship God — and as we look back on our petty preferences and wonder what all the fuss was about.


This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

UncomfortableI have begun to experiment with including an Amazon affiliate link here in my book reviews. If you should decide to purchase Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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In addition to sharing this post at The Salt and Light Link Up on Facebook, I share words with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

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Musings — October 2017

The sturdy wooden stakes that supported my tomato plants through their season of growing have been pulled and re-purposed. Now that the garden lies exhausted and well past fruition, those beat up stakes have been pressed into service holding burlap to protect our rhododendron bushes from the weight of snow and the whip of howling wind that will scour my winter backyard. Fall is a season of preparation, a time for re-tooling and battening the hatches in obedience to the gentle warning that is carried on autumn’s rasping voice.

As I read slowly through the book of Jeremiah during these fall days, I’ve been encouraged that even stalwart and stoical prophets need encouragement sometimes.  Praying his loneliness, his hurt, his anger, and his fear, Jeremiah received words of strength to carry him through a long winter of disappointment:

Jeremiah: “But why, why this chronic pain,
    this ever worsening wound and no healing in sight?
You’re nothing, God, but a mirage,
    a lovely oasis in the distance—and then nothing!”

God: “Take back those words, and I’ll take you back.
    Then you’ll stand tall before me.
Use words truly and well. Don’t stoop to cheap whining.
    Then, but only then, you’ll speak for me.
Let your words change them.
    Don’t change your words to suit them.
I’ll turn you into a steel wall,
    a thick steel wall, impregnable.
They’ll attack you but won’t put a dent in you
    because I’m at your side, defending and delivering.”

Sometimes we need to hear the Truth again:  God is still faithful.

On My Nightstand

 

Picking up C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce after a long absence, I have been surprised to find not only the expected words about the great chasm between good and evil, but also glorious truth for kicking myself out of the center of the universe. When a visitor from the bus comes unglued over her perception of the unfairness of heaven, she receives this rebuke:

“Friend, . . . [c]ould you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Good question.
What is God using these days to startle you into noticing your selfish choices?

On the Blog

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This thoroughly ransacked and flagged copy of Jayber Crow belongs to Pam Ecrement, one of the veterans of our ongoing discussion group. Once again, I’m reminded that community enhances the enjoyment of a reading experience. And did anyone else see that CT Magazine listed Jayber Crow among the top five books to read when you’re looking for a pastor? Click here to read the article. Those of us who are reading this delightful work of fiction by Wendell Berry have enjoyed pooling our observations of Jayber, the bachelor barber and “honorary pastor” of Port William, Kentucky.

I was thankful to be able to share Kelli Worrall’s Pierced and Embraced on the blog at the beginning of the month. In her study of the lives of women in the New Testament, she was startled to note that Jesus’  manner of dealing with women was a uniquely gentle pursuit of their hearts, a piercing embrace. It was the piercing that grabbed Kelli’s attention in the midst of her struggles with infertility and the heartbreak of three miscarriages. She raged against the unfairness and felt abandoned by God until He helped her to see the embrace of His love that came alongside the piercing.

Some of you may remember Liz Curtis Higgs polling her Facebook friends some time ago to discover their favorite verses from the book of Proverbs. Well, she narrowed the list down to the top 31 Proverbs to Light Your Patha month’s worth of daily wisdom, comfort — and jarring insights. The application of ancient truth to a thoroughly modern life begins with opening the pages of Scripture and allowing the Spirit of God to speak Truth into our words, our relationships, and our motives as we are led along His straight paths.

Our gatherings around the table for feasting and fun are symbolic, a pale adumbration of a larger feast, and Sally Clarkson points her readers toward this truth in The Lifegiving TableRemembering her own family’s heritage of traditions, she shares her motivation behind it all: “The soul satisfaction of belonging to one another, the anchor of commonly held traditions, and the understanding that our home was a sanctuary from all the pressures and storms of life.” (5)

 

In Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, Dr. John Dunlop asks,“How can such a tragedy as dementia be dignified, and how in the world can God be honored through it?” He’s well-qualified to seek the answer to his question. As a geriatrician (a medical doctor trained to meet the special health issues of older people), he has worked with dementia patients and their families professionally. He has also experienced the challenges of dementia from the patient’s perspective as he walked that hard path with his mother, his father, and his mother-in-law, so I was grateful to be able to pass his wisdom along to readers in my review.

And then, finally, Unseen is the product of Sara Hagerty’s collision course with the beautiful “waste” of a poured out life that hides behind hardship, disappointment, challenging circumstances, or the simple routine of an obedient following. We will never know the comfort of God as our “refuge and strength” until we come to a place in our lives in which we need to take refuge.  It’s clear that “our hidden places aren’t signs of God’s displeasure or punishment,” but rather places in which God intends to teach our hearts to sing. (33)

Cancer Journey

Cancer is this month’s theme for The Redbud Post, and I was able to add my voice to the message that cancer does not have the final say by contributing a compilation of five book reviews from various perspectives on the topic. My hope is that this will be a resource to those who are learning the grace lessons of a day-to-day struggle with cancer.  I’d love it if you’d join me over there, and be sure to check out the other offerings and share, as appropriate, with those in your life who need the encouragement that cancer does not have the last word.

On My Mind

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Some of you may have seen my announcement on Facebook about the new Living Our Days Facebook page. This was a project that had been on my mind for quite some time, but an upcoming guest post in which the host specifically asked for a link to a “public” Facebook page pushed me into accepting the help of my gifted friend Abby to bring it to pass.  Click here to visit, and while you’re there I hope you’ll give it a “like” and share any relevant content with your own Facebook community.

I also encourage you to drop in on my friend Abby’s site, Little Birdie Blessings, a place of Christian encouragement that features vintage images she creates and shares (daily!) along with hymns, Scripture, and inspiring quotes.

This picture of Abby’s kitchen table with our two laptops glowing and our coffee getting cold while we worked and chatted has become a symbol for me of the community that has become so much a part of this blogging life. It is a privilege to write words that are read by receptive hearts. Thank you for the gift of your presence here and for your faithful encouragement.
Blessings and love to you.


If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Life, Life, and More Life

We picked raspberries a couple of weeks ago — the free kind that grow along the edges of fields and in the company of thistles.  They were succulent.  I could wrap words around a description of raspberry picking:  the gentle encompassing pressure that releases a perfectly ripe berry from its stem; the empty white cone that is left behind on the bush; the scratches on hands and forearms;  the sticky red fingertips that carry home the smell of summer and bee-buzzing sweetness.  But — there is no literary technique, no class in horticulture that comes close to the essence of picking raspberries.  For this, one must go into the bushes and experience life in the raspberry patch.

This is the nature of knowing God as well, for Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and to live from the heart what we know in our heads, we must go crashing into the bushes with the thistles, thorns, and mosquitoes.  This is the message of this first volume (2003) of Eugene Peterson’s classic series of five conversations on spiritual theology.  The term “spiritual theology” refers to “the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understandings and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocused ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.'” (5)

Peterson borrows a theme from Gerard Manley Hopkins and expands upon it with engaging examples and sharp Scriptural observations that argue for this truth:

“The end of all Christian belief and obedience, witness and teaching, marriage and family, leisure and work life, preaching and pastoral work is the living of everything we know about God:  life, life, and more life.” (1)

He goes on to support his argument through beautifully detailed exposition of three of those “ten thousand places” in which Christ plays and in which we all go about the business of living our days.

Christ Plays in Creation

Creation’s Firstborn  invites believers into a life of wonder.  The Greek word kerygmaa “public proclamation that brings what it proclaims into historical reality,” (53) frames the impact of His miraculous birth and sends readers looking to the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 for help in shaping a Christ-following life.  Firmly grounded in time and space, we find that the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are also gifts marked by the sacredness of creation.  John’s Gospel affirms in “theological poetry” (87) that Jesus was indeed “at play” in the Genesis creation.

Christ Plays in History

As creation points our thoughts toward life, history outside the Garden of Eden has been characterized by a series of deaths.  Even so kerygma — good news! — appears in the midst of the mess because the death of Jesus redeems the mess of history and takes the edge off the truth that one day death will come to each of us.

“This conjunction of death, Jesus’ and mine, is where I begin to understand and receive salvation.” (143)

Peterson takes his readers to Exodus as a grounding text, rich in the history of God’s people, but particularly in the action of a holy (and often wholly inexplicable) God.  The Gospel of Mark also deals in history, for with his succinct and economical style, Mark pioneered a new genre in which Jesus is the subject, but the content — rather than focusing on the background, emotions, or internal dialogue of the main character — is all about salvation, the redemption of every part of history:  the world’s and my own.

Christ Plays in Community

If the birth of Jesus and the creation of the world ground us in life; and if Jesus’ death has redeemed history from the stench of meaningless death; then the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for a life lived in community.  “Jesus’ resurrection is the final kerygmatic ‘piece’ that, together with his birth and death, sets the good news, the gospel, in motion and creates the Christian life.” (230)

The spiritual formation that makes community possible is the work of the Spirit, and this is nowhere more clear than in Luke’s New Testament writing about the ministry of Christ and the early church with 17 references to the Holy Spirit in his Gospel and 57 in the book of Acts.  In spite of persecution and imprisonment, Luke uses the word “unhindered” (akoluto) to describe Paul’s ministry under house arrest.  This irony minimizes the obstacles and invites present-day believers, who are “constantly tempted to use the world’s means to do Jesus’ work,” (299) into the unhindered life of prayerful obedience, hospitality, and submission to the means and methods of kingdom living. Perfection is the enemy of community and love is the fuel, a I John 4:21-style love that “purg[es] [the] imagination of the barnacles, parasites, and grime that have accumulated around the word ‘love’ so that Jesus and the Jesus story becomes clear.” (328)

Eugene Peterson and Gerard Manley Hopkins harmonize in the challenge to seek Christ in creation, history, and community and in any of the ten thousand places in which He plays.  Finding Christ in all of life is the single unifying experience that brings wholeness to our theology and moves us toward a faith that honors the risen Christ and puts His resurrection life on display.

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This book was provided by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you are interested in pursuing the topic of spiritual theology through more of Eugene Peterson’s writing, I can recommend book five in the series, Practice Resurrection, through my review here.  And his most recent book expands Peterson’s thoughts on the writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire along with a collection of Eugene Peterson’s sermons.  I’ve shared my thoughts on the book here.

And . . .. . . stay tuned for details and a reading schedule for Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m looking forward to a discussion here each Thursday from September 7 through November 16.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Awakening Courage in Community

Whether it’s feelings of inadequacy, parenting anxieties, or panic over the latest terrorist tactics in the news, the challenge to face down our fears and to move forward into new, healthful, and bold behaviors is a common thread for January writing and thinking.  The problem, however, with this seasonal booster is that the need for courage doesn’t expire on February 1.

Fear Fighting is a year-round calling and Kelly Balarie is a natural born cheerleader, committed to awakening courage in her readers.  She has earned some pretty impressive credentials as a fear fighter in her battles with an eating disorder, depression, financial stresses, and family tragedies.  She has learned, first hand, that transformation is an act of God that takes place in the present tense.  With a raised fist, she trumpets the invitation to be a modern-day Deborah, the fiery woman from the time of the Old Testament Judges who dared to ask questions, listened for God’s answers, ejected the enemy’s lies, timed her move, and then acted in confident belief without fear — because she knew where she was going.

Since no one is completely fearless, everyone can fear less, and learning to live as a fear fighter is best accomplished in community.  Kelly has flung the doors open wide, inviting readers into her story and into a network of like-minded warriors through her website and her blog. (Click to visit!)

Fear fighting is a process and growth happens one step at a time.  The question that comes to my mind is this:  What would you do to a friend who lied to you as often as your fears have?  This helpful filter (p. 64) is a tool for identifying the voice inside your head:

  1.  If it woos with the voice of love, it is God.
  2. If it calls you closer to God, it is God.
  3. If it speaks truth, it is God.
  4. If it wants to beat you, tie you, and throw you out back for always being despicable, it is not God.  

“Anything not founded in love does not equal God.”

It is no surprise to me that thousands of years ago, Isaiah the prophet also expressed the invitation to become a fear fighter:

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,”  Isaiah 41:10.

In these early days of 2017, it’s a great time to admit to the reality of fears that whisper words of condemnation and failure and to accept the help of others, to learn from their stories, and, most crucially, to enter into the transforming Truth of God’s Word.

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This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group,  in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

captureJoin me here on Thursday for week one of a book discussion group on C.S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces.

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

 

The Freedom is in the Falling

Because I’m a planner, I carry a planner, but the truth is that my planner carries me.  All pristine and un-besmirched, the 2017 edition holds out the promise of glorious accomplishment and blessed organization in a life that often feels like spinning plates and chaos management.  Shannan Martin started her marriage and motherhood in much the same way.  Plan-the-work-and-work-the-plan as a way of life had secured for her and her husband their dream farm with a cute little family and a life that had all the trappings of security.  In a journey that began with the hunch that God might be leading them to move — literally — outside their comfort zone, the Martins said good-bye to predictability and hello to an address that had always seemed to them like “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Memoir meets manifesto in Falling Free, for Shannan not only shares her story, but also describes the safety she found in risk and the stunning realization that when we say, “God is all I need,” we may be asked to make good on those words.   The Martins’ income plummeted to make space for ministry in a life that became centered around a community that included a struggling public school and a circle of friends who had done jail time, who struggled with addictions, and who continually battled poverty.

It is no understatement to say that Falling Free challenged some of the assumptions and guiding principles of this homeschooling mum who can just barely see the smoke from her neighbor’s chimney. Reading about Shannan’s “rescue from the life she always wanted” allowed me to consider some fairly uncomfortable concepts:

  • God reserves the right to do the unexpected and to move His people in unlikely directions.  He is unpredictable and has not “settled down” since Old Testament times.
  • True family transcends DNA and mirrors the welcome that God extends in the gospel.
  • It’s hard to pine for heaven when you already believe you’re there.”  For North American Christians, our stuff is a serious obstacle to living an authentic Christian life.
  • Our most valuable offering to those in need is our “good standing.”  One of the greatest needs of the poor is a future: a way to secure employment, stability, and a permanent address.
  • Missional living makes for missional parenting and produces missional kids.  If God calls a believer to ministry in an area with failing schools, He is asking her to trust Him with her children’s education.

It was delightful to read about Shannan and her family bonding with their newly adopted community around plates of pasta and garlic bread (often well-done).  She testifies to the efficacy of the “unfancy dinner table” and to this stunning truth:

“If community is the heartbeat of the gospel, hospitality is the hand that opens the door and waves it in.”

Falling Free unpacks the biblical image of Jesus “moving into the neighborhood” by first inviting readers to picture someone on the lowest rung of their social ladder — a homeless, meth-addict, for instance.  Shannan first nails the pity and lack of respect that I would feel toward her — and then suggests that my trading lives with that addict would not even begin to approach the utter humiliation of the incarnation.  Embracing my own smallness is more than a matter of having less.  It is about being less, like Jesus, when He “took the form of a servant and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” — less, last, and ordinary.

In a culture that encourages all of us precious believing snowflakes to “shop” for our “perfect church” that “meets our needs,” Shannan reminds her readers that the Kingdom of God is full of surprises.  God may ask us to sink our roots deep into a community that wounds us and exacts a deep cost to our souls while satisfying nothing on our personal wish list.  This is Jesus’ invitation, made explicit in the Beatitudes, but inexplicable to my preferred business plan that’s built around “blessed are the sensible and those who serve dinner on time.”

Not everyone will be called to join the Martin family in the weightless free fall, but the principles that guided their choices and the insights they gained in the process are choreography for my own choices and priorities in this world where I am called to dance the love and the life of Christ.

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This book was provided by Thomas Nelson through the BookLookBloggers program in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

An Announcement for January

Most of us have a favorite C.S. Lewis book, whether it’s the incisive practical theology of Mere Christianity or the glorious story-telling found in The Chronicles of Narnia.  It turns out that C.S. Lewis’s favorite of all his books was Till We Have Faces.  One Lewis scholar calls it his “most subtle treatment of the relation between good and evil.”  It’s a novel, based on the mythical tale of Cupid and Psyche, and in it, Lewis explores themes such as the selfishness of human love, the limits of reason, the corrupting effects of self-will, and in Lewis’s own words, “the havoc a vocation or even a faith works on human life.”   I’m planning to lead a discussion group about the book starting in January, and am hoping that many of you will join me, so here’s a quick overview of the plan:

  1.  The pace will be leisurely at three chapters per week (about 30-ish pages), which will take us into the beginning of March.
  2. I will be posting weekly starting January 5 (Thursdays) with introductory material and a detailed reading schedule.  My hope is that the comments section here at Living Our Days will become a comfy living room where we can discuss our thoughts on the book.  If you blog, PLEASE plan to include a link to your post about the week’s reading so that we can all benefit from one another’s impressions with more detail than is possible in the comments.  If you don’t blog, no worries.  Just share your thoughts in connection with the weekly reading here, and be sure to visit and respond to others.

More details to follow!

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I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Come Together for the Better

Weekly we gather — seldom daily as they did in New Testament times, the era of ravenous lions and Nero’s flaming, pitch-dipped Christians, human torches to light his gardens.  Lugging our three pound Bibles and a week’s worth of accumulated angst, we gather, having in common our hearts of flesh and likely the scar tissue where hearts of stone rubbed us raw in time past.

“Coming together” Paul calls it at least four times in his Corinthian communiqué, and he chides that congregation for coming together “for the worse.”  By contrast, he launches into what amounts to a reenactment of Jesus’ last Passover celebration in the Upper Room with words that have worn grooves in the church’s collective memory.  “This do in remembrance of Me.”

According to John MacArthur, Paul’s account of Jesus’ last Passover celebration in the Upper Room pre-dates the Gospels, making it the first written record of the event from which we pattern our modern day communion service.  Paul received the story that the eye-witnesses would write about later.  Let that sink in for a moment:  post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-ascension, Paul was given the privilege of writing about an event he would never have been invited to at the time.

The bread and the cup had once been the centerpiece of the early church’s coming together.  However, in keeping with human nature, it had become a hollow shell.  Indifferent, ritualistic, unrepentant, and greedy, the Corinthians gobbled bread and slurped wine without a thought for Christ’s sacrifice.  It was Paul’s intent to fill that tradition with meaning once again.

Can we say that what happens when we “come together” each week is “for the better” — for the enhancement, the building up of the Body?  Oh, we will not do it perfectly.  Not now.  Not on this planet.  But do we listen more than we speak?  Do we ask questions like a bridge from heart to heart —  and then really pay attention to the answers that travel back to us on that bridge?  Can we bear in mind that the point of our gathering has very little to do with order of service or music style or whose turn it is to serve in the nursery?

Whatever our tradition — bread cubes and grape juice, matzo and wine, daily, weekly, or monthly — when we gather “for the better,” we receive the story anew.  We lift up the Gospel of Truth and put the wonder of incarnation on display, demonstrating that we are committed to a Kingdom that is both already and not-yet.

Here in New England, church attendance is no longer a cultural norm.  Unbelievers (and even some Christians) have accounted for the church in the column labeled “irrelevant,” but — whether by curiosity or by compulsion — if an unbeliever enters our fellowship, what would be his impression of our “coming together?”  It’s no surprise that Paul had thoughts on this.  His goal was that an “outsider” be convicted, called to account, and overcome by the reality of God’s presence.

If awe is a contagious condition, is anyone who wanders into my fellowship at risk?

Are the bread and the cup, the ministry of the Word, the lifting of voices, and the offering of gifts an empty tradition, a hollow shell —  or does grace flow like wine?

Are hearts nourished with the Living Bread until the truth overflows and splashes, soaking believers and unbelievers alike with the glorious outcome of having come together “for the better.”

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

The Glorious Right Angle

The patient husband and I have challenged ourselves to be more purposeful in our practice of hospitality this year — to “meet the stranger at the gate” in our own little rural setting by inviting someone new and different into our home each month.  January was wonderful!  We enjoyed an evening with a couple we’ve worshipped with for a long time, but have never (shame on us!) taken time to get really connected.

Hospitality is really not all about preparing food and vacuuming up the dog hair before the guests arrive.  Karen Mains defines it as “serving people and making them feel welcome and wanted.”  Dorothy Patterson emphasizes hospitality’s “unselfish desire to meet the needs of others.”  Of course, a nice meal and candles on the table created that welcoming environment, but the writer of Hebrews is cheering me along and clarifying my thinking about this practical discipline, basing his encouragement upon the solid foundation of our open invitation to enter the presence of God.  In the first eighteen verses he reviews the amazing provision that comes to us through the offering of Christ’s body.  I’ve highlighted “therefore,” because the rest of the chapter follows from a relationship based upon this understanding and embrace of New Covenant realities highlighted in pink:

Capture
Biblegateway.com has a highlighting feature that makes it possible for you to organize your thoughts as you study a passage!

 

The blue highlighted phrases are God’s invitation to draw near, to live in unwavering hope, and to enter into community for the purpose of maximum love and acts of righteousness.

This summons to community is a demonstration of the exquisite geometry of God’s grace which flows vertically into the life of a believer.  Then, in a healthy community, it keeps on moving at a right angle, bent outward, into the life of another.  This is the “mechanics” behind the work of the Spirit in gifting believers for mutual care:  encouraging, strengthening, warning, comforting one another.  According to I Corinthians 12:8-10, when the church gathers, God gives gifts for whatever needs to be done.  As each one expresses her unique combination of gifts in her own distinct way, the glorious right angle of God’s grace flows and needs are met through love and good works.

  • This is how we draw near to God.  In community, we see God more clearly because He becomes visible in His people.  John Piper challenged his congregation whenever they learned anything new about God to share it with someone else right away!
  • This is how we hold fast in hope.  Amy Carmichael urged her orphanage staff members to “hold one another to the highest” — a most gracious way of saying, “Confront one another about unworthy attitudes, sloppy discipleship, and faithless communication.”

This assumes, of course, that when we gather, each one is in the business of “considering one another,” that is to say,  looking past the end of my own nose to the needs of someone else.  This also assumes a level of interaction that really is not practical in the context of Sunday morning worship.  While Hebrews 10:24, 25 has been used as a call to roll out of bed on Sunday morning and get yourself to church, the work of getting close, staying close, and going deep with one another requires something more.

Hebrews 10:25 ends with an air of urgency, indicating that mutual care may become increasingly essential the further we progress along the arc of redemptive history.  The “perilous times” that Paul predicts in II Timothy are not an excuse to download those plans for a family bunker and then take refuge — unless you invite your neighbors into the bunker with you!  What we see here is a call for an even more intense focus, a greater leaning into the spiritual discipline of fellowship “as you see the Day approaching.”

Will you join me in the challenge to “stir up love and good works” through the ministry of hospitality?  We’re only just beginning, because plans for February didn’t work out.  The couple invited had to cancel:  their adorable granddaughter was born several weeks early!  Nonetheless, we’re committed to reschedule for the month of March.  It’s pretty much a guarantee that the house won’t be as clean as I’d like, but the food will be plentiful, the boys will be rowdy, the socially overwhelming “home-schooled” St. Bernard will be banished to the basement, and we will follow God’s prescription.  We will draw near to Him; we will hold fast to our hope in Him; and we will let His power and blessing flow through us into the lives of others.

**Be sure to share (in the comments section) your plans/goals for mutual care based on Hebrews 10!  You’ll encourage me and others, I’m sure!

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Only three weeks left in our study of The Epistle to the Hebrews, a letter to a congregation of struggling Jewish Christians written by an unknown author sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  My Sunday school class and I will be landing on a few verses in each chapter with the goal of getting an overview of this fascinating and complex book.  These mid-week reflections and observations are intended to initiate a deeper pondering of the week’s assignment in preparation for our discussion the following Sunday. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s last week’s blog post.

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