Tag Archives: body

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

Separate but Equal?–Sacred Sexes

IMG_0869

“If we are a holy community, each of us touched by the presence of God, then why do you set yourselves above the rest of us?”

The question could easily have been asked by any of us who wrestle with the question of gender and roles. I read the equivalent sentiment in much of the literature I am sifting through in preparation for the Women in Leadership and Ministry course I will be teaching this summer. Its underlying assumption is that if we distinguish between groups of people, reserving certain roles for some (and withholding them from others), then we are necessarily introducing a hierarchy in which some people will be attributed greater value than others.

And it doesn’t take long to find painful examples that support this assumption. The appalling treatment of African-Americans under the banner of “Separate but Equal” unmasks the self-serving intentions of those who promoted it. But is the position itself untenable?

Does differentiation necessarily result in subordination?

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”
Numbers 16:3

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram certainly thought so. This was the essence of their complaint against Aaron and Moses. If the whole nation had been set aside as a kingdom of priests, then why were only Aaron and his sons wearing the special robes? If God was with all of them, then why could only Moses speak authoritatively to the assembly on His behalf?

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”
Numbers 12:1-2

Funnily enough, the same complaint had been raised just a few chapters earlier, this time by Miriam and Aaron against Moses. Each of these three siblings had played a significant role in leading God’s people out of Egypt. And each of them had a significant ongoing role in the nurture and oversight of the assembly. But the fact that certain roles were being withheld from them made Miriam and Aaron feel threatened and inferior.

All three of them had partnered together and risked much to give birth to this fledgling nation, but now Moses was acting like he was in charge of everyone, including his older brother and sister. Sure, Moses was the one God met with face-to-face. He was the one to whom God had given the law. But hadn’t God spoken through them in powerful ways, too? Somehow the authority invested in Moses, no matter how humbly executed, made them feel like he was being treated as better than them.

“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor.
Exodus 28:1-2

Moses could have felt the same way when God picked Aaron and his sons to be the priests, not him. All this time he had been functioning as high priest for the nation, offering up sacrifices on their behalf, instructing them in the law of God, and carrying their needs into God’s presence. He could have felt threatened or demeaned when God bypassed him and gave this special honor to Aaron and his descendants.

Likewise, Aaron could have been jealous of the way that God revealed Himself to Miriam in visions and dreams. He could have been threatened by her powerful woman’s voice, speaking God’s word and leading the multitude in Spirit-filled songs of worship.

At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out. Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words: “When there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
Numbers 12:4-8

The point was that each of these siblings had been chosen by God to function in a particular role, no one greater than the other but each one distinct from the other. God spoke directly to each of them, but that didn’t make all of them equally prophets, priests, and kings. The authority invested in Moses had come from God, not himself. His use of it was a faithful outworking of His service to God, as were Aaron’s privileged position in the tabernacle and Miriam’s intimate encounters with the Spirit. God answered definitively: To question or deny the distinctions He had set up was to go against Him.

Thankfully things ended better for Miriam than they did for the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And I trust God looks mercifully on us as we wrestle through similar questions. So much social oppression has been perpetrated in the name of God and authority that I think it fitting for us to step back and question the basis of the role restrictions we have traditionally assigned to women. To the extent that these are man-made distinctions, fabricated by our historic cultural values rather than assigned by God, we reflect God’s heart for the oppressed when we question and tear them down.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. …those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. …But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
1 Cor. 12:4-5, 18-25

At the same time, I reject the assumption that to maintain any distinction between male and female roles is necessarily to slot one under the other. Is not differentiation possible without stratification? Rather than picture one particular role over another, with greater assigned value or superior spiritual power, I think the kingdom of God functions with both the distinction and equality of the Trinity. As we each function according to the particular gifting and unique calling God has placed on us, we do so in direct service to Him and, Lord willing, in humble love for each other.

What God has joined together, let none of us tear apart.

Faded Glory

My friend is dying.

attachmentOnce one of the most beautiful women I knew, her glory is fading. Cancer has sealed her throat, stopping the ready laughter and stilling the spry step that I knew her by. Pain is her constant companion, cutting her off from food, from sleep, from being able to enjoy much of anything. My soul revolts at the thought of her bright eyes dulled with pain, her pretty jaw clenched with suffering. And though her spirit fights on, her body is wasting away.

This is so wrong.

Flowers aren’t supposed to be crushed mid-bloom. Beautiful symphonies aren’t supposed to be cut off mid-note. Exquisite works of art aren’t supposed to be ruthlessly defaced.

And yet death doesn’t follow my rules.

It insists on corroding beauty, on stealing away the final remnant of God’s image in human flesh. And as I watch it do its nasty work in my friend, my soul cries out in protest.

I feel like I am watching glory depart from a temple.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes…”
Say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary–the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection.
Ezekiel 24:15-16, 21

Ezekiel bore the burden of this agonizing process twice over, both times helplessly watching the delight of his eyes being snuffed out. His wife’s premature death was more than a personal loss—it was a tangible enactment of the bigger story he was a part of. That story was one that he was chosen by God to witness and proclaim: the departure of God’s glory from His temple.

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.
Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 9:3; 10:18-19

Carried up in a vision to see it happening, Ezekiel could hardly bear the sight of God’s Spirit leaving the Jerusalem temple. Like the worst kind of death, the fading glory of God’s presence lifting out of its physical dwelling tore at his heart, bereaving him of his most beautiful treasure. What had been a magnificent structure, befitting the glorious Spirit who filled it, was left behind to decay and crumble.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.
I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Ezekiel 37:5-6, 26-27

But in the midst of his overwhelming grief, Ezekiel was assured that both of these losses were a gruesome step in an otherwise glorious process. The Spirit would return; the glory would re-ignite. But it wouldn’t look the way it had before. The destruction of one beautiful structure was making room for another.

The glory of the replacement would far outshine the original.

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
This season we celebrate the return of God’s glory to its temple, the coming of His Spirit to a new physical dwelling. Expected and yet not, the birth of Jesus was the reunification of Spirit with body. The glory of heaven returned to earth. The fullness of God contained in one physical space. And yet it didn’t stop there.

The destruction of that temple gave rise to another. The desecration of that sanctuary sanctified another. The emptying of that body gave fullness to another.

This is the reality in which my friend is now participating. Body and soul, she is an integral part of that majestic dwelling, the earthly temple of the Heavenly Spirit. Her life on earth has been a glorious reflection of the Spirit in whose image she was created. The beauty of her face has mirrored the beauty of her spirit, full of joy, of love, of life.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.
1 Peter 3:3-6

And now as her physical beauty fades, the beauty within shines all the more brightly. She has spent a lifetime gazing on the beauty of God, and the beauty of His Spirit has settled deep within hers. Even as her bodily temple is being destroyed, her truest beauty remains unscathed, radiant for all to see.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
1 Corinthians 6:19; 15:36-37, 42-43, 54

As much as it breaks my heart to hear of her suffering, to know of her slow, painful demise, I look forward through my tears to the end of her story. Her magnificent temple is crumbling, but it is making way for another. The beautiful form by which I have always recognized her will depart, but the spirit it has housed will one day return to its dwelling. I don’t know what that new version will look like, but I do know it will be even more gloriously beautiful than the old.

Death may win this day. But it will lose that one.

Unfading glory.

As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1987 Make Way Music

When Image Matters

I was rushing down the path to class the other morning, doing my best to stay dry. The tropical rain had turned the red dirt road into a flowing mud gulley, but I wasn’t worried. I had cleverly worn my flip-flops and tucked my more professional looking shoes up under my arm to put on when I arrived at the classroom. My mind focused on the extensive content and carefully crafted powerpoint that I was about to present.

I arrived just as the singing began: the rich, harmonized sound of a roomful of African voices raised in worship. Slipping into my seat among the professors at the back, it took me a moment to realize that one of the students was politely trying to get my attention. I followed her gaze down to my legs, and realized that the backs of them were streaked with the red, liquid earth. Mortified, I slipped out of the room and followed her directions to the outdoor cement structure that housed the toilets. I went to work wiping the dark lines off of my white legs, only to discover that the entire back of my dress was covered with mud.

We reflect an imperfect image of our glorious Creator.

My impulse was to wipe off what I could and simply carry on with a dirty dress, but one look at my student’s expression told me that was not an option. To stand before a class of mature, well-groomed master’s degree students looking like that would communicate profound disrespect, towards myself and towards them. As their teacher, my image was bound up with their honor.

As I charged back up the hill for a change of clothes and rushed back down to be in time for class, my mind went to one of the central points that I have been teaching in my Spiritual Formation class this week. If we are made in the image of God, then we are designed to display to a watching world what He looks like. To the extent that we reflect His nature accurately, we bring Him glory.

But what about when the reflection is muddied? What about when the image is marred, smeared with the grime of guilt and shame?

We are familiar with the idea of our own sinful choices corrupting the image of God in us. But we too often overlook the involuntary nature of shame. Despite our best efforts, shame has this way of splashing up and covering us in its degrading ugliness.
Like me standing there in my poor, mud-spattered dress, it redefines our image.

Sharing His image means sharing His glory.

But whatever the cause of our sullied image, the issue remains the same. We reflect an imperfect image of our glorious Creator. Despite how the saying goes, these mirrors do lie. And even though we would like to think that He is above being affected by our choices, the fact is that in entrusting His image to us, He has connected His reputation with ours. His honor is bound up in our image.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:25-26

That level of responsibility baffles me. If only I could wipe my image clean as easily as I wiped my legs and changed my clothes. And yet that is the precisely the language used to describe what God does for us. He washes the filth from our bodies and cleanses the impurity from our souls. He takes us through the long, intensive beauty treatment of a bride being prepared for her groom.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18

Nothing about this image make-over is convenient. Sometimes it hurts. Often we cry out in irritation or pain, wondering what He is up to and why He is so hard on us.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Revelation 21:2

But He knows exactly what He is doing. He has already revealed it to us. God is preparing us to be His bride, to be bound to Him in a forever kind of love. When it’s finally time, He will unveil His finished product: a beautifully decked-out bride, a gloriously perfect counterpart of Himself.

…”Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
Revelation 19:7-8

Now that is an image that I don’t mind going out of my way to cultivate. Bearing His image requires sacrificial devotion to living up to His reputation. But sharing His image also means sharing His glory.

I can’t wait.