Tag Archives: temple

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

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When the Spirit Doesn’t Come

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I can think of few experiences more disheartening than seeking God’s face and not finding it. We struggle enough to remember Him in our busy daily lives, to hunger for Him in the midst of so many competing attractions. But when we finally say no to everything else and discipline ourselves to tune in to His voice, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal when He doesn’t immediately reward our efforts with a blissful mountaintop experience.

We want spiritual climax without the amorous preliminaries. We want a relational harvest without the months of weeding, planting, watering, and waiting. Underlying our efforts at holiness and our attempts at devotion, we have this absurd assumption that God should feel honored by our intentions and be standing at attention, ready to jump whenever we feel like spending some time with Him.

Somewhere between the extremes of slavish groveling and childish petulance, we struggle to know exactly what we should expect of God relationally. Is He the sovereign, almighty King into whose holy presence we are unfit to ascend, or is He the compassionate Father who stands with arms ever spread just waiting for us to come home?

Looking back over the course of history, He is a good deal of both. The Spirit comes when His people call, but not always on cue.

When the slaves in Egypt cried out for God to come, He kept them waiting awhile. After their deliverance (and according to His instructions), they worked hard and long to prepare a place where they could continue to meet with Him. And when the tabernacle was built, the people purified, and the priests consecrated, God’s glory cloud visibly descended and filled that space, providing a very real experience of His presence among His people.

Similarly, when David took proactive steps to create a dwelling place where the Spirit could come in all His glory, he received a promise for the future rather than the immediate answer he was looking for. His son Solomon picked up where he left off, clearing the ground, laying the foundation, and building a magnificent structure faithful to its heavenly counterpart and worthy of its divine Tenant. And when the temple was finally built, the sacrifices offered, and the prayers lifted up, God’s Spirit once again came in an overwhelmingly tangible form, His presence gloriously visible to all who had gathered to partake of it.

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel… And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
…The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:16-21

Perhaps the most perplexing wait was the one the worshippers experienced in the post-exilic temple. After years of crying out in exile, risking life and limb to trickle back into the land, building walls with sword in one hand and trowel in another, and finally managing to erect a slightly diminished but nonetheless glorious temple, the Spirit didn’t show up. The people had assembled, the sacrifices had been offered, and the priests installed, but the glory cloud never came. No smoke. No fire. No filling.

Though they couldn’t have understood it at the time, the Spirit was planning to return differently than they had expected, and much later in history than they had in mind. In the meantime, how were they to feel? As though they hadn’t tried hard enough, or maybe they had missed some prerequisite that God had intended of them? Or perhaps it was God’s fault. Maybe He had quit on them or no longer cared. In moments of faith they could see His presence through the small favors He sent their way, but the long waiting with little visible evidence of His coming made it hard to keep seeking His face.

The tiny bundle of flesh carried into that temple in his mother’s arms hundreds of years later would contain the longed-for Spirit, but only those who hadn’t quit watching for it would recognize His coming.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 1:4, 2:1-4

He would be the one to pour out the same Spirit on another group of waiting worshippers who had gathered, been purified, and were faithfully offering up sacrifices of praise. Who knows what the disciples were expecting or even if they were expecting at that time, but when fire and wind descended from heaven to fill their house, I think they all knew that the Spirit had come. The wait had been worth it.

Thankfully we don’t have to wait for centuries to experience the Spirit’s presence with us now. Each ray of sun touches us with His warmth; each meal on our table fills us with His provision. And more than that, God’s Spirit testifies directly with ours that we are securely loved, not abandoned. At times He meets with us in powerfully tangible ways, speaking into our minds and moving in our hearts in a manner indescribable but no less real. At other times He seems silent and inactive, provoking us to frustration and longing.

But even this desire for Him to come is the fruit of His presence already at work in us. It is the wind behind the faith that keeps us walking and waiting, preparing our hearts and creating space in our lives for the Spirit to move. He may not come when or how we expect. But when He comes, the soul feels its worth.

And-It-Is-Not-You

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When our childhood rhyme ended with the finger pointing at me, that final verdict always left with me with a sense of “not good enough” (unless, of course, our lot-casting was over some unwanted task). It dashed my hopes of being the chosen one, singled out for some special privilege or honor.

In our life-long quest for significance, we dread that moment of being passed over for someone else. We want God to pick us for some major contribution to humanity or some significant kingdom work. It becomes increasingly disconcerting as life unfolds and we feel we have little to show for it. What happened to ending poverty by the time we were thirty, saving North Korea by forty, and publishing books on it by fifty? But perhaps we are looking at our lives from the completely wrong angle.

David was not It.

They brought the ark of God and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and they presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before God. …

Ascribe to the LORD, all you families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. …  Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”

1 Chronicles 16:1, 28-31

After years of dedicated service to God by the power of the Spirit, David longed for nothing more than to build a monument to God’s name. This would be the culmination of all he had worked for. Zeal for God’s house had compelled him to complete the unsavoury task of purging the land from those God had commanded his predecessors to destroy, to set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace, and to retrieve the ark from its shed and bring it up to the highest point in his new capitol city. The final step would be to build a glorious temple in which it could be properly honored, a house of prayer to which all nations could come and from which God’s blessing could flow to the ends of the earth.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in.

‘I declare to you that the LORD will build a house for you: When your days are over and you go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. …

1 Chronicles 17:4, 11-13

Consulting the prophet on this plan almost seemed like a formality. After all, God had already anointed David as His chosen one to rule the nation. It made perfect sense that God would pick him to build the temple, too. But He didn’t. Instead He made some promise about David’s offspring getting the honor.

David said, “My son Solomon is young and inexperienced, and the house to be built for the LORD should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations. Therefore I will make preparations for it.” So David made extensive preparations before his death.

1 Chronicles 22:5

While David could have thrown up his hands in frustration or withdrawn to lick his wounded pride, he instead embraced the grander vision that God had laid out for him. After all, this wasn’t all about him. It was about being a small part of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. He still longed to see that earthly replica of God’s heavenly dwelling built in its rightful place, so he dedicated himself to equipping others to do the work that he couldn’t. He threw himself into raising funds, organizing resources, identifying talent, training leaders, and casting vision for his successor to lead the nation in creating the masterpiece he would not live to see.

Solomon wasn’t It, either.

After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?

Acts 7:45-50

As much as it might have seemed that the climax of history rested on Solomon’s crown, he was merely a stepping-stone to the next phase of God’s dwelling among men. Yes, he fulfilled the prophecy about building a temple where God’s Spirit would live and respond to the needs of His people, and the glorious structure that he completed surpassed even David’s expectations. But it was only a miniature version of a greater one to come. In fact Solomon in all his splendor was only a shadow of another King who would build the biggest temple of all.

But even Jesus wasn’t It.

After His bodily “temple” was destroyed and raised again on the third day, He might have sat back and finally enjoyed the recognition of all those people who had doubted and derided Him. In a very real sense He had arrived at His destination, conquering renegade powers, delivering His people, and establishing His reign of righteousness and peace. But His vision was much bigger than that. He wanted to build a temple that would encompass the whole cosmos, one which would include Him as the chief cornerstone, but only be complete along with the rest of us, too.

 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

John 16:7, Ephesians 4:7-10

Like the Spirit who lived within him, Jesus found greater satisfaction in distributing power than in holding on to it. He moved out of the way so that the Spirit could come transform each believing body and our corporate Body into His sacred dwelling place. And the Spirit is still in the process of doing just that: distributing gifts to different ones of us so that we can have something to contribute to the building of this same Temple.

When I am tempted to think that my significance rests on single-handedly achieving some great feat, I need to look again at the story I am living. This is not a story about me. It isn’t even really just a story about God (though He is certainly the Author and Main Character). It is a story about us: God, humans, angels, cosmic bodies, and even the earth with its plants and animals. The temple we get to be part of is greater than the sum of its parts, filling Heaven and earth and filled with the Spirit of the Infinite God. No one of us could complete it in a lifetime. But with the Spirit’s help, each one of us gets to play a significant role in helping out.

What a relief not to be It!

No Room for the Spirit

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“There’s just something missing at church. I can’t put my finger on it, but each week I come home feeling frustrated and empty.”

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by Christians of all stripes (and felt it myself)! If often falls in the context of a fair critique of artificial fellowship, program-driven worship, or pre-packaged sermons. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is a symptom of a deeper issue, one which starts in us.

The “church” of Hannah’s time was experiencing an all-time low. The spiritual leaders who had been entrusted with the holy task of ministering before the Lord and of shepherding His people were instead using their powerful position to take advantage of vulnerable women and to embezzle the offerings of faithful worshippers. Their minds were so far from the Spirit around whom their service and their facility were oriented that they didn’t recognize His work when He showed up!

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. …

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
1 Samuel 1:12-17

But that didn’t stop Hannah from encountering Him. Her desperation for a child and her deep faith that God was the only One who could give her one drove her into His presence. There, through the veil that separated her from the ark of the covenant, she communed with the Spirit in a powerful way, His prayers bubbling up on her lips and mingling with her own tearful longings. And despite Eli’s well-intentioned blunder, the Spirit spoke His blessing and assurance through His not-so-spiritually sensitive priest. Hannah left the tabernacle strengthened and encouraged, filled with the sweet satisfaction of having met with God.

Though Eli’s sons didn’t recognize it, God’s Spirit was living in their midst. He did respond to the prayers of the faithful who came seeking His face. He did take issue with their corrupt practices. And He wasn’t about to let them get away with using Him as an excuse to get what they wanted or a talisman to protect their own self-interests. So when they hauled the ark out of its holy home and put it on display before the eyes of pagan invaders, God let them lose, both the battle and the gift of His Spirit.

She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
1 Samuel 4:22; 5:7

But as He had done for Sarah when her husband devalued her glory in a similar way, God honored His Spirit’s abode in the eyes of its captors. He allowed no one to desecrate its holy form. He poured out plagues on the households of those who took it in. And He brought down in involuntary worship the idol-king who presumed to use it as a self-gratifying prop. By time He was finished with them, Dagon and his Philistine devotees were begging for the Spirit to depart from them. The care with which they sent off the ark and the gifts with which they surrounded it testified to their newfound awareness of the Spirit’s power and worth.

“I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”
Psalm 132:3-9

No wonder David prized the Spirit’s presence with him more than any other gift or accomplishment. No wonder he felt the incredible wrongness of the way the ark had been neglected, abandoned as it was in some shed in a farmer’s field. And no wonder zeal to build a proper house for the Spirit consumed him. The lack of a permanent building or organized worship hadn’t prevented David from meeting with God and enjoying the fellowship of His Spirit. But the value he placed on the Spirit drove him to honor It with the central-most space in his kingdom.

This is what I think we are too-often missing, both in our churches and in our hearts. We fail to recognize the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget to honor Its holiness, to give It central place in our thoughts, our prayers, our service, and our worship. We go through the motions of doing the right things while missing the beauty and the power of the One who could fill them with meaning and satisfaction. In short, we take the Spirit for granted.

For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.
Psalm 132:13-16

The Spirit may be the least-visible member of the Trinity, but It is certainly not the least precious. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit on us as individual believers and as a Church. This Gift is one to be treasured, adored, welcomed, and sought out. Whether our churches welcome the Spirit’s manifestations or not, whether they invoke It’s presence or not, the Spirit is with us. Both in private prayer and in corporate worship, the onus is on us to faithfully, zealously seek His face.

And as each heart prepares Him room, Heaven and nature will have cause to sing.

Photocopying Heaven, or Why Church Matters

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Why bother with church?

Millennials may be the sort with the audacity to voice (and act on) this question, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who have wrestled with it. Apart from that inevitable conversation one’s committed self has with one’s sleepy self every Sunday morning, the question lurks in the shadows for most of us each time we once again experience dissatisfaction with the worship, frustration with the preaching, or debilitating isolation from the fake fellowship.

Why keep going back for more?

Deep down we know that there is more to church than simply being encouraged in our walk with God. If we didn’t, we would have quit long ago. We toss arguments about the Bible commanding it, about us really needing it, or (least convincing of all) Christian tradition demanding it in the general direction of the question, hoping it will go away. But millennials aren’t settling for our lame reasons, and neither should we.

It should come as no surprise that we struggle to see the significance of going to church. We have lost the plot (quite literally) on what we are doing while we are there. Why all the music? The talking? The strange rituals with water and food? Why all together? Because we are ignorant (or perhaps simply unaware) of the metanarrative we are participating in, we fail to see the point.

The story of the church began long before hipsters, seeker-sensitivity, Fanny Crosby, or the Reformation. It predates the Desert Fathers, the Apostle Paul, and even the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In a sense, it began with Adam and Eve serving in God’s garden-temple, with Abraham filling the promised land with places of worship. But it really picked up when God commissioned Moses to build the first institutionalized structure for Him to meet with His people.

But why did they need a building to meet in? Wasn’t it enough that God was in their midst? Couldn’t each person simply have a nice prayer time or invite a few families over to their tent?

Those questions miss the point. They betray a fundamental assumption that the Church exists exclusively to meet the needs of its people, a fallacy almost as egocentric as thinking that God exists exclusively for me. Yes, this building would function as a visible reminder that God was with them (though the fire cloud that hung over their camp pretty effectively accomplished that purpose already). Yes, it would provide a central space where they could gather as a community and be taught by the Lord. But quite frankly, the architectural design of the tabernacle would be lousy for acoustics or visibility. It contained neither pews nor stadium seating!

The LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. …

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.”

Exodus 25:1-2, 8-9

The point was that this first building project was to be a miniature replica of God’s temple in heaven. It was so important to God that Moses get it “right” that He not only spelled out in great detail how to go about making and assembling each part, He started out by inviting Moses up into heaven to show him the original. The dimensions, the spaces, the colors, and even the furniture were all carefully crafted to correspond with their heavenly counterparts.

The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:20-22

Sure, a wooden box with gold overlay was a meager substitute for God’s heavenly footstool. And one wonders how the majestic cherubim who surround His throne felt about their man-made replicas being hammered in gold and woven into curtains. But the ark, the altar, the table with bread on it, the lampstand with its seven lights, and the tabernacle itself were all physical representations of a heavenly reality. What happened with them and in them on earth was meant to correspond with what was happening concurrently in heaven.

In the same way, when we meet as the church, we participate in heavenly realities. The plot has developed a long way since the time of that animal skin tent in the desert with its smoky meat sacrifices and rigidly defined spaces. In Christ, the veil separating us from God’s throne room has been torn and the edges of His tent have been stretched to encompass the whole earth. But we are still acting out on earth the story that He is unfolding in heaven.

What’s more, we are participating in heaven by what we do on earth. When we gather to sing songs of worship, we are joining our voices with those of the saints and angels before His throne. The prayers we say, the praises we sing, and the money we drop in the plate all ascend to His heavenly altar and invite Him to come down. In response, He feeds us from His Word and meets with us at His communion table. And then He fills us with His Spirit and commissions us to go out, carrying His blessing to the messy society, needy people, and parched earth around us.

Whether or not we realize it, all this is happening when we go to church. Our services may not reflect it, we may not feel it, but our presence and activity at church changes things, both on earth and in heaven.

It also happens to change us.

Priesting Lessons, or When God Invites Us to Dinner

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What does it mean for me to be a priest? Obviously some people are called into a specific type of priestly ministry, involving specialized training, recognition, and a particular leadership role within the church. But what about the rest of us? If a core part of our identity as believers is to be part of a priesthood, what does that actually look like?

Embracing our identity as priests should radically shape the way we go about our lives. Studying the Reformation with my children in our recent history classes has reminded me how life altering this doctrine was for the believers of that era. In a post-medieval context, it infused common people with a new boldness to approach God directly and to study the Scriptures personally. But how does this doctrine speak into an individualistic era in which we are more likely to think of our relationship with God as a personal matter and relegate our spirituality to what we experience in our private time with Him?

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob …
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Exodus 19:3-6

Like us, Moses had a long way to go in figuring out how to do this whole priest thing. He, like his ancestor Abraham, had been chosen as God’s representative on earth. But what started out as the not-so-simple task of confronting a powerful government and rescuing a group of slaves quickly turned into an even more complicated task of leading an unruly nation through its unpredictable adolescence and into its high calling of being a kingdom of priests. For starters, Moses needed a little training himself.

Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.
Exodus 18:19-20

Thankfully God sent along his father-in-law, a veteran priest from Midian (and a fellow descendent from Abraham). In addition to his invaluable advice about empowering those under him to lead, Jethro also charged Moses with the dual responsibility of taking the people’s concerns before God and of speaking God’s concerns to the people. More than that, he called Moses to live before the people in such a way that they could see what it looked like to be a priest in service to God and imitate his example. Jethro himself led by example, blessing Moses and ushering him, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel into communion with God through a sacrificial feast.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” … He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. …

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:3-8

Moses faced a steep learning curve as he was almost immediately called on by God to lead his people in a similar encounter. God was going to show up on a nearby mountain in His overwhelming power and glory. This was no small deal. It was God once again descending to inhabit a physical space on earth and to meet with His people. The first try at this on the mount of Eden had ended in disaster when the people-priests violated the terms of their employment and desecrated themselves with restricted food. This time around they would need to be more careful.

Moses went to great lengths to prepare his community for the day of God’s coming, telling them God’s words and ways, calling them to respond in obedience and faith, offering sacrifices of prayer and praise on their behalf, and teaching them to do the same. Using the same words our great High Priest would later speak as He introduced yet another communion feast, Moses applied the blood of God’s covenant to their physical bodies.

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:9-11

And amazingly, the same holy God who had traumatized them with His life-threatening thunderclouds and earth-shattering voice now invited Moses and his companions to come to His place for dinner. Just as a select few of Jesus’ disciples would later get a mountaintop glimpse of His glory, God gave these mortals the opportunity to gaze on His beauty. Feet planted on earth and eyes gazing into heaven, they ate and drank with God.

The intimacy of this absolutely floors me! And yet this is the very sort of communion that we get to share with God each time we break bread and drink wine together in His presence. Not only do we eat and drink with God at the Eucharistic altar, we also dine with Him each time we invoke His blessing on our meal and receive our daily manna with thanks. In a very real sense, when we pray over our food we are functioning as priests.

And just as communion is by nature a communal act, our priestly calling is anything but something to be limited to our private lives. We are those whom God has called into relationship with Himself so that we might represent Him to others and others to Him. His blessing on those around us is mediated by our faithfulness to intercede on their behalf before His throne and to speak on His behalf into their lives.

As we consciously live and serve in the presence of God, we become the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and man. That is what it means to be a priesthood of believers.

Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

In the Palace of the Sun King; or Why Sheep Stealing Isn’t the Problem

IMG_0002I experienced one of those “zoom in, zoom out—aha!” moments this weekend. I was wandering through the rooms of Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of its splendor that it was numbing me. The ache in my feet and the smell of the crowd became a more noticeable reality to me than the priceless works of art or the astonishingly sumptuous architecture. I left the Hall of Mirrors and veered off into a corner of the King’s Chambers, really just looking for a space to mentally regroup.

And there, with my back to the rest of the grandeur, my eyes fell on a small section of intricately carved wood paneling, slightly chipped and worn from centuries of being bumped against, but exquisite just the same. I marveled at its elaborate design and wondered about the long-gone hands that had carved it. And just as this tiny piece of golden beauty began to spark my wonderment, I noticed that it was only one of three strips of identically carved paneling arching over the same door. I turned around to see their overall effect, only to be awestruck by the vision of countless windows, doors, and an entire ceiling crisscrossed with the same carved panels, their golden patterns fading into a ribboned effect that draped the room in brilliance.

It struck me that the Church is much the same as this palace. We are the magnificent residence of our glorious King, developed and expanded over the centuries since His coronation. Each room, each section of paneling is a tiny but significant piece of its overall grandeur: no more, no less.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
John 1:35-37; 3:26

John the Baptist lived and expressed this tension in an incredibly admirable way, especially when his ministry began to rapidly dwindle as a result of the New Guy in town. Initially He had just shown up as a visitor in one of John’s services, but even then John’s public affirmation of Him resulted in two of his associate pastors walking out and joining this start-up ministry. When this Visitor set up a seemingly identical ministry just down-river, John’s remaining associates got really nervous. They felt threatened by all the people going over to Jesus, worried that His presence would put their leader “out of ministry”.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:6-8, 23, 26-27

But John wasn’t threatened. From the beginning of his ministry he had known and proclaimed that he was merely the forerunner, the one who had been sent by God to get things ready for Jesus. This was no small role, and John knew that, too. He embraced his assignment with all the gusto of someone who recognizes its prophetic significance and its practical importance. But pouring his life blood (literally) into that particular ministry did not cause John to amplify its significance at the cost of valuing the bigger picture of which it was designed to be a contributing part.

To this John replied, “…You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
John 3:27-30

When Jesus’ increase in fame and followers caused John to decrease, he welcomed it. John rejoiced that his overarching goal was being accomplished, even if that meant he was being made redundant. He gladly faded into the background of the grandest of structures, fulfilled in the knowledge that he had gotten to play a supporting part in something way bigger than he was. Jesus’ success was sweeter to him than his own. It had always been his highest goal.

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Whose sheep are they?

The challenge for all Christian leaders is to maintain this big picture of Christ and His Church. Our tendency is to build our church, denomination, or organization to the exclusion of the whole, defining our “group” by its distinctives (what sets us apart from all the others) and seeking to draw and keep the greatest number of people within our particular fold. While we would insist that we are doing it all for Christ’s sake, the way that we cling to “our sheep” and zealously (or even jealously) promote “our group” betrays us. As John so wisely reminded his disciples, the church is not our Bride.

…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

When I step back and gaze at the Church from across the room of time and space, I see how all these segmented ministries are really tiny sections of paneling set side by side in a gloriously diverse, complex pattern that fills the walls of God’s temple. Each one has its distinctive place and particular role, but no one comprises the focal point of the structure. As one rises and another fades, we should all be able to celebrate the way they each contribute to the grandeur of the whole.

In light of the big picture, perhaps migrating sheep isn’t our big problem, after all. Possessive under-shepherds is.

The Legacy of a Leader

tombRunning the streets of Paris this week has gotten me thinking about great leaders and the legacy they leave behind. My different routes take me by towering structures and massive monuments, opulent palaces and magnificent cathedrals. And while sparkling golden domes and triumphant archways inspire me with their grandeur, I can’t help but see them in the context of les miserables at whose expense they were built. While I doubt that these great leaders had the suffering of the marginalized in mind as they drew up their strategic plans and executed their visionary agenda, I see that as precisely the problem.

To be frank, I notice a startling similarity between political visionaries who build their empires on the backs of their downtrodden subjects and spiritual leaders who build the church or its institutions at the expense of their downtrodden sheep. I sympathize with the heavy mantle of leadership, the constant pressure to do what is best for the whole group and to keep the flock moving forwards towards important goals. But too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. They reach their destination leaving behind a long trail of limping lambs and wounded stragglers, unintended but uncared for casualties of their leadership agenda.

Too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In the classroom-based leadership training and the pew-based leadership observing that I do around the world, I have encountered all sorts of worthy church-building agendas. For some the focus is on evangelism or numerical growth, for others it is on preaching of pure doctrine or promoting the holiness of the church body. Often I encounter more specific goals like making a church more relevant to a particular generation or social group, or the less-likely-to-be-stated agenda of preserving its status quo in doctrine, worship style, or values.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off ? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Matthew 18:11-13

But whatever the agenda, when I see a pattern of marginalized members whose needs have been neglected or run over “for the good of the church as a whole,” alarm bells go off in my head. Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine cooperative, contributing sheep to go after the one wounded straggler.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
Psalm 103:3-6

In fact, as I look a bit deeper at God’s leadership style, I see a strong pattern of focusing in on the downcast and specializing in the “pit-dwellers.” He makes their problems His problem, using His power to strengthen those who are feeling weak, His position to promote those who can’t put themselves forward.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, 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. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given 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.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Under God’s pastoral care, the people who get preferential treatment are those who don’t fit the perfect Christian mold, whose life circumstances, emotional state, or inability to contribute to the “agenda” of the church have put them at risk of being marginalized. Rather than allowing them to straggle at the edges and fall prey to the wolves, the Master Shepherd moves the rest of the flock to surround its weaker members. He invests them with additional attention and honor, calling the rest of His sheep to do the same.

I have seen (and experienced) Christian leaders who are willing to risk following in the shoes of their Shepherd. The Ugandan pastor who risked his standing in the community to protect an unwed mother from the customary punishment of being thrown over a cliff. The Indian Christian leader who hires disgraced ministers with a checkered past so he can offer them careful mentoring and a second chance. The Californian university professor who gathers demon-oppressed students under his sheltering wing for prayer and counsel. And the well-respected old Presbyterian pastor who wept with a traumatized, washed-up woman, willing to believe a story that pushed the limits of his theological paradigm and willing to put his reputation on the line to stand by her.

Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine to go after the one wounded straggler.

Of course I’m not decrying the need for proactive nurture of the healthy members of the flock, but I am pointing out the importance of being willing to be inconvenienced by the ones who don’t fit the agenda, whose lives are messy and complicated, whose problems probably won’t go away with a few counseling sessions or a bring-them-a-meal rota. Whether they are the generation not-in-focus, the sub-culture we weren’t looking to attract, the unemployed or recently divorced man who doesn’t fit in our tidy picture of the “perfect Christian family,” or the emotionally messy woman who can never seem to pull herself together—the agenda has to adjust to make space for them, too.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:4-6

God’s ultimate agenda for His church is to build her up one living stone at a time, including in His magnificent structure people who fit our preconceived mold and people who don’t. A leader’s legacy is not based on numbers, buildings, programs, or even doctrine. It is found in the people he has loved and nurtured, the living stones that she has helped to find their place in the walls of God’s cosmic temple.

That’s the sort of monument I want a part in.

Breathe.

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Burn out. Exhaustion. Stress.

I remember as a teacher in inner-city middle schools having to remind my slightly hormonal, emotionally out-of-control students to stop and breathe. Somehow the extra oxygen to the brain was just what they needed to refocus and regain control.

Some days I need the same reminder: stop, take a deep breath, focus, let it out.

But more than oxygen, my soul craves the life-giving breathe of the Spirit.

How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from God?

Sometimes the burdens of life, the non-stop demands that pile up into days and weeks start to squeeze the life out of me. I look for reprieve, but as soon as I manage to carve out a little space some other urgent responsibility pushes in. And no wonder! The lifestyle that Jesus calls us to is impossibly intense.

Take every thought captive. Pray without ceasing. Bear each others’ burdens. Share with those in need. Entertain strangers. Visit the sick. Feed the poor. Work. Teach. Serve. Proclaim. Disciple. Listen. Weep. Rejoice.

If I am to take this impossibly great commission seriously, I am going to need a lot of help. And that’s just the point. I need the Holy Helper.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 1:2, 2:7

When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:29-30

He is the One who hovered over the face of the dark, unruly waters in the beginning, bringing order out of chaos and beauty out of emptiness. He is the Air that God breathed into the lungs of the first man, pouring life into dust. And He is the renewing force that restores worn-out souls, that reinvigorates exhausted minds, that reignites burnt-out bodies.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
John 20:21-22

Of course Jesus knew we couldn’t manage carrying this workload on our own. And He never intended us to. Along with a commission He gave us His Spirit to do the job with us, or more accurately, to do the job through us. But as much as I may theologically acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s existence, I too often fail to live as if it is true. So no wonder I end up where I am now: worn, spent, and running on empty.

I need to stop and breathe.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me
to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate
for more of the Spirit.

I need to open my spirit to His presence, to clear some space in my “get-‘er-done” mind for Him to have room to work. How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from Him?

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 3:16; 4:3

The Holy Spirit may be omnipresent and omnipotent, but His power at work in me is not automatic. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and developed, given the time and space to grow up in me. I can’t fake its fruit. I can’t force its results. But apart from an intentional, ongoing connection with the Holy Spirit, I know that my spirit will shrivel and die.

So what does it look like to be in a relationship with the Spirit?

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. …Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-25

I suppose it’s not too different from nurturing any close relationship, only in this one co-dependency is a good thing. If we want to be close to Him, we have to pay careful attention to His gentle promptings, allowing Him to adapt our preferences, opinions, and habits to His. We will do whatever it takes to avoid grieving Him, which primarily entails not shutting Him out of any area of our lives. Far from perpetuating a performance mentality, seeking to please the Spirit means laying down our over-weaning sense of responsibility and letting Him take the controls.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. …Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:21

And this is what I love about Him. He doesn’t take over in some degrading, depersonalizing sort of way. He doesn’t make us His insignificant sycophants nor does He use us merely for His own self-centered purposes. Instead He pours His infinite Spirit into our mortal frames, making us more gloriously human than we ever were before. His Spirit interacts with our personalities to create a perfect spark, a renewing, creative force that sends us back out into the world to create as He creates, to beautify as He beautifies, and to love as He loves.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate for more of the Spirit.

Breathe.