As I continue to read the little book on the Holy Spirit by Lois Malcolm, I am challenged to think about the ongoing work of the Spirit in the life of the church, and in my personal faith, love and hope.
In a chapter entitled, “The Spirit Creates Faith” Lois explains the freedom the Spirit gives us to live the life of Christ. I want to share with you a couple quotes and allow you to simmer on them a bit.
“We do not lose our unique individual identities when we enter into Christ’s life; we do not become Christ. Rather, we become more fully ourselves. Christ’s life-giving Spirit gives us the power to deal with destructive patterns in our lives—patterns that keep us trapped in destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—so that we can be all that God has created us to be, so that we can, by faith, step into the possibilities God would have for us. Where destructive patterns in our lives have abounded, now grace can abound all the more!” (56)
Here’s why I like this--I get the feeling that a current trend in Christianity is that we know a lot about different personalities and then seem to prefer particular ones over others. We have expectations of how men and how women should be (and act)…and in the call to be more like Jesus, we need to be careful not to place our personality preferences on others. We are to walk in the way of Jesus Christ, but we are also to truly be more ourselves and to learn to appreciate who we are in Christ. While the destructive patterns need to cease, introverts filled with the Spirit and extroverts filled with the Spirit may both seek Jesus and do so in ways that are unique! I could go on…but my point is that in being a Christian…you don’t have to fit a “mold,” you are free to live in the Spirit’s guidance of your individual identity! That is a great thought, especially as I (or you) live out my (or your) faith prompted by the Spirit’s work!
A second thought from the book is this:
“Thus, with faith comes profound self-love. Through the Spirit’s power, we are able to love ourselves—and accept even those parts of us we are most ashamed or guilty about—precisely because God knows and loves every part of us. Indeed, it is only when we re no longer so buttressed by the incessant demands of our own fears and desires—when we can actually become an integrated rather than a divided self—that we can truly attend to what others need, that we can truly attend to their interests and not merely to our own.” (59)
Here’s why I like this--I think many people learn to hate a part of themselves, and I think some Christian circles teach this self-hate as way of dealing with sin and making sure that a believer will not return to that sin; thus returning to shame and guilt and all things evil. Yet, how wonderful is the love of God that declares “I love all of You” including the deepest and darkest places of our hearts, minds, and souls. And this love, instead of making us fearful and embarrassed, provides us with freedom from the very sin curse we participate in…and in so doing we are accepted into the family of God. I also like to think that as we are made whole by the Spirit, we join with other people who are made whole by the Spirit and then we have a group of people joining together to make the world whole by the Spirit…and that group is called the church. And it is the church in which we can attend to the needs and interests of others. The opposite of this approach is the all too familiar consumer approach to church…I will sell the good parts about myself and I will only be a part of the church if it serves my needs. This type of faith doesn’t end with “profound self love” and “attending to the needs of others.” Only the Spirit does that!
I stood in the cemetery, looking at the stones with the different names on them, spotting familiar last names that brought up persons whom had been distant memories. There were flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. There were flowers on the more recent ones, and down at the other end were grave markers from the 1800s. I saw years that indicated long life and years that indicated only a few months. Of course, the one place that is special to my wife is the large stone that reads “Weaver.” This is where her grandparents are buried. This is where, each year on Memorial Day her aunt sets up her music stand and plays her trumpet to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “America the Beautiful” among other selections. I watch as others bring flowers and gather around graves…Lee; McCombie; Coble; some more Weavers, among others.
This year, for the first time, I attended a Memorial Day service featuring “Taps” and a message by a retired minister about the importance of remembering. He told a brief history of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it has been designated in the past, and then moved on to remind us of the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. He touched on the Vietnam Days and those who didn’t support the war…or the soldiers…and how that trend is thankfully changing…slowly, but it is changing.
My mind wandered a bit as he told stories, and I went to Joshua 3 where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and they were commanded to place rocks at the place where they crossed as a memorial to God’s action. This happens in several Old Testament stories, and it made me wonder if that is where we get the notion of headstones in our cemeteries. So, a quick search…
These graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood, apparently, as a way to keep the dead from rising. (Ok...I thought this line was funny!)
They were mostly marked with the deceased’s name, age, and year of death. Gradually, churchyard burials evolved involving large, square-shaped tombstones prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890). The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable.
Public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century. Eventually, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. (https://www.iscga.org/history-of-gravestones.html)
Interestingly enough, gravestones can be traced back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, and that could also explain the use of them as memorials by Israel. But what I thought about was not just gravestones, but remembering and how I am trained to look forward and not backwards. We don’t do much remembering or reminiscing do we?
Here I stood in the cemetery and I began to think about my own family, my grandfather who served in the Navy. I remembered, and as I did I started to tear up, longing for just one more conversation with those who in my childhood seemed so large and so wonderful. In that graveyard was the story of our families…and it is the same with all of us. It is a shame that we don’t take the time to ponder, reflect, and tear-up from time to time. Or once a year, just because we get the day off to do it. I have heard it said among Christian circles that the person is on there anyway, so why visit? Well, maybe visiting a graveyard isn’t supposed to benefit the dead, but to benefit us who are living. Maybe when we see the larger story of life, we have a better understanding of the unfolding larger story, and not just the moment.
At one point, we started talking with my mother-in-law and came to the realization that the place we were standing were actually the plots that my wife and I own…we were standing in the place of our burial. That was sobering! Shocking really…and I joked that I wanted to make sure the view was nice! WOW…awkward moment.
It made me wonder who might come and visit my headstone one day. I wonder what the name “Woodall” will mean to those who visit the cemetery and who will plant the flowers and decorate my grave, because my life meant something to them. You see, the day before my daughter and her grandmother went to put flowers on the family graves, and her artistic flare could be seen…her presence definitely known. I’m all about having a good time, enjoying family and friends, and having a great meal—but we must also learn to remember in a sobering and weighty manner that places our lives in the context of larger “Life.” If you haven’t visited a cemetery that matters to you in a while, my homework or challenge for you is to go there and sit by a headstone and remember for a few moments.
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces
Something came along my news feed the other day proclaiming that Matthew 18:20 is one of five of the most misused verses in the New Testament by ministers. Yet, I’m not sure my father misused the passage given his particular bent that if the Bible says, and I believe it, than that settles it. Also, this verse was used as an encouragement for many evening services in which a majority of the congregation would choose not to congregate. It reads this way:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.
It is the anthem of small church gatherings everywhere. This verse out of the Gospel reminds us that the size of the gathering doesn’t matter, and that Christ is indeed with his followers regardless of the number. However, to truly read the Bible as God’s Word and strive to take it seriously, we must consider the context of Jesus’ saying here. I other words, does this verse truly apply to evening services of the church in which only a few choose to attend?
To answer this question, we must expand our quotation to the entire passage that is broken out as a paragraph for us by those who have translated and put together our bibles. Therefore, we will look at Matthew 18:15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Immediately, we should see that this instruction from Matthew really has very little to do with church events, and much more to do with church community…that is relationships among believers. It starts off…”If another believer sins against you…” and then proceeds to lay out a plan of action. We will get to the plan in a minute, but what needs to be stressed is that when a plan of action is carried out, there will be believers who will not agree with the action taken. Yet, Jesus makes a really strong statement that we must not only understand, but use it as a barometer for what is appropriate and godly for believers to engage in. Jesus says that there is a direct correlation between what is permitted and forbidden in the church, and what is permitted and forbidden in heaven. Jesus clarifies that with a serious, “I tell you the truth.” The encouragement comes to those who are trying to restore the person back to the congregation…Jesus tells them that once these steps have been taken and there has been pain, prayer, and pastoring; The end result may or may not be to the liking of the group, but Jesus is there among them.
So when times get rough and people hurt each other and it makes an impact on the church, Jesus is there is the agreement and efforts of those who have come together to help a believer in Jesus live the Christian, or heavenly Kingdom, life. Now, As far as we have come, there is a message of grace to the leaders of the church and the victims of the offense…Jesus is there with them. One of the things that must be stressed is that that dignity and harmony of the church is prioritized over the individual in sin. Jesus message is clear, persons fall into sin, but the church must be a community that confronts sin and loves these persons back to the life of righteousness. With that point made, there is a message of grace for those who would be the offender in this scenario.
If you have sinned against a fellow believer, that believer is not given license to gossip or spread information about you…that person is to come to you and tell you what has happened. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then they gather some of your friends to talk with you regarding the sin, notice that these friends serve as witnesses and not a firing squad. They listen to both sides of the dispute and provide counsel as to how this might be resolved. If that fails, then the whole church gathers to hear the dispute and if the matter is still unresolved, then someone could get removed from the community of believers because the last thing the church wants is a sinner who is unwilling to confess and humble themselves in the guidance and protection of the church. So, the message of grace is twofold in this plan of action; first, a person who has a problem with you is never grounds for your dismissal from the church because of arbitrary drama or hasty reaction and second, at any point there is a confession of sin then the matter is resolved because that is what Jesus asks of us is to simply own our sin.
You can imagine that those who are caught up in the middle of such disputes will question there actions and even begin to wonder about there prayers…because relationships in the church are sticky at times, and even brothers and sisters can have deep seated anger and resentment. That is why Jesus reminds those in the thick of things that He is there with them and that in their agreement they will find a pathway back to the Kingdom of God…a place where every citizen belongs, and a place that deserves our best efforts to be peacefully in community with each other.
So while I do not think that this verse applied directly to the small church crowds and should not be used as a slogan for a church group who is small thinking that they are doing the right thing by hosting small numbers. Jesus is in the large numbers too… I do think that this can be an encouragement for those who are motivated to help others in their discipleship, especially within a culture that puts much more emphasis on individual fulfillment than it does community engagement. The Kingdom of God is a church community, not an idealized individual progress plan. That can be found in other religions, but not the one Christ died for…Christ died for a group, not so he would be fulfilled, but so we together might find fulfillment through him in having a true and real relationship with God. So, where a few gather in the name of Jesus, God is present!
I know, I know…if you clicked on this link then you are a brave soul! It has been one week since our presidential election, and I have seen a plethora of articles, blogs, and everything else trying to explain what happened, object to what happened, and correct all of this. That is not my intention, I simply want to plant a thought in your noggin for the next time you vote, especially if you are a Christian.
I know that Jesus said nothing about voting; and Peter, Paul, or any other Christians from our Bibles ever participated in voting. So, our ability to vote for leaders is not just foreign to the First Century Church, but they lived in a situation in which the leaders were powerful and most assuredly presented some opposition to the church. We could argue that the church stood as a treat to the government and a way to transcend the systems set up by government. But I have wondered through this election season, what if they could vote like we do? What would be the guiding principles that would guide their vote? This line of thought not only guided my vote, but changed the way I view voting.
You will hear tips on how a Christian should vote…I’ll leave that to those Christian celebrities who are able to throw their weight around and actually influence people. I have no desire to merge government with the Church. I think Jesus would agree with me, as would John who wrote Revelation…there is power of the government, and then there is the power of God and his son Jesus who reigns supreme over all governments.
So, anyway…back to our vote. So often I hear Christian people say that they voted a certain way because of two important reasons. First, they claim that a particular candidate or platform is more of what God wants for our world. I hear this from all sides, all parties, and the truth is…both have a point and both should search their blind-spots. Second, they claim that they vote for what’s best for them and their family. I get it—I want lower taxes, better benefits, and some more time to do what I want to do with my life (which is usually filling it with a bunch of busy work and social media and…ok, I’ll stop!)
So, let’s look at the two greatest commands that are from the mouth of our King Jesus. Jesus says everything is wrapped up in these commands. When asked what are most important, Jesus replied in Matthew 22: “37 ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
My question in the middle of this crazy election season was this: how do we vote in a way that fulfills these commandments?
What does it mean to Love God with everything (heart, soul, and mind) and does God take offense to us compromising our values and arguing our “yah buts” when we hear something from the other side that we know God would support? Most all of us know the fatal flaws of candidates…because they are people like us. So, we must love God through the church first, and through the government second and we can’t get them confused…one is from God and for God and the other is government.
What does it mean to love my neighbor with my vote? What if we all voted for what was best for each other instead of what was best for me and mine? What if I paid higher taxes so my neighbor with a terminal disease could enjoy his retirement healthcare? What if I fought for the rights of veterans in this country like I do my kid’s grades at school? What if helping police have a safe day on the streets most definitely matters and helping build the societal value of black brothers and sisters most definitely matters as well?
We will all vote again, and our vote is not a weapon to use against some created enemy, nor is it a valued possession to keep to ourselves; it is an opportunity to do what Christians are supposed to do with everything God has blessed us with…we are to love God and love our neighbor. So, yes, my vote is an opportunity to show love both to God and to my neighbors. How about yours?
If you grew up in an evangelistic church, or have a natural tendency to be extraverted and somewhat loud about your faith, then this verse below might come as a challenge to you and to the evangelistic movement as a whole. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:
1 Thessalonians 4:11 Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. 12 Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.
The first line of this passage is interesting because in the original language it reads make it your ambition, or zealous pursuit, to live a life of silence or tranquility. Most of us, whether our natural tendency is to be extra- or introverted, would be comfortable talking zealously about the things that peak our passions and we use these things to create a niche for ourselves or some sort of career for ourselves or at least a fan page or group on Facebook! But for Paul, there was something to be emulated in the life of peace, one that allowed someone to “mind their own business” and “do their own work” contributing to the life of the community.
Interestingly enough, this life of quiet confidence leads to the same result that many who stand on the street corners with a bull-horn so desperately want to see; that people take notice, the text reads, “people who are nonbelievers will respect the way you live…” maybe they will begin to ask us questions, or wonder why we are not panicking like those around us and want to know more about what gives us hope.
Now, I’m not against those who have a calling to be evangelistic and more “in your face.” There are some who have chosen to believe in Jesus because their life was interrupted, or they were confronted with the message of Jesus. However, I would also like to assert that for every person who this works for, there are many others who are negatively impacted by the same tactics. Many of the people I know who are believers, either had someone they really respected lead them to Jesus, or there was some sort of relationship that then led into faith conversations.
Another thing about this teaching from Paul to the church is very important; everyone can do this. You don’t have to be a certain type of person, have a particular set of skills, or you don’t have to feel guilty because you just can’t do what others so seemingly easily can do. All of us are asked to be an example of Christ to those who don’t believe, and the question is not a matter of if we do that, but usually it boils down to how we go about doing it. So, make it your goal to live a peaceful life with those around you through the Spirit of God, especially among your neighbors in your community. Do the work of loving your neighbors with your hands and not so much with your mouths, don’t just talk politics, service, and Jesus…but in your actions towards them live your politics, carry out your service, and be Jesus in situations you face. They will respect you, and they will respect that your happiness and peace doesn’t depend on others, or come at the expense of others.
God, help us make a lasting impact on those who have yet to believe in your son Jesus. As Francis of Assisi prayed, may we preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.