Posts Tagged ‘Church’

83350I love the fact that Jesus wasn’t afraid to identify Himself with us. It’s the reason He came, of course – to identify so completely with us that He actually took the guilt of our sin upon Himself on the cross. He went way beyond what any of us would do for another person, even someone we really love. But think about His day-to-day existence 2000 years ago. He was all about identifying Himself with broken, lost, sinful ‘outcasts’. The Pharisees thought they were hurling insults when they accused Jesus of being “a friend of sinners”. Man, those words are sweet music to my ears!! Jesus, my friend! I worry sometimes that we, as the church, have forgotten who we were, or who we are, without Jesus. You know, when we talk about someone in that gossipy, condescending tone, a sort of thinly disguised self-righteousness that we convince ourselves is okay as long as we say, “we need to pray for them”. Them? We are them. Or at least, without Him, we are them.

We all say we want to be more like Jesus. We sing the words, “Lord, I wanna be more like you… I want to be a vessel You flow through…” That’s great. I sing those words and I sincerely mean them. But when push comes to shove, do we really want to be more like Him? To what extent? Are we prepared to be spit upon and beaten, humiliated, betrayed, deserted, mocked, shamed, unjustly accused and executed? Maybe in some parts of the world, but I doubt very many of us here would put up with that for anybody’s sake, let alone Christ’s.

Think about some of the people He came in contact with during His earthly ministry. The raving, demon possessed man in Luke 8. When Jesus was confronted by him as He stepped ashore, did He get back into His boat and row away? Of course not. He was very hands on when He healed people. He wasn’t afraid he was going to “catch” something, or afraid of being gossiped about for touching sinners. He didn’t see us as “them”. He abased Himself, coming down to our level in order to lift us up to His.

If we love Jesus, I mean really love Him, we can show it by identifying with Him. He identified with our sin and shame. We have a responsibility to identify with every sinful expression of humanity that we encounter. I don’t mean we should get involved in the sin, but we need to actively embrace “sinners” because we understand that God’s grace is the only thing that can lift us out of our shared pit of broken humanity. All it takes is His love, a gift He has given us to share. We can show our gratitude by identifying with Him – Jesus, our friend, a friend of sinners.


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istock_000000391369xsmallLife is so bizarre sometimes. Here we are at the end of 2008, moving into a new year. I had a terrible year in a lot of ways, but God turned everything around in the most unexpected way. In fact, He used a near-catastrophic accident to wake me up to see just how blessed I am. I struggled through months of serious depression, and just as I was starting to get back on my feet, I had an accident that could have ended my life or left me disabled. But it was through this accident that God showed me some very important things.

He showed me that I really am loved – by Him, by my family and by my friends. People from church fell over themselves to help me, bringing meals, driving me to appointments, visiting me – really taking care of me. As a result of the accident, I’ve had some wonderful, priceless time with my elderly parents. Another thing God showed me is that life is so precious. Every moment is a gift from Him to be savoured and treasured. Nothing matters more than our relationships. Things that troubled me before my accident were put into perspective rather quickly at the realization that God had protected me and spared my life. What could have been an ending for me became a new beginning in God’s hands, a sort of divine wake-up call to fix my eyes on Jesus, to live my life with purpose and an attitude of gratitude.

What delights me is that the whole situation has God’s fingerprints all over it. He loves to work in unexpected ways, through situations that look hopeless or impossible. Think of the death of Lazarus in John 11. Jesus knew that Lazarus was sick, but instead of rushing to heal him, he stayed where he was for two more days. By the time he reached Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. There was no question that he was dead. When Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled away, Martha protested that the body would smell. In response, Jesus said, “did I not tell you if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” He then raised Lazarus from the dead. Nobody expected this to happen or thought Jesus could do it. The whole reason He waited before coming was to show God’s glory. He did something impossible. So what seemed like an ending, an omega, turned into a beginning, an alpha – and not just for Lazarus, but for all the people who witnessed his rebirth. That is incredibly exciting. I know God spared me not just for me, but for people around me. They witnessed a miracle first hand. Never stop praying and believing for the salvation of your loved ones.

We all have endings and beginnings throughout our lives, but with Jesus, nothing is ever final. What seems like a catastrophe or a dead-end can be a new beginning in God’s hands. It’s all about perspective. I’m doing my best now to look for Jesus in every situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem, because I know He’s there. What is faith if not the expectation that God is working on our behalf to turn bad things around for good? Lazarus had been dead for four days and his body smelled, but this didn’t faze Jesus. He isn’t put off by the stench of the dead, buried parts of us either. He will take the ashes of our lives and change them into something beautiful and lasting, if we let Him. I hope the coming year will be one in which your faith and hope in Jesus is strengthened. The Lord bless you and keep you.

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istock_000005464814xsmallI remember my first love. I remember the ones after my first love, but not as vividly, as beautifully, as gut-wrenchingly. I was 18 and she was 16. Yes, I said “she”, because at that time I was exclusively attracted to women. My encounter with Jesus was still in the distant future. We met one summer at a camp where we were both working. Tess was animated, beautiful, smart, and she loved to laugh. She “made the first move”, and I was instantly smitten. I had never been with anyone before, male or female, and the desire in my heart to love and be loved was strong. I really didn’t know how strong it was until Tess came along. I could think of nothing and no one else. We continued to see each other in the city after summer ended. I lived to talk to her on the phone, to see her, to be with her. All the classic hallmarks of a “first love” were there. When she broke up with me I was completely shattered. My world literally fell apart.

Do you remember your first love? I think we all have a story something like mine. If you grew up in a Christian family, you may even have married your first love. Either way, there’s no forgetting the excitement, the hunger and the passion of your first romance.

I remember when I fell in love with Jesus, too. I was completely smitten. I couldn’t get enough of Him. The joy, the peace, the euphoria of His presence and His love made for a powerful, beautiful, almost sacred mix of emotions. My main desire was to spend time with Him and to read the Bible. I remember praying when I hardly understood what that meant. A friend of mine explained that praying was basically talking to Jesus. I talked to Him all the time. Sometimes He seemed so near that I was sure He was sitting beside me on the bed. The first year after I gave my heart to the Lord was in many ways the time when I felt closest to Him. I wasn’t going to church, but I read the bible voraciously, I talked to Jesus – I woke up every day excited about our deepening relationship.

The sense of euphoria and excitement that I had in my early walk with Jesus hasn’t been matched since then, and I have often wondered why. It could simply be that my relationship with Him has matured. I know He’s in it for the long haul, and so am I. Or maybe it’s similar to the process of weaning a baby, learning to walk by faith, not by sight. After all, if you give a baby everything they want every time they cry, they’ll never grow up. But I think there might be another explanation as well: In our culture, “Christianity” and “churchianity” are two different things, but they often get confused. Even in evangelical churches where a personal relationship with Christ is emphasized, it’s easy to get focused on church activities, on “doing” rather than “being”. I suppose the story of Mary and Martha is in the Bible for a reason. Martha was so busy doing things for God that she lost her focus on God. Jesus said Mary had made the better choice by sitting at His feet, listening to Him.

Obviously if we spent all our time sitting at Jesus’ feet and never “did” anything, the gospel wouldn’t have spread across the world like it has. It’s clear that Jesus told His disciples, and us by extension, to do many things – to go into all the world, to preach the gospel, to love one another, to pray, to care for orphans and widows. But I can’t overcome this strange feeling that a lot of what goes on at church isn’t about Jesus, it’s about tradition, it’s about church. I think maybe we’ve moved away from the simplicity of the gospel and made following Jesus into something more complicated than it is.

I know that some of you will not care for what I’m saying here. I happen to believe that asking questions is a good thing. Why do we do things the way we do them at church? I read a book this summer that really opened my eyes on this subject, Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, it is a fascinating book. I have no desire to “bash” institutional Christianity, but history tells us that in the past 2000 years, the church has undergone many seasons of reformation and it will probably continue to do so.

One aspect of institutional Christianity that I think is particularly damaging to the overall health of the Body is the professionalization of ministry. I don’t see this modeled in the early years of the church. It seems to me that it results in two things: first, money being poured into salaries and infrastructure that could be spent elsewhere (missions and outreach, for example); and second, the false notion that only “professionals” can be in ministry, leaving the majority of the Body passively watching from the sidelines, their natural and spiritual gifts undeveloped and unused.

In my first year after giving my heart and life to Jesus, I came to know Him intimately through reading the Bible, talking to Him and hearing His voice through the Holy Spirit. When I began to attend church, I learned all the rules and customs that we associate with Sunday services – how to greet people, how to dress and act, when to sit, when to stand, when to give your tithes & how much to give, when to clap and when not to, how to worship (I went to churches of various denominations in the first few years, so this was a real learning curve!) – and of course I came into contact with fellow Christians, which was a good thing, for the most part. I fully believe that we need each other and that God molds us in and through relationships. It’s not the meeting together part of church that concerns me; it’s how we meet and what we claim our gatherings are. If we call something a “worship service”, we’d better be sure we’re worshiping Jesus, not something or someone else – including ourselves.

I don’t think anyone who truly loves the Lord and wants to glorify Him with their life will find my words offensive. We should continually examine our hearts to make sure we’re seeking to do God’s will, to the best of our ability, with the right motives. Read the words that Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation:

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”

The Christians in first century Ephesus were doing all the right things, but they seem to have lost sight of why they were doing them and for whom. Does this sound familiar at all? I may be an exceptional case, but I often question what motivates me to do “good” things. I’d like to believe that everything I do is done in the service of God, to bring Him glory, to “be Jesus” to a dying world. I think the truth is that we all have mixed motives, whether we realize it or not.

When my life on earth is over and I stand before Jesus, I hope to hear Him say, “well done, good and faithful servant”. The last thing I want is for Jesus to tell me that I missed the mark, I was so busy doing “good deeds” that I lost my connection with Him. Without Him we can do nothing, at least nothing of eternal value. If Jesus visited your church next Sunday, would He say, “well done”, or would He say, “I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love”?

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istock_000006957977xsmall2When I was growing up, the weeks leading to Christmas were some of the most exciting in the whole year. The ritual of buying and decorating a tree, making my Christmas list, shopping for gifts, eating all kinds of yummy food – it truly was “the most wonderful time of the year.” But it had nothing to do with Jesus. I didn’t grow up in a family of atheists or anything, but we weren’t churchgoers. I knew about Jesus, I knew that Christmas was a holiday celebrating his birth, but that’s not what it meant to me. What it meant, mainly, was that I would get all kinds of new toys – pretty much everything I asked for. It was great, but I always felt a sense of disappointment after all our gifts were unwrapped. The anticipation was so huge that perhaps feeling let down was inevitable – even though my parents were very generous. Many people would say I was spoiled, and that’s probably not too far off.

The feeling of disappointment always bothered me. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way. But from where I stand now, I think I’m starting to understand. I met Jesus in 1995 when I was almost 33. I’m deliberately avoiding phrases such as, “I became a Christian” or “I became a believer”. What happened was that the deep well of loneliness, of sadness – of need – in my heart finally encountered the one thing that could fill it – a relationship with Jesus Christ. I fell in love with Him and I fell hard. I accepted His free gift of salvation, the thing that cost Him his life. Following Him cost me something, too. I walked away from a lifestyle of sin, unsure of where I was headed – but I knew I was making the right choice. I felt almost compelled to do it – not by any human agent, but by God’s spirit. I have never regretted my decision.

Looking back on the girl who felt empty and disappointed after all the Christmas gifts were unwrapped, I realize that even then I was searching for something to soothe my sadness. I didn’t know it, but my heart was crying out for a saviour, someone who would never abandon or reject me – someone who truly loved me, for me, no matter what. Like other false sources of comfort, the Christmas gifts provided temporary pleasure, a distraction from the pain – but they couldn’t heal my heart. Only Jesus could do that.

It’s a bit ironic that Christmas was one of the times that I felt my need of a saviour most keenly, not that I understood it that way at the time. As I focused on unwrapping gifts, the real meaning of Christmas eluded me – that the gift I really needed was freely available to me. I thank God that He continued to pursue me for all those years.

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I attended a bible study at church recently in which our brokenness and shame were likened to a dark cave – a place we know exists, but we’re afraid to go there, and do everything we can to conceal it from others. I’ve done some serious cave-dwelling in my life, as many of us have. During the summer I came close to giving up the fight a number of times. I guess the shame I felt over my brokenness just about pulled me under. What I found most difficult was that I struggled, for the most part, alone.

As I dwelt in that cave of shame and self-hatred, I wanted more than anything to get out. I wanted to be “happy Sandy” again, the agreeable, likable, people-pleasing version of myself – hiding all the “unacceptable” parts of me, as if that would make them go away. I guess I slid into self-pity at times, but I don’t think that’s what kept me in the cave. I think it was God who kept me there. Not that He enjoyed seeing me in pain, but He knew that I needed to enter into the parts of myself that I found so repugnant and face them, so I could see that He was there. He wasn’t disgusted by me or surprised in the least. I think His main aim was to show me that what I needed most was to accept myself (all of me) and to realize the “cure” for what ailed me was simple: acceptance and surrender. He can heal, but I have to let Him, in His way, in His timing.

I think shame, fear and hiding tend to coexist. I know they have in me for as long as I can remember. Even in the case of my sexuality, I went from early negative experiences to sexual relationships with women, which back then were still fairly “taboo”. It’s vast and complex the way our identities are shaped and distorted by things that happen to us and by choices we make. Even now, this beautiful gift that God created human beings to have as man and wife is a source of ambivalence for me. Not that I spend a lot of time thinking about it, but my desires, my “orientation” is not %100 in either direction. There has been significant change, for sure. A big part of the change has been in my view of sex. It doesn’t seem nearly as important as it once did. I do have a choice whether to act on my feelings or not, just as we all do.

I think God does do some of His best work in caves, if we cooperate with Him. The first step in cooperating with what He wants to do in us is to acknowledge our brokenness, our need. That’s one of the things that I’d really love to see change in the church. My experience with every church I’ve attended has been the same – I know I’m painting with pretty broad strokes, but this is my general observation – Christians are a group of people who act like they have it all together on the outside, but behind closed doors many are falling apart. I’m not saying that with a critical spirit at all, but because I’m certain that Jesus didn’t die intending His body to be a bunch of chronic cave-dwellers, hiding in shame and fear while pretending nothing’s wrong.

How can we really extend hope to the world? I think we all need to “come out”, so to speak. To acknowledge openly the things we struggle with. I know it’s risky, but we could really become a place of hope, of refuge, of healing, if more people would step out in faith. A huge part of what keeps people trapped in shame is the belief that no one could possibly understand or relate to their struggles, and the fear that others would judge them if they knew. Could we actually hold one of the keys to setting people free? What if more of us were to speak honestly about our struggles, even in the midst of them? I know Jesus is my healer, my redeemer, my all, but that doesn’t mean life on earth is pain-free. Nor does talking about pain and struggles in any way negate His ability to heal.

The devil has a lot invested in keeping the dividing walls of shame & fear in place. His poison grows in the dark, isolated parts of our hearts. When Christ’s light shines on these areas, we can be set free, and help to set others free. It’s not a question of whether caves exist in our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts. The question is whether we will be brave enough to admit that we’re all cave-dwellers, desperately in need of Jesus’ healing touch.

(For an excellent post that covers similar ground, check out Kathy Escobar’s blog, the carnival in my head.)

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What you may not know about me is that I’ve got a bit of a book buying addiction. I love to read and find sites like amazon.ca and chapters.indigo.ca pretty hard to resist. Recently I ordered several new books, among them Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola & George Barna, and Frank Viola’s latest release, Reimagining Church. I’m about 3/4 of the way through Pagan Christianity and plan to read Reimagining Church next.

I don’t see how anybody can read Pagan Christianity and not be profoundly shaken by it. Or maybe it just happens to fit in exceptionally well with the questions I’ve been struggling with of late. For example, why is it that “church” is like a performance, carefully scripted with certain roles filled solely by “qualified” individuals, while the rest of us are passive spectators? Why are there no meaningful opportunities to grow spiritually, to be mentored, to grow into ministry? These are questions I’ve asked myself and God as I’ve come to see the vast difference between how “church” is done in the west and how early followers of Christ lived.

What really bothers me is that the whole way of “doing church” is impoverishing the Body of Christ. What a crime that the gifts of most of the body are underdeveloped and underutilized. One of the pastors at my church remarked that people who come to church have a “consumer” mentality, they expect certain things – but I would say, why are you perpetuating that system? No doubt there are lots of people in church who are content being pew-warmers, but what about those of us who want to genuinely take our place in the body as Christ intended us to?

My whole idea of what it means to be a follower of the Lord Jesus is shifting. I’m reimagining life.

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