This weekend has been quite a wakeup call for me spiritually. It all began with my participation in a very strategic planning process with a group of fellow Christ-followers. I then participated in a very enlightening community gathering around the topic of marriage, primarily with Christians, but from a much broader context than ever before. Not only were there pastors and congregants from the full spectrum of traditional American Christianity, but also a representative of a culture foreign to most in the room. It was eye opening to connect the dots around at least three approaches to co-habitation: the government’s definition of marriage; culture’s definition of marriage and that of the church. The interesting phenomena were the variants within each.
All this was sandwiched between a growing awareness of the doctrinal shift in my own life. As well, I must mention my daily exposure to my wife’s convincingly radiant demonstration of Christ’s love, though some would see her bent as “hyper-grace.” I must say her love for others, as our neighbors and friends daily attest, is convincingly like Jesus!
Mornings of late have begun with the writings of Paul to Timothy and now Titus. My personal reading from scripture has for some time been conjoined with a daily reflection on the writings of Paul by a Franciscan monk by the name of Richard Rohr. Rohr, if you are not familiar with him, is a Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970.
He writes in today’s devotional, “The first stone temple of the Jewish people was built around 950 BC. On the day of the dedication of “Solomon’s Temple,” the shekinah glory of Yahweh (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13), just as it had once filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35). This became the assurance of the abiding and localized divine presence of Yahweh for the Jewish people. This naturally made Solomon’s Temple both the center and centering place of the whole world, in Jewish thinking.
When the Babylonians tore down the Temple and took the Jews into exile (587 BC), it no doubt prompted a crisis of faith. The Temple was where God lived! So Ezra, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah convinced the people that they must go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple so God can be with them again. N.T. Wright points out there is no account of the fire and glory of God ever descending on this rebuilt temple (515 BC). This “Second Temple” is the only temple Jesus would have ever known and loved.
The absence of visible shekinah glory must have been a bit of an embarrassment and worry for the Jewish people. Wright says it could explain the growth of Pharisaism, a belief strong in Jesus’ time that if they obeyed laws more perfectly–absolute ritual, priesthood, and Sabbath purity–then the Glory of God would return to the Temple. This is the common pattern in moralistic religion: our impurity supposedly keeps Yahweh away. They tried so hard, but the fire never descended. They must have wondered, “Are we really God’s favorite and chosen people?” (This is a common question for all in early stage religion.)
Knowledge of this history now gives new and even more meaning to what we call Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13). On that day, the fire from heaven descended, not on a building, but on people! And all peoples, not just Jews, were baptized and received the Spirit (Acts 2:38-41). Paul understood this and drew out the immense consequences. He loved to say, “You are that Temple!”1
That rather long insertion from Rohr seemed necessary this morning, and as well, in that my entry into church culture came by way of a Pentecostal pastor. I met this pastor at a community prayer breakfast shortly after my “living room” experience with God in 1973. I was only about a year into my walk with God after a ten year hiatus from the church. This man’s extraordinary walk with God, and the powerful manifestations of God evident in his testimony, struck a chord with me.
Another, piece of information for my readers, my family was third generation Pentecostal, so this pastor’s profession of healings and miraculous interventions by the Holy Spirit were not foreign to me.
It seemed that I was finally living into what Rohr continues to “tease out” of church history: God’s intention to redeem His Creation and in fact live intimately within each being. This logic is found in scriptural phrases such as: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (I Cor. 3:16 NIV); “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27 NIV).
Alongside my new found mentor, I would experience many phenomenal “God Moments” in my early Christian walk. In one case, perhaps the most dramatic, an elderly gentleman was literally raised out of a near comatose state. I had gone to the hospital to pray for him, in obedience to the Spirit. After a simple prayer, the man sat straight up in his hospital bed. When asked “what had happened” by his already grieving, would be widow, the first words from his lips were, “The Lord has come over me.”
Moments like that seemed the norm as I enjoyed the benefits of walking in the Spirit as a new believer, local school teacher and community citizen. However, it wasn’t long into my formal church experience, with leadership opportunities offered both locally and nationally, that I began to see the political back scene that builds within any institution. As a younger and less experienced leader, I always justified what I watched the “elders” do as necessary for the sake of unity and continued propagation of “The Gospel.”
Today, as an older believer, I find myself in a much different place. This place seems to require a measure of truth-telling on my part that is becoming quite uncomfortable. One friend describes it as an “inconvenient love.” His thoughts come from his reflection on Calvary, a place of suffering, exposing a rare requirement of love and compassion, captured in Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Titus 2:2 (NIV) offers the recommendation that “the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.” That is certainly my aspiration, but the discomfort of truth telling and my growing internal struggle seems oddly contrarian to this honored passage. Surely, there were men in my younger days, both of the character described by Titus and of sufficient maturity to have discerned the challenges that now lay just beneath the surface of the institutional church. Perhaps, they simply did not speak up. If they did, I missed their message and thus find myself embedded in an institution sorely in need of transformation.
As each day passes, though our cities are well exposed to the leadership of our churches and her congregants, many who profess a spirit-filled experience, our nation continues its political and moral drift. Racial injustice abounds and now religious radicalism literally lifts the heads of our fellowman in many parts of the globe.
Meanwhile, we continue to gather in silos, pouring billions into facilities that for the most part are seldom used apart from staff offices and the occasional warehousing of children. This sounds harsh and even perhaps hypocritical, for I know the benefits of child care and even Christian education. The finest is often found within our churches. In fact, my own dear grandson is provided for by one of the best.
Meanwhile, parents, at least among those with whom I gathered this weekend, struggle for sanity, as they work to provide means for their children. Their life is driven by the mass marketing of materialism that has engulfed our nation’s psyche. That too is compounded by the technological revolution, with its myriad of devices that rape families of relationship, playtime and in many cases, their very imagination.
The Huffington Posts reports: “Free time” for kids has been steadily declining since the 1950s. In one particular study, from 1981 to 1997, kids experienced a 25 percent decrease in play time and a 55 percent decrease in time talking with others at home. In contrast, time spent on homework increased by 145 percent, and time spent shopping with parents increased by 168 percent.”
“A research project by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State, looked at psychological trends in youth during a similar period and noticed a sharp increase in anxiety and depression. Our kids are more stressed out than before. And that’s not the only change. Another Twenge study shows a surprising shift in motivation over the years, with kids in the 60s and 70s reporting being more motivated by intrinsic ideals (self-acceptance, affiliation and community) while kids today are more motivated by extrinsic ideals (money, image and fame).” 2
Not sure if I have arrived at a good place, certainly not a comfortable place. Both change and comfort begin with “C’s” but neither can occur in the same moment! My new place, though not comfortable is perhaps necessary to stir up the grace that dwells within those vessels wherein the Spirit does live!
The Church triumphant has never been one that could be contained in walls, nor remain irrelevant to its culture. Neither has it been static in its model. Perhaps she too is in a New Place and though Christ’s love is never convenient, it is quite necessary given the challenges facing this globe!