Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Houses of God

King Solomon built God a house. He called it a magnificent temple. You can read about it in 1 Kings. It was not all that big, not much bigger than an average size church today. It was decorated nicely, with lots of cedar and gold inlay. It had some nice stuff inside, too. Like a great bronze baptistry and the ark of the covenant. People, other than priests, were not allowed inside. It was God's House, not theirs. Solomon instructed the people to pray toward God's House when they were in trouble and he spells out seven kinds of trouble in chapter 8. God's eyes, he tells the people, will be on the temple and he will (see?) hear their prayers. Solomon did not actually believe God would live in this house. He knew God was much greater than that. Later on, other kings fell into the trap of thinking God was in that Jerusalem temple so it was like having God in your back pocket. He was bound to protect and bless you no matter what. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to correct this misunderstanding but it didn't seem to help. Pretty soon, God's House was gone. The prophets said it was God's judgment for thinking they could keep God in a box. It might have been God's House but God was not going to be reduced to a housekeeper.

When Jesus came along it was said of him that the fullness of God dwelled in him (see the gospel of John, chapter 1). Jesus was God's new House. That is what we mean by the incarnation. So, the locus of God's presence changed from a place to a person. And to persons. After Pentecost, followers of Christ are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus dwells in us, too. So, the people of God are the house of God, now. Church buildings are helpful but not necessary. The New Testament word for Church is ecclesia which means a local gathering of people. There is no mention of buildings in that definition. In fact, there were no church buildings for the first almost 400 years of Christianity. Then, Emperor Constantine came along and built some big Churches just because he could. Church pews did not become the standard for seating Christians until after the Protestant Reformation when the sermon became such a big deal. Long sermons made for tired bodies. Interestingly, padded pews did not make an appearance in churches until the 1960s. Today, most every new church is getting chairs instead of pews. That may have something to do with Church growth and I don't mean numbers but the size of Christians. Used to be you could figure on every church sitter needing 18 inches of room but now the thinking is more like 24 inches of room. Christians like their space in worship and so you can fit fewer and fewer of us in the average pew.

I digress. Today we are very fond of our church buildings. In fact, when most Christians hear the word church they think of some building. In the beginning, the word church stood for people. Our church buildings say alot about what we think the church is. Most churches are laid out like a book: two pages on each side, a binding down the middle, and margins at the sides. Each pew a sentence, each person an individual word. We come to church to listen to words and to learn. Up in front is a stage where worship leaders and speakers stand. We watch them much like we would a concert or a movie. Function follows form.

What about churches that rent a room in a school or a mall? Or gather in a storefront? Or warehouse ( I gathered with fellow worshippers in a furniture warehouse once)? Or a roofless, dirt floored concrete block building with a few dilapidated benches for seats ( like a church I met with in Haiti)? How are they churches? Is a more modern structure with all the bells and whistles more of a church than a falling down structure with no technological sophistication? Is God more present? What about critical mass? How many Christians does it take to make up a church? Is a bigger church ( numbers now not the size of the worshippers) more of a church? Does it access more of the fullness of God than a small one?

Jesus said, wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am, too. If Jesus is the fullness of God, then isn't the fullness of God available to two or three, at least. So the fullness of Christ is there in a storefront, or warehouse, or the roofless church in Haiti or anywhere else. The building doesn't matter. They are helpful for certain things; they are also a hindrance for certain things. Think of trying to play dodgeball with the youth group in most sanctuaries with pews (on the other hand, maybe don't think about that - it will open a whole other can of worms). Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ's name ( meaning Christ's presence), there is the fullness of God. So, those two or three could be in a gathering of thousands or tens. In a slum or an affluent suburb. In a magnificent cathedral or a rented school room.

I have had people tell me that where they live they have not been able to find a church. No bible believing, gospel preaching church in sight. So, if what Jesus said is true, all they have to do is join one and take along another Christ follower and Jesus who is the fullness of God is there! They are now in a church where nothing is missing (nothing critically important, anyway). Right.

So here's a thought experiment: what if we sold our churches and rented space somewhere for Sunday or whatever day we meet together as the ecclesia? And then spent the money we saved on outreach and taking care of the orphans and widows ( of whom there are many today and I am not talking strictly biologically). Or, if we want, we can keep the church building, and sell off its possessions and use all the space for other ministries ( how often churches build bigger and bigger because they need the space when all they need to do is get rid of some of their stuff). If the church is a gathering of people and not a building, don't we at least need to think about this?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Way is Made By Walking

Most of us walk everyday. Some of us go for a walk for exercise or recreation. We might walk one, two or more miles, on purpose. Some of us hike, vigorously, up mountain trails. Some of us even take vacations to hike mountains, or canyons, or coastal trails. What about walking 500 miles to church? I bet not many of us have done that. Arthur Boers has. He is a professor and pastor in the Mennonite Church in the USA. He begins his latest book with that statement about walking 500 miles to church. It took him 31 days to get there. He walked the Camino de Santiago route in Spain which ended up at a cathedral which is supposed to hold the relics of St. James the apostle (camino is Spanish for way and Santiago means Saint James). Believe it or not, millions of people have walked this trail. It has been a popular pilgrimage route for many people since medieval times. Boers defines pilgrimage this way: "in its truest sense it is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter." We don't do that so often today. But, pilgrimages were an important Christian spiritual discipline in the past. Boer's book rediscovers this discipline for us. It is an interesting and informative read. Along the way, he uncovers the value of other related spiritual disciplines for today. It's a stretch for many of us because we are so used to other, less physical, means of travel. Which are much faster and more convenient. We would hardly walk 20 miles if we had to endure blisters, and heat and solitude, and if our destination was church! So it is precisely for that reason that this is a good book for us to read and ponder. When Christianity began it was called the Way. The disciples followed Christ by walking. Our life today is fast paced and so we think our "walk" with Christ should be, too. But, perhaps we have much to learn or relearn about our walk with Christ as we slow down to a walking pace. That is what Boer experienced. In this book, he shares what this pilgrimage showed him about living the Christian life, whether we walk or not. And, who knows, some of us might begin looking at walking a little differently. We might even plan a pilgrimage ourselves. Whether we do or not, as we read Boer's book we can see that there are some essential Christian practices that we can follow right here and now.

We will be reading and discussing Boer's book in adult Sunday School class this fall. You can pick up your copy from Pastor Todd.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Family Planning

We are approaching our 37th wedding anniversary. That's what the math says but don't ask me how it happened. It doesn't seem that long but it is. Marriage has taken a battering since we got married. It was a rare thing for couples to live together when we were young. We never considered it. Maybe because I was heading to seminary but we didn't know that at the time we got married. We never heard of any marriage except between a man and a woman either. That was what marriage was. We heard about divorces but we had not experienced one since our parents stayed married til death did them part. Broken families seemed much rarer in our early days than they are now.

Christianity Today did an article recently on whether the church should encourage marriage at younger ages, such as the early twenties. That was when we got married. Today, it is more common to wait longer. We got married and figured it out. It didn't seem all that hard. We had some good older married friends who mentored us, we had good role models in our parent's marriages and we were involved in a church which had many families. We didn't realize then how fortunate we were.

Time had a cover story recently on marriage, as well. It talked about the new studies coming out that show the importance of children being raised by male and female parents. It didn't come right out and say it but it was talking about the value of a long term commitment to marriage. That would seem to need to be said today. We have many models in the media of high profile marriages that break up because of affairs, or financial stress or due to some other crisis in the family. It is always hard to recover when your parents divorce. Something profoundly important has been taken from you. And it is most always better to be raised by a mom and dad.

In the next issue of Time, there were some letters from gay readers who protested being totally left out of the story and from married couples who chose not to have kids and were happy about their choice. If they say they are happy, then they probably are. But, I have always felt that children are a blessing. They help to round us out as people. I don't know where I would have learned some of the lessons I have learned except from the experience of raising children. I know I am a better person because of my kids.

Old Testament teacher, John Goldingay, asserts that Genesis 1-2 "implicitly sets sexual expression within the context of a lifelong heterosexual marriage designed to image God in the world." One of the purposes of that marriage relationship is children. The family in Scripture is not perfect but it is pretty important in God's great scheme of things to bless the world.

Hillary Clinton received a lot of scorn in Christian circles for her thesis that it takes a village to raise a child. I think she was on the right track. I would say it takes a church to raise a child. In today's world, family can be a troubled and troubling place. That comes as no surprise since the first family in the Bible had troubles, too. But, God still works out his blessing through family.

In the New Testament, we read about the family of God and how we are brothers and sisters in Christ. In the church we can re-envision what family is supposed to be. We can learn about marriage and family what we might never have had the fortune to experience. We can be healed from abusive situations. We can experience forgiveness and forgive. There are role models and mentors for our marriages and parenting adventures. The church can model what marriage and family can be to the world. In fact, that is what we are called to do.

Sports, Muted

I am not sure when I first noticed sex on the sports pages. The relationship between sex and sports has been a gradual development. When I was a kid following sports you hardly ever heard more than a whisper about the personal sex lives of famous athletes. Today, nothing is out of bounds as far as sports journalism goes. But, I am not talking about that. What I am referring to is the phenomenon of swimsuit issues of Sports Magazines. Apparently, ESPN the Magazine is going further and planning a fall issue of naked athletes with their private parts covered by sports equipment. This is what I am talking about. Why you can't watch a sports show on FOX without the Sports Babes. Why you have polls asking you to pick the sexiest female sports commentator, who, by the way, is on the sidelines while the men are in the studio or doing the play by play up in the stands. Why you have one such female sports sideline journalist who was voted the sexiest secretly videotaped in her hotel room and then had her image flashed around the internet. There was a howl of protest from the swimsuit publication and ESPN, her employer, and FOX (FOX even showed the video as it professed shock over it). Seems more than a tad hypocritical for these purveyors of sex and sports, doesn't it?

Now I understand the need for ad revenue in these recessionary times. I know that internet usage has cut into subscription sales. And the biggest audience for sports consumption is young adult males. Sex sells, and so does beer and beefy trucks. For the older male sports consumer there are Viagra ads which are so nauseatingly annoying to sit through after the millionth time you are reminded of what can happen when the little viagra pill goes wrong. (And what father worth his salt, who is enjoying a ballgame with his son, does not fumble for the mute button when he sees those cute little tubs come on?) I have to say I am pretty sick of it. I know modern day sports has been tainted by obscene amounts of money, and PEDs and huge egos but I have kept watching and reading and following my teams for the love of the games. But, I think I am at the end of my rope. I do not get the swimsuit issue but other issues and their website find creative ways to promote it. I still get the magazine (SI) but they have lost both of their good journalists to the internet and/or cable and they continue to ramp up the sex and tamp down the sports so that I won't renew it. I never did get ESPN the Magazine because it was bold and flashy and its sports reporting was just bold and flashy and it's cable programming has become so self important (more important than the games they are reporting) it is painful to watch. I still watch the Mariners games on cable but mostly muted. I like the play by play announcers but I am afraid of what I may do if I have to hear another ED ad. I can still remember the joy I felt when I got the days mail and there was my copy of Sports Illustrated (SI) or the best sports publication of all time which was just called Sport because that's all it was about. Those days are long gone. Now, I treasure the mute button.