The mind can impress.
The body can make one proud.
Change comes from the heart.
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The power is not in the form,
Though it does much meaning hold.
The altar is not what transforms,
Spirit cannot be controlled.
When there is found a seeking heart,
A soul pursuing the Real,
None can the truly Sacred thwart
Or the inward treasure steal.
When I was a minister in an institutional church, I was shocked at how often God seemed to only “call to ministry” those who were willing to sign off on what the institution proclaimed.
It was remarkably consistent.
God must REALLY like what the Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Pentacostals, and Presbyterians have to say… even though they all disagree on rather important points.
Those groups use the idea of being “called” to keep the institution propped up.
Now, I have friends who are ministers and feel God led them to that place. I don’t have any problem with that. Everyone’s relationship with God is different.
But that’s the point.
It appears that we all have our own understanding of and relationship with God. Yet most institutions would have us believe there is some standard for what actually constitutes a legitimate relationship, and (SURPRISE) it’s their way.
I understand that a person’s theology and relationship with God should be expressed communally. In community, we can challenge and edify one another, preventing any more “Jonestown” situations. A blend of private and social religion is best for the common good.
A problem arises, however, when a person feels moved by God to act on their faith in a positive way only to be shut down by a group of self-proclaimed “gate keepers.” All of us are created of God, the Light abides in us all, and every single one of us is gifted with the authority to pursue whatever path will lead us to better loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors. This path can be discerned with help from our leaders, but they don’t have any right or “special connection” that allows them to dictate your experience of God. Behind every collar, robe, pulipt, or altar is a human that answered the right set of questions correctly. They may be wise and helpful… or not.
The truth is we are all equal, and we are all stumbling this path together.
You have power. You have agency. Your thoughts, voice, and experiences matter. Remember that, and relentlessly pursue whatever it is God has placed in your heart.
If a path leads you to love God, love yourself, and love others, it is worthwhile. So let’s get busy, as all of us are indeed “called.”
Peace be with you!
They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. — John 17:16, NRSV
I hear the phrase “In the world, but not of it” quite frequently when it comes to the Christian faith and its adherents. This idea comes from John 17, in which Jesus is praying for His disciples before entering into His Passion. It’s true that the image of the Cross depicts a King and a Kingdom unlike any we have ever experienced on this earth, but how do we, His people, match up with this vision?
Not long ago, a senior official representing the United States implied that God sent President Trump to save the nation that calls itself Israel, and this merely echoes what many voices in the president’s base have been saying since he initially ran for office.
Churches often base success on “the numbers.” If there are a lot of people buying in, tithing, and attending, we must be onto something.
We individuals, when life is going well, use words phrases like, “I’m blessed,” and “God is good.” When things take a turn for the tragic, such phrases tend to fall to the background and we begin to question the goodness of God. We avoid images and descriptions of Christ that “fall short” of His triumphant resurrection and ascension, believing the crucifixion was just a moment of temporary embarrassment before His intended glory.
So what’s the problem?
All of these circumstances align prosperity, ease of life, and power with the Gospel’s main character. As humans, we naturally find these things desirable and positive, yet that’s not exactly the message of the One who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted” and those who are reviled and persecuted because they believe in Christ (Matthew 5:1-12).
It’s perfectly natural for us to crave security and pleasure in life, but too much of this can lead us to portray God as a character in our own story rather than understanding that we are a part of His. When that happens, we are able to justify a lot… even if it actually takes us away from the Good News Jesus imparts to us. The Gospel urges us to look at our darkest and most painful moments with the knowledge that God is there.
This is why the cross is the primary symbol of the faith. It has nothing to do with guilt, shame, or depression. Rather, it is a reminder that we don’t need to “look high” for the presence of God. He is here, with us when it hurts and when following in the footsteps of Christ ends up costing us all the power, prestige, security, and comfort we seek so desperately.
Because it will.
Yet this is not something to resent or fear. It’s a joyful connection to our King, who Himself gave all that He had that we might know what it is to love and to fully, intimately know God. We will not always act in accordance with this truth, but the power of transformation is revealed in our efforts and our openness to regular reminders, often the most accessible of which being communal worship and the Eucharist.
When the disciples were concerned about power and greatness as the world sees it, with the “great ones” who “are tyrants over them,” to which Jesus responds “But it is not so among you” (Mark 10:42-43). The Church, the people of God, are not meant to live as though Jesus were just another king with just another kingdom, with all of the power-hungry politics of this world. Rather, we are meant to realize that all of these things, the institutions, the powers that be, will all eventually fall away and be no more. The Kingdom we are a part of, the One we serve, is something… other.
As I’ve said before, this isn’t written to lay a burden. It’s written as a reminder, first of all to myself. We are not required to live perfectly, only to consistently make efforts toward following the path Jesus sets before us. He will walk with us and though we stumble, He will not let us fall headlong (Psalm 37:24). God is not our tyrant, nor is He the sanctifying force by which we may do whatever want. God is the One who walks with us, guides us, corrects us, redeems us, and forgives us. Above all, He is the One who loves us instructs us to imitate and share that love. If we follow His lead, we will truly be a part of something “not of this world.”
Peace be with you!
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. — 1 Corinthians 12:14, RSV
Believe it or not… most people disagree with their church home of choice in one way or another. I know it’s hard to believe that an institution made up of humans could ever fail to spiritually deliver, but I’m afraid it’s true. Many Roman Catholics I know disagree with the Vatican’s take on sexuality and birth control. As an Episcopalian, I know many in my denomination disagree with the unstoppable “progressive” train powering through the national church at the moment. Recently, many United Methodists were crushed by the General Conference decision to maintain and “shore up” restrictions on LGBTQ+ inclusion in marriage and ordination rites.
Anyone familiar with church history knows that there have been many times when the faithful were (or should have been) at odds with the institutional church. The Christian religion has been complicit in many less-than-stellar historical events. We were silent in the face of German fascism, and we resisted the American Civil Rights Movement. We hunted and tortured “witches,” force-converted numerous groups of people, and participated in the violence of colonization. We persecuted Jews and participated in the mutual disaster of the crusades.
Thankfully, that’s not the whole story, as we also resisted and fought for righteous change in the midst of all those dark moments.
As an institution, we have failed quite a bit. But it’s also true that when the people of God are filled with and guided by His Spirit, we actually become the Church we were intended to be, even if it means resisting the establishment. God’s Church is not limited to the Pope, cardinals, bishops, deacons, priests, or pastors. It is not limited to the conferences or conventions. God’s Church is made up of all God’s people, and that includes you.
We’ve gotten in the habit of confusing institutional decisions with the extent of the Church’s reach. When the authorities decide something, that must be it, right? Wrong! You represent the Church! If God is calling you and those like you to move, then move!
Let’s say you are a lay United Methodist who was put off by the General Conference decision last week. The UMC will not bless same-sex unions or ordain members of the LGBTQ+ community, so what can you do? Well, you and those like you could make it a spiritual practice to attend and participate in same-sex weddings for those you know and love. You could also host small groups that enable LGBTQ+ members to explore their calling to preach and teach the Word of God. What if you’re a Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Roman Catholic? You could advocate for honest, accurate, and realistic sexual education resources that will help reduce unwanted pregnancies. Are you a conservative Episcopalian? Make your voice heard as you lovingly defend traditional language and practice, advocating for a more cautious approach to ecclesiastical change.
The point is this: You are not without power, especially when you are guided by the love of God and neighbor!
When we are faced with the evils of this world, we often ask where God is. We wonder why the Church doesn’t seem to be making a difference. The answer is God is where He needs to be, and the Church will make a difference when you and I decide to be where we are supposed to be. The Church is not a building, conference, or institution. It is a people. If we can remember this and put it into practice, we can shine the light of Christ in any darkness, and it will not be overcome (John 1:5).
I’m not saying you should leave your organized religion and go rogue. We’ve had enough “Jim Jones” activity in this crazy world, I think. What I am saying is that you can still follow the path God has set before you, filtered through the love of Christ, even when the “powers that be” set off in a different direction. In fact, doing so can lead to all kinds of positive, Spirit-filled change beyond anything you initially thought possible.
Now, take heart, child of God. You are not alone, and we are nowhere near the finish line. As long as the people of God actively and earnestly strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the best is yet to come.
Peace be with you!